Theriomorphic deities

The revelation of the restored version of the Mystic Lamb from the Ghent Altarpiece got me thinking about theriomorphic deities.

The scary goggly eyes of the restored version attracted quite a lot of comment and even a scary meme of the Lamb winking.

Before you go and have a look at the pictures, I have to warn you that what has been seen cannot be unseen.

There was even a tweet from a Catholic saying, “The lamb appears fully human and fully divine which is what I think the artist painted. That is my Catholic take on it.” Now that’s probably the ultimate version of “seeing with the eyes of faith”.

Christ as a theriomorphic deity

The symbolism of the Lamb of God is that the crucified Christ is a substitute sacrifice for sin: the replacement sacrificial lamb. Hence the symbolism of the blood in the Ghent Altarpiece, which is also linked to communion wine. So the Christian symbolism is similar to to Ancient Greek symbolism which linked sacrificial animals to specific deities, than ancient Egyptian, which linked animals to deities based on the observed behaviour of the animals.

Another symbol of Christ which is even weirder than the depiction of the Mystic Lamb is the Pelican in her Piety. In medieval times, pelicans were believed to feed their young by pecking their breasts and producing blood for the young to feed on. This became a symbol of Christ’s blood redeeming Christians.

Christ has even been depicted as Cernunnos. I thought this was some weird modern innovation until I visited a church in the Forest of Broceliande that had an inscription linking the two.

I can’t decide about this image. I mostly feel it’s massive cultural appropriation, even though it is technically a very good painting. Don’t let it put you off the amazing icons of Robert Lentz though: he’s depicted Harvey Milk and Martin Luther King and Hagia Sophia, among others.

Pagan Theriomorphic Deities

Anyway the whole Ghent Altarpiece thing has made me ever so thankful that I worship a stag god and a cat goddess, among other deities.

The goddess Bast

The goddess Bast
The horned god on the Gundestrup CauldronThe horned god on the Gundestrup Cauldron

The ancient Egyptians had deities depicted as a cow (Hathor), an ibis (Thoth), a lion (Sekhmet), a hippopotamus (Taueret), and various other animals. The qualities that these deities represented were based on the observed behaviour of the animals. Hippopotami were venerated in the form of Taueret because they are fiercely protective of their young. Bast or Bastet was originally depicted as a lioness, and was therefore the protector of the Pharaoh. Later, she was depicted as a cat, and hence became the goddess of childbirth, probably because of the fertility of the domestic cat. In modern times she is often seen as the protector of cats, but her role is more than that.

In Ancient Greece, animals were often sacred to a specific deity because they were sacrificed to them (or vice versa). But an Ancient Greek sacrifice involved sharing the meat among the whole community. Pigs were sacred to Demeter for this reason (they were sacrificed to her as part of the Thesmophoria).

However, the bird of Hera, as Queen of Heaven, was the peacock, whose tail feathers were seen as similar to the night sky. (This attribute was later transferred to the Virgin Mary, along with the role and title of the Queen of Heaven.) Athena, goddess of wisdom, was associated with owls, which were seen as wise.

The more archaic Arcadian deities seem to be assigned an animal based on the idea that they matched the attributes of the animal. The goddess Artemis was associated with bears and hunting. The great god Pan was usually depicted as having the legs and horns of a goat, and goats are horny and so is Pan. The Greeks also had mythological beings such as the satyr and the centaur.

The Celts also had theriomorphic deities, and the early Celtic saints often had an affinity with animals (St Cuthbert and the ducks, St Kevin and the otter, etc). The goddess Brighid (and the saint whose legends were derived from her) was associated with swans.

The Anishinaabe culture hero Manabozho, whose animal is the hare, could also be seen as similar to a theriomorphic deity.

The horned god or antlered god appears in many cultures from India (which is possibly where the Gundestrup cauldron came from) all the way to Scandinavia. There’s a depiction of a horned deity from a bas relief from Mohenjodaro.

It’s possible that depictions of half human, half animal deities originated in ancient hunting shamanism, where the shaman attempted to become one with the hunted animal, partly for success in the hunt, and partly to appease the spirits of the animals who were killed.

(Replica of) cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave in Southern France from the Aurignacian period (c. 35,000 to 30,000 years old)(Replica of) cave lion drawings from Chauvet Cave in Southern France from the Aurignacian period (c. 35,000 to 30,000 years old)

Later, as humans ceased to have such a direct relationship with nature as our hunter-gatherer forebears, theriomorphic deities perhaps became a way of maintaining a connection with nature and the land around us.

I’d also argue that there’s a distinct difference between theriomorphic deities based on wild animals and those based on domesticated animals, particularly animals raised for eating. It could be argued that imagery based on wild animals is about reconnecting to wild nature (at least in a modern context). The purpose of imagery based on domesticated animals seems to be more related to sacrifice.

Ancient societies also believed that humans could take on the qualities of wild animals, especially when dressed in their skins. Examples include the berserkers (“bear shirts”) and the Ulfhednar (wolf’s heads) who went into battle dressed as bears and wolves, and took on the fierceness of these animals in order to enhance their battle frenzy.

There are many theriomorphic deities, mostly for reasons of their similarities with the qualities represented by the animal. Later theriomorphic deities were often associated with the animal because it was a sacrifice associated with their rituals.

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6 thoughts on “Theriomorphic deities

  1. I hadn’t seen or heard of the Mystic Lamb before. Love it that they’re kneeling before a lamb (although not too sure about the eye makeover!). The Lamb, Princeps Pacis, or Prince of Peace, is the coat of arms of Preston here in Lancashire. I definitely think it nods back to an older theriomorphic understanding of deity. Most of the deities I venerate have at least one animal guise and many in between human/animal/tree or plant.

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  2. Greetings. I’d like to share some observations you may hopefully find useful.

    I’m fond of saying that a sign/symbol is only as effective as it’s ability to convey the meaning intended by it’s originator(s). If you think about the English alphabet for example, to an uninitiated viewer it would be utterly unintelligible. On the other hand to create a symbol which readily does convey correct meaning to the uninitiated, animals are about as good as it gets, since all you need to do is observe the animal’s behaviour in order to grasp the meaning of the symbol. This makes them superior to other types of symbols which are dependent on a prerequisite culturally specific knowledge or context. Ultimately though, it’s not the symbol which is of greatest value, but the meaning it conveys.

    In that light I tend to view the horned animal motif, both in xtianity and wicca/paganism, as indicating that humans are equally predator and prey, and as such existing on equal footing with the animals we consume. Similarly for plants visa-vis the green man, corn king or eucharist, etc. We are neither greater nor lesser, but subject to the same cycle of producing and consuming as every other living being. Of course you can add to that the secondary meanings particular to the specific animal depicted, since while both horned for instance, the behaviour of a stag is quite distinct from a goat or a ram, etc.


    • Good observation, although the meanings of animals and birds do vary quite a bit from one culture to another — plus their symbolism in medieval Christianity was often based on what was believed about the animal or bird, rather than on direct observation (as I mentioned with regard to the pelican).

      I think it’s significant whether the animal that represents your deity is wild or domesticated, too.


      • No doubt. Never underestimate the ability of humans to make simple information unnecessarily convoluted and opaque. If it weren’t so, who would need priesthood? 😉 jk… That said, I suspect that this trend to gather disparate unrelated information around an otherwise easily intelligible symbol, has more to do with the development of society and increasing complexity of associated knowledge systems, than with the original intent of the persons who first advocated the theriomorph in question. It’s a sort of snow-ball effect imo. Of course it has the added benefit of helping an elite priesthood class to justify their jobs.

        One other thing that comes to mind with this sort of stuff is the totems and clan animals among first peoples in Ontario (Ojibwe particularly). More than just a group mascot, these animals typically indicate a specific creature over which that group bears the responsibility of ecological stewardship, including often taboos against eating the flesh of the animal and so forth. In that sense the animal’s depictions serve as a reminder not only of shared identity, but also of collective responsibility to those creatures. Nor does it exclude other mythical associations being layered on top.

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