The Cow

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


THE COW


 Out of the realm lying behind the mayavic depths of Chaos flowed streams that filled the great emptiness of the abyss of Ginnungagap. Here the frigid waters were warmed by the heat generated in Muspell to the South. Life quickened and took the form of the great giant Ymir who was nourished by the richly flowing milk of Audhumla, the primeval creative cow. As she licked the blocks of ice still floating upon the heated rime, there came forth Buri, whose three grandsons eventually slew Ymir and made of his body the earth and seas and all the life which they contained.

 When these Nordic gods had conquered the giant of Chaos, they established themselves in a heaven inhabited by the descendants of the Cow of Creation. The cows in this heaven – or sid as the ancient Celts called it – were sacred and were believed to be filled with magical potency, each having milk enough to supply the needs of an army of men. Cuchulainn, beloved as a cultural hero by the Celts, gained renown for his feat of stealing cows from the gods and bringing them to earth. It is said these animals were fully domesticated upon arrival and co-existed with their wild counterpart, much as guides or bell-cows mix with the common stock on mountain slopes. In addition to reflecting a belief in their sacred ancestry, perhaps the reverential attitude Hindus have always held for white, cloud-like cows played an effective role in their early domestication if, by chance, it took place here on earth. During Neolithic times the already domesticated cow was introduced into Europe by herdsmen from Middle Asia. These cattle were derived from the Indian cow, called by Europeans Zebu. They ranged alongside the great wild urus of the European mountains and contributed significantly to the development of productive strains on the continent and in the British Isles. Ancient Greek sculptors rendered oxen with a dewlap resembling that of the Zebu which, in more recent times, were officially recognized by the American government by the Hindu name of Brahman. Modern taurine history has centred around the British Isles which have produced the shorthorn stock that today is mixed with Brahman cattle by ranchers in the West.

 In many cultures legends of giant cows reflect the idea of the great Cow of Creation, while actual animals of enormous size still exist in dwindling numbers. The Gaur of India, with its magnificent carriage (some measuring six feet at the shoulder), is alert and cunning and has even been known to fight with tigers. These and the Goyak, like the wild Longhorns of Texas, are 'natural cows,' lean and long-legged with what the old cowboys used to call 'cow sense.' The Longhorns led other animals and had 'weather wisdom,' always knowing where grass and water could be found. They were excellent mothers and fast on the hoof, providing an almost mystical inspiration rather than a fat side of beef. Emerson, speaking of Western breeding trends, put it most aptly when he said, "The cow has been sacrificed to her bag; and ox to his sirloin."

 Despite such peculiarities of focus upon certain attributes of the cow, it is still true for much of the world that the sweetness of the sound of cowbells is rooted in the closeness man feels to the cow. The slow seasonal movement of cows seeking pasture determined the migratory movements of herdsmen for millennia and there are many people today who still move, breathe, eat and dream with their cattle. The Nuer tribesmen of the Sudan say that "cows are everything, they are our happiness." Every Nuer marriage involves a dowry of cows from the herd and with this bridewealth close ties are created between generations and clans. Cows are a bond between brothers and a symbol of strength and goodness between all men. The bridewealth movements of cattle from kraal to kraal are equivalent to lines on a genealogical chart, each generation of cows being linked up with various agnate groups and harking back to ancestral cows as ancient as any human forebears. Nuer cows are never slaughtered for meat but are killed only for religious sacrifice. It is through cows that the Nuer establish contact with the ghosts of their ancestors and other spirits in the supernatural world, and the history of their cows can reveal a history of mystical connections. Those who have lived with them say that "He who would know the Nuer must first master a vocabulary referring to cattle and to the life of the herds." Indeed, men and boys are addressed by names that refer to the form and colour of their favourite ox. A young boy, at the time of his initiation into manhood, is given a bull whose name he takes as his own. The Nuer social idiom, like that of many pastoralists, is basically a bovine one.

 Cows were loved by the ancients, whose concern for their comfort and protection is reflected in many ancient edicts such as the Hindu maxim: "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out corn." Hesiod wrote in Work and Days that "cattle should be kept in good condition and ready for work, when the migratory crane's cry bespeaks winter's advent and the prospects of wet weather." The Romans warned that the length of a furrow should not exceed one hundred twenty paces, so that the oxen shall have time for breath. Latins in general gaily decorated their cows and presented them as gifts, echoing even more ancient customs. Symbolic paraphernalia related to cattle was sometimes worn at weddings by Slavic peasants who were traditionally yoked together at the time of their vows.

 Some have wondered about man's close identification with the cow and the fact that the animal is so often held sacred. One might ask if the Vedic Indians recognized a magnetic tie between themselves and the cow. Why did they use cows at times of initiation? Why do the Nuer and other cattle-raising people in Africa sacrifice their cows in order to renew the blood bond? The fact that every important rite of passage in their lives is marked by the gift or sacrifice of a cow is suggestive, as is their strong personal identification with the animals. The Egyptians regarded the head of the cow as a powerful religious symbol, believing the cow's presence to be effective in warding off evil. Perhaps protection by the cow at times of crisis and its power of binding gifts reflect correlative energies symbolized in the identification of the cow with the source of life-giving abundance.

 Customs of lineal membership and modes of worship of ancestors often reflect an intimate cultural identification with the essential soul-power of an archetypal animal or vegetable whose permutations exist as species types in the world. The cow, being so primordial a symbol in the process of manifestation, is representative of a broad spectrum of diffuse powers. For this reason the cow was and is a link with the realm of all powers and gods. Through its sacrifice the cow provided the means of contacting the supernatural world where gods and ancestors dwell. This solemn ritual has been repeated countless times throughout the world, and the paths that have led to places of sacrifice are without number. One catches a glimpse of this mode of sacred communion in ancient drawings or paintings such as that on the ancient Grecian urn so beautifully described by Keats, who asked:

To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?

The wild white cattle of Britain are a reminder of these hoary rites. Believed to be the remnants of herds kept by the Druids for sacrifice to celestial deities, they can be found in places where Brythonic culture continued well into the historical period. There are fourteen herds in England and seven in Scotland still roaming in what were once sacred groves.

 The word 'cattle' is etymologically related to 'chattel' which indicates a form of payment, something used as a medium of exchange. Another word for cattle is pecunia, which literally means 'money.' In Texas an impecunious man was one without cattle and consequently without any means whatsoever. Texas cattle were called pecus, and a large river which presented dangerous fording to many a Longhorn herd was named after them. So many people in the world have counted their wealth, status and sense of well-being in terms of cattle that it is not surprising to find that cattle have also been the source of countless feuds and sometimes all-out wars. It is significant that the Sanskrit word for soldier translates literally as 'one who fights about cows.' This particular aspect of identification with cows sometimes leads men to great heights of destruction. In Nepal the practice of lisudu involves 'saving of face' by the killing of one's own cows at the doorstep of anyone who has insulted or in any way threatened the prestige of a man and his family. If reciprocal slaughters continue without any resolution of the feud, both families can be reduced to complete poverty. From such examples it is obvious that there is far more involved in the concept of being pecunious than merely possessing 'chattel.'

 In the Vedas the water-dripping clouds of heaven are constantly compared to cows. According to occult Hindu symbology, they are linked with the primal principle of humidity, a flowing out of the 'stuff of creation. The rain that falls upon the earth can be seen as a form of milk, and many Hindu allegories describe the battles waged by the gods to secure the rain cloud cows from the demons who try to steal them. These myths provide a model for the worldly 'soldier' who 'fights about cows.' That the moon is also linked up with moisture only substantiates the symbolic link frequently recognized between the moon and the cow. Lunar goddesses of many traditions wore horns on their heads and acted as links between the moon, the sun and the earth. These are the Heavenly Cows who graze in the celestial fields of Indra's heaven. The mother of Indra is depicted as a cow, and Indra in his bull-form freed the cows which were held fast within the stone cave in the ridge of 'The Encircler.' As a bull, Indra fertilizes the waters of heaven, which are cows. Rescuing them from the grasp of the demons, he brings them back from the South each year in the form of the monsoon rains.

 In the Rig Veda Sky and Earth are depicted as a closely united pair – one a prolific bull, the other a variegated cow. Both are rich in seed and together they produce milk, ghee and honey. They are fashioned by Visvakarman and are, no doubt, the inspiration for the many Indo-European myths about the union of the mother earth cow and the heavenly bull. Zeus, more than once, appeared to the earthly object of his attention as a bull, and, as in the case of lo, carried her off when she was in the guise of a heifer, Io was priestess of the ancient shrine of Heraeum, associated with the moon. After her 'abduction' she conceived a son, Epaphus, who provided ancestors for many races of men. Her daughter was Europa, whose name means 'broad-faced,' like a cow. She, too, was abducted by Zeus, resulting in a further fertilization of the human race. The line of descent beginning with lo will, it is foretold, bring forth eventually a son who shall liberate Prometheus and overthrow the Age of Zeus.

 In Vedic symbolism the more archetypal concept of the bull and cow represent purusha and prakriti. Causal to this and on a more abstract level of conceptualization is the infinite unity of things, the undivided A-diti, symbolized as the 'mistress of the bright stall, ' the 'Boundless Universal Cow.' Aditi, as the mother of all the gods, appears to occupy an ontological position in cosmology similar to the Cosmic Cow Audhumla. Aditi is identified with Devaki, mother of Krishna.

 Shiva is also intimately linked to cows. As Rudra, he was the god of cattle and his violent aspect was reflected in the fact that he exacted from his worshippers a sacrifice of cattle. The seven holy rivers of India that break through the matted locks of Shiva's hair have their source in Gomuckh Cave – the 'Cow's Mouth.' It was Shiva who caught the poison vomited by Vasuki before it could contaminate the universal ocean of milk. In his close identification with the entire process of destruction and generation, Shiva manifests in the world of duality the infinite unity of Aditi. The shrines of Shiva are guarded by statues of him in his bovine aspect, just as his human form is adorned with the horns of the crescent moon. Both symbolize the mysteries of initiation.

 The cow is linked with many levels of evolution. It is said to be the symbol of the Fifth Root Race. Indeed, the Nuer, who stress constantly the symbiotic nature of the relationship between cow and man, say of cattle that "they will be finished together with mankind, for men will all die on account of cattle and they and cattle will cease together." The family Bovidae arose about twenty-five million years ago and has been the dominant herbivore of the world ever since. For thousands of years men worked with cows, the latter often providing fifty percent of all the labour power in a community. If large numbers of cows were killed for food today in India, there would be immediate starvation on a scale more vast than the world has ever known. The sacred Indian cow or bullock plows fields, provides milk and butter, and from its manure is produced the fuel necessary to cook grains.

 As above, so below. The sacred, heavenly cow, treated well on earth, serves man and helps him maintain a balance between himself and his environment. A knowledge of this ecological equilibrium is perfectly symbolized in the Nuer practice of covering the body with the ashes from cow dung fires, and also in the tradition of Hindu ascetics who wear ashes and smear their bodies with various mixtures of the cow's yield. The symbolic relationship of the cow to many levels of manifestation is suggested in another way by the structure of the stomach of the physical cow. It is divided into four chambers, in the first of which vegetation (symbolically related to the moon) is softened by fermentation, suggestive of the powers and activities of Soma. In the second chamber fermentation continues, followed by regurgitation up into the mouth in the form of cuds which are re-chewed and swallowed, filtering through to the third and fourth chambers. This entire complex process can be interpreted as an analogue of a cosmic process involving the gathering together, within the body of the Heavenly Cow, of the raw material of Chaos. Through several complex stages (including one of regurgitation or rejection), it will be further refined until it is totally assimilable by the life-giving cow, and the waste is thrown off to be recycled endlessly through the same vast process. The body of the Heavenly Cow is a refinery of prakritic nature. It is significant that it is considered a symbol of the Fifth Root Race which emerged after the four previous periods of refinement.

 Through Isis, the 'melodious cow,' Egyptian devotees were 'born' into the great mysteries symbolized by the crescent horns and moon upon the goddess' head. In India the candidate desiring to become dwija or 'twice born' must pass through the Golden Cow which is the Holy of Holies in Hinduism. The stooping man, entering therein, passes through the matrix of mother nature to re-become the original pre-natal man. Within the disciple the work of Dadhyañc ('Milk-Curdling'), who opens up the cow stalls by the power of Soma, proceeds. The highest Heavenly Cows are released to bring forth their abundance within the whole man. Here Dadhyanc represents Soma who clothes himself with Waters and the 'Shining Cow' Aditi. The yield of Aditi, Mother of the Gods and Cow of Light, is clarified butter, the ghrta of sacrifice and symbol of rich clarity. Interestingly, the word go in Sanskrit indicates both a cow and a ray of light which is the physical representation of thought. The source of light, represented by the sphere of the sun, was usually shown between the horns adorning the heads of cow goddesses. The points of the horns symbolize the daily and yearly limits of the sun's course. He was also believed to hide in the body of the Cosmic Cow during the night, to be born again in the morning. Like the moon, the cow gives 'birth' to the light of the sun.

 In Hindu tradition the 'melodious cow' represents the feminine aspect of Brahma involved in the world's creation out of sound. She is the 'Soma-purchase cow' symbolizing Vach or speech, which was the price (at a more earthly level) for Soma in days of old. Vach, 'the melodious,' is the Female Logos or Word and her abode is that of Kwan Yin, the 'divine voice,' the abode of all the goddesses of the active forces in nature. In this realm sound has its heaven, being a dimension that is a form of Aditi, who metaphysically represents the principle in Akasa higher than Ether. Vach, as a permutation of Aditi, is the magical potency of occult sound in nature, calling forth the universe out of Chaos. In the Anugita a Brahmana tells his wife how Speech and Mind went to the abode of the Higher Self or Prajapati to find out which of them came first. In essence, the answer was that there is a movable and immovable mind and that the movable is on the plane of matter whereas the immovable is silent and superior. Thus there are four kinds of Vach ranging from the infinite, immortal ray of Spirit, connected with the highest form of intellection, to that which is uttered. It proceeds in its evolution, through cycles which are not always adequate to express spiritual thought. The power of speech to call forth Soma demonstrates the link between the highest Vach and her manifested 'milk' but the power of silence draws its energy directly from the realm of Aditi, 'the Undivided.'

 A great deal of the mystery and even the romantic appeal of the American cowboy is based upon the fact that he was a lonely, silent man. He was usually single and lived close to men who understand one another well and had little tolerance for unnecessary loquacity. Spending hours and sometimes days alone on his horse, the cowboy was accustomed to silence and an adept at expressing his ideas in a few words. Heroes of whatever tradition always draw upon the silent satarupa, their powerful actions 'speaking for themselves.'

 It was through silence and asceticism that Nandini, the beautiful 'wish cow' of Indra, received immortality and a world – Goloka – above the Three Worlds. Originally her home was the seventh layer under the earth in what is called Rasatala but in attaining the imperishable state of the Heavenly Cow, she became the Mother of the four daughters who support the corners of heaven. The great sage Vasishtha is said to have obtained her as a sacrificial cow whose offering to the gods would assure his own immortality. It is only through the sacrifice of milk in its curds – the clarified butter of abundance and the melodious riches of speech – that one can attain the highest heaven. In this great mystery lies the inspiration for the myriad forms of sacrifice and exchange of cattle. Cows are given for brides because one must give up the worldly milk of abundance in order to receive a higher form of the yield of The Shining Cow.' The cow, more than any other symbolical form, represents as well as provides the means of the highest sacrifice. The Masters of Wisdom, in speaking of themselves, said: "Not one of the humble 'dew drops' which . . . have at various periods disappeared in the space to congeal in the white Himalayan Clouds, have ever tried to slip back into the shining sea of Nirvana through the unhealthy process of hanging by the legs or making unto themselves another 'coat of skin' out of the sacred cow dung of the 'thrice holy cowl" Men may sacrifice to attain Aditi but the ultimate sacrifice is that of Aditi herself, mirrored in the Mahatmas who refuse to abandon her offspring.