On Mythic Cows and the Dairy Industry: An Archetypal Activist Exploration


One day Hathor, the great cow-goddess of Egypt, is watching over humanity as usual to ensure that we uphold Ma’at—truth, justice, and balance—and grows very displeased with the sight. Her father Ra agrees that humanity must be warned for their transgressions against Ma’at.  He sends Hathor from her heavenly abode down to Earth to issue this destructive warning.  As she descends and prepares for vengeance, Hathor transforms from her nurturing bovine character into her destructive counterpart, the lion-headed Sekhmet.  In her rage, she destroys much of the human race and revels in the bloodshed.  Afraid for the extinction of humanity, Ra tricks Sekhmet into gorging on red-stained beer and she falls asleep in drunkenness. When she awakens, Hathor has returned to her peaceful form and humanity is saved… (Pinch, 2002; Ions, 1968)

In an attempt to gain a new perspective on the dairy industry, an issue I find deeply troubling and paradigmatic of our ecological crisis as a whole, I turned to mythology and the near-universal sacralization of cows in ancient cultures across the world.  From Nandi the bull, who serves as the gatekeeper for Shiva and Parvati, one of the three divine couples of the Hindu tradition, to Hathor the Egyptian cow goddess who gave birth to humanity through her tears, to Hera the great wife of the Greek pantheon and her association with cattle, amongst many others, cows are held sacred in diverse mythological systems.  Tracing themes associated with cows cross-culturally unfolds a time-worn connection between mythic cows and the nurturing, all-providing facet of nature—the archetypal Great Mother Goddess and the Earth herself.  At certain times, and even now in certain cultures like Hindu India, this association has fostered human reverence toward cattle, affording care and an ideal of reciprocity when humans partake in their offerings.  In other cases, as is true of the western industrial world today, our relationship with cattle reflects the ruling paradigm of objectification and commodification while an obsession with bovine “products” remains.  Through the lenses of ecofeminism, mythology, archetypal activism, and select issues in dairy politics, I aim to provide a more nuanced critique of the dairy industry and illuminate themes that may bear relevance for the greater ecological transformation of our times.

The Truth about Dairy Cows

While the role of nursing milk in a living system may seem rather obvious—to nourish the mammalian young of each species—the milk of cows has become an unquestioned staple in the modern western human diet.  Advertising depicting happy anthropomorphized cows manufacturing dairy products like workers in a factory (Stevens, Kearney, & Maclaran, 2013) coupled with androcentric entitlement to the “products” of animals, effectively subvert reflection on the issue of cross-species milk consumption and its consequences.  Even amongst ethical vegetarians, the impact of dairy often slips by unnoticed.  Perhaps because cows are not immediately killed when they are milked, those concerned with animal welfare often overlook the experience of dairy cows?  Or maybe it is because human attachment to cows’ milk runs so deep?  When we look to the mythic narrative, even sacred cows are venerated precisely for their milk and the nourishment it provides for humans.  Today, the advertising budget of the dairy industry has grown to $180 million a year and the U.S. Department of Agriculture remains simultaneously responsible for the success of dairy farmers and the prescription of nutrition guidelines (Green, 2002).  The confluence of these factors may be why the consumption of cow’s milk rarely comes under scrutiny.

The unfortunate reality is that dairy cows suffer just like terminal farm animals that become “meat.”[1]  A normal lifespan of twenty-five years is cut to four or five years and is spent by the dairy cow in a cycle of forced impregnation to keep her lactating, followed by immediate separation from her young to make her milk available for human consumption.  Gaard (2013) provided a detailed yet succinct description of this process:

Artificially inseminated at fifteen months of age a dairy cow suffers and endless cycle of pregnancy and lactation, milked two to three times daily by electronic milking machines, conditions that cause mastitis and other infections that must be treated with antibiotics.  Fed an energy-dense food, she may spend her whole life confined in a concrete stall of standing on a slatted metal floor.  Her calves are taken from her within hours after birth, with females kept to replace their mothers in the dairy and males sent to veal farms, where they are confined in crates so tight they cannot move, and fed an iron-deficient diet until they are slaughtered at fourteen to seventeen weeks of age. (p. 603)

Female calves become future dairy producers while male calves feed the veal industry—a direct and often invisible byproduct of dairy that kills one million calves a year in the U.S. alone (Green, 2002).  Cows show signs of grief and distress for days after their young are taken away, “sometimes ramming themselves against the stalls in attempts to reunite with their calves” (Gaard, 2013, p. 612).  In some cases, the cow fails to produce milk in the absence of the natural oxytocin release that would occur during mammalian bonding to promote lactation so she must be injected with a chemical analog of this hormone (Gaard, 2013).

Even if milk production is normal, at least 25% of dairy cows in the U.S. are now subjected to synthetic (recombinant) Bovine Growth Hormones (Green, 2002), [2] which along with selective breeding, have increased the milk production of an average cow by 61% in the last twenty-five years (Carter, 2012). This means that today’s 1400-pound dairy cow produces a little more than her body weight in milk each day (Carter, 2012).  Milked electronically two to three times a day, many cows suffer painful infections treated by antibiotics injected into their bleeding udders (Green, 2002).  This level of milk production—the equivalent of a human running for six hours a day (Webster, 1986)—is unsustainable for the cow, putting her in a constant state of nutrient deficiency, leaching calcium from her bones, until she literally cannot stand and is sent to slaughter. [Note, without human intervention, cow’s milk would be unavailable from March to November each year (Gaard, 2013).] As ecofeminist Carol Adams (1997) pointed out in her discussion of why only dairy cows survive long enough to exhibit the symptoms of “mad cow” disease: “The [dairy] cow’s lifespan, unlike that of other terminal animals, is longer because it is exploited twice: first, when alive, reproductively for her milk and offspring; and then after death, for her body” (p. 32).  Recalling Hathor’s rage when humans fail to uphold justice, it seems inevitable that dairy cows would grow “mad.”  Given these conditions, even insiders of the Animal Husbandry industry have named that “The dairy cow is exposed to more physiological demands than any class of farm animal” (Webster, 1986).  I would add that the repeated experience of being impregnated, separated from her young, not allowed to nurse naturally, and spending most of her shortened lifespan electronically milked is unusually taxing psychologically as well. [3]

With this reality in mind, let us turn to ecofeminism to gain a better understanding of the ideological context that normalizes dairy consumption despite the evident damage caused when the living system within which cows’ milk belongs is ruptured.

Insights from Ecofeminism

Ecofeminism, a critical philosophy that weaves ecological awareness with feminist principles, recognizes that the dominations of both women and nature share a common source in patriarchy (see Gaard, 1993; Plumwood, 1993; Warren, 2000).  With an understanding that all systems of oppression are interconnected (that is, intersectionality), ecofeminism challenges us to see that social justice is inextricable from the way human beings relate with the rest of the natural world.[4]  A vegetarian/vegan branch of ecofeminism emphasizes that animals are a part of nature and the domination of animals is a critical symptom of the human domination of nature in general (Adams, 1991).  While this may seem obvious, “The majority of animals dominated by humans have been so devalued that they no longer appear to be a part of nature” (Adams, 1997, p. 38).  In contrast, when animals are acknowledged as an essential part of the natural world, it becomes evident that ecological restoration and sustainability requires the eradication of their exploitation and torture.  The fact that animal agriculture contributes significantly to our current ecological crisis reinforces and reflects this philosophical foundation.

As the reproductive “product” of a lactating mother, milk has been recognized as a pertinent ecofeminist issue and the ecofeminist perspective sheds light on the mechanisms behind the commodification of cow’s nursing milk and the social construction of dairy cows as willing victims (Gaard, 2002).  In short, like all systems of oppression, dualistic thinking, hierarchical thinking, and a logic of domination proceeds as follows: “Human beings are different from animals; human beings are superior to animals; by virtue of that difference and concomitant superiority we have the right to eat animals” (Adams, 1997, p. 35) and their reproductive products (i.e., milk and eggs).  Dairy cows become commodified objects and are denied subjectivity.  As with the case of “meat” (see endnote 1), Adams (1990) explains, “In order to justify the lifelong enslavement of dairy cows to be perpetually milk producing, the animal [becomes an absent referent] and as such is negated as a living breathing animal” (as cited in Stevens et. al., 2013, p. 162).  In other words, we deontologize the cow as such by relabeling her body parts and reproductive products “beef,” “steak,” and “dairy,” and these “foods” become disassociated from the, now invisible, cows to whom they belong (Adams, 1997).

Knowing the natural compassion humans have for animals, especially animals with whom we cultivate relationships like cats and dogs, farm animals must become the “Other” in this way and their “products” become disconnected from their origins for awareness of animal suffering not to impact consumption.  Of course, capitalist patriarchal culture requires us to suppress emotions regarding a multitude of sufferings, necessitating some degree of numbness and denial to participate in general, so this is not an unusual state of affairs.  Coupled with the dualist divide between humans and animals/nature, we rarely experience our mammalian commonality with dairy cows as a catalyst for sympathy.  As Gaard (2013) poignantly pointed out,

Ideologically imprisoned in a humanist colonial framework, few human mothers who breastfeed their infants use this embodied experience as an avenue for empathizing with other mammal mothers; few human parents who touch and nurture their newborns have used these behaviors’ affectionate oxytocin release as an opportunity to consider the experiences of other animal parents locked in systems of human captivity.  (p. 613)

In contrast, I believe opening emotionally to the suffering of the Earth and non-human animals creates opportunities for healing the split responsible for our alienation from, and subsequent destruction of, the natural world to which we belong.

My own inquiry deeper into the complexity of dairy was prompted by exactly this: in the early stages of pregnancy I experienced my own mammalian body preparing to nurse a baby and my heart opened further to dairy cows who are forcibly impregnated yet denied the fulfillment of nursing their young.  I was already aware of the suffering of dairy cows after been vegan for a year, so it struck me as particularly odd that the embodied realization of a woman’s connection with the lactating mother cow would occur simultaneously with amplified insistence from the conventional medical establishment and mainstream health guidelines that dairy consumption is necessary for a healthy pregnancy.  At once, I felt greater sympathy for the dairy cow while being more vigorously encouraged to take part in her oppression.  While holding this contradiction was now painful, I knew that I too had participated in dairy with little ethical discord for all but the most recent year of my life (even during seven years of vegetarianism).  Genuinely perplexed by how this had happened, I was compelled to pursue this issue further.

The influences of advertising and popular nutrition join to conceal the reality of dairy cows while asserting a fervent ideology around the universal healthfulness of milk.  The California dairy industry, for example, purports to have “Happy Cows,” distracting consumers with images of liberated cows enjoying themselves in lush meadows.  Stevens, Kearney, and Maclaran (2013) conducted an ecofeminist analysis of cows in advertising to find a narrative of “benevolent mastery” depicted “through a male gaze that first differentiates itself from the cow, then turns away from nature/the mother, and ultimately achieves mastery over the inferior ‘Other’” (p. 170).  They explained:

Popular culture, including advertisements, serve to reinforce a patriarchal worldview, masking reality behind a ‘benevolent mastery’ narrative of kindly animal husbandry and contented and, above all, yielding female flesh, indifferent to the long-term implications of such an anthropocentric, instrumentalist, and masculinist stance, on the environment and on all living creatures in it. (p. 170)

Characteristic of the overarching capitalist mode of relating to the Earth as a whole, dairy cows are oppressed while being portrayed—and hence experienced—by humans as willing participants.  Perhaps the historic sacralization of cows and their longstanding association with the all-providing facet of nature has actually contributed to their widespread exploitation in the modern western world?  The insistent consumption of nursing milk beyond infancy certainly echoes the insatiable consumption of finite natural resources—both rooted in an infantile expectation that a selfless Mother will endlessly provide.  As Gaard (2013) named, “For too long, the dominant culture has childishly projected its own gendered image onto nature as selfless and self-sacrificing mother… requiring the female bovine to symbolize maternal nature: mindless, patient, slow-moving, lactating” (p. 613).  Coming to terms with this projection onto cows and the Earth may provide a key for sustaining our future.

The Irony of Attachment to Dairy

Now the sad irony—or perhaps karmic debt—of our attachment to cow’s milk is that increasing research has linked dairy consumption to a variety of health problems.  While milk is touted to be the ideal source of calcium necessary for bone health, the absorption of calcium from cow’s milk is unsubstantiated, and increasing research actually links dairy consumption with a higher risk for osteoporosis and bone loss (Keon, 2010).  Like the dairy cow who is milked at such a pace that calcium is leached from her bones, the acidification that occurs in the human body when we consume dairy has a similar bone-depleting effect (Butler & Powell, 2012).  The other concern regarding drinking another animal’s milk is that we ingest the naturally occurring, as well as synthetically added, growth hormones specific to that species.  For cows that is Bovine Growth Hormone (BGH), which plays a significant role in helping a 60-pound calf grow into a 1400-pound cow (Green, 2002).  When consumed by humans BGH affects our hormonal balance and contributes to the incidence of reproductive cancers in both men and women, such as breast, ovarian, colorectal, and prostate cancer (Keon, 2010).  Synthetic rBGH injected into cows to increase milk production exacerbates this problem.  In addition to cancer, the hormonal impact of early dairy consumption has been linked to accelerating puberty and menstruation, which is now being reported in girls as young as three years old (Green, 2002).  Like with calcium, it is striking that the exploitation of cows’ reproductive systems to make milk available for widespread consumption mirrors the reproductive harm observed in human consumers.

As Gaard (2010) articulated, we are not separate from the interconnected system of dairy production and consumption, nor are we exempt from its harms:

An ecofeminist perspective on milk- and egg-production makes visible the ill health and suffering of females from all species—from those who are used for their reproductive capacities while their infants are taken from them for slaughter, to those who work in unsafe and illegal conditions to slaughter these animals, to those pregnant or lactating who drink the water or breathe the air permeated with the waste of these industrial animal farms as pass on these contaminants to their infants, and finally to those who consume these products of female reproduction, ingesting their antibiotics and growth hormones along with their suffering, their eggs and their milk.  (p. 122)

From a depth psychological and archetypal activist perspective, we recognize that the divide that appears between a perpetrator and a victim is not so clear.  While perceiving ourselves as having “mastered nature,” entitled to the milk of cows, it makes sense that we might experience consequences not far removed from the harm we inflict.  Although there have been times in human history when certain groups of people have relied on dairy for survival, this is no longer the case.  Also, I would expect that the quality of the relationship we have with cows could impact the effects of consuming their milk.  I wonder, if a reverent relationship within a meaningful context once facilitated the wholesomeness of milk, could our current exploitative relationship with cows be making us sick?

A discussion of the controversy of milk’s healthfulness would be incomplete without acknowledging that 75% of the world’s population, predominantly people of color, cannot digest lactose after the age of four (Gaard, 2013).  Yet, the USDA and the dairy industry assert the universal benefits of milk, maintaining dairy as one of the basic food groups and mandating dairy consumption in public schools (Green, 2002).  This means that children of color disproportionately suffer the symptoms of lactose intolerance like gas, bloating, diarrhea, and indigestion without any acknowledgment that this may be the case (that is, 70% of African American, 90% of Asian American, and 74% of Native American versus 15% of white youth cannot digest dairy) (Green, 2002).  Rather than admitting this obvious digestive diversity, the dairy industry pathologizes the predominantly nonwhite populations as “lactose maldigesters” (Gaard, 2013).  Gaard (2013) traced the ethnocentrism in today’s dairy industry assertions to overt racist claims from the Depression-era around milk’s capacity to produce racial superiority in the white populations that can drink it.  Taken together with the growing evidence that milk may not actually be healthy for anyone, it seems the “First World” dairy industry elite are the only ones who ultimately benefit (Gaard, 2010).  In this light, cow’s milk consumption again becomes particularly emblematic of white, patriarchal, industrial society.

Yet ultimately, the environmental impact of the dairy industry (entwined with the whole of animal agriculture and mono-crop farming) negatively affects all of Earth’s inhabitants.  While a full account of the particular environmental degradation that the dairy industry contributes is beyond the scope of this discussion, looking to the use of water alone to sustain a diet containing dairy and/or meat is telling.  An average vegan diet requires 300 gallons of water a day versus 1,200 gallons for an ovo-lacto-vegetarian diet and 4,200 for an average American meat-heavy diet (Adams, 1991).  Those of us in drought-stricken California, which is also the nation’s leading dairy producer, should take heed.  When researching the San Joaquin Valley where most of our dairy is sourced (amongst many other agricultural products), I was struck to see that the particularly drought-inflicted region is reportedly sinking two inches per month in some places (Moyer, 2015).  Another Hathor myth, in which she again becomes angry about the human failure to maintain Ma’at (recall, meaning justice, balance, truth) and nearly sends the Earth back into the sea, comes to mind. In the myth, the Nile region suffers fires and drought while Hathor contemplates this vengeance, but fortunately, her brothers Shu (atmosphere) and Thoth (knowledge) convince her otherwise and the river’s waters return along with peace and happiness (Ions, 1968).  The current ecological crisis seems perilous on par with this myth, demanding greater awareness of our actions.  Perhaps the message of Hathor’s simultaneous relation with the nurturing bovine and the destructive forces of nature triggered by human transgressions against natural order bears relevance for our times?

Engaging Archetypal Activism

The complexity of dairy consumption thus contains the multifaceted and interconnected web of harm to cows, consumers, and the environment along with considerable misinformation efforts.  When facing the immensity of this problem, it takes effort to remain compassionate toward the majority of Americans who continue to drink cow’s milk and insist it is natural and inevitable to do so.  Yet, from an archetypal activist perspective, compassion is essential for evolution and can be more easily accessed when we acknowledge the deep root of dairy attachment.  As Keon (2010) pointed out, “Mother’s milk, our first food, creates a strong emotional tie with mother, and with milk as a life-giving substance.  Most of us were weaned from mother’s milk to cow’s milk…” (p. 9).  It seems the archetypal mother, and our unreasonable expectations of her, have become conflated with the Earth as a whole and cows in particular.  And in the modern west, our relationship with the mother has come out of balance.  Thus, our maturation as a species requires us to address both the source and symptoms of this entwined imbalance.  For as ecofeminist Carol Adams (1991) warns, “…the existence of terminal animals is paradigmatic of, as well as contributing to the inevitability of, a terminal earth” (p. 140).  Changing course as a species means that we must finally wean ourselves off of the mother’s breast and recover our role as stewards of the Earth.

Gaining further awareness of the subtle impact of participating in dairy may aid in the transition.  Similar to recognizing the suffering of men living in a patriarchal system—for example, forced to suppress emotion, display masculine traits even if they are not authentic, and participate consciously or not in the subjugation of women, which is ultimately dehumanizing for both parties—participation in the oppression of cows has an insidious effect on the consumers of dairy.  Unable to see and sympathize with the impact of our actions, we are distanced from the reality in which we are complicit.  Reversing a system of oppression requires us to first acknowledge the subjectivity of the oppressed group.  That is, we must first open ourselves to the subjective experience of dairy cows, which, because it cannot be directly shared in words, must be discerned from their actions.  To this end, animal activists share stories and video footage of the treatment of cows and their behavior.  One story of a cow’s “agency and resistance” told by veterinarian Holly Cheever is an especially striking account of a dairy cow who, after five cycles of pregnancy and separation, managed to hide and nurse one of her calves when she gave birth to twins (as cited in Gaard, 2013, p. 612).  The dairy farmer involved Cheever because his otherwise healthy cow failed to produce milk.  He eventually followed the cow through the pasture to discover a hidden calf and solved his problem.  I think taking in stories like this is important because they remind us that cows, like all animals, are compelled to participate in the natural cycles of their species and suffer if they cannot.  They have emotions, preferences, and in some cases, can even use deceit to try to get their way.  This first step of witnessing, perhaps even seeing through the eyes of a cow for a moment, is painful but ultimately necessary to heal our disconnection from nature within and without.

On the other hand, if we are already aware of the impact of dairy on some level, we have to repeatedly suppress and disown the emotion this knowledge evokes when we participate.  As Gaard (2013) explained:

Inside each glass of milk is the story of a nursing mother separated from her offspring. To justify and feel comfortable in “breaking” the bio-psychosocial bonds that join mother and calf, dairy scientists, dairy farmers, and dairy consumers alike must deny the web of relationships that defines healthy ecosystems. (p. 612)

She went on to insightfully question, “How does drinking this bovine mother’s milk shape human identity?  Who do we become?” (p. 613).  Extending this inquiry, I wonder how might we evolve if we actively change our diets to be congruent with our natural compassion?  Maybe this tangible step might actually change us, through our bodies, and move us toward a healthier relationship with the Earth and each other.

Coming upon the stories of Hathor to recover the mythic dimension of cows provides some interesting clues.  Not only is Hathor the goddess of pregnancy and childbirth (an interesting synchronicity for me personally that this dairy journey brought me to her during the early months of pregnancy), but she also presides over the death-rebirth process (Ions, 1968).  In either cow or woman form, Hathor is said to nurse the dead on their journey to afterlife.  Pinch (2002) explains that, “Hathor was the golden goddess who helped women give birth, the dead to be reborn, and the cosmos to be renewed” (p. 137).  Daily events in our current time suggest that we are due for such a cosmic renewal and are now in a time of apocalypse–in the root sense of coming to a revelation, uncovering what was unconscious to us so that we might be reborn as a culture.  So, perhaps returning to the messages of Hathor can provide the spiritual sustenance we need as we cross this threshold?  For when humanity recovers balance and justice, Hathor returns to her benevolent form: a joyful mothering goddess.  The Earth too may have to show her destructive face when balance is disturbed, but I believe yearns to return to her benevolent, peaceful state.  May our actions facilitate this transition.


Adams, C. J. (2010). The sexual politics of meat: A feminist-vegetarian critical theory. (10th anniversary ed.). New York, NY: Continuum.

Adams, C. J.  (1997).  “Mad cow” disease and the animal industrial complex: An ecofeminist analysis. Organization & Environment, 10(1), 26-48.

Adams, C. J. (1991). Ecofeminism and the eating of animals. Hypatia, 6(1), 125-145.

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says. The Washington Post.  Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/ morning-mix/wp/2015/08/20/drought-stricken-californias-san-joaquin-valley-is-sinking-nasa-says/.

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This essay was written originally at the California Institute of Integral Studies for the graduate course Planetary Psychology with Dr. Craig Chalquist, 2015.

[1]   Vegetarian ecofeminism provides a critical analysis of the way living, breathing animals become the social construct “meat”, entirely distinct and disembodied from their original source.  Carol Adams (1991) points out that, “Meat is a cultural construct made to seem natural and inevitable” (p. 135). Further, she explains the process by which animals become absent referents:

Animals in name and body are made absent as animals for meat to exist.  If animals are alive they cannot be meat. Thus a dead body replaces the live animal and animals become absent referents.  Without animals there would be no meat eating yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food. (p. 136)

It is then no longer necessary to question the eating of animals because we are now eating “bacon”, “ham”, “steak”, etc. rather than naming the animal on the plate.  We have effectively deontologized the animal itself.  Capitalism further diminishes the cost and impact of eating meat by valuing production over maintenance (e.g. actions that sustain the environment).  Consumers, therefore, do not pay the environmental costs of meat production while the real cost of meat is further obscured by government subsidies.  Instead of seeing this cost, “Individual tax monies perpetuate the cheapness of animal’s bodies [and reproductive products] as a food source; consequently, meat-eaters are not required to confront the reality of meat production” (Adams, 1991, p. 131)

[2]   The use of recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)—a genetically engineered hormone produced under the name Prosilac by the Monsanto Company—on dairy cows has been approved by the USDA and FDA since 1993.  Because rBGH milk is not regulated and mixed with the rest of the dairy supply, it is estimated that 80-90% of milk in the U.S. is affected. While increasing research has linked human consumption of rBGH with various cancers and the decreasing age of puberty in girls, it remains legal in the U.S.  All other industrialized countries in the world have banned rBGH milk (Green, 2002).

[3]   Of course, this discussion does not aim to suggest that the suffering of dairy cows is greater than that of other terminal farm animals but to emphasize the often overlooked reality of dairy.

[4]   While there is an undisputable imbalance in the way humans relate to nature that is the focus of this essay, at the root, we are not actually separate from the natural world at all.  Recognizing and healing this fundamental human/nature dualism is essential for restoring our sense of belonging on Earth, which in turn will transform the way we relate to the Earth’s resources and creatures.  Although I refer to the relationship between humans and animals/nature throughout this discussion, I think that we ultimately need to transcend this conceptual binary.