More general sheep strangeness

I wrote a post a while ago, before I got bogged down in work and distracted by creepy stalker person, about the apparently odd things that have cropped up in the long, long relationship between people and sheep. No, not that sort of relationship – for heaven’s sake. Ahem. It’s also taken me a while to recover from the idea of nanny tea. Bleagh.

Bodleian sheep(And if nanny tea had left you traumatised too, be grateful I didn’t share some medieval contraceptive advice: drink sheep pee. Mind you, that pales into insignificance when compared to the alternatives, such as you won’t get pregnant if you wear weasel testicles on your thigh or hang the amputated foot of a live weasel round your neck. I bet you won’t. Couldn’t find pic of this, so settled for some lovely sheep from the Bodleian.)

A lot of the uses and significance of sheep are only strange to us, now, at this point in time and place. Had we, for instance, been fishing in the North Sea in previous centuries, we might have been wearing clothing made from oiled sheepskin; doesn’t seem too unreasonable. Coracles could be covered in cured hides, too (and inflated skins have been used to make rafts, especially in central Asia).

Further back we’d probably have cooked using a sheep’s paunch. Not cooked the paunch – can’t imagine what that would be like – but cooked in it. You suspend the paunch over a fire and fill it with water, which heats up and also prevents the paunch from igniting. You pop some hot stones in which keeps the temperature up – or maybe you don’t; in experiments there wasn’t much difference between cooking with the stones in and without – and then you add whatever you want to cook. Grain was found to be edible within a couple of hours.

mediaeval sheepWe have a tendency to think of sheep as a source of either meat or wool, but there’s milk as well. Perhaps we’re more likely to consider that now than we might have been, say, 20 years ago, but in earlier times it was a perfectly normal consideration. Take one Medieval example: villeins on the Templar estates in Wiltshire had to send a women to milk the sheep every day, and she got half the whey or buttermilk for her labours.

(Of course, until the Industrial Revolution every single thread used in every single piece of cloth was handspun. We spin for pleasure, by and large. Our ancestors did not; they spun because they had to.)

Sheep milk was considered the most important product in Medieval England, in fact. It ranked above wool and well above meat… and between wool and meat in the hierarchy of importance came dung. It wasn’t just useful as a manure, though it was common practice to put a flock on a field which needed some extra oomph. It was used for fuel, along with cow dung (horse droppings and those of other non-ruminants are not much good), and in Ireland was also used to scour wool (which seems a bit counter-productive to those of us who spend ages trying to get sheep shit out of raw fleeces). Basically, a sheep was much more useful alive than dead. Lamb – well, eating that was a terrible waste. Mutton was better.

Once a sheep was dead, nothing was wasted; the guts were incredibly useful, and gut-dressing was a specialist trade. It probably wasn’t quite so specialist in the Bronze Age (when most people would have done many different things), and it’s been suggested that the cord decoration on some BA pots was probably made with sheep gut. Sheep guts have also been used to make fishing lines, strings for bows and musical instruments – and that use goes way back; a bow with a string of sheep gut is mentioned in the Odyssey.

Skin – well, that had all sorts of uses from the boats and clothing mentioned above to becoming parchment, especially in Medieval France (calf and goat skins were also used). It was soaked and limed, and then stretched and dried. Finally, the skin would be treated to make a better writing surface for the scribes; parchment is very resilient and can be re-treated and re-used; it is often possible to see hints – or even read – what was there before. In Greece, cured skins were used to store wine and olive oil.

Bones, especially the astralagus, the ankle bones, could be used in divination. All sorts of bones have been used in this way, for millennia, but these almost cuboid bones are still used in some places; they’re known as ‘shagai’ in Mongolia (photo from Wikimedia Commons):


and are sometimes painted in bright colours. If you want to know the future, or get an answer to a question, you roll four on the ground. The two more convex sides, known as horse and sheep, are lucky (horse is the luckiest – this is a Mongolian thing, after all, and horses are inseparable from the traditional Mongolian way of life). The concave sides, called goat and camel, are the opposite: unlucky. They’re also used for loads of games, in much the same way as dice could be used.

girls playing with sheep bonesThere are records of these bones being used in Greece to foretell who a girl would marry, and they were certainly used for playing games there, too, in more ancient times (these two girls playing ‘knucklebones’ come from the British Museum, and about 330BC). It wouldn’t surprise me at all if there were other incidences of their use, for either fun (they’re also used to set the position of the strings in a traditional Kazakh musical instrument) or fortune; they’re such a convenient shape. Anyone know of any others?

It’s not surprising that sheep have accumulated such a wealth of apparent oddness. They’ve been significant for so long; something strange is bound to stick. And it’s not surprising, really, that there are signs of sheep being worshipped, or venerated at the very least. It’s not just the ancient Egyptians with their sheep mummies; at Catalhoyuk, a very early settlement in Anatolia, skulls of rams were given the same respectful treatment as those of bulls, which seemed to be the main focus of the people’s religious life. There are many other incidences, but I draw the line at worshipping Madam, the ex-pet lamb and now escapologist ewe from up the hill, whom I found in the garden again this morning… Knucklebones seems like a good game, my lady – you are warned.


14 thoughts on “More general sheep strangeness

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks! Ah, yes, removal of the straying sheep. Following experiments and me doing sheepdog impressions in a dressing gown, I find the best thing to do with Madam is ring her owner. He turns up really quickly and she goes straight to him (once a pet lamb, always a pet lamb), at which point he grabs her and stuffs her in the back of his car, then drives her back up the hill. We’re only averaging two breakouts a year but the real key (which I must remember) is not to leave the garden gate open. Then she just potters round the area…

      1. Elaine

        Yes, yes!! I can just see a grown man stuffing a grown sheep into the back of his car. You gave me a good laugh today!! Thanks.

        1. kate Post author

          You’ve got the picture! I’m not sure what sort of car it is (except that it seems to have a big boot and a certain something about it suggests it’s often used to transport sheep), but she’s quite obviously used to it, too…

          It’s not uncommon to use perfectly normal cars for moving individual sheep round here (I don’t remember it happening elsewhere, mind, but I wouldn’t be surprised). I once rolled up at my garage, then 20 miles away, to find I’d no courtesy car. The salesman lent me his old hatchback, but neglected to mention he’d had a winter ram in the back that very morning. I drove around all day with every single window open. Pheeeew.

    1. kate Post author

      Thanks – and so do I… Work’s definitely improving; stalker is back but I’m refusing to be unnerved by it. Slightly better, but it’s obviously some form of compulsive thing. It stopped completely for about a week after the post…

      1. kiwiyarns

        Oh dear. Stalker person needs to learn that stalking is not cool. I’ve had it happen to me, and it not nice at all. I ended up talking to the police about it.

        1. kate Post author

          It’s also rather sad, except I’ve lost all sympathy for this person – happily, not dangerous and many miles away. Hope your situation was resolved well!

    1. kate Post author

      Oh, there are some wonderful photographs there, thank you so much!

      Alas, the definitive book on sheep was written many years ago by someone whose work I studied as a student of the Neolithic – M L Ryder, Sheep and Man. Now worth a small fortune unless you’re very lucky and run into one in a good bookshop, priced by someone who clearly wanted to sell it. Still nearly three figures, though. It is a very serious book, however. Very. (Despite that, nanny tea does get a mention, though not the sheep-pee contraceptive.)


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