The worship of the Sacred Bull throughout the ancient world is most familiar in the episode of the idol of the Golden Calf made by Aaron and worshipped by the Hebrews in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus). But far to the east, Shiva's holy steed (called vahana in Sanskrit) is Nandi, the Bull.
A wild Aurochs bull was a terrifying creature. Killing it or taming it was a heroic feat. Aurochs are depicted in many Paleolithic European cave paintings such as those found at Lascaux and Livernon in France. Their life force may have been attributed with magical qualities, for early carvings of the aurochs have also been found. The impressive and dangerous aurochs survived into the Iron Age in Anatolia and the Near East and was worshiped throughout that area as a sacred animal. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh depicts the killing of the Bull of Heaven as an act of defiance of the gods.
From earliest times the bull was lunar in Mesopotamia (its horns representing the crescent moon), though we cannot recreate a specific context for the bull skulls with horns (bucrania) preserved in an 8th millennium BCE sanctuary at Çatalhöyük in eastern Anatolia. The sacred bull of the Hattians, whose elaborate standards were found at Alaca Höyük alongside those of the sacred stag, survived in the Hurrian and Hittite mythologies as Seri and Hurri ('Day' and 'Night' — the bulls who carried the weather god Teshub on their backs or in his chariot, and who grazed on the ruins of cities (Hawkes and Woolley, 1963; Vieyra, 1955). In Cyprus bull masks made from real skulls were worn in rites, and Cypriote bull-masked terracotta figurines have been found (Burkert 1985). And Cyprus retains its Neolithic bull-horned stone altars.
In Egypt the bull was worshiped as the embodiment of Apis, and a long series of ritually perfect bulls were identified by the god's priests, housed in the temple for their lifetime, then embalmed and encased in a giant sarcophagus. A long sequence of monolithic stone sarcophagi were housed in the Serapeum, and were rediscovered by Auguste Mariette at Saqqara in 1851 .
Walter Burkert summarized modern revision of a too-facile and blurred identification of a god that was identical to his sacrificial victim, which had created suggestive analogies with the Christian Eucharist for an earlier generation of mythographers:
The concept of the theriomorphic god and especially of the bull god, however, may all too easily efface the very important distinctions between a god named, described, represented, and worshipped in animal form, a real animal worshipped as a god, animal symbols and animal maskes used in the cult, and finally the consecrated animal destined for sacrifice. Animal worship of the kind found in the Egyptian Apis cult is unknown in Greece. (Greek Religion, 1985).
When the heroes of the new Indo-European culture arrived in the Aegean basin, they faced off with the ancient Sacred Bull on many occasions, and always overcame it, in the form of the myths that have survived. For the Greeks, the bull was strongly linked to the Bull of Crete: Theseus of Athens had to capture the ancient sacred bull of Marathon (the "Marathonian bull") before he faced the Bull-man, the Minotaur. In the Bronze Age Minoan civilization of Crete, the Minotaur (Greek for "Bull of Minos"), was a man with the head of a bull. Minoan frescos and ceramics depict bull-leaping rituals in which participants of both sexes vaulted over bulls by grasping their horns. Yet Walter Burket's constant warning is, "It is hazardous to project Greek tradition directly into the Bronze age" (Burkert 1985 p. 24).
In the Olympian cult, Hera's epithet Bo-opis is usually translated "ox-eyed" Hera, but the term could just as well apply if the goddess had the head of a cow, and thus the epithet reveals the presence of an earlier, though not necessarily more primitive, iconic view. Classical Greeks never otherwise referred to Hera simply as the cow, though her priestess Io was so literally a heifer that she was stung by a gadfly, and as a heifer Zeus coupled with her. Zeus took over the earlier roles, and, in the form of a bull that came forth from the sea, abducted Europa.
Dionysus was another god of resurrection who was strongly linked to the bull. In a cult hymn from Olympia, at a festival for Hera, Dionysus is also invited to come as a bull, "with bull-foot raging." "Quite frequently he is portrayed with bull horns, and in Kyzikos he has a tauromorphic image," Walter Burkert relates, and refers also to an archaic myth in which Dionysus is slaughtered as a bull calf and impiously eaten by the Titans (Burkert 1985 pp. 64, 132).
In the Classical period, the bull and other animals identified with deities were separated as their agalma, a kind of heraldic show-piece that concretely signified their numinous presence.
Alexander the Great's famous horse was named Bucephalus ("ox-head"), linking the self-proclaimed god-king with the mythical power of the bull.
The Marathon Bull and Theseus, right Athena, from a Vase painting
The bull is one of the animals associated with the late Hellenistic and Roman syncretic cult of Mithras, in which the killing of the astral bull, the tauroctony, was as central in the cult as the Crucifixion is to Christians. The tauroctony was represented in every Mithraeum. An often-disputed suggestion connects remnants of Mithraic ritual to the survival or rise of bullfighting in Iberia and southern France, where the legend of Saint Saturninus (or Sernin) of Toulouse and his protegé in Pamplona, Saint Fermin, at least, are inseparably linked to bull-sacrifices by the vivid manner of their martryrdoms, set by Christian hagiography in the 3rd century AD, which was also century in which Mithraism was most widely practiced.
Irish Gaelic myth features the tales of the epic hero Cuchulainn, which were collected in the 7th century AD Book of the Dun Cow.
In some Christian religions Nativity scenes are assembled at Christmas time. Most of them show a bull or an ox near baby Jesus, lying in a manger. Traditional songs of Christmas often tell of the bull and the donkey warming the infant with their breath.
The sacred bull survives in the constellation Taurus.