Rattling around, researching sheep and wool and incidentally realising that a very ancient, fully functioning economy was partly based on wool long before the invention of coinage, I’ve been ferretting all sort of strange sheep things out.
Given that humans have been living in proximity to sheep for a very long time – written records mention sheep as soon as written records exist, as it were; they’re mentioned in the legend of Gilgamesh, and that’s very old, maybe from about 2750 BC – it’s not surprising that they’ve accumulated a wealth of … associations. Of odd facts and snippets, which I feel the need to share. They’re mostly historical, because that’s what I’ve been researching, but some are older than others and some are just plain weird.
To cure toothache, put a ball of wool in your ear. Presumably a small one, rather than a 100g ball complete with ball band. Buy why in your ear?
If you’ve got pneumonia, you should tie a sheep’s lung on to your feet, because it will draw the illness down. What you do when you’ve finally got all that pneumonia in the feet (!), I do not know, but it must have got rid of unwanted visitors rather quickly.
Going right back, Hippocrates advocated the use of ‘greasy wool’ as a compress in dressing wounds. Smelly, but it’s just possible that this could have worked – the theory is that the wool would promote clotting, the lanolin would control drying, and other ‘complex substances’ would help the growth of new tissue.
You should be grateful not to have been alive and suffering from measles or smallpox in the nineteenth-century USA. For many reasons, of course, but principally this one: the fine but startling tradition of ‘sheep nanny tea’, or just plain ‘nanny tea’. It was – and I sincerely hope the past tense is right here – an infusion of sheep dung in water, often sweetened with sugar, and was supposed to cure both diseases. Presumably by making patients so worried in anticipation of someone coming in with a teapot that they cured themselves spontaneously. (Dung is used in lots of cures, incidentally; maybe I shouldn’t skirt my fleeces too thoroughly? No, I think I will.)
Egyptian mummies are well known, and many people are also aware of mummified cats. But how about mummified sheep? Sheep – rams rather – were sacred to Amun, and that’s why they were sometimes mummified. However, they were not mummified like people. Generally, the sheep bones were ‘bundled together’ in a papyrus basket. Then the skull and neck bones were fixed to the basket in such a way that the whole thing looked like a sheep sitting down. And then it could be bandaged – and adorned, if necessary.
In Ancient Greece, a piece of woollen cloth was put over the house door when a baby girl was born, possibly because weaving was women’s work. It was also notably prostitutes’ work, as I’ve wittered on about before, in Spinning for Pleasure.
Wool was really important in many cultures, with an importance we spinners and knitters can appreciate but which can come as a surprise to others. The quality of fleeces was obviously critical to the quality of the final cloth, and great care could be taken when producing the very finest. In Ancient Rome, Varro tells us that finely woolled sheep – when freshly shorn – were smeared with a mixture of wine and oil, to which some people added wax and lard. The sheep would then be dressed in ‘jackets’, so covering precious fleeces is nothing new. Except they’re no longer destined for the Imperial Court, but for discriminating spinners.
Let’s get a bit more recent.
I didn’t realise that there had been huge sheep drives in the nineteenth-century US, though how I thought flocks were transported from one side of the continent to the other, I don’t know. Westerns should evidently feature sheepboys rather than cowboys: ‘Cowboys provided the drama, but the sheepmen laid the economic foundation of the west.’ The flocks were driven no more than ten miles a day and it was difficult to find routes in some places. It was equally difficult to get suitably trained drovers, who lived in covered wagons, moving with the flocks. They generally marched early in the day, halting at noon at appropriate eating places. This system lasted for about thirty years until the growth of rail transport, and millions of sheep were moved in this way. And then there were the sheep wars.
Sheep aren’t just used for their fleece and their meat, either. Obviously the meat has been important for a very long time, but the old adage about pigs – that you can eat everything except the squeal – is almost true about sheep. Except I’d say ‘use’ rather than eat, of course. Don’t try eating fleece.
Cooking vessels? Yes – a sheep’s paunch, thoroughly soaked and suspended over a fire, makes a container which actually works. It takes a couple of hours to cook grain to the point at which it is edible, apparently.
Clothing? Not just from the processed wool, that is: of course. Shepherds have often worn whole sheepskins as rough and ready cloaks and still do, in some parts of the world. Fishermen in the North Sea used oiled sheepskin garments for protection and waterproofing, and sheepskin has been used to make footwear and bags for time out of mind. And weapons – slings.
Musical instruments? Of course. Stretched hide was used to cover drums. There’s evidence for that from as long as ago as 2000BC, in Ancient Egypt again – and I’m sure Egypt wouldn’t be unique; it’s just that the level of preservation there is so very good. Bones can be used to make pipes and whistles, and they survive from all over.
And then there are the bagpipes. There’s a bagpipe museum in Morpeth and they used to have – not sure if they still do – a set of Bulgarian pipes made out of the entire skin of a small sheep. The wool’s on the inside; the chanter is bound into the neck opening, the mouthpiece into one foreleg opening and the single long drone into the other. In Eastern Europe, gaida or gajde pipes are commonly made with either sheep or goat skins, and there’s a somewhat disturbing online video of a man playing
a goat some, er, goat pipes. No, I’m not providing a link! (You can get pipes made to look like Shaun the Sheep, but that is definitely NOT what I’m talking about here.)
And all of this is without plumbing the British folk tradition, too.
And if you are going on a journey, it’s lucky to meet a flock of sheep – which I hope will placate the tourists held up today by a small one, a flockette really, which climbed a wall and ran up and down the road to Barmouth for a bit. And if you own a lovely little Staffordshire sheep, like the one above, you’re already very lucky. That’s because you got to the antique shop in Machynlleth before I did. Rats.