Please note this article is included for interest only,
it is not suitable for serious study as precise accuracy
cannot be guaranteed. Please keep in mind that
information included on this website has been researched
to the best of my ability and any misinformation is
quite by accident but is of course possible.
between myth and religion of course depends on ones own
personal perspective and beliefs. This particular
article is for historical interest only, I make no
personal comment whatsoever concerning religion or its
practice. I am planning to include an article in the
Animal Rights section about the impact that
religious belief has had upon how we treat animals.
I will discuss
the significance of sheep in mythology and religions
both modern and ancient. I have endeavoured to
include examples of religion and myth in a basic
chronological order but a more precise order as such is
not possible as the origins and beginnings of many myths
I have chosen
several well known and one or two less known examples of
the role of sheep in religion and mythology.
Please note in
the discussion of the Abrahamic traditions I will refer
to the Abrahamic God as Allah when He is being discussed
in the sole context of Islam. God or more correctly,
Yahweh, referred to in Judaism and Christianity and
Allah are of course the same deity.
common symbols in both mythology and religion.
civilisations where polytheistic (believing in many
Gods). Many of these ancient peoples worshipped animals
as Gods, used animals to symbolically represent their
gods and believed that these gods could shape shift to
assume the form of an animal.
Sumerians, approximately 4000 BC to 2000, who are
thought to have developed the first form of writing in
the ancient world (Cuneiform script) immortalised sheep
through religion in the form of gods and goddesses whose
sphere of activity was to guard and represent flocks.
The most prominent and powerful was Duttur sheep goddess
and protector of flocks, a Mother Goddess of both Dumuzi,
also Lord of shepherds and the flocks, and Gestinanna
although an oracular goddess associated with the
interpretation of dreams also has associations with
sheep and shepherding. The Sumerians had huge flocks of
sheep, and sheep where important for meat and clothing
for the entire population, sheep where the most
important part of the economy as they were in many
Egyptians also valued sheep, they were dependent on
sheep for milk, meat, clothing and to provide manure to
fertilise the land. Right from the earliest times the
Egyptians worshipped animals and at various periods held
certain animals to be sacred and as representations of
their gods and goddesses. Many graves of ancient
Egyptian people have been found which include the
remains of animals wrapped in cloth, including sheep.
sheep in the religious context of Egypt, the God Khnum
had the head of a ram. From the earliest beginnings of
Egyptian civilisation Khnum, originally the god of
the source of the Nile and believed to have created all
the other hundreds of gods and goddesses, was
worshipped. Revered as the most important of the gods he
was believed to have been self created and it was he who
made the first egg from which arose all of creation in
ancient Egypt the god Heryshaf, a creator and fertility
god who was said to have been born in primeval
waters, was represented by the figure of a man with the
head of a ram or as a ram. In Egyptian mythology he was
identified with Ra and Osiris and in Greek mythology to
have been found in ancient Neolithic shrines in Catal
Huyuk in Ancient Turkey suggesting some religious
Romans, and other cultures set significant store in the
sacrifice of animals as an act of propitiation or
worship in order
to placate the
gods and no doubt sheep where included amongst the
animals deemed suitable as sacrificial offerings. Animal
sacrifices including sheep also served other significant
religious purposes other than appeasement, such as an
thanksgiving, to seek a favour and as a way of telling
the future such as the use of animal entrails for
divination. For this purpose it appears that the sheep's
liver was the most commonly used organ. In these ancient
cultures the use of animal sacrifice was integral to
religious practice and was in some cases a substitute
for human sacrifice. In Greek culture according to
mythology the gods took delight in human sacrifice but
seemingly were willing to accept a substitute of an
animal sacrifice with a few drops of human blood
The above which is housed in the Lourve is a
relief from the panel of a
sarcophagus and shows the sacrifice of a pig, a
sheep and a bull to the god Mars. A fine example
of Roman artwork constructed in marble it dates
from the first half of the 1st century AD .
Domain. Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen
Suovetaurile Louvre.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
presents itself in the bible when Abraham is commanded
by God to sacrifice his only son Isaac to prove to God
that he is a loyal and obedient servant. In the Islamic
tradition Ishmael rather than Isaac is the son selected
for sacrifice however this is not explicitly stated in
the Qur'an. Abraham's faith thus proven and before the
deed could be carried out a ram appears and serves as a
replacement, a substitute for Isaac/Ishamel. More about
Greek gods where called upon to protect sheep. In the
Greek colony of Kyrene in Libya the god Aristaios was
revered as the god of herdsmen and bee keepers. He was
worshipped by herdsmen because it was believed that he
was the protector of both the men and their flocks,
watching over to protect them from predators such as
wolves, weather and malevolent forces.
mythology the well known and ancient legend of the
golden fleece is central to the mythological tale of
Jason, one of the many great heroes of Greek mythology
comparable to Herakles and Odysseus.
tells of Jason's quest for the fabled golden fleece,
which in Greek mythology is the fleece of the winged ram
Chrysomallos, required in order to place him on the
throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Familiar in the time of
Homer 800 BC this is a very ancient mythological tale
with some later variations.
The quest of
Jason and his band of Argonauts, so named after their
ship the Argo, for the Golden fleece was popularised in
1963 by the Columbia Pictures film Jason and the
Argonauts starring Todd Armstrong as the mythical Greek
Sheep play an
important role in the monotheistic Abrahamic religions.
The Abrahamic religions include all religions that
believe in only one god, that is the God of Abraham and
include: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. Sheep, lambs
and Sheperds are present in these religions in many
symbolic ways, perhaps more so than in other religions.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and King David were all
shepherds. Sheep and shepherds are mentioned 247
times in the Bible. In the Abrahamic traditions in
ancient times a lamb was considered a possession
of high value, sheep signified wealth. A lamb was
therefore seen as a fitting sacrifice to placate,
demonstrate faith and obedience or to obtain the more
highly prized favour of God.
mentioned a ram was sacrificed instead of Abraham's son
Isaac. According to this tradition as a test of
his faith God demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son,
but before he was able to do so however an angel
intervenes, and a near by ram is sacrificed instead of
In the Islamic
tradition, founded by the prophet Muhammad 570632 A.D.,
a sheep is sacrificed during Eid al-Adha, a
festival to commemorate Abraham's obedience to Allah by
demonstrating his willingness to sacrifice Ishmael
even though the devil tempted Abraham to spare his son.
Allah intervened as Abraham was about to perform the
sacrifice and instead Allah provided a lamb as the
sacrifice. The festival of Eid al-Adha
falls approximately seventy days after Ramadan and lasts
for two days or more.
begins with a prayer and a sermon. People dress in their
finest clothes. Those who are able to do so are required
to offer their prized animals at about one year of age,
usually a sheep, but cattle, camels and goats also are
acceptable. The Qur'an states that the meat is divided
into three shares: a portion for the poor, another
for family and friends and finally oneself. It is
required that a large portion is given to the poor.
Animals in general, the Qur'an does not specifically
mention that animals have souls but it does
however teach respect for all creatures, although
Muslims sacrificed animals to Allah and eat meat.
However certain animals are excluded, pigs and animals
who have died of natural causes or an animal who has
been blessed by Allah. The drinking of animal blood is
In Judaism in
accordance with the mandate of the Torah (Translated as
law refers usually to the first five books of the old
testament, called the books of Moses) a lamb, known as
the Paschal Lamb, was sacrificed on the eve of the
passover to commemorate the night of the event referred
to as the passover when God took the lives of the first
born sons of the Egyptians and spared or passed over the
first born sons of the Israelite slaves. During the
passover door posts and lintels of each household were
smeared with the blood of a lamb to identify the houses
of the Israelites, a sign to the angel of death when
passing over the land on his charge to slay the Egyptian
first born. The passover commemorative sacrifice took
place in the court of the
Temple at Jerusalem and was usually a ram lamb of
one year of age without flaw, he was offered during a
very elaborate and precise ritual.
testament also refers to sacrifices of lambs as a means
of atonement for sin,
If you offer a
lamb instead of a goat as a sacrifice for sin, it must
be a female that has nothing wrong with it.
Lead the lamb to the altar and lay your hand on
its head, before having it killed.
34 The priest will dip a finger in the blood,
smear some of it on each of the four corners of the
altar, and pour out the rest at the foot of the altar.
. In other
words in the Judaic tradition sin could be forgiven by
the shedding of the innocent blood of an unblemished
lamb. In a similar way Christians would come to believe
that they were freed from sin by the blood of Jesus, the
unblemished lamb of God, and this is why Jesus is
referred to as the lamb of God. There is no
reference in the Old testament that animal sacrifice was
the only means of atonement and instead teaches that it
is possible to atone for sin by prayer and repentance
alone. In fact according to Judaic belief atonement may
be achieved without recourse to animal sacrifice, which
in modern times is not generally practiced. The above
ritual for atonement carried out in the temple in
Jerusalem was performed by Israelite priests,
Kohanim. The ritual included not only the sacrifices of
animals and offerings but also prayer and singing.
and well know psalm 23 is analogous of sheep and
Shepard's, where God is compared to a shepherd and His
followers to sheep.
The LORD is my
shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
of sheep or lambs is an important part of the Christian
Tradition. Jesus is often referred to as a Shepherd and
his followers as a flock. For instance in the bible:
"I am the
good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine.
As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and
I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I
have, which are not of this fold: them also I must
bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be
one fold, and one shepherd. Therefore doth my
Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might
take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I
lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and
I have power to take it again. This commandment have I
received of my Father. "
John 10 verses 14 to 18
Jesus is also
given the title the Lamb of God. As already mentioned
earlier, in the Christian tradition the ultimate mission
of Jesus to die on the cross to atone for man's sin, is
analogous to a sacrificial lamb.
churches you will often see the imagery below: Agnus
Die, A symbol of the Lamb of God or Jesus Christ
depicted as a lamb.
Agnus Dei is a
Latin term meaning Lamb of God, it refers to Jesus as
the the perfect sacrificial offering that atones for the
sins of humanity.
Agnus Dei, Latin term meaning the Lamb of God
ecclesiastical art an Agnus Dei is a visual
representation of Jesus as a lamb holding a cross and
Christian banner such as the in the above example. The
cross usually rests on the lamb's left shoulder and held
in his left foreleg. The cross may have attached to it a
banner, most often red similar to the George cross, but
as with the picture above the crosses may be rendered in
different colours. There are variations such as for
example the lamb may be depicted bleeding from the
heart; this symbolises the shedding of Jesus'
blood to take away the sins of the world.
Agnus Dei may
be found in many comparable forms depicted on stained
glass windows, kneeling cushions and heraldry as those
Agnus Dei Gloucester cathedral
Agnus Dei Kneeling cushions
Angus Dei Is
the canticle "Lamb of God" used in the liturgy of Holy
In both Catholic and protestant
Christian churches the Agnus Dei is the
invocation to the Lamb of God sung or
recited during the distribution of the
Host, the Bread and wine used to
represent the blood and body of Christ.
"Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away
the sin of the world"
In addition in
the Christian tradition the lamb is symbolical of
innocence, gentleness, peacefulness and patience under
suffering and typifies the gentle qualities associated
The death of
Jesus on the cross was according to Christian tradition
a sacrifice for sin and here the culture of sacrificial
offerings continues as Jesus is compared to a
sacrificial lamb. This concept harks back to Jewish
temple sacrifices mentioned earlier when a lamb, the
Paschel lamb, was sacrificed, his blood sprinkled on the
alter and his remains eaten to remember the passover.
In Greece and Romania, Easter celebrations include a
meal of Paschal lamb.
lambs are included in Christian iconography, for example
on stained glass windows such as those below.
Jesus as the good shepherd is depicted in
stained glass windows
Stained Glass Window Gloucester Cathedral
This example in the St John's chapel of Ludlow
Church dates from the 15th century.
Christian saints are considered patrons of sheep and
shepherds for example Sts Bernadette of Lourdes,
Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, Dominic of Silos and Regina
to name just four.
Abrahamic religions sheep have less signifcance in
Buddhism. However in the Chinese Buddhist tradition a
ram was said to be present at the birth of Buddha,
Siddhartha Gautama 563483 B.C. the son of King
Suddhodana, ruler of the Sakya tribe.
In Tibet at
new year, a ram which represents the faults of the
previous year is released for the new year, symbolically
taking with him last year's faults, although this may
stem more from the shamanic religions practiced in Tibet
prior to the introduction of Buddhism in about 500 AD.
The ram is
associated with shamanic worship and is sacrificed, the
fight against the ram is one of the symbols of the
shaman's struggle. As in the above example The ram is
seem as an expiatory animal: it can symbolically bear
human faults, or be used to contain demons or drive out
Also in Tibet
there is a ritual which involves driving a sheep around
the monastery walls by a pilgrim practicing devotional
circumnambulations. Such practices are undertaken to
gain merit and mitigate or improve ones Karma.
Thereafter the sheep is allowed to live out the
remainder of his or her life in peace.
There is an
old Tibetan saying :
It is better to live one day as a tiger than a thousand
years as a sheep.
This generally refers to the timidity of sheep and often
quoted in reference to fear.
Buddhism is the predominant religion of Tibet and other
Himalayan countries the sheep is exploited for his wool,
skins, meat and milk. In the treeless barren
terrain of Tibet their dung is used as fuel. Their
horns are used as needles and their guts as thread.
Along with yak, sheep are used also as pack animals.
mentioned sheep seemingly have little religious
significance in Buddhism however as a major part of the
Buddhist ethic most Buddhists consider the life of an
animal as equal to that of a human and this of course
includes sheep. In Buddhism there are five precepts
(codes of ethics), although in some traditions there are
up to ten. Buddha taught these from compassion and
as a means of improving society and to aid followers
along the path to enlightenment; the Buddha taught that
animals where like humans in that they where progressing
towards a higher consciousness, towards enlightenment
and would one day be humans or may have been human in
previous incarnations. Therefore Buddhists consider it
wrong to harm any creature. The five precepts are more
like voluntary ethical commitments and not considered as
commandments as such. The first of these precepts is to
refrain from killing and is usually translated as
"I undertake the precept to refrain from destroying
There is some
confusion at times as the logical implication of the
first precept is that Buddhists should not eat meat and
most Buddhists are vegetarian. However in some Buddhist
traditions this is not the case, in Tibet for example
where the cultivation of crops is impossible due to
climate. Buddha himself ate meat which he acquired as
alms or meals prepared for him by invitation of
followers and it is Buddhist ruling for monks to eat
what is offered. Buddha indicated that it was acceptable
to eat meat as long as the animal was not
purposely slaughtered for your benefit. However as time
went on Buddhists began to feel uncomfortable with
eating meat. In modern times generally speaking the
Mahayana tradition of Buddhists are vegetarian and
Theravadin Buddhists are not.
Animals occupy an important place and are mentioned in
myth and legend and are also included in the Hindu
pantheon as divinities themselves; Hinduism is a
polytheistic religion which includes many deities .
Animals are also the vehicles of these deities both Gods
and Goddesses. Each God and Goddess has his or her own
vehicle each of which has an important significance and
represents the various energies that exist in the
universe as well as in each Human being. Symbolically
the animal vehicle represents the animal energy,
qualities or skills which need to be enhanced or
sublimated in our lower nature which may be transformed
with the help of the appropriate deity. The God or
Goddess is in charge of a particular energy, which he or
she rides, or controls at his or her will. The ram is
the vehicle of Mangala and Agni, a divinity in the Vedic
pantheon, he is a deity connected with sacrificial
ritual. The symbolism being the connection with Rams as
typical sacrificial animals. In Hinduism sacrifice, or
Sanskrit yaina, means worship, devotion,
offerings, love and oblation. Animals themselves are not
sacrificed, the sacrifice or yaina, is performed to
please the gods or to attain certain aspirations and to
represent seeds of past karma.
Performed as a part of personal devotions and at
weddings and funerals, it consists of a
sacrificial fire into which oblations, clarified butter
Glee, grains spices and wood are poured accompanied by
the chanting of mantras. The fire represents Agni who is
the divine messenger who takes the offering to the Devas
- deities, or variously spirits, celestial beings of
Buddhism, in Hinduism there is no distinction between
animals and human beings. In fact all beings including
both plants and animals are considered as divine and as
manifestations of God. According to Hindu belief animals
are not inferior, they have souls and may one day
progress to become human.
Sheep or to be
specific the ram is represented in astrology
astrology the sign of the ram Aries is the first sign of
the Zodiac , the belt of twelve constellations through
which the sun passes during the course of a year.
mythology Aries is associated with the Ram who carried
Athamus', king of
Orchomenus, twin son Phrixus and daughter Helle,
to Colchis to escape their stepmother Ino,
Athamus' second wife, as well as the mythological figure
Any one born
between March 21 and April 20th are born under the sign
of Aries. Those born under the sign of Aries are
believed to possess certain characteristics and are said
to be dexterous, affable, gifted, enterprising,
well-meaning, quick-witted, lusty, daring, persuasive,
competent, honest, thrifty, promiscuous, wilful,
excessive, gullible, sanctimonious, authoritarian,
rigid, belligerent, self-indulgent, isolate, brash,
parsimonious, forceful and obstinate.
Astrology the ram or sheep is the eighth sign in a
twelve year cycle of animals in the Chinese zodiac which
relates to the Chinese calendar. For example the
following years where years of the sheep: 1919, 1931,
1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003. The Sheep is
considered to be the most artistic or creative sign of
the Chinese zodiac. Indeed rather like the western
Zodiac anyone born under the sign of the sheep are said
to have certain attributes and these are said to be the
following: sensitivity, creativity, insecurity,
pessimism, anxiety, empathy, generosity, idleness,
capriciousness, indecisiveness, gullibility,
irresponsibility, romantic, self-pitying,
sheep are said to be the incarnations of human souls and
are not eaten.
References and links:
sheep - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
Sheep - New World Encyclopedia delte
Buddhist Studies: Vegetarianism