ancient egypt: history and culture
Ancient Egyptian bestiary: Sheep
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Khnum with a head of the older breed of domesticated sheep
Amen sphinx in the shape of a sheep of the breed introduced during the Middle Kingdom.
    The Barbary sheep with up to a metre shoulderheight and a weight of up to 140 kilos, are found in most of northern Africa, even in parts of the Sahara. Their hair is brownish, their smooth horns are up to half a metre long and curve backwards and slightly outwards and then inwards and forward.
    Two kinds of domesticated sheep were grown in ancient Egypt. The older breed, (ovis longipes), had horns jutting out, while the newer fat tailed sheep, (ovis platyra), which was introduced during the Middle Kingdom, had horns curled close to the head on either side.
    Sheep were not of the economic importance to Egyptians that they were to the desert dwellers, who depended on sheep for milk, meat and wool. The Egyptians preferred the less hot and itchy linen and later the lighter cotton to wool.
Now all who have a temple set up to the Theban Zeus or who are of the district of Thebes, these, I say, all sacrifice goats and abstain from sheep: for not all the Egyptians equally reverence the same gods, except only Isis and Osiris (who they say is Dionysos), these they all reverence alike: but they who have a temple of Mendes or belong to the Mendesian district, these abstain from goats and sacrifice sheep. Now the men of Thebes and those who after their example abstain from sheep, say that this custom was established among them for the cause which follows:--Heracles (they say) had an earnest desire to see Zeus, and Zeus did not desire to be seen of him; and at last when Heracles was urgent in entreaty Zeus contrived this device, that is to say, he flayed a ram and held in front of him the head of the ram which he had cut off, and he put on over him the fleece and then showed himself to him. Hence the Egyptians make the image of Zeus with the face of a ram; and the Ammonians do so also after their example, being settlers both from the Egyptians and from the Ethiopians, and using a language which is a medley of both tongues: and in my opinion it is from this god that the Egyptians call Zeus /Amun/. The Thebans then do not sacrifice rams but hold them sacred for this reason; on one day however in the year, on the feast of Zeus, they cut up in the same manner and flay one single ram and cover with its skin the image of Zeus, and then they bring up to it another image of Heracles. This done, all who are in the temple beat themselves in lamentation for the ram, and then they bury it in a sacred tomb.

Herodotus, Histories II
Project Gutenberg

Ovine deities

    Khnum was depicted with a ram's head of the older breed, while Amen generally–but not always–looked like the newer kind.
    The ram and the bull were the main fertility gods. At Elephantine and Esme it was under the name of Khnum that the ram was worshipped, at Letopolis as Kherti and at Herakleopolis as Herishef. In the Banebdjedet cult at Mendes, after the older sheep race died out, the ram was substituted by a billy goat.[1]

[1] Manfred Lurker, Lexikon der Götter und Symbole der alten Ägypter, Scherz 1998, pp.226f.

© 2002
October 2009