Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Bull Cults in the Ancient World

Posted by foryourfaith on February 18, 2011

Why did Aaron choose to make a golden calf as an idol for the people? The word translated “calf” in the narrative refers more specifically to a young bull. Thus the choice may well have related to the practice of bull worship, which was prevalent in ancient Egypt and Canaan. Fearsomely strong, notoriously quick-tempered, bulls were revered throughout much of the ancient world as symbols of strength and fertility. The bull appears in the art and sacred texts of Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt.

Early records from Memphis, in Egypt, reveal that the Egyptians worshiped a live bull known as Apis. The animal was thought to be a manifestation of the city’s patron deity, Ptah, creator of the universe. Apis became identified with Osiris, legendary god of the sun and of immortality.

Egypt’s goldsmiths turned out finely wrought effigies of Apis-Osiris and of his wife, Isis, represented by the head of a cow. When an Apis bull died at Memphis, its body was mummified. It was entombed in splendor during a period of mourning that lasted 70 days. In later centuries, the Apis bull became more closely linked with Osiris, so that after the conquest of Alexander the Great, Osiris-Apis was transformed into Serapis. In this new Hellenistic form, the ancient Egyptian bull-god became a prominent deity.

In Mesopotamia, bulls were long venerated as symbols of majestic strength and potency. Savage wild bulls, called aurochs, once roamed the region, and colossal stone images of these beasts were set up to guard the entrances to the temples and palaces of Babylonia. In later years, the Assyrians adopted the bull-god as their guardian icon, often adding wings and a human face.

The deities represented as bulls were usually protective and benign, but legend also described bulls that ravaged and destroyed, and often were slain by great heroes. In the ancient Babylonian legend of Gilgamesh, the god Anu sent a bull from heaven to demolish the land with earthquakes. But the hero Gilgamesh was able to kill the bull. Similarly, the Greek hero Theseus slew the Minotaur, a fabled monster of Crete – half bull, half man – who fed on human sacrifices. In an ancient Cretan ritual, acrobatic young men and women would leap over the horns of a charging bull. In Middle Eastern mythology, there are many stories of celestial bulls bringing gales and deluges. Hadad, the storm god of the Syrians and the Hittites, rode across the sky on a bull, wielding his three-pronged lightning bolt.

When the Israelites reached the Promised Land in the 13th century BC, the bull cult was already ancient there. Canaanite temples were sometimes built with images of bronze bulls in their foundations.

It was perhaps for this reason that the Israelites in moments of doubt were tempted by bull cults. Young bulls were favored sacrificial animals, and bovine images appeared in shrines. Before the entrance to Solomon’s Temple, “twelve bronze bulls” (Jeremiah 52:20) supported a huge basin called the “molten sea.” Many scholars also think that the cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant were in the form of winged bulls. Later, Israel’s King Jeroboam erected golden bulls in two sanctuaries. Many believe that he intended these images as pedestals on which Yahweh stood invisibly – as perhaps had Aaron in making the golden calf.

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