By Tania Bhattacharya
The feline species have enjoyed a special place in the pantheons of global Paganism. Long before the advent of the three Abrahamic religions that came to dominate humanity, the world used to be pagan. It was in this Polytheistic atmosphere, that animals came to be represented, and associated with the divine beings.
Polytheism favours the local over the global. Such religions have a disdain toward proselytization, preaching, and imposing their system of beliefs on natives outside of their geographical sphere. Localization and the awe with which Polytheism regards Nature, led to indigenous animals being co-opted into mythology, and assigned to the divinities as patron creatures.
Among Native Americans, the bear, the eagle, and the wolf, hold a special status and are feted as powerful beings worthy of worship. Among the peninsular Arabs of Pre-Islamic times, the Camel and the Bat were similarly attributed magical powers. The sub-Saharan Africans have placed their wildlife on a pedestal in their oral mythologies. The Chinese have named their New Years after their own. Greco-Roman pantheons were thick with images of owls, and bulls, the most iconic being the Minotaur. The Fox, the snake, and the monkey, are regular fixtures in Japan’s homemade Shinto faith, while India’s Hinduism and its myriad aboriginal or Adivasi beliefs, incorporate many animals from the South Asian landscape, like monkeys, boars, elephants, bulls, peacocks, and mice.
While the emphasis on the animal kingdom and Polytheism’s anxiety in elevating the association of humans with beasts is not only unique and worthy of emulation, there is one species of animals that stands out from the rest. It has the longest, and most robust history of being borrowed into myth, legend, and religious ditties. The reference is to the Felids of the earth. A community of creatures that humans have admired for thousands of years, for their stealthy hunting practices, intelligence, cleanliness, fearlessness, pride, reclusiveness, and rodent exterminating qualities.
Does the pan-Feline presence through the various Pagan folklores of human history, signal at a common thread that runs through us all? It would be safe to say so. This one species has ruled and dominated our imagination like no other.
Let us begin with the Egyptians, the grand old daddies of Polytheistic heritage. The ancient Kemites of Egypt, were quire impressed with the domestic cat. It featured in funerary rituals and worship, and was used as a totem to keep evil forces at bay. The Cat was the only animal, that Kemetic Egypt allowed inside its temples and other places of worship. Mummies of famous ancient Egyptian figures, have been found beside life size idols of gilded cats with septum rings, and pearl embellished collars.
The Greeks and Romans may have had a special place for the owl, which they associated with their goddess of war and wisdom, Athena, but the Big Cats trumped the owls in popularity. With their majestic muscle composition, flexible vertebrae, spread eagle skills, playful nature, large, liquid eyes, and stealth hunting, the big cats came to be incorporated in imagery, most often being placed alongside, or below, figurines of Cybele, the divine goddess of war. Since Neolithic times, Cybele was venerated with much fanfare among the Mediterranean’s pagans. With the arrival of the proto-Indo European Hittites, who managed a sprawling empire in Anatolian Turkey, Cybele consolidated her position as the Lion Lady of West Asian iconography.
Not to be left behind, the neighbouring Babylonians, a Semitic civilization that occupied the landscape of ancient Iraq, began to correlate the Leopard with their Supreme Mother goddess, Asherah. She was portrayed as riding the big cat in all her glory, proud and defiant. The pre-Islamic Arabs, placed the Desert Lynx, a powerful feline hunter, next to the triplet of female divinities they called Al Uzza, Al Lat, and Al Manat. The three would be incorporated into Islam many centuries later, as the daughters of Allah, himself a local Polytheistic male deity of Pagan Arabia.
The Persians, products of the Asian continent’s most inspirational, and splendid culture, and the one that stood the ravages of time for millennia, immortalized their Mother Goddess Anahita or Nahid, as riding atop the Lion, as she communicated with successive Persian emperors. Meanwhile, in distant Scandinavia, the Vikings and the Nords, had proceeded to dovetail and make synonymous, the divinity of the Panther with their goddess of beauty, Freya, after whom Friday has been named. Freya’s chariot was depicted as being drawn by a pair of wild panthers, making them an extension of her latent powers, and her fierce, protective nature.
South Asia was the most prolific with its Mother Goddess and Big Cat association. Religious iconography bloomed in paintings, murals, and sculptures, illustrating a symbiotic relationship between the Mother Goddess, and her ride, the Lion, and alternatively, the Tiger. As Durga, or Parvati, sat bestride her mount, she became symbolic of the animal’s power, its fierce energy, as also its nurturing qualities as a parent. Till date, Hinduism’s Mother Goddess is seldom visualized sans her Big Cat mount.
Why was this particular animal singled out for veneration, over time and space, in the human imaginarium of our Polytheistic ancestors? Lions and other Big Cats were often used for symbolizing royalty. This is cogent with our perception of what royalty constitutes of and how it can be made to synergize with the admirable traits of the feline species. The Lion Capital of the Hittites at Anatolia’s Hattushah, centrally located in modern Turkey; the obsessively frequent appearance of Lions in portraiture, reliefs, and wall friezes during the fearsome rule of the Assyrian emperors like Ashurbanipal; and the minting of royal coins with cameos containing one or the other of the Felids has been commonplace. An animal that possesses so much energy, brute force, and intelligence would naturally be equated with seats of power. But this does not adequately explain why the Felids were sought out over cultures, for accompanying the Divine Feminine.
All this would change in 1945. That year, an Egyptian farmer at the village of Nag Hammadi, had accidentally struck at a hidden library while tilling the land. The Egyptian Department of Archaeology was summoned and a Pandora’s Box was laid bare. The library was found to contain some fifty gospels, belonging to an Alexandrian spiritual community, which was active some two thousand years ago. Calling themselves the Theraputae, the oblates from this distinct order, drew upon Polytheistic creativity to weave fantastical tales that hid great truths about the Sciences, and Moral conduct. According to the Nag Hammadi literature, the Lion and by association, other members of the Big Cat family, were representative of the zodiac of Leo. At the tail end of Leo, was Virgo. This sign was depicted by the Virgin goddess, an attribute commonly found in many Classical cultures, even though most myths woven around the personality of the Mother Goddess, address her as a mother and a wife and not necessarily a Virgin. However, in some of her most evocative folklore, she dons the garb of the Divine Virgin, and thus transforms into the symbolism for the sign of Virgo. The reason the Lion and the remaining felids had been made parallel with her, was because Virgo immediately followed Leo, the zodiac sign represented by the Lion. This chance occurrence had forever immortalized the Feline species as being irrevocably intertwined with Goddess worship.
Of the many virtues of Polytheism, one of the greatest has been the visualizing of the feminine gender in the role of the divine, and placing as much emphasis on her being, as much as on her male counterparts. Goddesses were powerful in their own right. These were no shrinking violets hanging on the arms of their male consorts. Instead, they multitasked as warriors, mothers, avengers, and nurturers. Many later man-made religions would remove women from their lofty position of divinity and reduce them as sidekicks or even worse, as insignificant others, who played second fiddle to the male Almighty and his necessarily male adversary, Satan.
It is ironic, that in our present times, both the feminine and the feline, are endangered. Women, despite great strides in education and professional visibility, are walking a slippery slope that impacts their dignity and sense of self. Their self=assertiveness has been misconstrued by elements of society, as ‘rebellion’ which needs to be quelled with violent force, and many a times, without her consent. In a parallel universe, the felines have lost ground to the rapacious greed of the human species. Their territories have been taken over by property developers, they have watched their natural prey disappear or relocate, and some have been reduced to man-eating, to survive. This is a cruel conspiracy against the Laws of Mother Nature, who watches in despair.
The creator of the twenty nine thousand year old Venus Figurine of Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, had imagined womanhood resplendent in all its flaws. The Venus Figurine has sagging breasts, and wide, rounded hips, that suggest the high position which lactating women, mothers, and older females in general, enjoyed in prehistoric Dolni Vestonice. Archaeologists and historians have concluded, that women of this era, wore important mantles and occupied positions of administration and priesthood. How far we have come from our original innocence is projected by the fact, that the very naturalness that had inspired the art of Dolni Vestonice, is long gone, having been replaced by cosmetic surgery, botox, fillers, and the overlying need to look ageless and untouched by time.
Perhaps it is the need of the hour, to revert to the wisdom of the ancients? A time of innocence, when we considered Mother Nature and the wild kingdom with approaching awe, that prevented us from mindlessly mowing them down in the name of development? A time also, when a woman didn’t have to look perfect in order to please society?
Replacing patriarchy with matriarchy seems just about right. The Mother Goddess and her mount, have long awaited their turn. Let us give them what is their due.