Sheep and Goats

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SHEEP AND GOATS appear frequently in the history of religions, from prehistoric times down to the present, and across a wide geographic area. Both appear most commonly as animals of sacrifice, but the ram and especially the goat have also served as symbols of sexual virility and so are often associated with fertility cults.

Prehistoric Times

Evidence of the symbolic importance of sheep and goats in prehistoric times comes primarily from their representation in art. Their importance as totemic animals among some contemporary tribal peoples also presumably reflects much more ancient beliefs.

Prior to their domestication in the Neolithic period, wild sheep and goats were hunted as game and seem to have become cult objects quite early. In Upper Paleolithic art, for instance, 7 percent of the animal representations consist of images of rams. From the Neolithic period to the Bronze Age, depictions of both goats and rams (most commonly the former) are encountered quite often in the art of Mesopotamia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. It may be assumed that beliefs and myths connected with these animals underwent a considerable development at this time.

On a diadem from Hissar III (Iran, first half of the second millennium bce) images of rams and goats are arranged in mirrorlike symmetry. In Çatal Hüyük (Asia Minor, seventh and sixth millennia bce) ram heads are depicted on the walls of sanctuaries. Rams seem to have been associated with the goddess who is also depicted there as a kind of proprietress of human beings and of both wild and domestic animals. On a wall of the Leopard Sanctuary, also at Çatal Hüyük, there is a depiction of a stylized tree with a goatlike animal on either side. This general motif, a tree or a plant with flanking sheep or goats, is very common in pottery decoration and glyptic art from this period. Symbolic representations of water (perhaps rain) and of snakes are also found in connection with it. These mythologems became very widespread and existed up to modern times in Central Asia.

More indirect evidence for the religious importance of sheep and goats in Neolithic times comes from the practices of various tribal peoples. Their survivals of worship of sheep as totemic animals up to the modern period may represent a practice that goes back to very ancient times. One such practice was the prohibition against eating mutton among some tribes of Madagascar, who believed that tribal members were descended from sheep. The sheep was also a totemic animal for the Kharia of Bengal, the Kalanga of South Africa, the Batoro of Uganda, and the tribes of the Altaic region, among others. The fact that the word for "ram" is contained in the Greek family name Krioid (from the Greek krios ) may hint at an earlier totemic belief in Greece as well. Finally, it should be noted that the goat has served as a totemic animal among some San (Bushmen) tribes of southern Africa.

Historical Times

In historical times one begins to find more differentiated notions of the symbolic importance of sheep and goats and are thus able to discuss each in more detail.


Because of the innate traits and behavior of sheep, such qualities as gentleness, timidity, inoffensiveness, and passivity have been consistently attributed to them. These qualities have also been interpreted as expressions of innocence, mildness, simplicity, and love, and, consequently, as a willingness to be sacrificed. The sheep's defenselessness against predators (some animals are actually called "sheep eaters") also made a deep cultural impression. Considering such perceptions of sheep, and taking into account their relatively high fecundity (and hence their availability and expendability), it becomes easy to understand how the idea of the sheep as a sacrificial animal came into being and became widespread in Judaism, ancient Greece, ancient China, and elsewhere.

Numerous examples of sheep as sacrificial animals can be found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. A lamb was slaughtered in the Israelite Passover rite (Ex. 12:2124, Nm. 8:812). In the New Testament, in both the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelation, Christ is referred to as the Lamb of God who redeems the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29, 1:36; Rv. 5:614, 6:1): that is, the killing of Christ is directly compared to the slaughtering of a sacrificial sheep in order to take away sins (compare the motif of the scapegoat). Lamb is the traditional meal during Christian celebrations of Easter; marzipan and chocolate lambs holding flagsto represent Christ victoriousare also popular at Easter time.

Sheep have been sacrificial animals among many other peoples as well. In the Islamic world, the ritual slaughter of a sheep is called for during the feast of the pilgrimage. Just as in the Judeo-Christian tradition a ram is sacrificed in the place of Isaac, in the Islamic tradition a ram is substituted for Ishmael.

Among the ancient Greeks sheep were sacrificed to Aphrodite and Zeus, and also to the chthonic gods. For sacrifice to the last a black sheep or ram was used and was allowed to be completely consumed by fire, whereas when sacrifices were made to other gods most of the animal's flesh was reserved to be eaten. The most important sacrifice was the Kriobolion ("slaughter of sheep"), an orgiastic and mystical event associated with the cult of Attis.

In addition to their use in sacrifice, sheep have also been associated with weddings and thus with fertility. In ancient Athens, for instance, the fleece of a sacred sheep (aegis ) was brought by a priestess to newly married women. The ram, viewed primarily as a symbol of sexual power, played an even more important role in Classical Greece. It was associated mainly with the cult of Hermes but also with the cults of Aphrodite, Zeus, Poseidon, Cybele, Hera, Hephaistos, the sileni, and the satyrs. Although Hermes was often depicted next to sheep or riding a sheep, particular emphasis was placed on the ram and especially on its connection with virility. The size and weight of the ram's sexual organ were commented upon, and it was believed that a good ram could cover fifty ewes. Such beliefs are reflected in mythology: Hermes, burning with love for Persephone, decided to approach her in the form of a ram. It was thought that a god could have much more amorous enjoyment in the form of a ram than as a human. The ram was also connected with gold and the sun, both symbols of vital power.

In Rome there were similar beliefs and practices. Sheep were favored as sacrificial animals and were offered to Mars, Faunus (the protector of sheep and flocks), Pales, and Dea Dia. They were also associated, as in Greece, with weddings: A bridegroom and his bride were required to sit on a sheepskin that was specially sanctified for the occasion. Finally, sheep also seem to have acquired a chthonic meaning in Rome: They were used in the cult of the lares and manes, sacrificed to the dead, and depicted on tombs.

In ancient Egypt the cult of the ram was widespread. On the island of Elephantine the ram was believed to embody the local god Khnum. Excavations there have revealed the burial ground of the sacred rams of Khnum's temple, and actual mummies of sacred rams have been found. In Mendes (which means "ram"), the ram embodied Osiris, the Egyptian god of the underworld, and in Thebes the sun god Amun was depicted as a ram.

Various Hindu deities are associated with the ram as well. Indra, the warrior god, is called a ram in the gveda (1.10.2, 1.51.1), and one of the forms of the god of fire, Agni, was that of a ram.

The ancient and modern peoples of Iran and Central Asia have many beliefs concerning sheep. Among the Pamiri of Central Asia, sheep are believed to have a divine nature and are associated with the sun. A story is told of a sacred sheep, illumined by a sacred flame, descending from the mountains. In the Islamic version of this story, the sheep is said to have been sent by the Prophet. In the Pahlavi-Sasanid work Karnamag (eleventh century), an enormous ram symbolizes the happiness (farr ) of the king and his dynasty, and more broadly the happiness and well-being of any man. In Iranian Sasanid art, rams are depicted with ceremonial ribbons around their necks, for sheep were believed to bring happiness and health; if one walked through a flock of sheep one would free oneself of disease. There is a striking parallel to these Iranian themes in the Chinese tradition, where the term for happiness consists of the graphs for "man" and "ram." For the Kalmuks, a Mongolian people, the ram is a symbol of fertility and abundance, and a white ram is believed to be a creature from heaven. The connection of the ram with fertility is found in Hittite and Russian rituals as well. The mountain Tajiks annually attach drawings of a ram's horn to the front walls of their houses in order to increase fertility.

Many ancient beliefs and practices were connected with the chthonic nature of the ram. The late Bronze Age cemeteries of northern Afghanistan and southern Uzbekistan contain separate burials of goats and rams isolated from the human graves and supplied with a large number of vessels and even funeral foodpart of the carcass of a ram! Evidently the animals were substituted for human corpses that for some reason could not be buried here. Much later, in graves in Ferghana (Central Asia) dating from the seventh and eighth centuries ce, rams were buried equipped with saddles and bridles, evidently as substitutes for horses. The mountain people of the Iagnob River valley in Tajikistan held a funeral feast for a dead sheep as though it were human. The Tajiks believed that if a person killed a ram for a purpose pleasing to God, a ram would meet that person in the next world to carry him or her across the bridge leading to paradise; similiar beliefs are found in Islamic culture generally and among the Turkmens, who thought it necessary to slaughter a ram at the moment when a corpse was brought out of the house for burial. Zoroastrians have also believed that one could be helped to cross the Chinvat Bridge leading to Heaven by the ritualistic sacrifice of a ram.


In religious practice and mythology, goats have been important as symbols of extraordinary virility and fecundity and as animals associated with the profane. Like the sheep, the goat has also long been a favorite animal of sacrifice.

Many references to goats can be found in the ancient Near East. A Babylonian hymn compares Ishtar to a goat and Tammuz to a kid. Also in Babylonia, a goat was sacrificed in order to rid a person of disease. The goat was killed while a tamarisk knife was drawn across the person's throat, and the goat was then buried as if it were a person. Among the Hittites, the parts of the body of a newborn child were homologized to the body of a sacrificed goat. In a Sumerian tradition the goat was linked with the god Enki, who had the form of a goat in front and a fish's tail in back and who was crowned with the head of a ram. This bizarre combination reflects Enki's nature as ruler of both water and plants.

In the Israelite religion the goat was the preferred sacrifice to Yahveh. Here is also found the institution of the "scapegoat." A goat was brought before a priest, who placed his hands upon its head while enumerating the sins of the people. A special envoy then took the goat into an impassable wilderness and let it go. Upon return the envoy had to undergo a ritual purification (Lv. 16:328). The practice was not limited to the Israelites alone, however, but was common to many peoples, although the expelled animal was not always a goat.

The goat was less important to the Greeks. Nevertheless, depictions of goat-demons appeared at a very early period in Greek art. In Classical Greece this was Pan, with hooves and horns but with a man's body and head. His Roman analogue was Faunus, who was called the "goat god," although he was originally worshiped as a wolf god.

The Olympian god most closely associated with the goat was Dionysos. According to one legend, Zeus changed the young Dionysos into a kid, which Hermes brought to the nymphs at Mount Nysa. Dionysos was able to assume the form of a goat and was sometimes regarded as a goat. His progeny were often seen as goatlike; goats were offered to him in sacrifice, and the goat was his attribute. Such beliefs and practices were doubtless connected with the cult of vegetation and fertility, which is also the link between the goat and the cult of Aphrodite. The goat was her sacred animal, which she was often portrayed as riding. The goat also played a role in the cults of Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Artemis, and Hermes, and the Greeks had the institution of the scapegoat as well. In Rome, goats were sacrificed during the Lupercalia and were also associated with the storm deities.

Goats appear in ancient Indian religion in several connections. The god Agni sometimes had a goat as his mount. The Asvins were compared to two goats (gveda 2.39.23). The deity Pusan, who was associated with the sun and with roads, rode on a chariot harnessed to goats (gveda 6.58.2), and during the Asvamedha (the horse sacrifice) a goat was sacrificed to him. The goat's connection with fertility is also apparent in ancient India; a woman wanting a child had to eat the ritually cooked flesh of a red goat (Kausitaki Sankhayana 35.17ff.). The milk of a red goat was believed to protect one from misfortune.

In Zoroastrianism, Verethraghna, the god of victory, is sometimes described as a "beautiful wild goat with sharp horns" (Yasht 14.8.25). In Mithraic reliefs the goat symbolizes a mortal being at the peak of vitality and power.

A cult of the goat was widespread from ancient times in Central Asia. The depiction of a goat on a figurine dating from the beginning of the third millennium bce establishes the existence at that period of a goddess in whose cult a goat figured importantly. Traces of this cult can still be found among the inhabitants of the Pamir and among the Nuristani, inhabitants of the Hindu Kush. The latter have even retained the altars of this goddess, Markum, to whom women annually sacrifice a goat. For the Pamiri this goddess has become a peri, or fairy, who is recognized as the sole owner and proprietress of the mountain goats. When a hunter kills a goat, his kill is believed to be the gift of the heavenly owner of goats, the peri.

Ancient beliefs about goats have survived in the folklore of various modern peoples. The sacrifice of a goat figures in the Russian fairy tale about Alenushka and her brother Ivanushka, for instance, and the goat Schmierbock appears in Norwegian folk tales as the owner of a treasure of gold. Goats are often described as sources of light and milk and are associated with the Milky Way. The goat Heiðrún gives mead in Valho̜ll, while in Indian stories the goat gives neither milk nor mead but coins. An Estonian folktale features a serpent king with a golden cup that contains the milk of a heavenly goat and has the properties of a magic mirror. Modern-day mummers continue to link the goat with the ancient cult of fertility when they sing "Where the goat goes, there the wheat grows" and when they portray the mock death of a goat and its subsequent resurrection.

As in ancient times, the goat continues to be associated in various traditions with the netherworld and with chthonic power. In this respect the goat is opposed to the "pure" lamb. A Slavic popular belief holds that a water sprite can be appeased with the pelt of a black goat; among the Slavs a black goat was sometimes sacrificed to a deceased person. In Slavic and Germanic folklore the Devil has the hooves of a goat.

Finally, it should be noted that the goat figures importantly in astrological symbolism (Capricorn the Goat is a sign of the zodiac, as is Aries the Ram), folk medicine, heraldry, and the interpretation of dreams.

See Also



The literature on beliefs connected with the ram and the goat is extensive. A general compilation of information on animals, although partly outdated, is Angelo de Gubernatis's Zoological Mythology, or Legends of Animals, vol. 1 (London, 1872). See also Jean-Pierre Dones's Des animaux dans la mythologie (Lyons, 1956), a very useful survey, and Mify narodov mira, 2 vols. (Moscow, 19801982), an excellent compilation of mythological and religious information. Ancient beliefs are analyzed in depth in E. V. Antonova's Ocherki kulʾtury drevnikh zemledelʾtsev Perednei i Srednei Azii: Opyt rekonstruktsii mirovospriiatiia (Moscow, 1984). The best compilation of the beliefs of antiquity is Otto Keller's Die antike Tierwelt, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1909). A basic study is The Scapegoat, vol. 9 of James G. Frazer's The Golden Bough, 3d ed., rev. & enl. (London, 1913). For Central Asia and adjacent areas, see my Kangiuisko-sarmatskii farn (k istoriko-kulʾturnym sviaziam plemen iuzhnoi Rossii i Srednei Azii) (Dushanbe, 1968), translated into German as "Das Kangzhu-Sarmatische Farnah," Central Asiatic Journal 16 (1972): 241289 and 20 (1976): 4774; and my Sredniaia Aziia v drevnosti i srednevekovʾe (Moscow, 1977).

New Sources

Bonney, Meta. The World of Sheep and Goats. Carmarthen, U.K., 1993.

Edwards, Jeanette. "Why Dolly Matters: Kinship, Culture, and Cloning." Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 63 (November 1999): 301325.

Shoemaker, H. Stephen. "Sheep and Goats." Christian Century 117 (July 512, 2002): 714.

B. A. Litvinskii (1987)

Translated from Russian by Sylvia Juran
Revised Bibliography