THE BULL OF HEAVEN
The wild bull, which had roamed the plains of central Mesopotamia since time immemorial, was a massive creature standing over six feet tall at the shoulder. In literature and the visual arts, it was venerated as a symbol of supernatural strength and ferocity, often being likened to gods, kings and heroes. Its broad curving horns inspired the horned headdress that all gods and goddesses wore to signify their divine status. Cattle were first domesticated in the fertile valleys of Mesopotamia round about 7000 BCE. The overriding motive for their domestication was not for their meat but for their great strength, which was harnessed by early farmers to provide traction for ploughs and threshing sledges. Most households would only keep one or two beasts, which were often named and almost treated as part of the family.
Beyond their nature as symbols of the land’s prosperity, the bull, cow and calf all have a decidedly celestial quality to their character. Sumerian poetry sometimes refers to rain-laden clouds as the ‘bull-calves of the storm god’ and other texts attribute huge herds of cattle to the moon god, their numbers – well over half a million individual beasts – are so implausibly large that many modern commentators have suggested that they represent the stars of the sky. Very similar ideas about celestial cattle can be found in early mythology the world over. The Egyptians personified the heavens as the goddess Hathor, who was often envisioned as a star-spangled cow with the solar disk set between her mouth each evening to re-emerge as the sun the next day.
Comparable ideas can also be found in Vedic literature where herds of cows represent the fertile rains of the heavens and the rays of sunlight released at dawn. In this symbolic scheme, the golden calf naturally represents the newborn sun of spring emerging from the cosmic waters just as the newborn calf emerges from the life-giving waters of the womb.