There’s an awful lot of paganism buried away in British culture, and the recent stories of a swan being beheaded reminded me that we have quite a pagan attitude when it comes to animals.
The fact is that certain animals are, essentially, sacred to the British. Many of us are squeamish about eating horse, even though it is regularly consumed across the Channel in France, and most of us wouldn’t dream of eating dog. Many British do not approve of hunting (a notable exception being the country gentry), even of animals considered “vermin” such as foxes. Wearing fur is extremely taboo in most public places in the UK, which again is different to attitudes in many other European countries. And (like many other English-speaking countries), we hold whales and dolphins in extraordinary high regard and we don’t even keep them in captivity here because of the public outcry it would cause.
Of course, there is an animal welfare and environmental aspect to these attitudes, but I think that the UK’s view towards animals has some slightly pagan overtones. Relics from the Celts and Anglo-Saxons suggest that both horses and dogs were worshipped in ancient times, and that other animals too were held in high regard. And I’m pretty sure this attitude has survived today – and especially regarding those animals which we associate with the Royal Family.
The pagan aspects of the British monarchy could be an entire subject in themselves (there’s plenty of Golden Bough ideas surrounding the Royal Family), and I won’t go into that this time. But I think that it’s significant that the British public took particular offence to the idea that a swan was beheaded – the swan, of course, being one of the animals “owned” by the Queen. Therefore, to the British public, the swan is a symbol of something powerful and regal. And there’s not much of a leap between regarding something as regal, to regarding it as sacred.
I think the same holds for our view to whales and dolphins as well – they too are “owned” by the Queen, and indeed we do view them as somehow special, magical creatures. This is not the same as how they are viewed in, say, modern Japan (although one should note that traditionally whales killed by Japanese whalers would be given a Buddhist funeral and even a Buddhist posthumous name).
I personally think that it’s great that in the UK, we generally have some remnants of animal worship in our culture. But I would caution that our attitude to animals is not necessarily shared by other cultures. Just as we do not hold cows in such high regard as people in India do, we should not expect other countries to share the same feelings we have towards animals such as dogs, horses, whales and dolphins. Certainly, we can stand up and campaign for the conservation and welfare of animals in other countries. But we should not expect countries with different spiritual beliefs to hold certain animals to the same level of sacredness as we do. Our arguments for animal welfare should be firmly rooted in environmental and ethical arguments, rather than spiritual, for this reason.