The history of sheep is the history of the human race. Even before man (and woman, whose duty it probably was to breast-feed the first captive lambs, yes, really) domesticated sheep, he relied on wild ones for meat to fill his belly and hides to keep him warm. Little wonder it is that sheep played starring roles in myth and religion since time began.
The Navajo, whose word for sheep, dibeh, means “that by which we live”, say Changing Woman, daughter of First Boy and First Girl, created sheep out of white mist, white shell, turquoise, abalone shell, and jet.
Or consider the forgetful sheep in a tale told by Ohafia elders of Nigeria. Their supreme god, Chukwu, decided to tell the People that if they laid their dead on the ground and covered them with ashes, this would bring them back to life. He usually sent a dog with important messages but the dog was tired, so he sent a friendly sheep instead. The sheep forgot the message, but wanting to be helpful, he guessed. He told the People to bury the bodies of their dead. Chukwa later sent the dog with the correct information but the People believed the friendly sheep instead.
Greek myth gives us Krios Khrysomallos, the golden-fleeced, flying ram begotten by Neptune and the beautiful Theophane while they were disguised as sheep. When Phrixos and Helle’s wicked stepmother attempted to kill the children, Krios Khrysomallos tried to carry them to safety on his back. Helle fell off and drowned but Phrixos was saved. Krios Khrysomallos told Phrixos to sacrifice him and place his golden fleece in the holy grove of Ares. When he did, Krios Khrysomallos’ spirit flew into the heavens and became the constellation Aries; his fleece was later sought by Jason and the Argonauts.
And there were also the Meloi Khryseoi, vicious, golden-fleeced sheep with poisonous bites, whose wool Psyche had to fetch to appease the Greek goddess, Venus (Psyche waited until they were dozing, then crept past them and gathered scraps of wool she found snagged on bushes).
The Tatars told tales of the baromez, lovely lambs with silky, warm fleece. Baromez originated in “a land far, far away”, where they grew inside the fruit of a large gourd tree. At night when the fruit opened, out popped cute, tiny lambs connected to the fruit by umbilical cords. Enterprising sorcerer-shepherds snipped them free, reared them, and sold their wool for a tidy profit.
Throughout the Celtic lands, we find stories of wee sheep, sometimes with red ears, raised by the fairy Sidhe, that when frightened rose up out of the earth and vanished into the sky. There were also Celtic fairies like the Phynnodderee, a Manx hobgoblin that helped drive the sheep home when a storm was brewing; Yan-an-Od, a kind old shepherd spirit in Brittany, who tended and guarded flocks of sheep; drunken Irish Clurichauns that stole and rode sheep and sheepdogs to exhaustion in the dark of the night; and Scottish Boobries, wicked waterbirds that preyed on cattle and sheep.
Many ancient deities were said to watch over shepherds and sheep, among them:
- Aristaios (Greek) Minor god of shepherds and cheesemaking
- Astarot (Western Semetic) Fertility goddess associated with sheep and shepherds
- Basajaun (Basque) Lord of the forest and protective spirit of the flocks
- Belenus (Bel, Bile; Gaul) God of light who protected sheep and cattle
- Dumuzi (Sumerian; called Tammuz in Mesopotamia and in the Old Testament of the Bible) Lord of shepherds and the flocks
- Dutter (Sumerian; called Ninsun in Mesopotamia) Sheep goddess and patroness of the flock; mother of Dumuzi
- Epimeliads (Greek) Nymphs (female water spirits) who protect sheep
- Hermes (Greek) Messenger of the gods; protector of shepherds and sheep
- Lahar (Mesopotamian-Sumerian) God of cattle and sheep
- Makosa (Belarusian) Patroness of sheep shearing and spinning
- Pan (Roman: Inuus, Fauna; Greek) Part-goat god of shepherds and sheep
- Veles (Volas; Slavic) God of the underworld and magic, also protector of shepherds and sheep
Because of their power, virility, and war-like nature, rams held a special role in myth and magic—as a symbol of masculinity. Rams were kept as revered temple animals at Mendes and Karnak in Egypt, where they acted as oracles and were buried in elaborate sarcophagi after their deaths.
For the same reasons, ancient gods were sometime portrayed as rams or as ram-headed men, among them:
- Amon-Ra (Amun, Ammon; Egyptian) Sun deity depicted with a woolly ram’s head or as a sun-disc with ram horns
- Ba-neb-djedet (Egyptian) Ram-headed god of Lower Egypt
- Cherti (Egyptian) Ferryman of the dead and protector of the tombs of the kings; depicted as a ram or a ram-headed man
- Chnum (Egyptian) Ram-headed fertility god of the Nile delta
- Kubera (Kuvera; Hindu) God of wealth, sometimes depicted as a ram
- Khnum (Egypt) Ram-headed deity who created the bodies of the gods and men on his potter’s wheel
One final ram-headed creature that figured in ancient religion and art was the Gaulish ram-headed serpent. Usually associated with the stag-horned lord of the forest, Cernunnos, it symbolized belief in the afterlife.