St. Isidore goes into further detail about pack animals and flocks in today’s extract. And he reveals a thing or two about why sheep are so popular as sacrificial animals.
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“The name ‘pack animal’ is derived from their pulling, that they do for our work, or the help they give us in carrying up things or with plowing. For oxen draw the two wheeled coach, and turn the stiff soil of the earth with the ploughshare; horses and donkeys carry loads, and humans, walking in their wake, guide their labour. And so pack animals are so called from those that are of help to men: truly they are animals of powerful greatness.
 Also, there are the cattle, whose weapons are attached, that is for war; or that make use of these horns. We understand other cattle to be oxen, for plowing, as if horned or that are equipped with horns. Moreover the cattle are distinguished from the flocks: for cattle are horses and oxen, flocks are truly she-goats and sheep.
 Sheep are a soft fleecy herd, with a defenceless body, a gentle spirit, and calling forth with its voice; it is not the oxen that a priest keeps near at hand for the mysteries, but the sheep that are killed for the sacrifice. From this they call them two pronged, those that have two higher teeth amongst eight, those are the ones that families offer exceedingly oft in their sacrifices.”
(St. Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae 12:7-9)
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Some Words to Wonder About
These three sections at last get clear and close, dealing with things in a markedly medieval manner by looking at categories and clarifying just what those categories mean. Thankfully, it also seems to be going somewhere now. The pack animals are defined, as well as the cattle and the flocks. So Isidore’s moving right along here.
As far as curious words go, “capra” (“she-goat,” or “odour of armpits”) is definitely the strangest in this passage. Particularly fascinating about this word is its standing as a pretty stark reminder of the lack of deodorant in the 7th century when Isidore was writing. Goats might’ve been kept by some throughout the city of Seville as well, making for an immediate and visceral olfactory sensation.
Though, in a society without indoor plumbing, one wonders why a she-goat of all things is paired with the “odour of armpits.”
Speaking of which, when might that second meaning have became attached to the word? Did “capra” have these two meanings from the time it was first used as a word or did it pick up the meaning “odour of armpits” because people realized that armpits and she-goats at least have that in common? We may never know, but that’s part of the fun.
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Cows of the Violent Kine
From Isidore’s description, it sounds like cattle were more violent then, too, or at least more prone to actually using their horns. That’s what their having horns and their being described in martial terms (“armis,” meaning “arms, especially for melee combat”) suggests.
It’s also likely that the connection could be held among those who work with cattle as well as the learned who write of cattle, since both groups could have access to stories of bulls and their tempers.
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Family and Sacrifices
Isidore’s mention of families in paragraph 9 (“gentiles”) is also curious, since it seems almost like a promotional plug – 9/10 families sacrifice sheep with two teeth more prominent than the eight. So why is it there? Is family sacrifice still prevalent? Was it just something done for Easter?
The use of the semi-colon (yes, inserted after the fact, since original mss don’t have punctuation aside from diacritics marking abbreviations and such) suggests that the two sentences are related, but why are those qualities important for a good sacrificial animal?
The soft fleecy-ness, the naturally defenseless body, and the gentle nature – as well as the voice that calls out (“oblatione” which in St. Isidore’s Late Latin referred to a solemn offering) – all of them suggest some sort of inherent sacrificial function.
Soft means penetrable, offering little resistance to the knife, as does the defenceless body. And the gentle spirit suggests that the lamb wouldn’t begrudge the knife.
But the voice that calls out – it could reference an idea that the sheep bleated out a prayer itself as it was being killed or incinerated. An animal uttering such a prayer in death would definitely be favoured for sacrifice, since that bleating could also have the sacrificer’s own prayer projected upon it.
A petition sacrificed in that a way – burned up in the vessel of a living being rather than a piece of paper – would add power to that prayer. Possibly even in early Christian minds.
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If you’ve got your own ideas about what some of the subtext or connotations of Isidore’s mention of “families” or structure mean let me know about it in a comment. And do follow this blog if you enjoy it – I’ll be sure to follow yours if you have one.
Check back Thursday for the next section of Beowulf, wherein Beowulf tells of the strife between Swede and Geat – and the fall of a prominent man.