Animal divinity can take many forms.A living animal can literally be a god or goddess. An example of this would be the crocodile Petesuchos, who lived at the temple to the Egyptian god Sebek. Petesuchos wore jewelry, lived a pampered existence and was considered the literal offspring of Sebek, elevated above the ordinary crocodile who might be killed for meat or safety.A specific animal can also be a living omen or message from a deity. The white buffalo calf Miracle, born on a Wisconsin farm, was seen as a message from White Buffalo Calf Woman of positive and momentous changes. Honoring Miracle honored the blessings and prophecy of White Buffalo Calf Woman. Miracle also shows how an animal can embody divinity in more than one way, as Miracle was often propitiated with gifts, sometimes highly valued gifts such as military medals, as if she were an actual goddess like Petesuchos (although not all Plains Indians who revered Miracle viewed her in this way).An animal species might be sacred to a particular deity, and thus all members of this species might be treated with deference out of reverence for that deity. An example of this would be the dog, who is sacred to the goddess Nehalennia and usually pictured as her companion.An animal can be considered sacred for her contribution to human life, for her symbology, or for her pivotal role in myth. The cow is given special status by Hindus for her gift of milk. In the 1980’s thousands of school children wrote the Ohio State Legislature protesting a proposal to allow dove hunting, arguing that it would be killing peace. Lenape Indians were successful in getting some limitations placed on groundhog killing in Pennsylvania, due to the significance of the animal in creation stories.Some deities of strong significance to humans are animal gods or goddesses. In his earliest known form of worship, Apollo is a mouse god. His temple in Tenedos housed hundreds or perhaps thousands of mice, who were not considered gods in their own right but were pampered as a favor to Apollo. The mice had a divine function as omens as well, with large litters presaging economic prosperity. Special priestesses were employed to interpret oracles from the mouse god. The goddess Athena typifies many deities of Old Europe by having twin animal forms of earth creature (snake) and sky creature (owl).Every animal has its own deity. Modern pagans refer to the chief deities of plant and animal species as devas, a word borrowed from Sanskrit which means “god.” In appealing to the deity of an animal which does not have a recognized cult, the animal “deva” will be invoked. Alternatively, when petitioning a specific animal colony, the “queen,” who is leader of that particular family, can also be invoked. It is also possible to appeal en masse to a group of animals, praying to the animals in their collective spirit, although some would quibble that this is the same as appealing to an animal deva.Closely related to an animal deity, but not exactly the same thing, is an animal familiar. A familiar is a being who helps a priestess with her magic. The familiar can be an incarnate living creature or a discarnate being who exists only in spirit, but most often she is a living animal. There is much that I can say about the animal familiar, and whole books have been written on the subject, so I will talk about familiars in a later post.
The tree goddess this week is the Latvian Laima (pronounced like the first word in “lima bean”). Her Lithuanian name is Laime. Be careful not to get her confused with the fairy goddess Lauma or the Greek Lamia.Laima is associated with many trees, but especially the linden; many birds, but especially the cuckoo; and many animals, but especially the cow. Laima is the goddess of birth, fertility, fate and prosperity — goddess qualities that seem to go together. Laima measures the length of the day, the length of a lifespan, the length of a spell of good luck. I have a mental picture of her flying around with a wooden ruler measuring things. (“Baby girl, you are going to be this tall.”)The linden is the tree more commonly known as the basswood in the United States and the lime in England. It has soft wood used for musical instruments and a pliable bark used for basket weaving. It is a choice wood for carving. The sweet smelling flowers of the linden are brewed for respiratory and urinary infections. The flowers attract insects, particularly bees, which produce a honey prized for flavor and medicinal qualities. The insects in turn attract birds, as does the linden fruit.The bird Laima favors is the cuckoo. The reappearance of the Common Cuckoo from her African migration marks the beginning of spring in Europe, and the cuckoo is said to prophesy by her number of calls. According to Marija Gimbutas, “Another folk belief relates that the tree on which the cuckoo sits becomes sacred and imbued with the powers of the goddess. If a person peels a piece of bark or breaks a branch of this tree, he or she will know the cuckoo’s prophesies.”The cow is the special animal of Laima, also associated with the linden tree. Laima presides over the birth of calves, usually by appearing in the stall as a black snake or a black hen or even a black bug. In one song she appears in the cow stall as a linden tree:
A branchy linden tree grewIn my cattle stall.This was not a linden tree,This was Laima of my cows.
Laima produces goats and sheep from her other trees:
All roadsides were covered with Laima’s trees:From a birch a ewe was born,From an aspen-tree, a little goat.
It is common in Euro-shamanism for land animals to have a bird form. Here we have sheep and goats with tree forms.Of course Laima also measures the length of a woman’s pregnancy and presides at the birth of children. She governs the bathhouse and sauna where Latvian women traditionally gave birth. In this role she takes the form of a woman with braided hair bearing linden branches.
Why so swift Mother LaimaWith linden twigs in your hand?To still the tears of a young brideWho came last year to our land.
Laima can appear as one goddess, three goddesses, or as many as seven. In various aspects she may be given different titles, such as “Cow Laima” or “Fate Laima.” This is interesting in the context of the linden tree, because its trunk often looks like it has multiple trunks fused together. The American Basswood has several distinct trunks rising from a single base. The linden tree exemplifies the idea of the goddess who is many and one.Sources:Evans, Erv. “Scientific name Tilia Americana.” North Carolina State University Cooperative Extention.Forler, Scott. “Linden-Lime-Basswood Honey” The Honey Traveler, 2011.Gimbutas, Marija. The Living Goddesses. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999.Motz, Lotte. The Faces of the Goddess. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.Nix, Steve. “American Basswood, A Common Tree in North America.” About.com.
Continuing our exploration of the sacred trees of the goddess, we turn this week to the Egyptian goddess we know by the Greek name of Hathor. I had research to do for this, because I did not know why Hathor carries the title “Lady of the Sycamore” or why she had a shrine of sycamores in her city along the Nile. My first step was to learn more about the sycamore tree, and I quickly discovered that the tree known as “sycamore” in northern climates is unrelated to the sycamore of Africa and the southern Mediterranean. Hathor’s sycamore is the sycamore-fig, the earliest cultivated fig tree. Its fruit is orange-red, rounder than the common fig, and slightly less sweet. The milky juice of the unripened fruit is used medicinally for skin conditions. The fruit and the wasps pollinating the fruit attract a variety of birds. The tree is long-lived and grows along riverbanks to a height of about sixty feet, much larger than the common fig. The sycamore is a generous tree, offering its fruit year round.The association of the fig with Hathor evokes the idea of fig wine, as Hathor is a goddess of intoxication. Her new year rites were revels of dancing, music and wine, drawing large numbers of participants. Her priestess cult was an ecstatic one, with a strong emphasis on music. As Patricia Monaghan describes her,
…she was the patron of bodily pleasures: the pleasures of sound, in music and song; the joys of the eye, in art, cosmetics, the waving of garlands; the delight of motion in dance and in love; and in all the pleasures of touch.
As her cult spread, Hathor assumed a variety of attributes, even becoming merged with the lion goddess Sekhmet, but she was usually portrayed as a cow, a cow-headed woman, or a woman with cow-horns and moon disk, sometimes suckling her son Ihys (himself a complex deity).As is sometimes the case with life sustaining goddesses, Hathor is also guardian of the dead. Hathor does not seem to have a “death aspect” or twin, but is the same generous, nourishing goddess in life and death. The spirits of the dead hang on her sycamore trees, and she wanders through the groves offering them fresh water. Sycamore was the preferred wood for sarcophagi, and one tomb painting depicts a sycamore tree with singing birds.Even before Hathor’s cult became assimilated with others, her mysteries were probably far more complex than we can fathom from this distance. Clive Barrett conjectures:
The association of joy and intoxication on one hand and death and the underworld on the other suggests that her rituals involved some kind of shamanic practices. Divine madness freed her priests or followers from the mundane world, and with the correct training they were able to move onto other planes and walk with the gods.
Whether the sycamore-fig was ever fermented for Hathor’s rites I was unable to discover through my books and an Internet search. I found that this fig is indeed sometimes fermented into wine, but that it has a vinegary taste that makes it more suitable for medicine than enjoyment. The common fig and the grape, both more suitable for winemaking, had been introduced to Egypt by at least 3000 b.c.e., and there are extensive written records on the production of grape wine. Still, according to Meir Lubetski “The pairing of the sycamore fig and wine was firmly anchored in the cultic practices and in the prevalent landscape of the ancient Egyptians.” He also says that in one funerary ritual the newly deceased king would be fed figs and wine.The sweeter common fig never supplanted the sycamore-fig as an important staple in the Egyptian diet. Hathor’s cult likewise, though it widened and changed, remained popular long into historical times. We generally think of death goddesses as unyielding of temperament like the Sumerian Ereshkigal, frightening in appearance like the Hindu Kali Ma, or stern and scary like the northern European crone goddesses. The worshipers of Hathor had a beautiful, happy lady with them in death. Small wonder the cult of Hathor was one of the most tenacious the world has seen.SourcesBarrett, Clive. The Egyptian Gods and Goddesses: The Mythology and Beliefs of Ancient Egypt. London: Aquarian Press, 1992.Iziko Museums, Figweb.Lubetski, Meir. “Lot’s Choice: Paradise or Purgatory?” in Biblical, Rabbinical and Medieval Studies, Judit Targarona Borras and Angel Saenz-Badilles, eds. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill Academic, 1999.Monaghan, Patricia. The Book of Goddesses and Heroines. St Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1990.Ray’s Figs website.Wilson, Hilary. Egyptian Food and Drink. Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications, 2008.