Sacred Animals

If you’ve been following my blog for some time, you know that every once in a while I like to break up my posts about books, reading, writing, and poetry with some random hypothetical questions like this and this. Today I have another one for you, and I admit, it’s an odd one—so hear me out.


If you were to create your own religion, which animal would you choose as sacred, and why?

For the sake of discussion, let’s assume not only that you don’t already have a religion of choice but that there are no religions existent in the world.

It can be whatever type of religion you want—monotheistic, pantheistic, etc.—and you’re welcome to make up as many details as you’d like, if that’s part of the fun for you. But what I really want you to think about is which animal (existing, not made up, though that could be fun too) best represents your mind’s concept of divinity.

As I’m sure some of you are already thinking, some of our world’s current religions do have, and have had, certain animals that they deem(ed) sacred. Hindus, for example, often don’t eat beef because they traditionally believe the cow is a higher form of life. (*According to Wikipedia, it is “a caretaker and a maternal figure” as well as “a symbol of unselfish giving.”) Ancient Egyptians revered cats, believing them embodiments of gods—often even mummifying them like people after death. And then, of course, there are religions that believe all animals are sacred, such as many Buddhists, Jainists, and Wiccans. On the flip side, many Muslim and Jewish people don’t eat pork, as they believe pigs to be an unclean animal.

All of this is fascinating to me. In fact, the contrast between existing sacred animals is what got me thinking about this to begin with. In my mind, for example, there is little difference between the cow (holy to over a billion people) and the pig (unclean to billions) in regard to sacredness, but entire religions—huge portions of the world—beg to differ. So what makes one animal worthy and others not? And, to the point, what would be my factors if I were to choose?

Here are some of my thoughts:

Affection– I think many people’s knee-jerk reactions will be to choose their favorite animal. My husband might choose dogs and I might choose cats, simply because we love them. But on second thought, I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to deem an animal holy.

Appearance– I wouldn’t want an ugly animal. I can’t imagine worshipping the Star Nosed Mole, for example. (You’re welcome.) The peacock? Maybe. Except I happen to know they’re also loud and stinky.

Behavior– I also can’t quite imagine worshipping an animal that acts dumb or goofy. Chickens, for example.

Food Chain Hierarchy– What about predator vs. prey? Does that affect things? How would I feel witnessing my holy animal being hunted? How would I feel seeing it slaughter another creature? Which is more holy: the tiger or the doe?

Intelligence– Is smart what I should go for? How smart? Chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephants are all said to be extremely intelligent. Does that make them more spiritual than worms and snails?

Symbolism– In the end, I suspect this is what will drive most people’s choices—and perhaps what drove the choices of existing religions. In a culture that’s too fast-paced and hurried, perhaps the sloth would be an admirable choice. For a person who longs for speed and virility, the horse might make more sense.

In the end, this hypothetical isn’t so much about religion as it is about animals. What characteristics in animals do you admire, and why? Which traits are deal-breakers? What drives your perception of other life-forms?

*Please forgive me if I’m incorrect about any of the details above; I’m by no means an expert on world religions.

And just in case you’re wondering, my answer is the owl. Owls are indeed one of my favorite animals. The owl is beautiful, noble, intelligent, other-worldly, a predator, and represents both darkness and wisdom. They are also rare enough to be special but not so rare as to be unobtainable. Not to mention how freaking cute the little ones are.

So how about you? If you were to create your own religion, which animal would you chose as sacred, and why?

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  • Thought provoking. I’ll have to think on this one for a while, though I’m leaning toward the Sloth. 

  • -j-

    I love your forays into “this” and “that” territory.

    Symbolically, I’d probably pick a butterfly because, although the choice feels very cliche, it is remarkable (and inspiring) in it’s transformation from caterpillar to soup to butterfly. Corny or not, it astounds me every time I think about it.

    I love bats because they’re quirky and misunderstood and communal and mysterious… and they fly like they’re a little bit drunk on life. I like owls too. And zebras… of course. (Had to put something in here that doesn’t have wings.)

    Okay, I can’t decide. But you did make me want to doodle some sacred (funky, fantastic, whimsical animals).

    • J, it does not at all surprise me that you would choose mostly things with wings. =) Yes, the butterfly is maybe a tad cliché, but you’re right; it’s used so much because it really is amazingly phenomenal. I approve.

  • How about the hairless ape? 😉

    Or, if fictional animals are allowed, then dragons. Can’t go wrong with dragons.
    Ooh. Or seahorses, because the males are the ones that give birth.

    To be somewhat more serious, I just don’t think very highly of animals. Generally speaking, they’re sort of stupid, violent, and ill-behaved. Domesticated ones are our slaves, and the wild ones are no better. Tigers, cheetahs, wolves, etc. are very beautiful and inspiring, but big predators are our direct competitors and as such are carefully controlled. I like elephants and dolphins for their intelligence and for the way they raise their young, but on the other hand, humans outdo them on both measures.

    But there are two types of species that appeal to me, now that I think about it. One type is species that thrive in urban spaces. Squirrels, pigeons, sparrows, that sort of thing. They live where we live, but they’re free of our restrictions. They can go where they want and lick their butts in public if they feel like it. They thrive in huge numbers and are difficult to control.

    The other type is, basically, social insects. They come up with some very interesting behaviors. Ants and bees both appeal to me, but both have drawbacks. We depend on bees, but we also control them. Ants are wild, but they’re also pests. I suppose that can be true of squirrels and so on, but I have far more experience with ants as pests. Plus, individuals of both species are incredibly stupid.

    My favorite of all of these is squirrels. So, perhaps squirrels. But on the other hand, cats have most of the advantages of squirrels and are higher on the food chain. Not to mention, they’re a huge part of internet culture*, and the internet is a huge part of my life.

    So… I think it has to be cats. Cats were actually the first animal to come to mind, but now I know why!

    * After all, the internet is made of cats.

    • Amanda, you crack me up. As I was writing this post, I was totally thinking at one point, “You know, animals are kind of gross,” because each animal I thought of either licked its butt, ate disgusting things, or was generally stupid. I could never be a Jainist; animals are awesome, but I believe 100% that humans are the superior species. So I totally agree with you.

      And on that thought… I don’t think you and I are the only ones. Most gods are humanoid if not just human, so clearly many people over the years have come to the conclusion we have. As even teh kittehs admit: hoomanz rock. 😉 It sounds like you could totally be an Ancient Egyptian if only they had used their cats to create the internet.

  • The Owl would be my choice, too. Owls are also messengers to the Underworld, communicating with the ancestors who have passed to bring help to the living. 

  • Melissa Crytzer Fry

    Oh – I LOVE this post… And I would have to say that I actually subscribe to the “All animals are sacred” belief. But since that’s not the point of this exercise, I will happily pick one (and oh MY – that mole is INSANE!). And I love your choice of owls (Have you seen any of my great-horned owlet and owl shots, or my fuzzy little baby barn owls)? They ARE so wonderful. But I digress…

    My choice would be the jaguar. No brainer, of course, because -like you – I am a cat lover. But the jaguar is in the middle of heated debate in the southwest, as the Center for Biological Diversity won a lawsuit to create critical habitat for jaguars in the US. The naysayers claim that the few jaguars sighted in the US are simply passing through via their “real” home in Mexico. What they fail to remember is that humans in the US eradicated them; they WERE indigenous, they roamed from here to the Carolinas at one point. So, yes, I’m in favor of these creatures roaming the southwest again. Why would I consider one as holy? They are strong – the largest ‘big’ cat predator. They are stealthy, hunting with grace. They are camouflaged with beautiful spots. They have been forced to adapt to a shrinking habitat. They are intelligent and impressive, to be revered. They are muscle and brawn. They are majestic. They are endangered. (And my Bengal cat is named after Macho B, the poor jaguar in Arizona (2008) that was killed by Fish and Game in a botched attempt to track/collar him). 

    And why cats in general? I love their independence!

    • I did see your pictures of the owls, and I loved them! My whole office is decorated with owls. =)

      I think the jaguar is a fantastic choice. I actually didn’t know that they were indigenous that far north, so you taught me something today. I believe the Aztecs thought the jaguar was sacred, didn’t they?

  • Kyle

    I think I would go with the wolf. They are intelligent, loyal to their pack, and a dominate presence within their territory. They also look like badasses.

    • Another great choice. I’m not at all surprised you chose the wolf, and I love your reasons. They do look like badasses. Dangerous and gorgeous is a good combo for something holy, IMO!

  • This is surprisingly hard! There are so many good answers here, but I’m really not at all sure what I would choose. I don’t know what animals symbolize to me, except that there are forces at work far beyond what we know and understand in our everyday lives.

    I keep trying to think of awe-inspiring animals I’ve actually encountered in the wild, but even that list runs too long. I was as much in awe of the lumpy, pinkish-gray sea cucumbers I found in a Maine tide pool as I was the barracuda that appeared far too close while I was snorkeling in the Virgin Islands. I guess my religion would be less “let’s worship a specific animal” than “holy crap life is weird and impressively varied.”

    However, no bugs are allowed in my religion. 😉

    • Hahaha. NO BUGS. Now that’s a religion I could get behind! =)~
      But seriously, I do know what you mean. All animals are just so extraordinarily amazing and weird. Even the Star Nosed Mole is impressive in its own ugly way.

  • B.I.G. Tuna

    Hmmm, I’d go the holistic route and wonder what animal(s) you’re NOT making sacred and why.

  • Richardsfive

    The Horny Toad. He’s the only cute (to me) lizard and I consider being a lizard and still being able to be cute a minor miracle. Every religion needs at least one miracle.