The paintings in the Lascaux Cave in the south of France, in the department of Dordogne, are believed to date back 17, 300 years. Inside the cave, in the Hall of the Bulls are many equines; among them paintings of aurochs, a species of cow now extinct, ancestor to the varieties of modern cows.
The painting of one of the bulls is 17 feet long and is the longest cave art animal anywhere. The paintings in the cave, because of the presence of visitors (the visitors’ breath has affected the air) have been damaged by fungi, and in 1983 a different cave was constructed for visitors with replicas of two of the cave halls.
The earliest cave paintings in Europe go back around 35,000 years.
Reverence for bulls was widespread in the ancient world – in Paleolithic times and on into Neolithic times – and up to today as well.
In the book of Exodus, in the Bible, is told the story of the Hebrews returning to the practice of worshiping the Golden Calf while Moses was up on the mountain collecting the ten commandments. Moses wasn’t pleased to see the image of the Golden Calf when he got back, and he smashed the ten commandments in anger when he saw it.
Still, worship of the bull cropped up again and again, both before and after the time of Moses.
The Babylonian god Marduk is called the Bull of Utu. In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, the heroes are often referred to as “bulls”.
In Mesopotamian mythology, Gugalanna was the Bull of Heaven. The word “gu” meant bull and was of the same origin as the Sanskrit word ”go” or “gau” meaning “cow”. “Cow” comes from these earlier words. The bull Gugulanna was associated with the constellation Taurus (the Bull), which from 3,200 BC held the place where the Spring Equinox occurred in the northern hemisphere.
The myth tells us that the bull Gugulanna was killed by Gilgamesh (the Sumerian Noah). Gilgamesh was linked to the light of the sun, and when the streams of sunlight rose at the Spring Equinox, they overcame the starlight of the constellation of Gugulanna, which then became invisible, thus “killing” Gugulanna.
The bull, whose horns are shaped like a crescent moon, has been associated with the moon.
When I visited the Minoan ruins in Crete in the summer of 1969, I recall looking at a stone block, one of many there with carved bulls’ horns, and noticing for the first time the unique importance of the bull to ancient cultures. The bulls’ horns were everywhere.
The aurochs, the ancestor of today’s cattle, both western and eastern, became extinct when the last of the aurochs, a female, died in 1627, in the Jaktorow Forest in Poland. Authorities at the Paleontologisk Museum, University of Oslo, believe that the aurocks first appeared in India two million years ago, and from there spread throughout the Middle East, Europe and Asia.
It is thought that South Asian, including Indian, cattle descended from a sub-species of aurochs who lived at the edge of the Thar Desert which lies across Rajasthan and Pakistan. These Indian cows have a hump and have a very elegant, distinctive look.
Western cows do not have a hump and are known as taurine cattle. Aurochs were much larger than all modern cows; the males were black, and the females reddish.
Aurochs also spread to North Africa, and the cattle of the ancient Egyptians may have descended from them.
Throughout the centuries, the bull has been both worshipped and mistreated.
One might wonder whether the human race has a propensity for killing what it worships – from the sacred bull to the life and death of Jesus. To be fair, it may not only be humans who behave that way. Among all mammal species, males engage in battle with each other. And any male who seems to stand above the others becomes a target—to be feared or to be attacked in order to take his place. (Having the top place seems to be a pretty essential goal, which can supplant any inclination towards reverence or worship.) Females are not immune from an impulse towards violence, and they also attack when they are defending their young.
Throughout the ancient world the bull was worshipped as a divine being, yet today, one finds in various places extremely cruel rituals that seem designed for young men to prove their dominance over the bull. These ritual “games” seem to have degenerated over time into greater and greater levels of barbarism.
The cruelest of these are festivals put on by the Catholic Church, on feast days of saints, held in Mexico and Spain, in which the bulls are tortured and killed. There are also, of course, the bullfights in Spain, introduced here and there in other countries in Africa, Europe, and Asia. In the western U.S. there are rodeos, also cruel, also exported to other countries. There are attempts taking place now, to introduce rodeos into China.
The slaughter of bulls and cows for food happens all over the world, more in the U.S. than anywhere else, where around 33 million cattle are killed every year. Brazil and China are fast catching up. The pursuit of cattle for food is destroying the planet through climate change and destroying vast tracts of land, as well as native animals like the bison and the wild horse, thousands of whom are being killed by the U.S. government to make way for cattle grazing.
Worship of the bull has tended to devolve over time into torment of the bull.
In the Greek legend, the Minotaur, who is half-man, half-bull, dwells in a labyrinth, and is killed by the hero Theseus.
The Egyptian god Apis, (or Hape, which is closer to the original Egyptian word), was worshipped, and the bulls were mummified and interred in great underground complexes. It is assumed that they were killed.
Bulls and cows are very highly revered in India. I’ll only mention them briefly for now. The fascinating book “Sacred Animals of India” by Dr. Nanditha Krishna, has a great deal of information about them.
In India, the bull Nandi is the beloved vehicle and gatekeeper for the God Shiva. In every Shiva temple throughout south India, there is a figure of the bull Nandi. Nandi is also the leading disciple of Shiva.
At the Brihadeswara Temple, Nandi is immense, majestic, and charming, with a very innocent, rather playful face. The devotee pays his or her respects to Nandi before going into the temple. Nandi is a much loved and revered figure, who would never be harmed.
In a strange contrast, however, there is also in south India, in Tamil Nadu, the cruel practice of jallikattu, in which crowds of young men torment and pursue bulls, often leading to injury to the bulls and to themselves in the process.
What begins as honor, worship, and devotion, can degenerate over the centuries into persecution and killing. Indeed, things tend to take that route.
These observations have taken a gloomy turn, but are not meant to be gloomy. The same fate is befalling all of nature—as we humans, who once worshipped the forests, the trees, and the divine beings who lived in them, have destroyed nearly the whole earth now to make way for ourselves. But of course we cannot live without the earth. Going to live in a colony on Mars or the moon doesn’t really seem like the best option—not for us, and certainly not for Mars and the moon.
Enlightening our fellow human beings and encouraging kindness to animals and to the planet is absolutely well worth doing. It may be the only thing well worth doing, and it will go a long way towards lessoning the immensity of the suffering of many people and many animals.
But as for affecting the fateful course of events and the downward-spiraling destiny of the earth, something else, an approach on a more cosmic scale, seems to be needed to turn the tide or to bring about a new tide—a tide that may go back to the beginning before the origin of cruelty.
Top photo: Prof saxx / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license / Lascaux painting
Second photo: Lea Maimone / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license / Indian calf
Third photo: Wikimedia Commons / in the Public Domain in the U.S. /
Minoan fresco from the palace of Knossos / Bull-leaping
Fourth photo: Wikimedia Commons / In the Public Domain / A copy of a painting of an aurochs, the original may have been done in the Fifteenth century.
Fifth photo: Sharon St Joan / Nandi at the Brihadeswarer Temple, Tamil Nadu