This was originally posted on August 5, 2013
Most archaeologists and visitors to museums assume that when they see a horned bovine, they are faced with the image of the male God or the image of the bull sacrifice. In the minds of many, these two are one, as we have been taught that the male God who was the consort or son-lover of the Goddess was sacrificed. Yet horned Goddesses are not infrequent in the history of religions and Hindus still revere the sacred cow.
Cattle have played an important role in human life from the beginning of agriculture. Cows provide milk which is also turned into butter, cheese, and yogurt. Most of the young males and some of the females are killed for meat or leather, while a few males are kept to impregnate the females. Though the “raging bull” is the lens through which most of us think about mature male bovines, I have been told by a friend who raised cattle that in fact bulls are for the most part gentle and even sweet–though of course they are also potentially dangerous.
Before the industrial revolution, there was also a third category of bovines, the castrated males, known as oxen, who were used as “beasts of burden”–to pull plows, litters, and after the invention of the wheel, wheeled vehicles. Many people assume that only bulls have horns. This is not the case. Recently a friend who was raised on a dairy farm described to me the pain experienced by young female cows when their horns are burned out. So let us think again about the images of the horned bovines found in museums. Given that cows and oxen were long-term companions of early “man” and early “woman,” why should we assume that all horned bovines are bulls? One reason is that most of us know very little about farm life. The other is that archaeologists, and following their lead, art historians, historians of religion, archetypal psychologists, and others have told us that horned bovines represent “the male principle.” Why has scholarship celebrated the bull as the image of male power and virility, but in most cases has not even asked if the horned bovine might be a cow? In Egypt the Goddess Hathor (pictured above) and other Goddesses were imaged with large horns. In Greek mythology, which is more familiar to European scholars, deities were not usually given animal features. Still, Homer referred to Hera as “cow-eyed,” a likely memory of the earlier association of Goddesses with cows. The epithet “cow-eyed” reminds us that the eyes of bovines are big and expressive, a fact which may have encouraged human beings to to understand cows, oxen, and bulls as having intelligence and feelings akin to their own.
Re-examining shrines and finds from Neolithic Catal Huyuk, Dorothy Cameron suggested that “bull’s heads” were intended to symbolize the uterus and their horns the fallopian tubes. While this is possible, it seems to me more likely that “bull’s” heads are often “cow’s” heads. The cow herself is a powerful symbol of the life-giving and nurturing powers of the Goddess. In the sacred treasury of the Sacred Center* of Knossos, a plaque picturing a cow with long horns nursing a calf was found. This shows that the Ariadnians** were capable of imagining the horned bovine as both sacred and female.
Despite this, the beautiful carved stone pouring vessel of a bovine head on display in the Heraklion Museum is generally interpreted as a bull’s head. Moreover, it is frequently added that the blood of the sacrificed bull was poured through the mouth of the pouring vessel. But if we imagine that the bull can be a cow, we can also imagine that a priestess may have poured milk from the cow’s mouth, as a symbol of the nurturing power of the Goddess.
In the reconstruction of the famous bull-leaping fresco from the Sacred Center of Knossos, male genitalia are prominent. If the reconstruction is correct, then male bovines were used in bull games. However, there is no indication that these were “raging bulls.” Instead, the bull is portrayed with a large, gentle, interested eye that seems to be looking at the viewer. This suggests to me that the bull was not an antagonist to the bull-leapers, but rather a trained companion in the game, perhaps raised as a kind of “4-H” bull by the girls and boys who tumbled with it in rites welcoming spring. Bearing in mind that the Ariadnians** portrayed both male and female bovines in a sacred context, I have closely examined many of the ceramic bovine statues on display in the museums of Crete. While I have not found any with clearly defined udders, neither do most of them have the full complement of clearly articulated male genitalia. Some of them may be castrated males or oxen, while others may be non-gendered “generic bovines.” Given the important roles female and castrated cattle played in the lives of the Ariadnians** who did not have horses or donkeys to aid in farm labor or to bear burdens, it seems likely to me that all 3 categories of bovines would have been honored in their rituals.
While there is evidence that Ariadnians** cooked and ate meat as part of ritual festivals, the only definitive evidence of a bull sacrifice comes from the Aghia Triada sarcophagus which is dated to the Mycenean occupation of the island. The Aghia Triada sarcophagus can also be indentified as Mycenean from its iconography–including the Mycenean tomb and the Mycenean chariot.
This brings us to the symbol called the “horns of consecration.” This symbol has been interpreted as sacred horns, but also as symbolic of mountain peaks, and as a reference to the upraised arms of women in worship. It is likely that the Ariadnians** identified mountains with the Mountain Mother. This and their connection to women’s ritual gestures argues for their “female” nature. If the symbol also represents horns, the connection to to female mountains and female worshippers suggests that the horns are female. Even if they are “only” horns, the horns of consecration probably would have been understood as female horns insofar as the main focus of Ariadnian worship seems to have been a Goddess or Goddesses. In any case there is no reason to automatically assume that they are bull’s horns. Once again, careful re-examination of artifacts of Ariadnian** Crete reveals that common assumptions of patriarchal scholarship can and should be re-imagined.
*Usually called the Palace of Knossos.
**Usually called the Minoan Culture, after King Minos who lived several hundred years after the end of the culture in question.
BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.
“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.” — Carol P. Christ
3 thoughts on “Legacy of Carol P. Christ: GODDESS AND SACRED COW: A RE-EXAMINATION OF THE MYTHOLOGY OF THE SACRED BULL”
This has to be the only one of Carol’s posts that I find myself disagreeing with – I think it is a stretch to make assumptions about bulls being female… left to their own devices except for mating most bovines are quite docile and tame – males and females alike. Only humans force them into aggressive roles – like bull fighting. In nature most horned animals are male – reindeer are one exception. When we first became farming people 10,000BCE the areas used to grow food were small – contrast this with agribusiness – and I find myself thinking that what started out to be a peaceful pastoral way of life became a monster.
Carol’s re-examination of the myth surrounding the symbol of the sacred horns has impacted my own understanding over the last decade. Knowing that female cattle also wore horns rocked my connection to the ubiquitous symbol of sacred horns from ancient Crete and Anatolia. The power of the crescent or the upraise arms of the ancient female figurines seen in the Heraklion museum reaches me across thousands of years. I know that the patriarchal cultures are ready and willing to appropriate the sacred symbols of earlier cultures—turning them into tools of domination. One example is the labrys, a central sacred symbol of the goddess honoring culture of Ariadnian Crete. The labrys later became the weapon used by Zeus to pull down thunderbolts.
When I see the powerful labrys symbol rising from between the sacred horns, I must agree with the interpretation that together these represent regeneration and rebirth as understood by those who lived honoring mother, mountain, crescent moon, and female cattle.