Cow-human hybrids

Myth

Mammalian Hybrids

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EUGENE M. MCCARTHY, PHD GENETICS, ΦΒΚ

     

Myth

Many creatures arose with double faces and double breasts, offspring of oxen with human faces, and again there sprang up children of men with oxen’s heads.
—Empedocles
Fragments, 5th cen. BCE
Pasiphae Daedalus helping Pasiphae enter the wooden cow (artist: Giulio Romano, 1503)

Pasiphae and the Minotaur Pasiphae with infant Minotaur (Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, 340-320 BCE)

Cow-human hybrids have been the subject of mythology and religious awe since the most ancient times. The best known example is that of the Minotaur of Greek legend. In that story Minos, the king of Crete and the husband of Pasiphae, prays for a white bull to sacrifice to Poseidon. But, as Apollodorus (Library and Epitome, 3.1.4) relates, Minos

sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another. But angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon made the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae should conceive a passion for it. In her love for the bull she found an accomplice in Daedalus, an architect, who had been banished from Athens for murder. He constructed a wooden cow on wheels, took it, hollowed it out, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow where the bull was kept. Then he introduced Pasiphae into it; and the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow. And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur. He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, shut him up and guarded him in the Labyrinth.
montu Montu (4th century BCE). Image: Janmad

There are other, earlier deities, such as the Egyptian Montu (see image at right) and Apis, as well as the Mesopotamian Enkidu (see images below), which were often represented as a blend of human and cow. The Temple of Montu at Medamud was first built during the Old Kingdom era, that is, in the third millennium BCE. Worship of Apis and Enkidu dates back to at least an equally early date. Likewise, a guardian of the Underworld in Chinese mythology, known in English translation as Ox-head, had a bull head and a human body. And even today, the Devil is often represented in Christian publications as a kind of cow-human hybrid with horns, cloven hooves and a tail.

Enkidu Cylinder seal impressions of the Mesopotamian cow-human hybrid god Enkidu (aka Eabani). Note similarity to Christian depictions of Satan.
cow-human hybrids on ancient coins

Many silver tetradrachms, such as those shown at right, were issued by the city of Gela during the fifth century BCE. Stamped with an image of a cow-human hybrid, they honored the river god Gelas for whom the city was named. Gela, which stood on the southern coast of Sicily, was a major city during the classical Greek period with a population of around 100,000. Famously, the tragedian Aeschylus died there in 456 BCE when a passing eagle dropped a turtle on his head. In Hellenic culture river gods were often represented as man-headed bulls, as they had been in earlier Etruscan culture (Molinari and Sisci 2016). An example appears in this passage from an ancient Greek tragedy in which a woman describes her courtship by a river god:

My suitor was the river Achelous,
who took three forms to ask me of my father:
a rambling bull once, then a writhing snake
of gleaming colors, then again a man
with ox-like face: and from his beard’s dark shadows
stream upon stream of water tumbled down.
Such was my suitor.
— Sophocles, Women of Trachis
(translated by Robert Torrance)

Another mythical cow-human hybrid, the Chichevache, a human-faced cow, appears also in The Canterbury Tales. According to Chaucer, it fed only on obedient and faithful wives and was therefore perpetually gaunt with hunger:

O noble wyves, ful of heigh prudence,
Lat noon humylitee youre tonge naille,
Ne lat no clerk have cause or diligence
To write of yow a storie of swich mervaille,
As of Grisildis pacient and kynd,
Lest Chichevache yow swelwe in hire entraille!

The Oxford English Dictionary says Chaucer’s is the earliest known use of the word chichevache in English. In French, chiche vache means “greedy cow” and was in use as an epithet in that language at least as early as the 13th century.

Theseus in the labyrinth killing the Minotaur
Theseus slaying the Minotaur (Master of the Campana Cassoni, 16th century)
cow-human hybridCow-human hybrid from Histoire ancienne jusqu'à César, Jerusalem, 1260-1270 CE, Dijon - British Museum ms. 0562.
Sumerian bull-manSumerian copper protome in the form of a bull-man, Early Dynastic III, circa 2550-2250 B.C., 4 inches wide.
Sumerian bull-manPlaque carved from a piece of shell incised with the image of a human-headed bull attacked by a lion-headed eagle. Sumerian, Early Dynastic IIIa, ca. 2600–2500 B.C. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

Myth

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By the same author: Handbook of Avian Hybrids of the World, Oxford University Press (2006).

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