Great Ruses: A Lamb (and Odysseus) in Sheep’s Clothing

A lamb in someone's clothing

A jacketed lamb

In his beautiful memoir, This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, Ivan Doig remembers growing up the son of a ranch hand in southwestern Montana.

For ranchers, lambing season is an especially intense and demanding time of year. Thousands of lambs are born more or less at the same time, usually in cold inhospitable weather. To make matters worse, “sheep being sheep”, as Doig puts it, “not all ewes had the idea that they were supposed to be ready to mother their lambs. More than a few saw it all as a bad joke, sniffling the tiny animal as if he were something sour and then, often as not, would butt him flat in the straw and begin walking on him.”

This turns out to be part of the more general problem of having more lambs than mothers to feed them, as when an ewe has twins, etc. The solution is Odyssean in its cunning. First you go looking for an ewe whose lamb has died. And then, well, I’ll let Doig tell the rest of the story.

Jacketing was a sleight-of-hand I watched with wonder each time, and I have discovered that my father was admired among sheepmen up and down the valley for his skill at it: “He was just pretty catty at that, the way he could get that ewe to take on a new lamb every time.” Put simply, jacketing was a ruse played on an ewe whose lamb had died. A substitute lamb quickly would be singled out….Sizing up the newcomer, Dad would skin the dead lamb, and into the tiny pelt carefully snip four small leg holes and a head hole. Then the stand-in lamb would have the skin fitted onto it like a snug jacket on a poodle.

The next step of disguise was to cut out the dead lamb’s liver and smear it several times across the jacket of pelt. In its borrowed and bedaubed skin, the new lamb then was presented to the ewe. She would sniff the baby impostor endlessly, distrustful but pulled by the blood-smell of her own. When in a few days she made up her dim sheep’s mind to accept the lamb, Dad snipped away the jacket and recited his victory: “Mother him like hell now, don’t ye? See what a helluva dandy lamb I got for ye, old sister? Who says I couldn’t jacket day onto night if I wanted to, now-I-ask-ye?”

I probably should have known about jacketing, but I’m glad I didn’t; because when I read this passage I got that pleasurable shock of surprise you feel when you stumble upon something wondrous.

The spectacle of jacketing a lamb reminded me of another great ruse, back when resourceful Odysseus and his luckless men were trapped in the Cyclops Polyphemos’s cave.  Here’s Odysseus’s story,

And as I thought, this was the plan that seemed best to me./There were some male sheep, rams, well nourished, thick and fleecy,/handsome and large, with a dark depth of wool./ Silently I caught these and lashed them together with pliant willow/withes, where the monstrous Cyclops lawless of mind had used to/sleep. I had them in threes, and the one in the middle carried/a man, while the other two went on each side, so guarding/my friends. Three rams carried each man, but as for myself,/there was one ram, far the finest of all the flock. This one/I clasped around the back, snuggled under the wool of the belly,/and stayed there still, and with a firm twist of the hands and enduring/spirit clung fast to the glory of this fleece, unrelenting.

The next morning

the ewes were bleating all through the pens unmilked, their udders/ready to burst. Meanwhile their master, suffering and in/bitter pain, felt over the backs of all his sheep, standing/up as they were, but in his guilelessness did not notice/how my men were fastened under the breasts of his fleecy/sheep. Last of all the flock the ram went out of the doorway,/loaded with his own fleece, and with me, and my close counsels. (9.423ff, Lattimore translation)

Resourceful men both. If you want to read more about sheep being sheep, and what that means for the dogs and shepherds who herd them, check out my series of posts about my visit to the National Sheepdog Trials.

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