To understand the reason seeing a goat skull, particularly when it’s on an altar or surrounded by candles and herbs, makes you feel like something sinister is afoot, you have to first understand why humans think animals and their remains mean anything at all and why goats, in particular, have come to represent satanic rituals. That history begins over 40,000 years ago.
Prehistoric Origins of Humanity’s Fascination with Animals
Humans have felt a close, often magical connection with animals for probably as long as we’ve been capable of symbolic thought. Early cave paintings often feature more depictions of animals than they do of humans, and archaeologists have even found cave paintings featuring hybrid human-animal depictions that suggest we’ve been anthropomorphizing animals for at least 40,000 years.
Early human settlements also show evidence of ritualistic use of animal parts—bones and skulls included—as early as the middle Paleolithic period. This early evidence of animal sacrifice, as distinct from just killing an animal to eat it, required some set of beliefs that the animal being sacrificed represented something and that in performing the sacrificial ritual, the group was making an offering in some way to something—whether it was too a specific a god or just to the Earth more broadly depended on where you were.
When you combine that capacity for symbolic thought with a fascination with animals and a tendency toward magical or religious thinking, you get animal skulls with magical significance. This still doesn’t answer the question of the meaning of goat skulls specifically, though. For that, we have to unpack the significance of goats to human history.
The Domestication of Goats & Their Role in Human Civilization
Goats, along with sheep, were first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent—the once verdant valley between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in present-day Syria and Iraq—about 10,000 years ago. They are likely the oldest domesticated animal in human history and continue to be the most commonly kept animal worldwide, even beating out dogs. With an estimated 470 million dogs kept in households worldwide, the 840 million goats kept in households is almost double that.
The reason for their 10,000+ years of popularity is their role in agriculture. While larger herbivores like cows or horses are often viewed as “superior” livestock, goats are far more resilient and better at adapting to a range of climates.
They’re also smaller, breed faster, grow up faster, and don’t eat the food we eat. So, they’re easy to get, require fewer resources to keep, and aren’t a direct competitor with humans in terms of food. This makes them an important and accessible low-cost livestock for agricultural communities of all income levels and all climates. As a resource, they provide milk and meat, but also bones, hair, and sinew that can be used for making clothes and tools. Their herbivore diet also makes their waste an especially nutrient-dense fertilizer for farms.
Okay, but how did a practical livestock animal whose main function was to eat grass and poop become a mythical symbol with supernatural powers?
Goats As Symbols
Early evidence from the Middle East where they were first domesticated suggests that goats were first associated with fertility, abundance, intelligence, and craftiness. All of these symbolic meanings make sense if you’ve ever met a goat.
Fertility is a natural association given the fact that they reproduce so rapidly. A goat reaches sexual maturity at just four months old (or six months for the late bloomers) and remains fertile for their entire life, going into heat every 21 days and having a gestation period of just five months. More to the point, they’ve got crazy high libidos. If farmers don’t step in to regulate, goats will literally lose potentially dangerous amounts of weight because they’d rather keep having sex than take a break to eat.
Abundance makes sense, too, when you consider that their nutrient-dense feces made such a potent fertilizer for the crops that human civilizations depended on. Farms with goat herds were often farms with abundant harvests.
The association with intelligence and craftiness likely came from observations of goat behavior, but also the fact that they adapted so well to any environment. From rugged mountains to arid deserts to tropical rainforests, wherever humans have taken goats, the goats found a way to survive.
In terms of behavior, researchers have found that goats can solve puzzles and, in the wild, they adapted strong memory and strategic thinking in order to navigate the rocky terrain of the mountains where they first evolved. So, they do behave with a notable sense of intelligence and calculation that could certainly be anthropomorphized as wisdom and cunning.
In some places, they were also associated with bawdiness and hedonism because, well, you just read about their love of sex. But also, in the weeks between heat, they are given to eating as much as they can stomach and frolicking or dancing with friends in a very carefree, carpe diem sort of way.
In fact, in modern pagan beliefs, they often symbolize an ability to savor and enjoy life.
Goats As Gods and Spirits
Given these associations with fertility and abundance, it comes as no surprise that goats started to appear in many sacrificial rituals that were performed in hopes of getting a god or spirit to make the coming harvest a bountiful one or to bless a couple with a safe, healthy pregnancy.
Over time, this evolved into specific deities and mythical creatures whose personalities or realms of power were similar to the attributes humans have associated with goats.
Enki or Ea, depicted as either a goat or a goat-fish, is the Mesopotamian god of wisdom, science, craftsmanship, and magic. He knows all things and he provides warnings and instructions to humanity to help us survive. Eshu, from the Yoruba religion in Nigeria, bears a lot of the same characteristics as Enki. He is also a wise protector of humanity and delivers messages to Earth from the heavens.
Both Enki and Eshu are also trickster gods, using cunning and wit to outsmart their foes, often in the aid of humans. Goats are often associated with trickster gods like this. Pan, the sex-crazed horned god of ancient Greece, is also a trickster, as are the half-goat, half-human satyrs, the drunken woodland spirits who live in the forests of the Greek and Roman empires.
Agni, the Vedic fire god and a messenger between humans and the divine, is often depicted riding a goat. Likewise, the Norse god of thunder, Thor, was often shown with two goats pulling his chariot.
In the zodiac, Capricorn is represented as a half-fish, half-goat—an image already long in use as the symbol of the Mesopotamian Enki. The Assyrian Ea-Oannes was another goat-fish who was credited with teaching humans writing and art. Ningirsu, the Sumerian agricultural deity, was born when Enlil, the god of storms, impregnated a goat, and is sometimes depicted as a goat himself.
What all of these gods and spirits have in common is that they were largely benevolent, even if sometimes mischievous. So how did humanity’s cunning protector become satanic?
The Great Christian Smear Campaign Against Goats
While many religions were content to be local and to exist in a plurality of many different belief systems, Christianity was determined to become the be-all, end-all of belief. Its practitioners believed that their god was the one true god and their religious beliefs applied to the entire human species. So, from the 2nd century on, Christianity began spreading across Europe, stamping out local belief systems everywhere it went.
The prevalence of animal sacrifice was a special threat to that reputation because Jesus was supposed to mark the end of sacrificial rituals. God sacrificed his own son so that all humanity for all time would be cleansed of sin. Permanently cleansed, the purification or renewal often linked to sacrificial rituals should no longer be necessary. Accordingly, Christians stopped sacrificing stuff. Allowing others to keep up the habit would be admitting that Jesus’s ultimate sacrifice wasn’t so ultimate after all.
The goat, one of the most popular animals to use in sacrificial rituals, had to be vilified to preserve Christianity’s dominance. Already associated with fertility, abundance, and pleasure, it was easy for leaders of the Christian faith to distort that meaning of the goat as one of lust, excess, and gluttony. Essentially, all the best parts of life like enjoying feasts, having sex, and dancing with abandon became shameful, sinful things in the eyes of Christianity. And so, all these fun rituals involving the skulls of sacrificed goats were recast as evil, demonic temptations meant to lure good Christians away from the one true god.
Essentially, Christian leaders launched a centuries-long smear campaign to equate all the various horned gods that had emerged around the world with Satan. As such, the horned goat skull was viewed as a sign of Satan worship. And Satan worship was evil business.
Try as they might, however, this gregarious little mountain dweller with a penchant for the good things in life is too helpful and too cute to be knocked from its venerated position. Even as this Satanic association took hold, the horned gods that the goat skull had come to represent were still celebrated across Europe as pagans managed to preserve their traditions and ceremonies by performing them in secret or by masking them as Christian traditions. Outside the realm of Christianity, the goat continued to be favored in sacrificial rituals across Africa and Asia while also maintaining its dominance as the world’s most popular animal companion.