Following up on his explanation of the differences between pack animals and herd animals – leaving off with the fact that “families” prefer to use goats/sheep for their sacrifices – St. Isidore explains a little bit more about this wondrous animal: the sheep.
Before getting to the translation, however, it must be pointed out that “families” is just one way to translate “gentilis.”
The almost automatic translation is “Gentile,” which may work, but the English translation of the Etymologiae that I use as a loose base text renders it “pagan.” To combine this with the Collins Pocket Gem Latin Dictionary’s translation of “family,” the word “gentilis” will be translated as “pagan clan” from here on out.
Now, without further ado, this week’s translation:
“ Wethers, also called males, which are stronger than other sheep; or which are virile, that is of masculine gender; or which have worms in their heads, which excite them by itching to strike each other with mutual force, and to carry out fights with great energy.
 Ares or [apo tou areos], that is Mars, these are called; so they are called manly in the flock by us or if that flock belongs to a pagan clan, the ram is first among the flock sacrificed. For the ram is placed on the altars by them. From whence it is: (Sedul. 1,115):
‘Upon the altar sacrifice the ram.’
 Lambs in Greek are called [apo tou agnou], as if holy, Latins on the other hand believe that the animal is so named for this reason, for compared with other animals it knows its mother; so that if ever it gets lost in a large flock, it immediately knows its parents by the call of their bleating.”
(St. Isidore of Seville’s Etymologiae: 12: 10-12)
(N.B.: the parts in square brackets are given in Ancient Greek: a dead language that I have yet to try my hand at.)
Where to start with this one? There’s the worms that, St. Isidore writes, are the reason for rams butting each others’ heads; there’s the weird reference to a mysterious work that clearly names rams as sacrifices; and there’s the etymology of the Latin word for lamb: “agnus.”
The beginning is always good.
The idea that worms cause a great itching on rams’ heads and this drives them to fight, is pure medieval bestiary material.
Completely wild ideas, but completely interesting, to boot. What’s most interesting about this idea though, is that it suggests that sheep are naturally harmonious. It isn’t that they butt their heads against trees to help soothe their itching heads, but they butt each other’s heads with “mutual force” (“invicem se concutiunt”). There’s a sense that these animals help each other out.
Even if this explanation for rams charging at each other is fantastical, it’s curious that such camaraderie is ascribed to sheep.
That these animals are also the ones that “Sedul.” dictates for sacrifice follows from this perception of sheep, no doubt. After all, why sacrifice any old animal?
If an animal has special value to humans it will be worth more amongst them. But if an animal seems to have a society going on that is similar to human society (considered the apex of all creation at this time), that must mean that within the cosmos the animal has a worth near that of humans. So, if you’re not going to sacrifice humans, why not sacrifice the next best thing – animals that help each other out.
Better yet, why not sacrifice animals that also show an inherent recognition of family?
The etymology for the Latin word for lamb, “agnus,” adds to this picture of sheep as a human-like animal, at least as far as values go. The word’s ascribed origin (the Latin word “agnosco,” meaning “to know”) also reflects the animal’s apparently Christian values – harmonious living among brethren and being aware of family. In particular, Isidore’s description of a lamb recognizing its parents by the sound of their voice (“statim balatu recognoscat vocem parentis” 12.12) is rather reminiscent of the tripartite holy family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph.
What’s perplexing though, is that sheep are so fixated on here.
Don’t calves know their mothers? Don’t foals?
Why are sheep so elevated as to have an etymology relating them to the Latin word “agnosco” meaning “to know”? Another, related question, is how “agnosco” morphed into the modern English “agnostic.”
At any rate, sheep might be so highly regarded and focused on simply because they could continuously provide. Year after year they could be sheared, some could be milked, and some could be slaughtered; so year after year they would provide food *and* clothing.
It’s hyperbolic, but that sheep give material for clothing and food turns the Chinese proverb “A warm coat is better than a fully belly” on its ear, since sheep could provide both. Couple that with their perceived cosmic value, and you’ve got a super animal.
What do you think about Isidore’s ideas of sheep? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments.
So, can St. Isidore best himself as he starts to write of goats? Find out next week!
Before that, though, this week sees Beowulf wrapping up his history lesson and moving into a demonstration of effective boasting. Check back Thursday for it!