Sheep In Religion and Mythology

 

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Important: 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.

The difference 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 are unknown.

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.

Sheep are common symbols in both mythology and religion.

The ancient 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.

The ancient 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 ancient cultures.

Likewise The 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.

Concerning 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 its entirety. 

Also 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 Heracles.  

Rams heads have been found in ancient Neolithic shrines in Catal Huyuk in Ancient Turkey suggesting some religious signifcance.

The Greeks, 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 offering of
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 symbolically added.

Suovetaurilia.  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 . Photo credit:  Public Domain. Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen Suovetaurile Louvre.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

This symbolism 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 this later.

The ancient 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. 

In Greek 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.

The story 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.

Jason brings Pelias the Golden Fleece. Apulian red-figure calyx crater, 340 BC–330 B.C. Credit:  Public Domain. Courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen/Wikimedia Commons.

File:Jason Pelias Louvre K127.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

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 hero Jason.

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.

As already 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 Isaac.

In the Islamic tradition, founded by the prophet Muhammad 570–632 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.

The Festival 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.

Concerning 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 forbidden.  

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.

The old testament also refers to sacrifices of lambs as a means of atonement for sin, 32 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. 33 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. Leviticus 4:32-34 . 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.

The popular 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,

Psalm 23

The symbolism 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. 

In Christian 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

 

In 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 shown below. 



Agnus Dei Gloucester cathedral Agnus Dei Kneeling cushions

Coat of arms of Aussonne (Haute-Garonne, France)

Credit: Drawn by TomKr for the Blazon Project of French-speaking Wikipedia, with Inkscape.

Image:Blason ville fr Aussonne (Haute-Garonne).svg - Wikimedia Commons

Coat of arms of Carcassonne
(Languedoc)

Credit: drawn by
Manassas for
Blazon Project of French-speaking
Wikipedia, with Inkscape

Image:Blason Carcassonne ville basse 11.svg - Wikimedia Commons

Angus Dei Is the canticle "Lamb of God" used in the liturgy of Holy Communion.

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 with Jesus.

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.

Sheep and 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.

Many 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.

Unlike the 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 563–483 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 evil forces. 

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.

Although 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.

As already 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 living creatures."

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.

In Hinduism 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 excellence.  

Rather like 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

In Western 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.

In Greek 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 of Theseus.

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.

In Chinese 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, indecisiveness.

In Madagascar sheep are said to be the incarnations of human souls and are not eaten.

References and links:

Domestic sheep - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Sheep - New World Encyclopedia delte

khandro.net/animal_goat_ram.htm#scapegoat

Buddhist Studies: Vegetarianism

hinduwebsite.com/hinduism/vedicgods.asp#agni

libraryindex.com/pages/2148/History-Human-Animal-Interaction-ANCIENT-CULTURES-RELIGIONS.html

wikipedia.org/wiki/Eid_al-Adha

wikipedia.org/wiki/Paschal_lamb

wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacrificial_lamb

wikipedia.org/wiki/Lamb_of_God

Important please note:

I am not an animal expert of any kind just your average person who loves animals, all animals, and feels deeply about the plight of many of our fellow creatures. Neither am I a writer, or any other expert. Therefore please keep in mind that the information included in this website has been researched to the best of my ability and any misinformation is quite by accident but of course possible.

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