Sheep – soft-footed, fluffy creatures – graze and amble along with frolicking lambs by their sides. Know worldwide as docile and friendly, sheep – in particular the female ewes and their lambs – have come to symbolize innocence, gentleness and peacefulness. The symbolism of rams takes on a slightly different, more masculine tone and will be looked at separately.
All sheep are associated with the beginning of spring, fertility, rebirth and prosperity.
Sheep were one of the first animals to be domesticated for meat, around 11,000 – 9,000 B.C. in Central Asia. The development of spinning and weaving in ancient Sumeria led to the use of their wool for clothing and other necessities. This allowed for ongoing prosperity as the community was able to continue harvesting wool from the same sheep for many years. Sheep were a very important part of many ancient economies. Today sheep – raised in abundance in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and South America – are found everywhere except Antarctica
Animal husbandry is an important theme in Sumerian art and literature. Sumerian Goddess Duttur, was depicted as a ewe. She was mother to Dumuzi, himself god of sheepherding, milk and the netherworld. They both guarded and represented the flocks.
Dumuzi was husband/consort to Inanna who, after Inanna’s return from the Underworld, was chosen to take her place there for half the year. Duttur is often characterized in Mesopotamian literature as a mourning mother, mourning the death of Dumuzi. Duttur and Dumuzi gifted both prosperity and an understanding of the transformative powers of life’s cycles.
In Mesopotamia, Dumuzi became the pastoral deity, Tammuz. Duttur remained as mother and continued to personify the ewe.
Sheep were also an important part of the Egyptian economy. The remains of sheep wrapped in cloth have been found in numerous Egyptian graves. Khnum, one of Egypt’s most ancient gods was depicted as a sheep, with the head of a ram.
In Kyrene, a Libyan colony of Greece, Aristaios was worshipped as God of Herdsmen and Beekeepers. The people believed that he protected both their flocks and themselves from all kinds of dangers.
Greek god, Hermes, was worshipped as a fertility god and was associated with the protection of sheep and cattle. He was also a dream god who both facilitated meaningful dreams and escorted souls to the afterworld. He was often depicted with a sheep on his shoulders.
It’s an age-old adage that counting sheep helps one fall asleep. This belief might have started in medieval Britain in which shepherds used an old Celtic dialect in a sing-song manner to count and account for their sheep every night. Some sources trace the practice back to 12th century Islamic sheepherding cultures.
Sheep are important to the lives of many Native Americans, being honored for their role in nourishing the people. The Navajo, who are famous for their weaving skills, revere sheep for the wool they provide. Their pastoral lifestyle evolved together with the Churro sheep in the dry conditions of the deserts and mountains of the Colorado Plateau.Their sheep herding economy was nearly destroyed by the U.S. government with the killing of the Churro and its subsequent replacement with breeds less suitable to their environment. Then in 1970 Dr. Lyle McNeal began the Navajo Sheep Project in a successful effort to bring back the Churro. The “Sheep is Life Celebration” began and continues today in order to educate about and preserve Navajo traditional sheepherding and weaving skills.
Sheep symbolizes good luck to the Chinese, who view the Year of the Sheep as one of prosperity.
Bulgarians and other eastern Europeans carved sheep images on both household utensils and structures to dispel bad luck and illness.
Sheep are sacred to Brigid, Goddess of Healing, Poetry and Smithcraft, whose feast day is on Imbolc, February 1-2 – spring’s beginning in the Celtic calendar. Imbolc translates as “in the belly” and occurs as the first lambs are born and the ewes come into milk. At this time the importance of transformation, purification, fresh beginnings and the return of the light was considered. During Imbolc, Brigid’s aspect as a healing/fertility goddess was emphasized.
Sheep are what they are because of human intervention through the process of domestication. Over the centuries the most docile and friendly individuals were selected and bred, ultimately creating a species with very little ability to defend itself. Their only defense is to either run away or huddle together in their flock around the dominant ewe, who will stand her ground and even charge the predator. Unfortunately most predators are not scared by her defenses. Overtime farmers instituted the use of sheepdogs to guard their flocks.
Sheep were used by Greeks and Romans as sacrifices – to appease the gods, to offer thanks, to seek favor and for divination with the use of the sheep’s entrails after the sacrifice.
This symbolism is seen in the Old Testament when God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac to prove his loyalty. But God allowed a sheep to take Isaac’s place after seeing Abraham’s willingness.
Jesus is often referred to as a shepherd with humankind as his flock. Jesus, called the Lamb of God, becomes the sacrificial lamb with his crucifixion.
Folktales from northern Europe tell of how, on Christmas Eve, all sheep face east, bow three times and, as long as no human is watching, are gifted with the ability to speak until sunrise.
Sheep are found in numerous children’s songs and rhymes which emphasize their gentle, innocent natures. The Scottish have a Cinderella type folktale in which a ewe helps the step-daughter survive the abuses of her stepmother.
Sheep are highly intelligent beings who bond together in peaceful community. Their excellent memories allow them to remember at least 50 individual sheep and humans for years. Sheep know which plants to eat to cure some illnesses.
Sheep are both highly independent – being able to walk just minutes after birth – and extremely gregarious in their desire to be in a group. Ewes are very caring mothers, forming deep bonds with their lambs. Together with changing facial expressions, sheep use different vocalizations to display and communicate varied emotions.
Ewes and rams live in separate communities – nursery herds that can contain 5 – 100 members, including ewes and lambs and bachelor herds made up of 5 – 50 adult males.
Sheep offers an understanding of the power in trusting, allowing and accepting. Self-acceptance of your own quiet inner core and how it blends in with the community is called for. Sheep reminds you of the the soul potency gained through a vulnerable, trusting heart while at the same time offering a wariness of the wolf in sheep’s clothing and a discernment of where and how we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. Whatever obstacles appear Sheep helps you remain calm while gently overcoming them.
Sheep gifts you with an ability to use intelligence together with a loving nature to gain prosperity for yourself and your community and facilitates communication and compassion. When Sheep calls your name it’s time to understand the current significance of following the crowd in your own life – either highlighting the benefits of security and comfort it offers or presenting a warning that you are too concerned with what everyone else is doing or thinking.
Sheep wisdom could be a call to sacrifice something in your current life in order to grow into and realize your goals. If you suffer from feelings of victimhood, perhaps Sheep is calling you to let that go.
Sheep brings an awareness of the wisdom found in dreams and an acceptance of the ongoing cycle of life, death and rebirth. When times seem the darkest Sheep reminds you that the light will return with each spring.
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her art. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. She is now working on her next deck of oracle cards – Animal Wisdom – to be released this fall. Originally from New Orleans, Judith makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings.
Judith’s deck of Celtic Goddess Oracle Cards is available now. You can order your deck from Judith’s website – click here. Experience the wisdom of the Celtic Goddesses!