Today begins the Chinese Year of the Sheep—or the Goat—there seems to be some controversy about the precise animal, but be reassured that I am on the job and have you covered with stories of spooky sheep and a ghastly goat.
Let’s start with the goat story, covered in these pages previously, but one of my favorites. Despite their association with ritual magic and the Devil, ghostly goats rarely figure in paranormal literature. When they do, they often have a whiff of the elemental about them, as in this tale published in 1921.
There was a large boarding school for boys on the Continent, in which the dormitories were divided up into “partitions”—every bed being separated from the next and from the passage in front, by curtains running on long rods. Every body on going to rest could thus shut himself up in a sort of tiny room. Dim lights burned in the dormitories all night.
One of the boys, of active brain no doubt, could never succeed in falling asleep, as boys generally contrive to do the moment they get into bed; he nearly always lay awake for an hour or more ere “an exposition of sleep fell upon him.”
On nights when he remained awake longer than usual, he used to notice a strange thing. Out of the deep stillness that surrounded him, he would hear a small faint sound, arising far off in the long corridors outside the dormitory, and gradually approaching the door (which remained open all night) till he could distinguish a tripping, tapping step, like that of some small-hoofed animal. The step would enter the dormitory, come towards him along the passage between the rows of partitions, stop just short of his own, and enter the next one. In a short time he would hear the strange visitant leave the other partition and go down the passage again; the sound at length dying away in the corridors outside.
The listener, who seems to have been a silent and self-contained boy, said nothing to any of his companions of the mysterious sound. But it greatly excited his curiosity, and one night he determined to try and see the strange visitant of the dormitory.
Waiting therefore till the steps were receding down the passage and had got some distance away, the boy threw back the bedclothes, got to the foot of his bed, and as noiselessly and possible drew back the curtain a little way and peeped out. As before observed, there was a faint light burning, and the boy was able to see what the visitant was.
It was a small black goat.
In the morning the boy, with some justification, “reported sick,” and was sent to the infirmary. In the course of the day he told the authorities the cause of the nervous shock from which he was suffering. The matter was kept from the knowledge of the other boys, and that night, when the partitions were closed, a master very unostentatiously entered the sick boy’s partition and got into bed.
The master kept watch till he heard the tapping step come along the corridor, draw near, and enter the next partition. He waited a moment or two, and then slightly pushed aside the curtain at the head of the bed.
The boy in the next partition was lying on his back in bed. A black goat was standing on the bed, its forefeet on the boy’s throat, and it was looking into his face with red, fiery eyes.
The master let the curtain fall again. Soon he heard the being in the next partition get down from the bed, and walk away down the dormitory, till the faint sound of its steps was lost in the night.
Next morning the boy in the other partition failed to get up with the rest. When they came to call him, they found him lying on his back, dead, with black marks, as of small hoofs, on his throat.
This story was related to me many years ago, as a fact, by a person who had means of judging as to the truth of it. Beyond this I am unable to go; though the very bizarre quality of the story speaks in its favour.
The Occult Reader, Vol. 34, 1921, p. 105
Next, some supernatural sheep. A veterinarian acquaintance of mine expresses nothing but contempt for the species. They aren’t very bright, get sick or spooked easily, and are prone to getting lost and hurt. Considering the high death toll, there are surprisingly few stories of spectral sheep.
During the seven years’ war in Germany, a drover lost his life in a drunken squabble on the high road. For some time there was a sort of rude tombstone, with a cross on it, to mark the spot where his body was interred; but this has long fallen, and a milestone now fills its place. Nevertheless, it continues commonly asserted by the country people, and also by various travellers, that they have been deluded in that spot by seeing, as they imagine, herds of beasts, which, on investigation, prove to be merely visionary. Of course, many people look upon this as a superstition; but a very singular confirmation of the story occurred in the year 1826, when two gentlemen and two ladies were passing the spot in a post-carriage. One of these was a clergyman, and none of them had ever heard of the phenomenon said to be attached to the place. They had been discussing the prospects of the minister, who was on his way to a vicarage, to which he had just been appointed, when they saw a large flock of sheep, which stretched quite across the road, and was accompanied by a shepherd and a long-haired black dog. As to meet cattle on that road was nothing uncommon, and indeed they had met several droves in the course of the day, no remark was made at the moment, till suddenly each looked at the other and said, “What is become of the sheep?”
Quite perplexed at their sudden disappearance, they called to the postillion to stop, and all got out in order to mount a little elevation and look around; but still unable to discover them, they now bethought themselves of asking the postillion where they were, when, to their infinite surprise, they learned that he had not seen them. Upon this, they bade him quicken his pace, that they might overtake a carriage that had passed them shortly before, and inquire if that party had seen the sheep; but they had not.
Four years later, a postmaster, named J. was on the same road, driving a carriage, in which were a clergyman and his wife, when he saw a large flock of sheep near the same spot. Seeing they were very fine wethers, and supposing them to have been bought at a sheep-fair that was then taking place a few miles off, J. drew up his reins and stopped his horse, turning at the same time to the clergyman to say, that he wanted to inquire the price of the sheep, as he intended going next day to the fair himself. While the minister was asking him what sheep he meant, J. got down and found himself in the midst of the animals, the size and beauty of which astonished him. They passed him at an unusual rate, while he made his way through them to find the shepherd, when, on getting to the end of the flock, they suddenly disappeared. He then first learned that his fellow-travellers had not seen them at all.
The Night Side of Nature; Or, Ghosts and Ghost Seers, Catherine Crowe, 1848
The wethers of unusual size and beauty suggest a flock of fairy sheep. Wirt Sikes, in his British Goblins tantalizingly mentions the “fairy sheep of Cefn Rhychdir which rose up out of the earth and vanished into the sky,” but gives no details.
An intriguing remnant of foundation sacrifices is the Danish “Kirkelam,” related to the “Kirk-grim” reported by T.F. Thistelton-Dyer in The Ghost World, as usually a pig, but sometimes a lamb:
“Swedish tradition tells how it was customary for the early founders of Christian churches to bury a lamb under the altar. It is said that when anyone enters a church out of service time he may chance to see a little lamb spring across the choir and vanish. This is the church lamb, and its appearance in the churchyard, especially to the grave-digger, is said to betoken the death of a child. According to a Danish form of this superstition, the kirk-grim dwells either in the tower or wherever it can find a place of concealment, and is thought to protect the sacred building.” The Ghost World, T.F. Thistelton-Dyer, 1893
This belief was still in force in Denmark in the 1880s according to an Englishman who calls himself “An Angler,” who heard much about old Danish customs from a Danish Pastor.
“There are other legends of animals,” said pastor Lindal. “There is the Kirkelam, or the church lamb. This arose from the practice, when a church was founded, to bury under the altar a living lamb, to prevent, it was said, the church from sinking. This lamb’s ghost was called the Kirkelam, and, if at any time a child was about to die, the church lamb was supposed to appear at the threshold of the door. In Carlslunde church tower there is a bas-relief of a lamb, to show that a living lamb was buried there when the church was built. It is related that a woman was sent for to nurse another woman who was very ill; as she went through the churchyard, she was aware of something like a dog or a cat rubbing itself against her clothes. She stooped down to look at it, in the half light of the evening, when, lo! It was the church lamb. The sick woman died at the very same instant, so runs the legend.” A Danish Parsonage, An Angler, 1884
Considering their generally timid disposition, I was surprised to find even one sinister sheep: this death-omen ovine from Ireland’s Leap Castle:
No direct heir ever inherits “Leap,” and when misfortune is following fast on the footsteps of the family, a ghostly sheep appears and with a claw of great length (that kind of sheep have “claws”) scratches on the panels of the great oaken portals. Every properly self-respecting house in Ireland has a ghost, but Leap has more than its share, and no peasant of the island would venture to pass a night alone in the dungeon under its great tower. Wanderings in Ireland, Michael Myers Shoemaker, 1908
There is, of course, this demon-sheep (pictured at the head of the post) come to fetch a killer in a comic murder ballad, which I am sorry to say, I cannot find anywhere on Youtube. A chorus of this would seem the perfect way to open the Year of the Sheep.
BILLY VITE AND NELLY GREEN
Come, all ye blades, both high and low,
And you shall hear of a dismal go;
It is all about one Billy Vite,
Who was his parents’ sole delight.
[chorus] Ri tol, lol, &c.
He was a collier, all by his trade,
And noted for a natty blade,
Till he fell in love with Helly Green,
The prettiest lass that ever was seen.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
Now this young woman, I’d have you know,
Loved that ere young man but werry so so;
For she was werry well versed in letters,
And fit to marry poor Billy Vite’s betters.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
Now when his suit she did deny,
He in a coal-pit went to cry;
When straightway did to him appear Old Nick,
And bid him tip her a penn’orth of white arsenic.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
To poison her he was werry werry loth,
So he mixed it up in some sheep’s head broth,
And she did eat while she was able,
Till she fell stiff stone dead underneath the table.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
One night as he lay fast asleep
He plainly saw the ghost of a sheep,
And unto him it straightway said,
A maid you poisoned with my head.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
I come, says he, from Old Nick straight,
He wants you and he will not wait;
I’ll tie you up in your red garters,
And carry you away on my hind quarters.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
Now away they went in a flash of fire,
Which made all the people wery much admire;
They never had seen such a sight before,
And I hope they never vo’n’t see such a sight no more.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
Now, all ye blades, unmarried,
Take warning by that ere chap what’s dead;
And if he had never done any body wrong,
He might have been here to hear this ere song.
Ri tol, lol, &c.
The Universal Songster, or, Museum of Mirth, Vol. 2, George Cruikshank, Robert Cruikshank, 1826
In what English dialect (or alternative universe) do “unmarried” and “what’s dead” rhyme?
Other ghostly sheep or goats? (I’ve left out snippets from Elliott O’Donnell and Catherine Crowe.) Set them to my right or left hand as appropriate at Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.