I heard in Sunday School that the ancient Egyptians “worshiped the beast,” which sounded absolutely evil, even though I loved my dog tons more than I cared about the church. Later on I got to wondering how animals got such a Satanic reputation. Apparently, war on the beasts is a major theme in some versions of Western religion. Rather than portraying evil as some fat, greedy “big man” who takes everything for himself, a lot of religious leaders give an animal face to God’s enemy.
We hear that when the ancient Hebrews rebelled against Egypt, they utterly rejected Egyptian customs of animal worship. But then, lots of Hebrew refugees returned to worshiping a holy calf, which unfortunately recalled Egyptian worship for the Apis bull, who symbolized the pharaoh. On seeing this horror, Moses shattered his tablets of the Ten Commandments and burned the golden calf. Then he called his Levite supporters to punish the heretics, and the Levites slaughtered about 3,000 fellow Hebrews for their abomination of worshiping the beast (Exodus 32: 19–29). Their sin of reverence for an animal seemed to combine treason, idolatry, and bestiality into one unforgivable crime.
Many centuries later, a Jewish-Christian refugee from Rome’s annihilation of the Jewish homeland fled to Patmos Island, and wrote a prophecy of cosmic revenge on the evil powers of his world. In speaking of “the Beastˮ or “the Whore of Babylon,ˮ John of Patmos was probably condemning the great military empire under which his people suffered. Of course many readers of later times have believed that John was predicting the downfall of future enemy empires such as the Islamic, Turkish, or Russian empires. After the Venetian navy defeated the Turks at Lepanto in 1571, bards and poets across the Christian realm proclaimed the promised destruction of the beast, the ravening wolf, the raging bull, or the hydra of the East. And whatever enemy of God it happened to be, the pattern remained that enemy empires were generally symbolized by their power animals. Hatred for those empires involved a rhetoric of contempt for their symbolic beasts. So, as Revelation 14:9 thundered, “If any man worship the beast and his image … the same shall drink the wine of the wrath of God.ˮ For probably most future readers this seemed a clear command, not so much to battle against oppressive rulers, as to repudiate all traditions of reverence for animals.
In accord with such anti-bestial language, the Roman church’s Council of Toledo in 447 CE issued an official description of the Devil. He looked like “a large black monstrous apparition with horns on his head, cloven hoofs—or one cloven hoof—ass’s ears, hair, claws, fiery eyes, terrible teeth, an immense phallus, and a sulphurous smellˮ (WWF Global, 2012, April 2). What could be worse than that? Like Moses, the church fathers of Spain took the bull as the evil one’s chief beast. And in that case, traditional bullfights took on religious significance in church festivals. The Spanish Pope Alex VI, namely Rodrigo Borgia, brought the bullfight with him to Rome. Later, in 1622, the church celebrated its canonization of Saint Teresa by killing over 200 bulls. As Vicente Manero explained, the bullfight became a Christian catharsis. It was a glorious drama where valiant men of God faced the beast’s brute force, and prevailed. Across medieval Europe, each region’s old pagan tales of heroes battling the beasts took a Christian twist. The legend of Beowulf became a morality tale, where the monster Grendel was one of “the banished monsters, Cain’s clan whom the Creator had outlawed, and condemned as outcastsˮ (Quammen, 2003, 264). In medieval times, people weren’t too self-critical about projecting collective blame on others.
Various Christian rulers, like Gregory I or Caesarius of Arles, required that all landlords must stamp out ancient cults of nature worship among their tenants, or else face punishments themselves. When Emperor Theodosius outlawed all non-Christian religion in 391, local clergy and monks led attacks to demolish the ancient temple of Asklepios, the healer. The idol smashers killed or drove off the temple’s “healing dogs,ˮ who had licked the wounds of pilgrims. Maybe it was only a minority of the most fanatical Christians who demolished Europe’s classical temples. But those who did the vandalism were convinced that sacred groves or animals were abominations to God. It would have been news to St. Francis, but Augustine actually argued that compassion for animals was forbidden by Jesus: “Christ himself shows that to refrain from the killing of animals and the destroying of plants is the height of superstition, for judging that there are no common rights between us and the beasts and trees, he sent the devils into a herd of swine and with a curse withered a tree on which he found no fruitˮ (cited by Preece, 1999, 127). In that case, empathy for other creatures seemed to violate God’s chain of command. The medieval church therefore actively opposed pet keeping, since pets would distract their owners from devotion to God, and consume food needed by God’s flock. Women who kept pet “familiarsˮ faced suspicion of consorting with the beast.
In Christian Spain’s great holy war to drive out the Muslims, the hero El Cid (Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar) fought the beast in both human and animal form. He combined leadership in battle with fame as a matador in the bullring, and in both arenas he was God’s victorious warrior. After driving the infidel from Iberia, Spain’s conquering heroes marched onward across the New World, banning the religions of Native tribes and smashing their images of sacred animals. Continuing a holy war which started against the Muslim Moors, they named a town on the Mexico-Texas border after El Cid’s battle cry of “Matamoros,ˮ which means “slaughter the Moors!ˮ And the English invaders were even more puritanical toward Native American animism. The whole launching of Europe’s colonial age could seem like a mission to vanquish the evil forces of nature. As a Swedish map from 1539 showed, Christian Europe was surrounded by seas full of monsters to be conquered. The whales appeared as fiendish foes with deadly claws and razor teeth. Giant lobsters gripped sailors and huge sea snakes crushed ships. Clearly, God willed that the lands and seas be made safe for the true civilization.
In the planetary age, all this talk of battling the beast in an ultimate war grew more literally apocalyptic. Hal Lindsey, in The Late Great Planet Earth (1970) identified the beast and the bear in Revelation with the Soviet Union, otherwise known as the evil empire. But after that empire rather peacefully dissolved into a number of slightly democratic states, Lindsey revised his prophecy. His enemy beast then became Islam, as described in his recent book The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Jihad (2002). This book gets especially bloody in its closing chapter, “Armageddon: The Climax of Hate.ˮ Another new beastly apocalypse book is Unleashing the Beast: The Coming Fanatical Dictator and His Ten-Nation Coalition (2011) by Perry Stone. This sort of ancient-style rhetoric about evil gives animals a bad name.
Of course not all apocalyptic prophecies are down on animals. In tenth-century Iraq, a band of Sufis wrote a morality tale called “The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity.” In this fanciful but disturbingly realistic account, the animals bring their appeal to the King of Spirits, telling in graphic detail of the abuse, not to mention genocide, that they have suffered from human arrogance. The leaders of humanity argue that their inherent superiority justifies their use of lower beings as raw materials, but the animals argue passionately and prevail in court. The King of Spirits pronounces his verdict, predicting what will happen if humanity continues its abuse of the beasts. For anyone interested, here it is:
Should you still not change, the sky will weaken and the earth will reveal its nakedness to the sun; the water in your streams and the rain in the sky will slowly turn undrinkable.
Persevere in your wicked ways and still worse will happen: the seasons will be reversed and your climates turned on end; the earth will cease yielding up its goodness and the sky will cease its rain. In the middle of summer, plants will drop their leaves and unripe fruits will fall as if it were autumn.
Nor shall this be the end. Continue, and the animals you eat—fish and fowl, beast and bug—will bring sickness and death upon you, and you will be forced to fight each other—and even to eat each other—for lack of food.
Based on portions of the upcoming book Animal Wars: Our Battles, Truces, and Alliances with the Beasts, by Brian Griffith, to be published in Spring, 2014, by the Exterminating Angel Press.
Filatas, Bernadette (2005) “Pagan Survivals, Superstitions and Popular Cultures,” in Early Medieval Pastoral Literature. Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, Toronto, p. 42.
Laytner, Rabbi Annson, and Bridge, Rabbi Dan, translators. (2005) The Animals’ Lawsuit Against Humanity: A Modern Adaption of an Ancient Animal Rights Tale. Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY.
Mitchell, Alana (2009) Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, McClellan & Stewart, Toronto, pp. 130–131.
Preece, Rod (1999) Animals and Nature: Cultural Myths, Cultural Realities. UBCPress, Vancouver, 127.
Quammen, David (2003) Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 264.
Thurston, Mary Elizabeth (1996) The Lost History of the Canine Race. Andrews and McMeel, Kansas City, p. 62.
Wheatcroft, Andrew (2003) Infidels: A History of Conflict Between Christendom and Islam. Penguin Books, New York, p. 30.
WWF Global (2012, April 2) “Agriculture & Environment: Beef.ˮ Available at wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/footprint/agriculture/beef/.
Article Written by Brian Griffith
Brian Griffith is an independent historian who’s interested in culture wars and cultural creativity. So far he’s written four books. The Gardens of Their Dreams: Desertification and Culture in World History examines how environmental degradation has affected society across the center of the Old World from ancient times forward. Correcting Jesus: 2000 Years of Changing the Story and Different Visions of Love: Partnership and Dominator Cultures in Christian History reflect on the culture wars that have raged within Christianity from the religion’s beginning down to the present. A Galaxy of Immortal Women: The Yin Side of Chinese Civilization explores the alternative traditions and religions of Chinese women, which offer the world a powerful vision for partnership, health, and spirituality. He lives in a multicultural marriage in the multicultural hub of Toronto.