Making Mysteries

a sheep led to the altar.

6th Century BC Corinthian painting: a sheep led to the altar.

Sheep, alas for them, have long been the honored sacrifice at ritual moments. Solomon sacrificed “an hundred and twenty thousand” sheep to God in the dedication of his temple recorded in 1 Kings 8; among the Copts of Egypt, the blood of a sacrificed sheep is spilled upon the threshold of a wedding groom’s home, and his bride must step over the outpoured blood; the Romans offered sheep at the purification of the boundaries between fields in a ritual known as the Ambarvalia; Muslims sacrifice their best domestic animals, usually sheep, as the symbol of the sacrifice of Ibrahim at the Eid ul-Adha; Christians portray the heart’s blood coursing from the

breast of the Agnus Dei, or the Lamb of God; Aphrodite accepted the sacrifice of sheep from Cyprians who performed the ritual wrapped in sheepskins; and the Inca, seeking the Sun’s approval, sacrificed a lamb before undertaking acts of war. Though sacrificial killing is usually quick and humane, I like the practice of the gentle Sherpa of Tibet, among whom a sheep dedicated to Khumbe-yul-lha remains with the flock, but may not be killed, shorn, or sold. When the dedicated animal dies, its flesh is cooked within the village temple. Most who bring animals to sacrifice either eat the meal themselves or offer it to the unfortunate in the community.

The act of making sacrifice, of course, is a means of symbolically returning wealth to its source, whether the wealth be material goodness or spiritual well-being. The unfortunate sheep has its history because it has always been a good and reliable creature, fertile, adaptable, giving plentiful yield to the shepherd, and meek into the bargain. It’s easy to catch one and bring it smiling (see the Corinthian sheep above) to its altar.

We do not actually sacrifice our sheep, though I suppose it makes little difference to the sheep whether it dies for ritual fulfillment or for dinner. When we kill our sheep, we do it as swiftly as possible. The sheep spends its last half hour or so on a patch of sweet grass. It’s forgotten by then that it was separated from the flock just a bit ago. It hasn’t been away so long it’s begun to worry because, you see, there is this matter of fresh grass, just here, to be dealt with. The sheep has had a good life here. Then, at one moment, it’s over, all done.

We’ve fed ourselves from sheep who gave us meat, warmed ourselves with their wool, and relied on them to breed well and produce a crop of new lambs.

And we have this new house project going on, where just this week the forms have been laid down for the foundation. It seemed we needed some kind of dedication in which we included the life of the farm. We needed to include the sheep.

A house dedication is a various kind of ritual. Look at ethnologies from around the world, and you’ll find many, many possibilities. We didn’t want to actually sacrifice anyone from the flock, didn’t need to spill actual blood on the site, but wanted to evoke some kind of connection between ourselves, our new house, and our flock of Jacob sheep. Doorposts are a common site for dedication of new houses, but we have no doorposts yet. It’s not without precedent, however,  to bury items beneath the floor of a new dwelling. The Maya of Belize, for instance, buried offerings during the construction of houses. Dedication caches included burned or unburned whole items.

So down we went on ladders left by the absent construction crew (no need to alarm the workers with this kind of thing) and dug four small holes at the corners of the foundation.

We took with us the skulls of four fine sheep who had served us well. Two were rams and two were ewes.

Now, in the absence of a shaman, and feeling that this was a private matter in any case, we made our own reasoning what to do with them. I, being the female principle at work here, placed the two ewes under what will be the floor of the greenhouse. A greenhouse wants fertile ground. Both these ewes had bred well for us, and I thought they would be comfortable there, under the greenhouse.  I talked to them a little, reminding them they had been fertile in life, and now could go on to help us grow healthy food. “Be good,” I said. “You always were.” I brought out the smudge stick again, and burned some smoke over the holes.

Then we covered them up.

Here is a good look at the clay ground we live on. It’s officially called Jory Clay Loam. Sometimes the loam seems in short supply.

So then we went “upstairs” to the living floor and placed the rams. This is PissPot, our first-born ram lamb who went under the NW corner of the foundation.

It was Richard’s turn to speak to the boys.  Big John, who had been our first flock sire, went under the bedroom. Richard’s choice. I think this has something to do with shared manliness and Y chromosomes. He talked to John for a few minutes, about strength and courage and prosperity. We covered him up like the others, gathered up our things, and climbed the ladders out of the foundation hole.

Though we didn’t kill any of the sheep for sacrifice, it was somehow a reminder of how this has been done for millennia. The farm animals sutain us with their heartbeats. Their lives and deaths are important. It seems fitting they should be a part of the house where we will live.

Published in: on September 21, 2008 at 9:56 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I hope the spirits of the sheep keep you safe, warm, and well-fed. It’s a lovely ritual you did here. A blessing upon the house without bloodshed.

  2. Thank you, Ruth. I guess it would have been good if we had dressed up a little for the occasion, but getting down there on the ladders, wielding the digging tools, and hoping to finish before the rain came in (we did), it all seemed better done in farm clothes.


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