The strangeness of coloured sheep (I don’t think)…

Sheep, as I was establishing in a post or two towards the end of last year, have all sorts of strangeness attached to them. Given that you can foretell the future by using sheep bones or stop yourself from becoming pregnant by drinking sheep pee*, it should come as no surprise that coloured sheep have some specific strangenesses attached to them. But they’ve also got a lot of normal history attached to them, too, something which tends to fade into the background.

odysseusSometimes they have Greek heroes attached as well. This particular coloured-sheep attachment is Odysseus, escaping from Cyclops. He clung beneath the belly of a ‘well- bred, thick-fleeced ram, a fine big animal with a coat of black wool’. It must indeed have been a ‘fine big animal’, or maybe Odysseus was small, or maybe Cyclops’ one eye failed to notice the legs sticking out at the end. Not to mention the sword sticking out at the front.

(In the classical world, white sheep were sacrificed to the celestial gods, and black sheep to the gods of the underworld – male to gods, female to goddesses. Natch.)

But why coloured sheep at all?


Photograph courtesy of Wikipedia

That’s because coloured sheep came first. The wild ancestors of domesticated sheep – probably mouflons, or mouflon-like animals – had dark coats. Dark, hairy coats, as do some wild sheep today, and some primitive breeds.

It’s been suggested that an increased desire for paler colours went along with the discovery of dyeing. If you want a white cloth, then you obviously don’t want to have to use coloured wool. And if you want to dye your cloth whatever colour you please, or dye your wool before spinning or weaving, then you don’t particularly want coloured fleece either. White fleece just is better for dyeing (not necessarily more interesting, of course) as the pigment in coloured fleeces interferes with dyeing, often in unpredictable ways.

So whiteness is a deliberately created feature of fleece, one bred for over millennia from occasional white- or paler-fleeced animals. Genetic modification, if you like. From right back, white fleeces have been premium products, and I mean right back. Some of the earliest written records in existence from the city of Ur – dating to about 2100BP – list grades of wool. The best was called the ‘property of the moon god’. Then came ‘royal’, and then, finally, the rest: ‘mixed, fine sheep neck, black wool, dead wool [sic], and wool combed from the third.’

There have always been throwbacks, the sudden appearance of a black sheep in a white flock, just as there would have been the odd pale sheep in a generally dark flock. They crop up quite often in Mediaeval manuscripts and books of hours. Check out the flock in the February illustration from the Trés Riches Heures du Duc de Berry:

tres riches heures sheep(but don’t look at the peasants warming their bits if you’re easily shocked).

IMG_9054And here are some more, from another book of hours. A much more mixed flock, this one, as is the one in the background. Specifically black sheep are also written about in Mediaeval chronicles, and not in a metaphorical sense either. Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) visited Ireland in the twelfth century and wrote that since the sheep ‘over there’ were black, the monks all wore black woollen robes – so he must have seen flocks that were largely composed of dark sheep. (They’ve also been mentioned more recently in Irish literature: in J M Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, Christy Mahon is given ‘a coat of the blackest shearings for miles around’.)

That was a bit of an aside…

In some places in Classical Greece, water was said to determine lamb colour – for instance, if ewes drank from the river Psychrus in Thrace just before being mated, they would have black lambs. Aristotle contradicted that, saying that the colour of the veins under the tongue determined the colour, and Virgil repeated this (‘reject any ram, however pure and white his wool / if the tongue beneath his moist palate is black, for he’ll breed / lambs with black-spotted fleeces…’). Interestingly, there’s been some twentieth-century research confirming this, at least in Karakul and Gotland sheep.

gotland goodnessIn other places, the shepherds clearly knew what they were doing (I suspect they did anyway, and fed the posh gits from Athens a line about rivers). Strabo described breeds of sheep from Laodicea as being noted for their soft wool but also for their ‘dark or raven colour’, and adding that the combination had to be selected for.

I’ve got some soft wool with a ‘dark or raven colour’ to deal with, myself – my stash of Gotland x Black Welsh Mountain fleeces, selected from their original owners’ backs last July. I got them just before Christmas so they’re being washed, bit by bit, in the bath (it’s a bit cold out there). Doubtless this will mean a blocked pipe but I can deal with that; frostbite, I’m not so keen on. So I’m going to go and deal with the latest chunk and then dig out some really strange things about coloured wool and black sheep…

*Allegedly. This may not work. Just saying, as a disclaimer. Don’t come round here with prams full of children blaming me for the fact that the sheep pee didn’t work.


24 thoughts on “The strangeness of coloured sheep (I don’t think)…

    1. kate Post author

      I have absolutely no idea whatsoever of the logic behind it – truly bizarre. But then why would you cure toothache by putting a ball of wool in your ear?

      Maybe there was some sort of mediaeval X-factor for daft ideas to do with sheepy things…

  1. Elaine

    You always dig up such useful information and I sure do enjoy reading about it. I’m hoping that the little black lamb I saw last year is indeed still black when I get its fleece!!

    1. kate Post author

      Hi Barb,

      No, this is a completely separate blog; I’ve got nothing to do with Wovember other than the fact that Woolwinding was fortunate enough to win their blog prize a couple of years ago. I just have a passion for wool too!

    2. sawp2013

      We keep a bit of woolly Wovembery chat going on Ravelry in the Wovember group between Wovembers. If that’s any use to you, do jump in! I suspect most of us follow kate’s blog too 😉

      1. kate Post author

        I used to be part of that group but I left in The Great Excessive Ravelry Group Purge of 2014, when I realised I couldn’t keep pace with everything. I’ll pop over as a guest!

  2. Helen

    The reason Odysseus got away with his ‘ram ploy’ was that he had already put out Cyclops’ eye. Cyclops felt the backs of the sheep to prevent Odysseus and his men from leaving with the sheep. He didn’t think about the wily Odysseus and his men leaving by hanging on under the sheep. And of course earllier Odysseus had not given his real name when Cyclops had asked. Odysseus said his name was ‘No Man’ so when Cyclops was screaming about the damaged eye and his fellow cyclopses asked who had done it…”No Man did!”
    But my favorite part is Penelope ‘unweaving’ her work every night so she could stall her suitors. She promised she would pick one to marry as soon as she finished her weaving. The trick was good enough to last all the years Odysseus was wandering. He wasn’t the only tricky one in the family.
    Any rate you would think I was a lit major or something. (not, just remembering HS world lit 🙂 )

    1. kate Post author

      Of course! I’d forgotten the exact point at which he attacked Cyclops, all is explained (So long since I’ve read the whole thing – must get it down from the shelf, regrettably one of the top shelves. I was always fascinated by the archaeological links between Homer and reality — the ship list being a great way to identify Bronze Age sites — and how they were sneered at by some last-century academics. Coming from an oral tradition myself, I’m not at all surprised that many things dismissed as poetic licence, such as the boar’s tusk helmets, turned out to be real things, now found.)

      Penelope was always a favourite of mine too – but I’m not sure I’d have had the heart to frog my weaving…

      1. Helen

        Penelope figured it was for a good reason. lol I just can’t believe the men were taken in by the ploy for that long, but then I guess they didn’t understand the process of weaving any better back then, as it was ‘women’s work?’ Same thing as seeing modern cartoons and drawings of how people think knitting works. Cracks me up. Really, you think the needles are held that way?
        Love reading your articles. Wish you posted more frequently. 🙂

        1. kate Post author

          Glad you enjoy them, and I wish I could post more frequently too – work is such a pain…

          Weaving was certainly a woman’s trade in Greece – interesting that it switched over in many societies, isn’t it? The cottage industry which existed much more recently round here was both male and female, but the Hebridean weavers were predominantly male… and of course most of the hand loom weavers and tapestry weavers were as well. Personally, I’d like to see more male knitters coming out of the closet. I’m fed up of pointing out that it was unisex or even predominantly male in parts (the sock trade in some parts of Wales being one instance).

  3. carys davies

    Wow, great research! I really want some black fleece to spin now, despite being rubbish at spinning. I’ve been dyeing recycled charity-shop wool black (very flecky, lovely), but black-off-the-sheep would be even better (*starts googling”)

    1. kate Post author

      It’s calling you! (PS: Watch some ebay fleeces. I bought a Ouessant from there but it had obviously been a pampered pet sheep, kept indoors on straw. Couldn’t get the straw out and the whole fleece (admittedly it was very small) ended up in the compost bin after 3 weeks of trying…)

    1. kate Post author

      Fabulous – there were some splendid ones in Yorkshire last year for the start of the Tour de France, all done up in the various jersey colours!

        1. kate Post author

          Love it. That’s very sweet, despite the fact that it’s not sheep. I must not allow myself to be distracted from the way of wool, however entertaining!

  4. croftgarden

    I’m pleased that you explained that it was Odysseus under the ram, otherwise I’d have been wondering about the anatomical configuration, but then allegedly Greek erotica is very strange. However, why are his feet pointing up?

    1. kate Post author

      Madam, you need to wash your imagination out with soap. Shocked, a dw i

      But quite, er, on the feet (and the erotica, most strange) – because they fit on the side of the jar better?

      1. croftgarden

        A liberal and classical education, a scientists knowledge of anatomy, intellectual curiosity and the childlike innocence to ask naive and awkward questions! That’s my explanation and I’m sticking to it!


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