The gods of the Greeks not only used to dwell in the natural world alongside humans, but they were also present within specific parts of nature. They had some animals that were sacred to them because these creatures’ characteristics somehow resembled the god’s powers and physical elements that they represented.
In time, animals came to symbolize the gods themselves. This article discusses the animals that were considered most sacred in Greek culture.
Animal Symbols of the Greek Gods
Zeus Sacred Animal
Zeus was not only the father of gods and god of the sky, but also known for his keen ability to transform into various animals. This gave him an advantage when abducting women he desired, as he could assume the form of a powerful creature like an eagle or swan. These beasts were (and still are) considered symbols valor and sovereignty.
The famous Olympian king Zeus changed forms into an eagle to kidnap the attractive boy Ganymedes. However, for his scheme to work in abducting the young maiden Europa, he took on the form of a bull. In many artistic pieces, Zeus is shown with Aetos Dios- a grand golden-feathered eagle who serves as his confidant and messenger perched beside his throne.
Hera Sacred Animal
Peacock, cuckoo, cow
Hera was the queen of all gods, particularly worshipped by women. She presided over marriage and childbirth and was often represented with animals such as cows, peacocks, cuckoos, and lions.
The cow represented nurturing and protection to Hera, as it takes care of its young. Similarly, Hera used to protect the sanctity of marriage and support women. In Greek mythology, the cuckoo symbolized her love for her husband Zeus, while peacocks were seen as a sign of beauty.
Poseidon Sacred Animal
Horse, dolphin, the Cretan bull
Poseidon was the god of the sea and earthquakes, but he also had some animals that were sacred to him. His most prominent animal was the horse – a symbol of valor and beauty. This is because Poseidon fathered many horses, including Pegasus (the winged horse) by Medusa.
Sacred animals to Poseidon included the dolphin and other fish, as evidenced by the famous Trevi Fountain in Rome which has a sculpture of a winged Hippocampus alongside the god of the sea. Poseidon was also associated with bulls, most notably the Cretan bull – a symbol of Minoan civilization that flourished in Crete.
According to myth, the god sent it as a gift to Minos, the legendary king of the island. However, Minos’ wife Pasiphae fell in love with it and gave birth to the monster Minotaur.
Athena Sacred Animal
The Greek goddess Athena was known as the goddess of wisdom and war. She was mainly associated with the owl, which symbolized her ability to see through the eyes of wisdom. The owl is considered a very cunning and deadly bird, but also very wise.
Athena was more rarely associated with the goose, another intelligent bird. In some cases, she was presented carrying a spear with a snake around it. Other times, Athena was linked to the rooster, dove or eagle. For example, many amphorae have been found that feature both roosters and Athena as decorations.
Apollo Sacred Animal
Cow, hawk, snake, crow/raven, cicada, swan
Apollo, the god of music, prophecy and poetry was associated with several different animals. He was said to be particularly fond of hawks, ravens and crows, which he used as his messengers. In some tales Apollo is even said to have transformed Daedalian into a hawk when he cast himself off Parnassus to commit suicide.
Cicadas were considered sacred to Apollo because of their connection to music and their song during the summer months. Wolves were also sacred to him since he was usually worshipped as Apollo Lykaios, as well as snakes, since he fought the great serpent Python and slew him.
Artemis Sacred Animal
Deer, wild boar
The goddess of hunting and wilderness, Artemis was particularly fond of deer. In one myth, she falls in love with some very large deer with golden horns. She captures them and harnesses them to her chariot, calling them the Elaphoi Khrysokeroi.
The successful completion of one of Heracles’ labors required the capture of a deer. Artemis was also known to be fond of wild boars since they are considered difficult to tame and are the favorite animal of hunters. To honor Artemis’ skill, men would sacrifice the animals to her.
Hermes Sacred Animals
Hermes was the messenger of the gods, protector of trade and athletics, associated with tortoises (according to myth, he transformed the nymph Khelone into one) and hares (because of their prolificacy). He is also known for constructing the first lyre from a turtle shell.
Hermes was also said to be associated with the ram, as it was believed that he had averted a pestilence that was threatening the people of Tanagra by carrying a ram on his shoulders and circling the town’s walls.
Ares Sacred Animals
Dog, vulture, boar
Being the god of war, Ares despised cowards and had several sacred animals. One of these was the dog – a creature that is incredibly loyal but can also be very dangerous. He was also symbolized by creatures such as vultures and eagle-owls which were considered to be birds of ill omen because they would hover over battlefields, patiently waiting to feast on the dead bodies below them.
Venomous snakes were known to be sacred to the god of war, as several of his graves were described in mythology as being guarded by these beasts. In sculptures, he is often depicted with a serpent or serpent device. The boar was also associated with him because it could be a fierce opponent and difficult to capture. Only divine heroes could deal with them successfully.
Demeter Sacred Animals
Serpent, pig, gecko
The goddess Demeter was responsible for the harvest, agriculture, and grain. She held serpents as sacred animals because they symbolized fertility and regeneration. According to mythology, a pair of winged snakes drew her chariot.
Demeter is also linked with the swine, which symbolizes both opulence and livestock. The Greeks sacrificed pigs to honor Demeter and guarantee the fertility of their land. In addition, Demeter was worshipped alongside animals like geckos, turtles, doves, and red mullet fish.
Hades Sacred Animals
Black ram, screeching owl, serpent
Some of the animals most sacred to Hades, god of the Underworld and brother of Zeus, were black rams. Their vicious nature and dark color symbolized death itself, making them highly revered by the ruler of the Underworld.
Hades was also closely associated with the screeching owl, considered a harbinger of death and an ill-omen. He was also often represented alongside the serpent, another symbol of death and of the underworld.
Hades wasn’t always known as the god of the underworld- he used to go by Zeus Meilichios, the snake god. In some versions of myths surrounding Hades’ abduction of Persephone, it is said that he seduced her while in the form of a snake.
Aphrodite Sacred Animal
Swan, dove, hare
Many animals were considered sacred to Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love, but the dove was one of her most important. In many artwork depictions, doves are shown pulling her chariot while in other stories they’re frequently sacrificed to her.
This was especially true during the Aphrodisia festival where a dove would be killed and its blood used to cleanse the altar dedicated to Aphrodite.
The swan is also a symbol for Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty and love. She is frequently shown riding on the back of a swan in pictures and sculptures. The goddess was also linked to dolphins and hares.
Dionysus Sacred Animal
The god of wine, pleasure, fertility, and religious ecstasy was often depicted riding on the back of a panther – widely considered a symbol of inner strength and force. Goats, donkeys, lions, serpents, and wild bulls were also considered sacred to the god.
Hephaestus Sacred Animal
Donkey, guard dog, crane
The donkey, guard dog, and crane were all considered sacred animals of Hephaestus, the god of craftsmanship and fire. He was commonly depicted riding a donkey in art – a symbol of patience and steadfastness – and his temple on Aetna had a pack of sacred dogs as watchmen.
The crane was Zeus’s favorite bird, and it reminded him of his time living on the banks of the River Okeanos. In art, the long-necked head of the crane was often depicted on the donkey-saddle or chariot of Zeus.