A black fleece in most sheep is recessive, so if a white ram and a white ewe are each heterozygous for black then in about twenty five percent of cases they will produce a black lamb. “Black sheep” is an idiom used to describe an odd or disreputable member of a group, especially within a family. The term has typically been given negative implications implying waywardness. In modern usage the expression has lost some of its negative connotations, though the term is usually given to the member of a group who has certain characteristics or lack thereof deemed undesirable by that group. This may be a quite appropriate meaning to consider because Hekate has been noted as a Goddess with rare attributes. Her celebrants are of an alternative nature following what can still be regarded as a differing path to the orthodox. However, the association we find in ancient literature has more to do with sacrifice. In Metamorphoses, Ovid tells how Medea sacrifices two black lambs to Hekate to bring Jason’s father back to life.
“Then she returned; the Dracones, though untouched save by the wafting odour of those herbs, yet sloughed their aged skins of many years. Before the doors she stopped nor crossed the threshold; only the heavens covered her; she shunned Jason’s embrace; then two turf altars built, the right to Hecate, the left to Juventas [Hebe goddess of Youth], wreathed with the forest’s mystic foliage, and dug two trenches in the ground beside and then performed her rites. Plunging a knife into a black sheep’s throat she drenched the wide ditches with blood.” 4
“Calling aloud upon Hecate, powerful in heaven and hell. While other laid their knives to these victim’s throats, and caught the fresh warm blood in bowls, Aeneas sacrifices a black–fleeced lamb to Nox (Night), the mother of the Furiae, and her great sister, Terra (earth), and a barren heifer to Proserpine” 5
In Satires, Horace describes how the witches Canidia and Sagana tear a black lamb apart before calling upon Hekate.
“I’ve seen Canidia myself, wandering barefoot. With her black robe tucked up, and dishevelled hair, Howling with the elder Sagana: pallor making them Hideous to view. They scraped at the soil with their nails, Then set to tearing a black lamb to bits with their teeth: The blood ran into the trench, so they might summon
The souls of the dead, spirits to give them answers.
There was a woollen doll there, and another of wax: The wool one was larger to torment and crush the other.
The wax one stood like a suppliant, waiting slave like
For death. One of the witches cried out to Hecate”. 6
As to the meaning of the black lamb in relation to Hekate, one can see from above, it denotes a particular type of personality that corresponds to the outsider status of those to whom She has a special relationship. A black lamb was also, along with dogs/puppies, one of the preferred sacrificial offerings to Hekate.
3 Ammer, C. 1997. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. USA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers.
4 Ovid. Metamorphoses 7, 234-250. In: More, B. trans. 1922. Ovid Metamorphoses 7. Boston, USA: Cornhill Publishing Co.
5 Virgil. Aeneid 6.257. In: Fairclough, H. R. trans. 1916. Virgil, Aeneid Book 6. Cambridge, USA: Harvard University Press.
6 Horace. BkI Sat VIII: 23-50.
The Symbols of the Goddess Hekate
- Black Lamb
- Dark Moon
- Flower of Fire
- Garland (or Wreath)
- Golden Sceptre
- Herald’s Wand
- Lapis Lazuli
- Moon (New Moon)
- Mullet (Fish)
- Sandals (Bronze or Gold)
- Torch & Twin Torches