“Is it time to let go of your current footing in order to end up on new and improved ground?”
– Animal Allies
Bighorn sheep are found in north America, and like bison, there used to be vast number of them but due to hunting and disease spread by domestic sheep, by 1900 instead of millions, there were just a few thousand left.
The depletion of bighorn sheep due to human activity has resulted in more than just fewer sheep, it has changed their behaviour. Bighorn sheep learn to migrate from one another, passing down knowledge and wisdom through the generations. This ancestral information takes many years to gather and can’t easily be replaced. When migration routes are altered by human activity, or when bighorn sheep are moved because it’s more convenient for us, the sheep suffer. It takes a lot of years to build up the detailed information they need. It’s not just the route they need to figure out, it’s where and when the fresh shoots emerge as this gives them the best nutrition that is most easily digested. Whilst you might intuitively expect the bighorn sheep to be following the lush vegetation, they actually ‘surf the greenery’ by anticipating it.
As well as a lesson in conservation, we can learn about valuing ancestral wisdom, about respecting and honouring our elders and about how deep knowledge takes time to build up. This is information that goes beyond just reading or learning it, it is understanding it and embodying it. This is a long process, one that involves building on what you have in an incremental way. It is also a reminder about the importance of cultural preservation.
Bighorn sheep have, as I think is obvious, horns…! Rams have long, curved horns and ewes have smaller, straighter horns. The horns are a symbol of status amongst the sheep, as well as a useful weapon. As with other horned or antlered animals, this suggests a link to the higher plane, to gods and goddesses, an antennae that receives messages from the other world. This ties in with Aries, the zodiac sign which is associated with the ram and represented by the horns. Aries is the first sign of the zodiac and is a sign of new beginnings, of new starts and of action. It’s about diving in headfirst, about charging in and about acting without thinking. Determination, assertiveness, and initiation are important keywords as well. Aries is also associated with Mars, the planet of war.
And the bighorn males do use their horns for conflict. Prior to mating, males will establish a hierarchy of dominance to figure out who gets to mate with who. This involves rutting, horn clashing, head butting and generally facing your opponents head on. Thankfully the rams have acquired a thick skull which protects against injury during these fights. Thus they teach us both that there are times to face things directly, to charge in head on and also, if you are going to do this, prepare for your adversary’s response. If you are letting your tongue go wild with insults, expect some back. If you are giving it out, grow a thicker skin.
That said, head on battles aren’t the only way. There are three main ways of courting; a) ‘tending’ is where you find yourself a ewe and defend her from other males; b) fighting for a female that’s already being tended and c) blocking is where you prevent a ewe from even reaching the tending area. If you play things strategically, you may be able to minimise the amount of physical clashes you are involved with.
The terrain of the bighorn sheep is certainly worth noting here. They live on alpine meadows, grassy mountain slopes and foothills and are incredibly well adapted to climbing steep terrain which gives them protection from predators. Their hooves are well designed for balance and grip, making them good climbers and jumpers. They are surefooted even on slippery, scree covered slopes and only need a small space to get a toe hold. The bighorn can take opportunities that others can’t and do so with less risk and more confidence. This is a reminder to us to seize opportunities, to take leaps and to trust our ability to move into new areas of life with confidence. As Aries reminds us, this is a time to act, to move, to jump. Don’t wait, don’t overthink this, just do it!
As prey animals, bighorn sheep have evolved to have sharp hearing, a highly developed sense of smell and wide set eyes which provide a large angle of vision. This means that its hard for anything to creep up on them, they are watchful creatures which are constantly keeping their senses alert to danger. This is helped by their large social groups where there is safety in numbers.
The bighorn sheep is one of the most admired creatures of the Apsaalooka, or Crow, people and they have a number of sacred myths about them. One myth explains how bighorn sheep saved a young man, imbued him with their qualities – power, wisdom, sharp eyes, surefootedness, keen ears, great strength and a strong heart. He then returned to his people and instructed them that the river, known as bighorn river, must not have its name changed. If they did change the name, the crow people would be no more. Other myths focus on the virility of the bighorn sheep and how they can be a symbol of male success in both hunting and in sexual activities.
In general, this card feels like it has a very traditionally male vibe going on. The horns are most notable on the males, the association with aries and mars is traditionally male and almost everything I discovered about the bighorn sheep was focused on the rams. That being said, when it came to ancestral knowledge and the passing of wisdom from one generation to another, the literature talked more about the maternal line. I think the message this card has for you today, and the success of how you implement the teachings, will depend on whether you take these traits as separate, or whether you work to combine them together in a more holistic way.