Here is the oldest story ever told: the miraculous birth. It predates us, although I didn’t know it. I always thought it a human story, a Christian story, a Christmas story. Baby Jesus in his crib, with a reverent procession of visitors both sublime and banal, from heavenly angels to donkey and cow, from three wise men to simple shepherds. All, regardless of status, changed the course of their day to bear witness to the miracle.
And here it is yet again. Look at the picture. Do you see the expressions of reverence and awe on their faces; in their bodies? These are sheep, Barbary sheep. They live in the Metropolitan Toronto Zoo. Through the course of the day, they wander, they bleat, they shit and they eat. They wander through their enclosure leaping up the rocks and curling up in the sun. Sometimes they jostle for status, or huddle for comfort, but this is not an ordinary day. Twins just born, the placenta still quivers, a perfect circle of red and pink. The mother exhausted, brings herself to stand on shaky feet. The lambs struggle up to take the teat, the first action of their new lives.
Change, and the potential for change, has entered their predictable lives. Because once born, everything changes, in the pack, the flock, the family, the social group. There is potential in a newborn babe, not just innocence, because we never know what the adult will be. Saint, sinner, bully, mentor, days or years it will take to realize the result, but the potential is here, at the moment of birth where it all begins. And we all know, and even the sheep know it, and mark the moment in this brief but moving ritual of greeting.
And all the sheep bear witness. Animals they may be, but their actions bear the unmistakable stamp of ritual. So this, I will say is the oldest story ever told, because even the animals tell it, to this day.
PS. I’m not making this up. Really, really, I saw this happen. The sheep all turning as one to greet the newest members of the flock. I learned more from that moment than I could in any book. I learned, more than ever, to appreciate the depths of another species mind. Not to mention, more fodder to my speculations on the origins of religion.
PPS. This took me two weeks to write down! I just couldn’t get my head around what I was trying to say. Here goes---POST IT!