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.
Sometimes 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?
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:
And 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.
In 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.