A Pagan’s Guide to Sheeps

The snow makes the fields look lovely at this time of year, but sadly the white snow makes the sheep look off white, to put it kindly. I see them everywhere across Derbyshire, and they just seem to be part of the landscape rather than an animal we actively farm for meat, milk, skins and wool (and very occasionally keep just for the breed itself). I wasn’t a big sheep breed identifier, knowing previously that they have a leg at each corner, live in fields, come in any colour you like so long as it’s black or white… After a visit to the Lakes, I am proved wrong and thought I’d share my new knowledge with you all about sheeps 🙂

Sheep appear in mythology and the ancient world with amazing regularity.  The sheep is one of the oldest domesticated breeds, and so it’s unsurprising that many of the ancient civilisations valued it so much.

The ancient Sumerians, approximately 4000 BC to 2000, who are thought to have developed the first form of writing in the ancient world (Cuneiform script) immortalised sheep through religion in the form of gods and goddesses whose sphere of activity was to guard and represent flocks. The most prominent and powerful was Duttur sheep goddess and protector of flocks, a Mother Goddess of both Dumuzi, also Lord of shepherds and the flocks, and Gestinanna although an oracular goddess associated with the interpretation of dreams also has associations with sheep and shepherding. The Sumerians had huge flocks of sheep, and sheep were important for meat and clothing for the entire population, sheep were the most important part of the economy as they were in many ancient cultures.

Likewise the Egyptians also valued sheep, they were dependent on sheep for milk, meat, clothing and to provide manure to fertilise the land. Right from the earliest times the Egyptians worshipped animals and at various periods held certain animals to be sacred and as representations of their gods and goddesses. Many graves of ancient Egyptian people have been found which include the remains of animals wrapped in cloth, including sheep.  Concerning sheep in the religious context of Egypt, the God Khnum had the head of a ram. From the earliest beginnings of Egyptian civilisation  Khnum, originally the god of the source of the Nile and believed to have created all the other hundreds of gods and goddesses, was worshipped. Revered as the most important of the gods he was believed to have been self created and it was he who made the first egg from which arose all of creation in its entirety.  Also in ancient Egypt the god Heryshaf, a creator and fertility god who was said to have been born in primeval waters, was represented by the figure of a man with the head of a ram or as a ram. In Egyptian mythology he was identified with Ra and Osiris, and in Greek mythology with Herakles. 

Rams heads have been found in ancient Neolithic shrines in Catal Huyuk in Ancient Turkey suggesting some religious signifcance.

The Greeks, Romans, and other cultures set significant store in the sacrifice of animals as an act of propitiation or worship in order to placate the gods and no doubt sheep were included amongst the animals deemed suitable as sacrificial offerings. Animal sacrifices including sheep also served other significant religious purposes other than appeasement, such as an offering of thanksgiving, to seek a favour and as a way of telling the future such as the use of animal entrails for divination. For this purpose it appears that the sheep’s liver was the most commonly used organ. In these ancient cultures the use of animal sacrifice was integral to religious practice and was in some cases a substitute for human sacrifice. In Greek culture according to mythology the gods took delight in human sacrifice but seemingly were willing to accept a substitute of an animal sacrifice with a few drops of human blood symbolically added.

The ancient Greek gods were called upon to protect sheep. In the Greek colony of Kyrene in Libya the god Aristaios was revered as the god of herdsmen and bee-keepers. He was worshipped by herdsmen because it was believed that he was the protector of both the men and their flocks, watching over to protect them from predators such as wolves, weather and malevolent forces.  In Greek mythology the well known and ancient legend of the golden fleece is central to the mythological tale of Jason, one of the many great heroes of Greek mythology comparable to Herakles and Odysseus. The story tells of Jason’s quest for the fabled golden fleece, which in Greek mythology is the fleece of the winged ram Chrysomallos, required in order to place him on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Familiar in the time of Homer 800 BC this is a very ancient mythological tale with some later variations.

I think I only need touch on the association of Jesus with a sacrificial lamb, usually portrayed as Agnus Dei.  You probably know the rest.

In Tibet at new year, a ram which represents the faults of the previous year is released for the new year, symbolically taking with him last year’s faults, although this may stem more from the shamanic religions practiced in Tibet prior to the introduction of Buddhism in about 500 AD.  The ram is associated with shamanic worship and is sacrificed, the fight against the ram is one of the symbols of the shaman’s struggle. As in the above example the ram is seem as an expiatory animal: it can symbolically bear human faults, or be used to contain demons or drive out evil forces.  Also in Tibet there is a ritual which involves driving a sheep around the monastery walls by a pilgrim practicing devotional circumnambulations. Such practices are undertaken to gain merit and mitigate or improve one’s Karma. Thereafter the sheep is allowed to live out the remainder of  his or her life in peace.  There is an old Tibetan saying : It is better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep. This generally refers to the timidity of sheep and often quoted in reference to fear.  Although Buddhism is the predominant religion of Tibet and other Himalayan countries the sheep is exploited for his wool, skins, meat and milk.  In the treeless barren terrain of Tibet their dung is used as fuel.  Their horns are used as needles and their guts as thread. Along with yak, sheep are used also as pack animals.

Sheep were among the first domesticated animals. An archaeological site in Iran produced a statuette of a wooled sheep which suggests that selection for woolly sheep had begun to occur over 6000 years ago. The common features of today’s sheep were already appearing in Mesopotamian and Babylonian art and books by 3000 B.C.  Selection for wool type, flocking instinct and other economically important traits over the centuries has resulted in more than 200 distinct breeds of sheep occurring worldwide. Modern breeding schemes have also resulted in an increasing number of composite or synthetic breeds which are the result of a crossing of two or more established breeds.  200 breeds would make this post a tad large, so I’m only going to go through some of those you’ll likely see in Derbyshire.  In 1985, there were about 35 breeds in the British Isles, since then the foot and mouth outbreak rearranged a few things.

Firstly, the Derbyshire Gritstone, which used to be known as the Dale O’Goyt breed. One of Englands Heritage Breeds, it’s bred for hardiness in the Derbyshire climate and primarily farmed for meat, and looks like this:

Derbyshire Gritstone

Derbyshire Gritstone

 The Bluefaced Leicester is somewhat different, with a distinctive roman nose and no wool on the head or neck.  Bred primarily for wool, and looks like this:

Bluefaced Leicester

Bluefaced Leicester

The Swaledale is a different beastie altogether, and the name gives away where it was originally bred:

Swaledale

Swaledale

Off-white wool, black faces with patches of white and curled horns on both genders characterise this breed, and together with the Rough Fell and Herdwick Sheep, are most likely to be found in Cumbria, although they are mostly used in exposed hillside areas. Bred for milk, mutton and wool (which is mostly used for carpets) they can also be found in Derbyshire.

Whitefaced Woodlands originated in the South Pennines area, and are sometimes known as Penistone, after a town in West Yorkshire.  Closely related to the Swaledale and the Lonk, it has wool-free face and legs, which are white.  Both genders have horns, the male’s are heavily spiralled.  The breed is used for both meat and wool.

Whitefaced Woodland

Whitefaced Woodland

White and brown Jacobs are to be found occasionally within the county borders: 

Jacob Sheep

Jacob Sheep

Horny.  I can say that: look, it is ;p  Four horns to be precise, two vertical and two curling round the face, and brown and white in the process.  There’s only about 5,000 of these left, and so they are officially classed as a rare breed.  Their fleece is prized by hand spinners and weavers.

The wonderfully named Lonk is an older breed native to Derbyshire, now also on the rare breeds list:

Lonk

Lonk

Raised for wool (for carpets) and meat, this breed is similar to the first breed I talked about: The Derbyshire Gritstone.  Only this one has horns.

Just because I can, I want to briefly mention one further rare breed:

The Leicester Longwool Sheep

leicester longwool

leicester longwool

Especially for the wool, which can be black or white, this breed has a high yield, which can be used for making fine or chunky thread and garments.  Additionally, it looks like the Dougal of the sheep world and bears more than a passing resemblance to a walking carpet…

If  you ‘ve managed to make it this far, and are all curious about all the other breeds that I haven’t mentioned, this is a really good beginners site.

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2 thoughts on “A Pagan’s Guide to Sheeps

    • Hail and welcome 🙂
      From memory, I don’t think so on the Anglo-Saxon side, I’ll have to go and check on the Celtic – brb – Amalasuntha

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