By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
The term “sacred cow” and the related expression “holy cow!” probably derive from the reverence Hindus pay to these ubiquitous bovines in India. One lasting memory shared by almost all travelers to India is the sight of cows placidly winding their way through dense vehicular traffic. And most also can easily recall the omnipresent smell of cow dung being burned for cooking and warmth by people living on city streets throughout India.
The cow was also considered holy in ancient Egypt and in other religions that emerged in the Middle East. “New world” religious beliefs, including those of the indigenous peoples of pre-Hispanic Mexico, were for the most part pantheistic and designated specific animals as possessing supernatural powers. However, in those days, cows were unheard of in Mexico.
Many of the indigenous residents of the western hemisphere shared a reverence for the serpent, as can be seen when exploring archeological digs throughout Mexico and Central America. The Mayans also attributed divine powers to creatures that bridged the heavens and the earth – bats, owls, hummingbirds and eagles. Anyone who has risked claustrophobia and climbed up into the inner recess of the temple of Kukulcán in Chichen Itza has also come face to face with another Mayan sacred animal – the red jaguar.
The introduction of Christianity into the western world essentially attempted to wipe out indigenous civilizations’ pantheistic beliefs and their sacred views of animals. Although Christianity refers to Jesus as the lamb of God and represents the Holy Spirit as a dove, the Christian view of the nature of animals is firmly planted in the monotheistic doctrine of Judaism.
The Hebrew scriptures, also called the Bible or the Old Testament, were explicitly written in opposition to the doctrines and beliefs of surrounding religions. The opening chapters of Genesis depict humans as far superior to animals. While oxen are mentioned at least fifty times in the Bible, they are always described as a possession of men. The Bible includes commandments to be kind to oxen – for example, not to muzzle them when they are used for threshing, never to use them for plowing in tandem with a less strong animal, and to allow them to rest on the Sabbath. But humans are viewed as responsible for the actions of oxen, and no doubt is left that humans are in charge of all animals.
Not only is there no holy cow in the Bible, but on the contrary any animals considered sacred by foreign religions are expressly depicted unfavorably. Consider the serpent in the Garden of Eden, a memorably evil fellow if there ever was one. And remember that worship of a golden calf is described as one of the most grievous actions committed by the ancient Israelites.
Admittedly some animals are featured in the Bible in a more or less positive light. A storied talking donkey could see an angel while his master Balaam was blind to the angelic presence. A yearly practice to alleviate Israelites from their sins involved placing the sins on a goat and exiling it off to the desert – the original scapegoat. And some bovines were designated to serve as sacrifices to expiate for sins.
For Jews who eat only kosher food, cattle are favored animals, as long as they are certified as slaughtered humanly and handled properly in food preparation. Remarkably, since Mesoamerica was unknown to those who wrote these dietary rules, the eagle, the owl, the bat, the serpent and the jaguar are not kosher and are never eaten. Of course, the prohibition against consuming them is unrelated to their sacred status in this formerly unknown world.
Christianity in general, and particularly the Catholic religion imported to Mexico, avoids any prescriptions about edible and inedible animals, or of sacred animals. So when you are driving in Mexico and see an ox or a cow or a herd of cattle blocking the road, you can say “Holy cow!” (¡Santo Dios!) simply as an expression of annoyance without any genuine religious overtones.