May 10, 2012

Facts: Beast Worship

  • Most religions contain some form of animal imagery or involve animals in rituals — from animal sacrifices performed in Jewish ceremonies during ancient times to the rituals performed during the Islamic Festival of the Sacrifice (Eid al-Adha) or the regular practice of animal sacrifice in Santeria. Christianity incorporates strong animal imagery in the form of Jesus as the Lamb of God or the Lion of Judah. In Hinduism, animals such as snakes, cows, and rats are considered sacred.

  • Animal sacrifice is still practiced in faith rituals around the world, but it is a controversial topic in the United States. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue and ruled that animal sacrifice for religious purposes is legal. The case was brought to the court by Ernesto Pichardo, a Santeria priest. In this episode of Animal Underworld, Henry gets the chance to meet Pichardo and observe some Santeria rituals.

  • Although many Americans are not comfortable with animals being killed for religious purposes, every day more than 23 million chickens are killed in the United States for food. If you do the math, that works out to 269 chicken deaths per second!

  • The cow is recognized as sacred or supernatural in many cultures. In Hinduism, cows are considered sacred as a symbol of life. In the Biblical book of Exodus, the Israelites build an idol in the shape of a golden calf. The ancient Greek god Zeus was believed to have taken the form of a bull.

  • Bull worship, bull sacrifice, and bull leaping were religious rituals practiced by the Minoans during the Bronze Age. These ancient traditions have some similarity to sports still practiced today, such as bullfighting in Spain, rodeos in the United States, and Jallikattu in India. There is a continuing desire to want to prove oneself by facing death against a 1,200 pound animal with horns. The bull’s raw power, virility, and fighting spirit make it the symbol of everything from basketball teams to the stock market.

  • Henry has the rare privilege of being invited to attend a Pentecostal church service in Middlesboro, Kentucky. The congregation he visits practices snake handling, based on the Biblical passage of Mark 16:17–18. Tradition ties the origin of religious snake handling to the early 1900s and George Went Hensley, a pastor in rural Tennessee. The ritual has been practiced by various churches throughout Appalachia ever since.

  • Snakes are recognized throughout history and across cultures as having a special connection to the supernatural. In India, the snake primarily represents rebirth, death, and mortality because of the way it sheds its skin and is symbolically reborn. There are records of snake cults in the Middle East during ancient times. In Native American cultures, snakes are often seen as omens of death but with connections to rain and thunder gods. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Zulu people consider snakes to be their reincarnated ancestors — many believe that when a man dies his backbone becomes the snake.

  • In the Sonoran Desert outside of Tucson, Arizona, Henry has his first encounter with what some believe is a sacred toad, the Sonoran Desert toad (Bufo alvarius). The toad can grow up to 7 inches long, and it has glands full of a toxic venom that contains the hallucinogenic chemical 5-MeO-DMT. Some devotees catch the toads, extract the venom, and smoke it for an intense drug trip.


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