The strangeness of sheep

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.

dressing a woundFirst, let’s get medical.

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.)

ram mummyNext, into ancient history.

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.

weaving_vaseIn 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.

sheep grazing USI 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.

le moutonSheep 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.

Staffordshire sheepletIf you are going on a journey by horseback, or if you work with horses, you should suspend a strip of sheepskin from your horse’s collar. It averts the evil eye, but probably only in Lincolnshire.

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.


24 thoughts on “The strangeness of sheep

  1. Elaine

    Thank you so much for all your research. Lots of these things I had never heard of and you have a fun way of posting your information. Back in the “old days” there were sheep vs cattle wars in the west. Not enough grass or the cows after the sheep got done with a field.

    1. kate Post author

      I’m having so much fun doing the research, I have to keep reminding myself what I’m supposed to be researching… coloured fleece, coloured fleece…

      Not surprised by the sheep v cattle thing, really, when you consider some of the lands they had to go through, and find enough food.

        1. kate Post author

          Thinking of applying it to an author, now there’s a thought, forcibly – grrrr…

          (Work just got in the way. Rats.)

  2. Mary Ellen McMurtrie

    Thanks for the research and fine writing. This was great airport reading. Makes we want to dust off my librarian’s research skills and go looking for interesting fiber and associated tool history.

    1. kate Post author

      Go for it!

      Once you start digging, you find out all sorts of odd things – I would never, ever, in a million years, have thought of anyone using sheep shit medicinally. You never know, I guess.

  3. opusanglicanum

    woolen bands were also used to decorate graves in ancient greece.

    I ahven’t got the link, but haev you seen the youtube of a lecture about how iceland didn’t have money in the early medeival period so wool was one of the thigns they used instead?

  4. Maggie

    Another medical anecdote; my grand father tied a strand of knitting wool round my wrist when I had growing pains.

    1. kate Post author

      Thank you, Annie – guess I just find it all fascinating (though have no intention whatever of trying some of the remedies out)…

  5. carys davies

    Apparently it is now been clinically proven that spider’s silk from webs helps wounds heal – so the bets are off on a lot of old remedies!

    Anything in your research about wool pillows/duvets? For a future post? I know babies & burn victims are put on sheepskin, wool side, am am thinking of saving up for wool-related bedding….

    1. kate Post author

      Not nanny tea. Please, not nanny tea.

      There’s someone round here who does use scoured fleece to make duvets – I gather they’re quite good, though I know someone who consigned her duvet to the spare room because neither she nor her husband could cope with the smell, sorry, scent, and they’re sheep farmers. Maybe too much of a good thing?

        1. kate Post author

          I can’t have a good sense of smell (or maybe I just hang around sheep too much, cough), but it didn’t smell too strongly to me…

    1. kate Post author

      Indeed – thank heavens for medical advances (nanny tea, or a version of it, could well work as a garden fertiliser, though)…

  6. thetinfoilhatsociety

    I’m late to the commenting, but I live in Arizona where there used to be, until about 3 years ago, an annual moving of the flocks from Southern Arizona to Northern Arizona. They would close roads for the sheep crossing, even as recently as 3 years ago. I didn’t realize it was still going on until the year after it ceased; I am sad to never have seen it. The route passed within 5 miles of my house, but not on any main road.

    Apparently it became too much of a hassle to do the traditional method of moving the sheep to summer pastures because so much of the state has been parceled out into subdivisions and private property. Now it’s easier, though I’m sure not more economical, to just put them in livestock trailers and haul them to summer pasture.

    1. kate Post author

      My goodness, that must have been an extraordinary sight, and one reminiscent of the big sheep drives – what a shame that you never got to see it.

      When I was a child, and on a much smaller scale, one superb shepherd and his equally superb dog used to move all the crofters’ lambs down from our valley to the lamb sales in the main village – probably about 200-300 sheep; they went by truck to sales further away. It was an amazing sight; the traffic had to stop as they approached the main road and the sale yards, and tourists would often take pictures. They were followed by all the kids, of course, who would field any lambs that made a break for the hills. But it had to stop after the dog disappeared, probably stolen. No other dog was good enough, plus the shepherd hit his 80s…


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