By Sharon St Joan
When watching the stock market, we talk about the bulls and the bears – why? Well, the symbolism behind this isn’t so much really about the bears, but it is about the bulls, who from the very beginning of human consciousness have been known as a symbol of power, success, and victory. The bull stands at the top of the mountain, having conquered his rivals.
In the caves of Lascaux, in southern France, 17,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon man painted extraordinarily beautiful cave paintings. The largest of these, running about 17 feet long, depicts, a bull, not a modern bull, but an ancient wild bull, the auroch, a species that existed before bulls became domesticated. They were much larger then and fiercer.
Visiting Crete in the late sixties, I was struck by the many depictions in the ruins of Knossos of the bull. Even simple blocks of stone had double bulls’ horns carved at either end. Clearly, the bull was an archetypal symbol for the Minoans, whose civilization was at its zenith, around 1500 BCE.
In ancient Egypt, the bull was worshipped as the god Apis, symbol of strength and power.
Among Native Americans of the plains, where there were no cattle, the bison assumed the place of the bull, and the bison, who provided everything the plains people needed in terms of food, clothing, and shelter, were greatly revered.
In Vedic literature and other sacred texts of India, great heroes were referred to as “bulls among men.” Throughout history and today in India, the vehicle of the God Shiva is the bull, Nandi, who guards the entrance of every Shiva temple, and the devotee pays his respects to Nandi, who then graciously allows the devotee to enter the temple and to worship Shiva.
In the Christian Bible, the ancient Hebrews got into a lot of trouble by worshipping the Golden Calf, as soon as Moses had been gone too long on the mountain. When their faith in Moses waned, they reverted to an older tradition – worship of the bull.
The Mesopotamians worshipped the bull as Marduk, a magical being – god of water and the growth of vegetation, as well as judge of human affairs.
The Canaanite god Moloch was often portrayed as a bull.
Unfortunately, the position of great honor bestowed on the bull throughout history has drawn the attention of a darker aspect of human nature, which is the desire to kill whoever or whatever stands at the top. This is not at all the same as the legitimate fight against oppression and injustice, which is noble and heroic, but instead, it is the ignoble wish to subjugate anything that might be seen as a potential rival – the basic drive which seeks to eliminate all competition in any way possible.
This instinctive drive has a positive side which may lead to success and to excellence, but all too often, throughout human history, it has instead been overwhelmingly negative — leading to the wanton destruction of all that is perceived as not subservient enough.
The desire to destroy one’s rival leads to wars, to run-away arms races, to tyranny, to the accumulation of wealth at the expense of all who are less fortunate, to the oppression of the female, the young and the old, and all who are weaker or poorer. It leads to the destruction of nature, the elimination of wild species, the devastation of the planet earth and to climate change run rampant. At its most extreme, anything that is beautiful, untamed, or magnificent is the enemy of this drive for domination and becomes a target for destruction.
All this has lead to the bull being among the most persecuted of animals in many cultures, worldwide.
The bull in ancient Crete was the object of bull-baiting in which young men leaped on the backs of the bull to ride them, thus proclaiming their victory and superiority over the bull – and their worth as “heroes.”
Bull-fighting is the modern day form of this in Spain and other countries. In Spain and in Mexico, there are lesser-known “festivals,” sponsored by local Catholic churches, which far exceed bull-fighting in terms of extreme cruelty, torture, and the killing of the bull.
There are ritual tribal persecutions of the bull in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the history of Christianity, the devil has traditionally been depicted with the horns and the tail of a bull – thus showing the bull, who is an innocent animal, as the essence and symbol of evil.
The drive to dominate, subject, torment, and destroy all that is innocent and beautiful represents the very worst aspect of human nature, and it is based on fear, the fear of being defeated and replaced.
There is though a positive, iconic figure who is just the opposite of this – the protective hero, seen for example, in the great flood myth of India in the Noah figure, Manu. Manu saves a tiny, helpless fish, who calls out to him for help because he is about to be eaten by large, ferocious fish. Manu cares for his little fish with great attentiveness, for many years, raising him until he becomes a large, strong fish and then releasing him to be free again in the sea. The fish repays him for saving his life by warning him of the Great Flood and then by pulling Manu’s ship through the tempestuous waves to the top of a mountain, to rest in safety. There, all the seeds that Manu has brought along on the boat are planted in the ground, and the life of the earth is restored to begin anew. Manu is the archetype of the positive, protective figure, noble and kind, who cares for the good and the innocent. He is the true hero.
Even India though, which has for many thousands of years worshipped and revered trees, plants, and animals, is not free from the destructive instinct to dominate, especially to dominate the bull, and this is seen in the cruel sport jallikattu, a form of bull-baiting practiced in the south in Tamil Nadu, in which crowds of young men torment and persecute bulls as a spectator sport. It is also evident in the cruelties inherent in the illegal transport and slaughter of cattle – and in bullock-cart racing in the state of Maharashtra.
These abusive practices are being opposed by thousands of animal welfare groups in India, part of an energetic struggle that has been pursued over at least the past forty years.
The Supreme Court of India is expected soon to deliver a ruling on these three forms of cruelty to bulls, which are already illegal, according to the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals Act – 1960. If the ruling upholds the rights of the bulls and the integrity of the longstanding humane traditions of India, this will be a major leap forward for animals in India and the world – and a sign that the voices of kindness and positivity are not always silenced and will sometimes prevail, overcoming all obstacles.
© Sharon St Joan, 2014
Sharon St Joan is the author of Glimpses of Kanchi.
Top photo: Prof saxx / “This building is indexed in the Base Mérimée, a database of architectural heritage maintained by the French Ministry of Culture, under the reference PA00082696.” / Wikimedia Commons / “Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version…” / Lascaux Caves / Cave paintings of aurochs and deer.
Second photo: user:Rmashhadi / “I, the copyright holder of this work, release this work into the public domain. This applies worldwide.” / “This is a featured picture on the Persian language Wikipedia” / Marduk. Iran’s heritage in Musée du Louvre.
Third photo: Deror_avi / Wikimedia Commons / “Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version…” / This is a duplicate, at the Minoan Palace, Knossos. The original is at the museum in Heraklion, Crete.
Fourth photo: Ramanarayanadatta astri / Wikimedia Commons / “This work is in the public domain in India because its term of copyright has expired.” / The fish Matsya pulling Manu and the seven rishis.