From the archives: The Folklore of Sheep

The Royal Ram by Adrienne Segur

Donkey Nanny, Lombardy, Italy, photographed by Elspeth Kinneir

This post first appeared in December, 2014. It's re-published today with additional art...

Sheep, like goats, are associated with Christmas in folk tales told across northern Europe and the British Isles. On Christmas eve, these tales report, all sheep face east, bow three times, and are gifted with the power of speech from the stroke of midnight until the rise of the sun. This holy ritual cannot take place under the gaze of human beings, but provided the sheep are unobserved and unaware, their conversations can be Head of a Ewe, Sumerian, Protoliterate period (c 3500–3000 BC)overheard. In some accounts, the sheep sing hymns; in others, they foretell events of the year to come; and in some they gossip, praising or bemoaning the conditions in which they live. A grumbling sheep, mind you, is a cause for worry, because sheep are especially beloved and protected by Mother Mary in the folklore tradition, and a black mark is lodged in the heavenly accounts against farmers or shepherds who treat them ill.

Going back to myths older than Christianity: Duttur was the Sumerian pastoral goddess associated with ewes, milk, and arts of the dairy; she was the mother of Tammuz: the shepherd god of rebirth, fertility, and new growth in spring. Likewise, the ram-headed Khnum in Egyptian myth was a god of rebirth and pastoral regeneration. As one of the oldest of Egyptian deities, he also the god of creation,  forming human bodies in clay on a potter's wheel and placing them inside their mother' wombs. In Greek myth, Aristaios (son of Apollo and Cyrene) was the god of shepherds and beekeepers. The island of Ceos was the center of his cult (though he is also associated with the founding of Thebes), where his followers practiced "weather magic" and were renown for their fine herds and dairy skills.

Drawings by Hans Holbein the Younger

Girl With Lamb by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

In Irish myth, Brigid (the goddess of poetry and husbandry, among other things) was the owner of Cirb, a castrated ram (or wether) who was king of all the rams and sheep of Ireland -- including the seven famous magical sheep owned by the sea god Manannán. These sheep, it was said, could produce enough wool to clothe every man, woman, and child the world over.

The "lamb of god" -- representing innocence, purity, and sacrifice for the greater good -- is a symbol found in all three of the major Abrahamic religions and especially in Christianity, where it's been widely represented all forms of Christian art and iconography.

Lambs on Dartmoor by Helen Mason

Little Miss Muffet and Her Sheep by Kate Greenaway

Hans Ole Braseh painting and an Edwardian postcard

By contrast, lambs play little part in either Buddhist or Hindu lore, though the old and virile ram appears in Asian myth in a variety of ways. A ram was present at the birth of Buddha, is a symbol of the passing year in Tibet, and is sacred (like the goat) to Agni, the Vedic god of fire, in the Hindu pantheon. Agni's ram is a symbol of sacrifice, but not a physical sacrifice of the animal itself; rather, of personal sacrifice in the form of spiritual practice and devotion.

Those born in the Chinese Year of the Sheep are said to be especially sensitive, creative, empathetic, and anxious; while those born under the sign of Aries the Ram in Western astrology are daring, lusty, quick-witted and honest, but also rather obstinate.

In Bulgaria, and other parts of eastern Europe, rams are said to be beyond the reach of evil; thus their image became a totem used to keep bad luck and illness at bay through carvings found on household utensils, domestic buildings, stables, and barns.

Chinese ram carving, 17th/18th century

Painting by Akitaka Ito

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Edmund Caldwell

 

"Sheep breeding," writers Dr. Vihra Baeva, "has always been the main source of livelihood in the Bulgarian lands. That is why, in traditional culture, shepherds are held in high esteem and a large flock of sheep is sung praise of as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The bells on the sheep’s necks, called chan or hlopka, which chime in harmony also give a sense of pride. Christmas carols express wishes that the flock may yagni (derived from the word for lamb) but also blizni (twin-lambs). They sing of fine-wool sheep, horn-twisting rams and white-faced lambs. The animal described as vaklo is especially prized -- i.e. animals that are white with dark rings around the eyes. That is why a pretty lass, who by and large would have black eyes is compared to a lamb that is vaklo, gentle and loved."

Baa Baa Black Sheep by Paula Rego

In the folklore of the British countryside, black sheep were largely considered lucky creatures -- in contrast to European lore where exactly the opposite was true, from which we get idioms like "the black sheep of the family" and the black sheep of children's rhymes and fairy tales.

The phrase "a wolf in sheep's clothing" is of Biblical origin (from The Gospel of Matthew), but can also be found in Aesop's Fables. "Two shakes of a lamb's tail," meaning to do something quickly, appears to have come from early settlers in either America or New Zealand (depending on which source you consult), popularized by Richard Barham’s book Ingoldsby Legends (1840). It's believed to have derived from way that high-spirited lambs wag their tails while feeding.

Sheep with lamb by Henry Moore

Sheep Studies by Henry Moore

''Archie Parkhouse Leading His Sheep by James Ravilious

There are many different theories on where the idea of counting sheep in order to fall asleep comes from, but one of the most interesting is that it's rooted in the old Celtic dialects, used by shepherds to count their sheep long after general use of these dialects had disappeared. This repetition of numbers, chanted in an ancient language in a sing-song manner, was said to send children into peaceful slumber as their elders watched over the herds.

Training Day by David Wyatt

The fairy folk of Brittinay, Wales, and here in the West Country keep flocks of fairy sheep (and cattle), and are said to steal the sheep of local farmers in order to replenish their stock.  Various charms, herbs, and rituals can be used to keep straying sheep safe from fairy hands. In some accounts, fairy sheep are diminutive in size, while in others they resemble ordinary animals except for the strange color of their eyes. Sheep who appear on Dartmoor roads at night and disappear in the blink of an eye are ones who belong to piskie folk, and woe betide any who harm them.

Tilly spying on sheep

Sheep being spied upon

Strayed Sheep by Pre-Raphaelite painter William Homan Hunt

Our own dramatic sheep encounter occurred early one morning several years ago, when Tilly began barking frantically and our daughter went outside to investigate. A few moments later Victoria was back again, dumbfounded. "There's a sheep in our back garden," she reported.

Our visitor turned out to be a young ram (a fact we discovered by a clear view of his tackle from below)  -- a handsome fellow who was not best pleased to find himself in this unfamiliar terrain, far from his herd. He had wandered over Nattadon Hill and through the woods, across a stream, past a garden gate, through a gap in the hedge and then up some stairs onto the porch of the Howard's studio cabin  -- where he snorted and snuffled, while Tilly barked in hysterics but didn't go close. (Good dog.)

The ram on the cabin porch

Howard was called, stumbled out half-awake, and the poor ram grew more and more agitated as we discussed how on earth to get him off the darn porch and back to his herd. This being the 21st century, Howard turned to the Internet for advice on "how move a ram," and we learned we should herd him slowly, slowly, with plenty of space between him and us. Otherwise the poor fellow might panic and bolt and end up heaven knew where.

We must have been a fine sight that morning, all of us in our pyjamas still, Tilly dancing at our feet, while we slowly guided our  visitor down the cabin's stairs...through the break in the hedge...past my studio...through the gate behind it...over the stream...and into the woods. The young ram, finding his bearings as last,  disappeared through trees with a flash of his hooves -- heading to the open hillside beyond, where the rest of his herd was waiting.

If I hadn't snapped the picture above, I'd be wondering now if we'd dreamt the whole thing.

Shep guarding the sheep by Beatrix Potter

Ewes Watching Shooting Stars by Mary Newcomb

Information on each of the paintings, drawings, and photographs above can be found in the picture captures. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.


The Dog Child's Tale

The Dog Child by Terri Windling

Dear Readers,

Thank you for your patience while I've been recovering from a yet another round of illness. I'm finally getting back on my feet ... a little slowly, a little shakily, yes, but I'm determined to be well again, and I'm a very stubborn woman. As a new month commences, and a new year begins (for me, anyway, because today's my birthday), it's time to get back to the studio, back to writing, back to art, and back to Myth & Moor.  

I know some people cringe at the thought of getting another year older, but I'm not one of them. Having once been told by doctors that I'd be lucky to make it to the age of 20, reaching middle age and moving towards old age is a daily thing of wonder. I've written down my thoughts on mid-fifties birthdays before (they're here if you want to read them), so today I offer this instead:

In some indigenous cultures it's traditional to give gifts, not receive them, on the day of one's birth...as an act of gratitude to the spirits and the ancestors, as well as to family and community, for the miraculous gift of life and all that makes our lives worthwhile. So this "Dog Child" today is my gift to all of you. Please feel free to download the drawing and print it out if you wish. Her story begins Once Upon a Time....

I leave it to each of you to decide where the tale might go from here.

The other Dog Child


A quiet morning in the studio

Rainbow 1


Bird Girl by Terri WindlingSong of the Sky Loom

an ancient Tewa prayer/poem

Oh Mother Earth, oh Father Sky,
Your children are we all.
With tired backs we bring you song,
we bring you the gifts you love.

May the warp be the white light of the morning.
May the weft be the red light of evening.
May the fringes be the falling rain.
May the border be the standing rainbow.
Weave for us this bright garment
that we may walk where birds sing
and animals raise their young,
where water flows
and grass is green.

Oh Mother the Earth, oh Father the Sky,
your children are we all.


The Deer's Cry
an extract from an ancient Celtic prayer/poem

Robin, photographed by Derek Stackey for Devon BirdsI arise today
through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.


Birdboy by Terri Windling

Rainbow over Chagford Commons

Studio 4The Tewa prayer comes from Songs of the Tewa, edited by Herbert J. Spinden; the Celtic prayer and the passage in the picture captions comes from Anam Cara by John O'Donohue. The later prayer is translated by Kuno Meyer. The robin was photographed by Derek Stacey for Devon Birds. The other photographs are of an early morning rainbow arched over our house, viewed from my studio on the hill behind; and Tilly in her usual spot on the studio sofa as the day begins. The "Bird Girl" and "Bird Boy" drawings are from my sketchbooks.


On St. Valentine's Day

Kimberley Fairies by Terri Windling


Cactus Fairy Sweethearts by Terri Windling''To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.''

 -  C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves)

''Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.''

  - Lao Tzu

Happy St. Valentine's Day to my husband and family (near and far), and to all of you and your loved ones too. If you'd like to read about the folklore of valentines, go here.

On the north Devon coastPictures above: "Kimberley Tree People, Norfolk" and "Prickly Cactus Fairies, Arizona" from my sketchbooks. Howard, Tilly and me on the north Devon coast (photo taken by our daughter).


Faith and persistence

Tilly and sketchbook

"My theory was that if I behaved like a confident, cheerful person, eventually I would buy it myself, and become that. I always had traces of strength somewhere inside me, it wasn't fake, it was just a way of summoning my courage to the fore and not letting any creeping self-doubt hinder my adventures. This method worked then, and it works now. I tell myself that I am the sort of person who can open a one-woman play in the West End, so I do. I am the sort of person who has several companies, so I do. I am the sort of person who writes a book, so I do. It's the process of having faith in the self you don't quite know you are yet."  - Dawn French

Sketch, Terri Windling

"You don't start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it's good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That's why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.''
  - Octavia Butler

Tilly and sketchbook


Letting judgment fall where it may

The Angel of Story,Terri Windling

From "Blood and Guts," an autobiographical essay by novelist Erica Jong:

"When I look back on the years since I left college, and I try to sum up what I have learned, it is not to fear change, not to expect my life to be immutable. All the good things that have happened to me in the last several years have come, without exception, from a willingness to change, to risk the unknown, to do the very things I feared the most. Every poem, every page of fiction I have written , has been written with anxiety, occasionally  sketch, Terri Windlingpanic, always uncertainty about its reception. Every decision I have made -- from changing jobs, to changing partners, to changing homes -- has been taken with trepidation. I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of change, the fear of the unknown, and I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: turn back, turn back, you'll die if you venture too far....In the past several years I have learned, in short, to trust myself. Not to eradicate fear but to go on in spite of fear. Not to become insensitive to distinguished critics but to follow my own writer's instinct. My job is not to paralyze myself by anticipating judgment but to do the best that I can and let judgment fall where it may. The difference between the woman who is writing this essay and the college girl sitting in her creative writing class in 1961 is mostly a matter of nerve and daring -- the nerve to trust my own instincts and the daring to be a fool. No one ever found wisdom without being a fool. Writers, alas, have to be fools in public, while the rest of the human race can cover its tracks*. But it is also painfully true that no one avoids being a fool without avoiding growth."

sketch, Terri Windling

From "Freedom from Fear" by Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi:

"Fearlessness may be a gift, but perhaps the more precious thing is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from cultivating the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one's actions, courage that could be described as 'grace under pressure.' ''

sketch, Terri Windling* Jong's essay comes from The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg (1992). It should be noted that her comment about writers being fools in public (while other people are better able to cover their tracks) was written before the rise of social media, of course. Now we can all be fools in public. Suu Kyi's great essay can be found in Freedom from Fear and Other Writings (1991), and has been widely reprinted. My painting above is "The Angel of Story," and the "little people" are from my sketchbooks.