Our quest for companionship goes back a long way. According to the Hebrew Bible, it arose during the time of creation, when God brought all the animals and birds to the man – “the human” would be an appropriate translation. The reason was “it is not good for the human to be alone” Then “the human proclaimed names for all the domesticated animals and for the birds of the skies and for all the living things of the open country“. Sadly, amongst all of this array of life, no suitable helper could be found. So God went on to make a suitable helper.
My point today is nothing to do with how best to understand the creation story in Genesis, but to show that this tradition – along with many others all around the world – presents the idea that mankind has wanted to find companionship of some kind with the natural world for a very long time. We use the natural world all the time in our descriptions, similes, and metaphors about human behaviour, and although there are some mismatches when we try to carry such metaphors cross-culturally, by and large they survive translation very well.
The Biblical tradition became, through the course of time, increasingly antipathetic to representing the godhead in terms of animals, but animal metaphors remain strong throughout – eagle, bull, lamb, and so on. In other traditions, where the constraints against idolatry were weaker or absent, living things have been fair game to stand in for gods, demigods, spirit guides, familiar spirits, and so on. The Egyptian tendency to associate animal features with otherwise humanoid deities intrigued (and rather horrified) Europeans. But the Egyptians are very far from the only culture to do this. Classical Greek literature is full of transformations into and from animals, birds, plants, and so on. Hindu sacred texts associate one or more vahanas with each deity. These were – are – devoted companions, often used for riding, and typically taking animal or bird form – bull, elephant, peacock, mouse, tiger, owl, and so on.
Personally I’m not so bothered about a literal interpretation of all this, but I am very interested in what it might carry in terms of meaning. There’s an obvious connection in terms of linking the qualities of the beast with the god in question. So Sekhmet – with her lion head – was thought to protect the line of pharaohs and lead them in battle. But on another level, followers are encouraged to meditate on the imagery, and to use the real-world object as a vehicle to approach the godhead. Modern neuroscience thinks in terms of an animal brain, and a reptilian brain, and so on, biologically nestled within our human brain, and tending to pop to the surface and dominate our reactions from time to time.
Another modern symptom of the same trend is the quest for animal intelligence. We have found signs of this in dogs, pigs, most of the apes and upper primates, corvids, parrots, dolphins and whales, and so on. The early 19th century saw great interest in Learned or Sapient pigs, able to accomplish a wide variety of tasks… or where they just tricks? Since then we have expanded the study to a whole bevy of other living things, and in the process come to realise that we don’t really understand human intelligence! Which part of the brain is responsible for it? Or is it a generalised response emerging somehow out of the whole organism?
So we are still looking for companionship here on Earth, whether spiritual or intellectual. Arguably the quest for discovering alien life out in the rest of the cosmos is part of this great search. If it really is “not good for the human to be alone” then the quest will no doubt continue for a long time to come… in parallel with the quest to find companionship in the humans alongside us.