Friday, April 17, 2015

Sheep Cotes as Sacred Spaces

Jesus said, "I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand, and not a shepherd, who is not the owner of the sheep, sees the wolf coming, and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me-- even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep." John 10:9-15

Alice C. Linsley

Stone sheep cote in Zanuta, West Bank
Photo: Emil Salman

In the ancient world, dry stack sheep cotes served as housing for the shepherd. This is reflected in the King James Version of Judges 5:16: "Why abodest thou among the sheepfolds, to hear the bleatings of the flocks? For the divisions of Reuben there were great searchings of heart." 2 Samuel 7:8 also describes the sheep cote as a dwelling place (naveh). Naveh also refers to a temple or a local shrine.

Sheep cotes similar to the one shown above are found in many parts of Europe and are called by different names: tholos, girna, caciara, and keyl. The last word, found in Wales, is provocatively similar to the Altaic kyr ayil, meaning a "sheep village," or "the get-away to which the ram (krios) leads the sheep."

The dry stack sheep cotes pictured below are common in Ireland, Wales, Serbia, and Croatia, all lands inhabited by Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b populations.

This dry stack tholos in Abruzzo, Italy serves as a home and a sheep cote.
Note that where the man is standing is where the shepherd often sleeps. 
He becomes the door that guards the way to the sheep.

Shepherds used sheep cotes as shelters for many centuries. In archaic times, these structures served as seasonal housing for the shepherd and his family as they moved their livestock between higher summer elevations and lower winter pastures (transhumant pastoralism). More recently, sheep herders maintain permanent homes in valleys and only a few men move with their flocks to the seasonal sheep cotes.
A girna in Mellieha, Malta
The Hebrew ruler-priests maintained sheep in Judah and Edom. They lived in the hill country and their flocks grazed in the valleys. David would have been familiar with this way of life. In 2 Samuel 7:8, we read about David's divine appointment: "This is what the LORD Almighty says: I took you from the pasture, from tending the flock, and appointed you ruler over my people Israel." 

David's life was one of contrasts. He knew the physical hardships of the shepherd and the luxurious life of the royal palace. However, the Bible does not present this contrast. Instead, we are told that David was taken from the sheep cote to the temple, and this is very instructive. Sheep cotes, like threshing floors, served as sacred places. 

This sheep cote in Anatolia served as a place of worship.

The traditional sheep cote had the shape of a bnbn. The term is a reduplication of the root bn, meaning to "swell forth" because the sacred pillar was regarded as a symbol of the Creator's power to give life. Benben have been found from Nigeria to India. Below is a photo of a benben in Lejja, Nigeria. It has the characteristic narrow opening of sheep cotes.

The shearing of sheep was surrounded by religious ceremony. Sheep shearing and shrines are associated in Genesis 38.

After a long time Judah's wife, the daughter of Shua, died. When Judah had recovered from his grief, he went up to Timnah, to the men who were shearing his sheep, and his friend Hirah the Adullamite went with him. It was told to Tamar, "Behold, your father-in-law is going up to Timnah to shear his sheep."

Sheep shearing sometimes involved animal sacrifice and feasting on a large scale, as is evident in 2 Samuel 13:23-25.

Now it came about after two full years that Absalom had shearers in Baal-hazor, which is near Ephraim, and Absalom invited all the king's sons. Absalom came to the king and said, "Behold now, your servant has shearers; please let the king and his servants go with your servant." But the king said to Absalom, "No, my son, we should not all go, for we will be burdensome to you." Although he urged him, he would not go, but blessed him.

Related reading: Shepherd Priests; Stone Work of the Ancient World; Threshing Floors and Solar Symbols

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