Cattle & Historical Human Cultures

The Influence of Cattle on Human Cultures

India (5000-6000 BCE, 1000 CE, and 2000 CE)

Today, Indian culture is famous for its reverence of the cow. India currently contains more cattle than any nation on Earth at over 285 million. In many places, cattle are free to roam the streets of India, often feeding on garbage and blocking roadways. They are worshiped at festivals, given holidays, and are fixtures of various ritualistic practices.

However, this has not always been the case (Velton, 2007). Prior to the installment of the ahisma doctrine in or around 6000 BCE, cattle were consumed and sacrificed much like in many other cultures. The ahisma doctrine, present in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, is the commonly known doctrine of prohibiting injury to animals. Despite its introduction around 5500 BCE, it was as late as 1000 CE before respect for cattle was a pervasive norm in Indian culture. A common and likely assumption is that reverence for cattle ultimately emerged from its passive willingness to provide an amalgam of resources to humans. It has been a long-standing source of life for many in India and across the world, so appreciation for cattle appears to be one of two outcomes of domestication–the other being exploitation, or at least indifference. Despite my preference for appreciation over exploitation, I cannot help but point out the irony behind a culture that has come to worship an animal that was, for all intents, created by humans.

Egypt (before 3000 BCE)

The significance of cattle to ancient Egypt extended to both male and female cattle, however for the sake of brevity I will focus on bulls (Velton, 2007). In periods prior to 3000 BCE, conflict pervaded Egypt as various subpopulations and villages struggled for power. The bull played a prominent role in the ancient Egyptian psyche during this time, as the “all-conquering supreme ruler was depicted as a bull triumphing over his human foes.” In other words, the bull was a fixture in the collective psyches of these subpopulations, and its connection to strength, aggression, and domination served as a driving force and metaphor that gave definition and purpose to Egyptians who were involved in these power struggles. Furthermore, by holding images of the bull and its associations in their minds, individuals were likely able to mentally extract the qualities of the bull and use them to facilitate the necessary behaviors to win battles–in the same way that holding images of a puppy in one’s mind facilitates the expression of “cute” behaviors.

Moreover, the ancient Egyptians deified a specific bull that was named Apis (Velton, 2007). Egyptian religion included Ptah, the god of fertility, who was responsible for intermittent flooding of the Nile River. Apis was believed to be an embodiment of Ptah, and a panic was initiated by Ptah’s death to find a similar bull to act as a replacement. Apis lived in his own temple with a comfortable living that likely exceeded that of the majority of humans in Egypt. Clearly, Apis was a centerpiece to many Egyptians at this time, so much so that there appears to have been a collective attachment to him. More specific, he was serving as a proxy for Ptah, as an object onto which Egyptians could project emotions and cognitions related to their dependence on the Nile for survival. This is not surprising, as the cow has long been depicted as a provider (albeit the cow more so than the bull).

Rome (around 200 CE)

Cattle, and specifically bulls, were used as both psychological and biological mechanisms for Roman armies to gain the necessary confidence to win battles during the Roman conquests (Velton, 2007). Roman armies often engaged in secret rituals that included the consumption of beef, and for the soldiers what came out of these rituals was a belief in their vitality, strength, and inevitable victory and salvation.

On the one hand, the Romans were literally correct in making these assumptions about bull meat. After all, meat contains protein and various other nutrients that are necessary for survival and adequate performance in physically demanding situations like battle. In this sense, their rituals were ridiculous, because their bodies would receive this nourishment regardless of any scripted behaviors. On the other hand, however, the benefits of rituals likely do not stem from the objective effects of the accompanying behaviors but instead the psychobiological connection between cognition, emotion, and behavior. In other words, by believing the rituals were effective, Roman soldiers could gain the necessary psychological resources to perform in battle. Through repetition, the associations between the act of beef consumption (and accompanying ritualistic behaviors), mental images of bulls, and performance in battle become reinforced in such away that either ritualistic behavior or mental imagery activate performance-related neural circuitry. Frankly, it is an interesting thought to suggest that the Roman empire may have depended on cattle in this way to maintain its existence.

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