Symbolism is vital for all religions. Symbols in religion are used to convey various concepts and values associated with the religious dogma, and they offer a sense of inclusivity and resonance to those who observe it, as they are often present in art, connecting members of the religion and making the community stronger.
The ancient Greek religion is no exception to this basic rule: the famous pantheon of the 12 Olympian Gods had their own symbols, and all of them are connected to animals. These animals are symbols of the Greek gods, and they were considered sacred and hallowed.
As with all symbols, these animals were associated with their respective god for various reasons, usually due to the animal’s own characteristics that were somehow overlapping with the powers and elements the god represented. That made some animals sacred to more than one god, though each one tended to be depicted with one more frequently rather than others.
Which animals did each Greek god have, then? Let’s find out!
Animal Symbols of the Greek Gods
Zeus Sacred Animal
The king and father of the gods, Zeus, who commanded the sky, lightning, and thunder, had the capacity to turn into various animals. He did that often when pursuing and accosting women he wanted to be amorous with.
Of these animals, Zeus was mostly associated with the eagle and the bull. He kidnapped the young man Ganymede in the form of an eagle, and the maiden Europa in the form of a bull. Both animals are symbols of strength, force, superiority, and power.
Zeus also had a great golden-feathered eagle called Aetos Dios, who served as his personal messenger and companion by his throne.
Hera SACRED ANIMAL
Peacock, cuckoo, cow
Hera, the wife of Zeus and the goddess of women, childbirth, and marriage, also had many animals associated with her.
The cow was originally the major animal that was especially sacred for Hera, as the cow is associated with nurturing and life-giving support through her milk and birth of calves just like Hera nurtures and supports women who perpetuate and hold families together.
Later, more animals became sacred to her: the peacock, to symbolize her beauty, and the cuckoo, because it symbolizes her love for Zeus. It was in the form of a cuckoo that Zeus conquered her.
Poseidon SACRED ANIMAL
Horse, dolphin, the Cretan bull
Poseidon, the god of the sea and earthquakes, had three animals associated with him, and sacred to him.
The most prominent and prevalent animal symbol was the horse. Poseidon was said to be the creator of horses, and he is the father of the famous winged horse, Pegasus. The horse symbolizes strength and beauty, as well as prowess and valor.
Another animal symbolic of Poseidon was the dolphin, as he is the master of the seas. He was also associated with many other fish, and his chariot was pulled by horses with fishtails.
Like his brother Zeus, Poseidon was also associated with the bull, but not just any bull: the Cretan bull, symbolic of the Minoan civilization and the mythical king Minos, was also Poseidon’s sacred animal. He sent it to Minos, and he made his wife Pasiphae fall in love with it and giving birth to the monster Minotaur.
Athena SACRED ANIMAL
Athena, the goddess of wisdom and righteous war, was mainly associated with the owl. The owl was considered a very clever, deadly bird. It was also associated with wisdom, so it naturally became Athena’s sacred animal.
More obscurely but not too rarely, Athena is also associated with the goose. The goose is an unusually intelligent bird, aggressive and opinionated. Other goddesses like Aphrodite are also associated with it, but the goose’s intelligence makes it Athena’s too.
Apollo SACRED ANIMAL
Cow, hawk, snake, crow/raven, cicada, swan, mouse
Apollo, the god of music and the arts, is associated with several different animals.
Apollo is associated with the cow as he has had the famous cattle that Helios, the god of the sun, was looking over and which Hermes stole when he was born.
The hawk was always thought to be Apollo’s messenger, just like the eagle was Zeus’.
The snake is sacred to Apollo as he fought the great serpent Python and slayed him. In Python’s lair he made his temple, and over the crevasse in which he threw Python’s carcass, became his oracle.
The crow/raven is also associated with Apollo as he was the one that made it black, to punish the bird for not preventing his lover Coronis from cheating on him with Ischys.
The cicada is an insect known for its song during the summer, and it was sacred to Apollo, symbolizing his love and protection of music and song.
The swan is associated with Apollo, as he is known to travel on the back of a swan.
Finally, the mouse is also sacred to Apollo. They were said to always live under his altars, and he was the god people appealed to for combating mice infestations.
Artemis SACRED ANIMAL
Deer, wild boar
Artemis, the goddess of virginity and the hunt, majorly has the deer sacred to her. The myth goes that as she was hunting, she once found a huge deer with shiny, golden horns, which was larger than a bull. She fell in love with it and made it her sacred animal under her protection.
She is also known to have favored wild boars, symbols of the hunt and of the wild.
Hermes SACRED ANIMAL
The god of commerce, traders, and travelers, Hermes, had the tortoise as his sacred animal. He is said to have turned a nymph into a tortoise and constructed the first lyre from the shell of one. He gifted the lyre to Apollo as compensation for stealing his cattle.
The ram is also associated with him and represents him. He is said to have averted pestilence that was threatening the people of the town of Tanagra by carrying a ram on his shoulders and circling the town’s walls.
Ares SACRED ANIMAL
Dog, vulture, boar
The animal sacred to Ares, the god of war, was primarily the dog. The dog is a handsome animal, accompanying humans, which can turn into a vicious beast of carnage, and so it is associated with Ares. Ares, too, was handsome but prone to bloodlust in war, and war, unfortunately, accompanies humans.
The vulture is also associated with him as an animal that is a harbinger of death, and Ares brings death to people through war and slaughter.
The boar was associated with him exactly because it could also be a fierce opponent. Some boars were so forceful that only heroes could deal with them, and they were said to kill humans in gruesome ways when they managed it.
Demeter SACRED ANIMAL
Serpent, pig, gecko
For Demeter, the goddess of spring and harvest, the sacred animal was the serpent. Serpents represented rebirth and nature, and so naturally they became Demeter’s sacred symbols.
She is also associated with the pig as it is a farm animal, associated with opulence and symbolizing farmers’ livestock. It was used as a sacrifice to her to ensure fertility of the earth.
The gecko, found often under rocks and crawling on the earth like the serpent was also considered sacred to Demeter for similar reasons- the fertility of the soil.
Hestia SACRED ANIMAL
Hestia is the chaste goddess of the family and the hearth in each house is named after her. During a party in Olympus, however, the god Priapus wanted to startle her and have sex with her while she was asleep. But as he was drawing near, a donkey brayed loudly and woke her up in time. She ran away from Priapus and made the donkey her sacred animal.
The calf is also associated with her as it is a baby that promises opulence and a bright future, and Hestia was the protector of the family, and families wish for babies and wealth.
Hades SACRED ANIMAL
Black ram, screeching owl, serpent
Hades is the god of the underworld and symbolizes death in many ways. His sacred animal was therefore the black ram because its black color symbolizes death and the ram can smash through obstacles, just like death that can’t be easily contained.
Hades generally is associated with black animals for the blackness of their coat.
Aside that, the screeching owl with its haunting scream was also Hades’ sacred animal, as a harbinger of death.
Lastly, the serpent, associated with death and the underworld, was also depicted with Hades and considered sacred to him.
Aphrodite SACRED ANIMAL
Swan, dove, hare
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, had the dove as her sacred animal. Several doves would pull her carriage. The swan, associated with beauty, romance, and love, also became symbolic of her.
Because the hare is a prolific lover, Aphrodite adopted it as her sacred animal as well.
Dionysus SACRED ANIMAL
Dionysus was often depicted riding on the back of panthers, and so the panther became his sacred animal. The panther is a symbol of unleashing one’s inner force and prowess, and so through wine and inebriation, which Dionysus is the god of, is closely associated with them.
Hephaestus SACRED ANIMAL
Donkey, guard dog, crane
Hephaestus, the god of fire and craftsmanship, was often depicted riding a donkey. The donkey is a valuable beast of burden, loyal and stoic, just like Hephaestus himself.
He is also associated with the guard dog, as he is furiously protective of his own property and family.
Finally, Hephaestus is associated with the crane because it was his favorite bird from the time that he lived at the banks of the River Okeanos.