What is the meaning of lambs, sheep and rams – revered, loved and at times, ridiculed as an allegory of human failings – in Bulgarian folklore tradition?
Sheep breeding, alongside land tilling, has always been the main source of livelihood in the Bulgarian lands. That is why, in traditional culture, shepherds are held in high esteem and a large flock of sheep is sung praise of as a symbol of wealth and prosperity. The bells on the sheep’s necks, called chan or hlopka, which chime in harmony also give a sense of pride. Christmas carols express wishes that the flock may yagni (derived from the word for lamb) but also blizni (twin-lambs). They sing of fine-wool sheep, horn-twisting rams and white-faced lambs. The animal described as vaklo is especially prized – i.e. animals that are white with dark rings around the eyes. That is why a pretty lass, who by and large would have black eyes is compared to a lamb that is vaklo, gentle and loved.
Little children are also described as lambs for example in the conundrum: A lamb bleating between two mountains (a child in a cradle). In later times, one song grew especially popular Lamb a-bleating performed by famed singer Boris Mashalov. The song tells the moving story of a lamb, whose mother Rogousha was sold to cruel butchers even though once upon a time she helped her master save his flock from drowning. This is a song that has brought tears to the eyes of young and old, and to this day stirs the emotions of listeners.
The lamb is a symbol of gentleness, meekness, humbleness, hence the saying: like a lamb to the slaughter. This is an image that is deeply rooted in Christianity, where the story of Abraham and Isaac is recounted in the Old Testament. Having begotten a son at the age of 100, Abraham loved him above all else, but God commanded Abraham to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. At the last minute, the angel of God stopped Abraham who saw a ram in some nearby bushes and sacrificed the ram instead of his son. This biblical story in fact describes the practice of the slaughtering of kourban – a ritual sacrifice, usually a sheep or a lamb on major feast days.
Probably because it is so dramatic, the story of Abraham’s sacrifice has become very popular in traditional songs, which describe, in different versions, the story of a father who has decided to sacrifice his son on St. George’s day. This is a day, on which, by a tradition, every family must give kourban to honour the saint, but the father is poor, has no sheep or money to buy a lamb. The scenes in which the child begs his father to tie his hands, so that he won’t unwittingly hit him in his agony, are truly heart-rending. And of course, ultimately, angels appear or God himself and the child is miraculously saved.
In the New Testament, the lamb symbolizes Jesus Christ’s sacrifice, known by the Old Bulgarian word agnets. In religious art a lamb with a halo or under a cross is an allegory of the Saviour. At the same time Jesus is also shown as the Good Shepherd, caring for his congregation or his flock – the community of Christians.
Alongside Christian symbols, the image of the flock carries a negative connotation in everyday speech, meaning foolishness, lack of independent thinking or over-submissiveness. Sheepishness is imbued with a similar meaning and proverbs caution: He who is a sheep shall be eaten by wolves, or A sheep shall always be sheared. The black sheep is someone who is different, someone who refuses to abide by the rules and is shunned by the flock.
Unlike the gentle lamb or the foolish sheep, the ram, also known as yugich, is a proud and courageous leader of the flock, so dashing young men would be compared to vakli rams. A handsome ram is a source of pride to the shepherd, his helper and is held in high esteem. There is one folk song lamenting the loss of a ram: I grieve most for the yugich with the golden horns, with the silver hooves that kept the flock like twelve shepherds would. On his wedding day the groom would give the bride a decorated ram, a symbol of fertility and prosperity. The ram is thought to be out of reach of evil, so he is depicted on household utensils and buildings. A ram skull on a pike in the sheep-pen would keep the flock from sickness and evil spells. If a ram appears in your dream, that too is a good thing: if you are to dream of a ram, that means joy, of a lamb – a bounty of delights awaits you, if you dream that you are taking sheep out to graze, good news is coming.
Ass. Prof. Dr. Vihra Baeva is expert at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum
English: Milena Daynova
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