Sunday, May 15, 2005

Glossary: Motif -- Buffalo horns

Legendary Chinese history describes Chiyou one of the earliest "barbarian" kings opposed to the Xia peoples as having bull's horns. These can and have been interpreted as water buffalo horns. Shennong, an ally of Chiyou thought by some to be the same as the king known as Yandi, also is said to have had a bovine head. The Shennong statue at the Jiaxiang Temple in Shandong has buffalo horns.

These buffalo horns are changed to a crown in other depictions of Shennong.

There is physical evidence of domesticated water buffalo going back to the Middle and possibly Early Neolithic. Some experts have reconstructed a Proto-Austronesian word for domesticated water buffalo.

From the Chinese texts and iconography it may be surmised that water buffalo horns represented royal power to the barbarian coastal peoples of East and South China before the Xia Dynasty.

Buffalo skulls have been found in human settlements dating back to the Early Neolithic. The use of buffalo skulls as symbols of power, royalty and divinity is widespread throughout Southeast Asia.

The buffalo sacrifice is important in many Southeast Asian cultures in royal and chiefly ritual, and in funerary rites. The buffalo and horse are commonly viewed as animals that carry the dead to the afterlife.

Buffalo horns appear widely as motifs in many ancient cultures. At times, buffalo horns seem interchangeable with the inverted crescent Moon motif. In ancient Sumer, for example, the crescent Moon was associated with the god Nanna-Suen who is often described as a bull.

A symbol of the Sun, a star or rosette surrounded by buffalo horns or a crescent is a common variation of this motif. In Sumer, the eight-pointed star in the crescent could stand for Inanna-Ishtar, associated with the planet Venus, and also possibly at the same time her twin brother, Utu the Sun God. Both Inanna and Utu were children of Nanna-Suen, whose symbol again is the crescent Moon.

In the Bronze Age Aegean, the double axe appears between buffalo horns in images of the bee goddess. The double axe is often seen as a symbol of thunder and lightning, which in turn could symbolize the descent of deified planets/stars.

In the Harappan civilization of India, a buffalo-horned "Proto-Siva" image appears in an apparent "Lord of the Beasts" motif indicating both the divine and royal status of the god. Likewise, in Sumerian and Akkadian culture, gods are often shown with miniature crescentic bovine horns, in one or more pairs mounted on pointed caps. These horns could be meant to portray those of the buffalo, and are a special symbol of divinity.

"Lord of the Beasts" from Harappa

In Sumerian and Akkadian city-states where the king was granted divine status he also was portrayed with horned crowns. In some cases, temple prostitutes acted as manifestations of Inanna in the annual "divine marriage" with the king ritual.

Clay sealing from private collection with water buffalo, crescent-star, apparently Akkadian period

The crescent form of the horns appears to come directly from the swamp buffalo, which like the river buffalo was domesticated in tropical Asia. The swamp buffalo's range is more eastern than the river buffalo.

According to this work, buffalo horns could be originally a totemic ancestor symbol related to alliances between the Nusantao lineage of Tala (traditionalist) with non-Xia peoples of eastern and southern China around 3000 BCE.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Brighenti, Francesco. Buffalo Sacrifice and Tribal Mortuary Rituals,

Maxwell, Gavin (with Bonnie Gustav). "Water Buffalo and Garbage Pits: Ethnoarchaeology at al-Hiba." Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture 8:1-9, 1995.

Ochsenschlager, Edward and Bonnie Gustav, Ethnographic evidence for Water buffalo and the disposal of animal bones in Southern Iraq: Ethnoarchaeology at Al-Hiba. Domestic Animals of Mesopotamia Part II. Bulletin on Sumerian Agriculture Vol. III. pages 1-9, 1995.