Primitive man had a peculiar and fellow feeling for the higher animals. His ancestors had lived with them and even mated with them. In southern Asia it was early believed that the souls of men came back to earth in animal form. This belief was a survival of the still earlier practice of worshiping animals.
Early men revered the animals for their power and their cunning. They thought the keen scent and the farseeing eyes of certain creatures betokened spirit guidance. The animals have all been worshiped by one race or another at one time or another. Among such objects of worship were creatures that were regarded as half human and half animal, such as centaurs and mermaids.
The Hebrews worshiped serpents down to the days of King Hezekiah, and the Hindus still maintain friendly relations with their house snakes. The Chinese worship of the dragon is a survival of the snake cults. The wisdom of the serpent was a symbol of Greek medicine and is still employed as an emblem by modern physicians. The art of snake charming has been handed down from the days of the female shamans of the snake love cult, who, as the result of daily snake bites, became immune, in fact, became genuine venom addicts and could not get along without this poison.
The worship of insects and other animals was promoted by a later misinterpretation of the golden rule—doing to others (every form of life) as you would be done by. The ancients once believed that all winds were produced by the wings of birds and therefore both feared and worshiped all winged creatures. The early Nordics thought that eclipses were caused by a wolf that devoured a portion of the sun or moon. The Hindus often show Vishnu with a horse’s head. Many times an animal symbol stands for a forgotten god or a vanished cult. Early in evolutionary religion the lamb became the typical sacrificial animal and the dove the symbol of peace and love.
In religion, symbolism may be either good or bad just to the extent that the symbol does or does not displace the original worshipful idea. And symbolism must not be confused with direct idolatry wherein the material object is directly and actually worshiped.