The shepherd in mythology


The shepherd is a powerful mythological figure. Perhaps the earliest example comes from the four thousand year-old Epic of Gilgamesh, in which a primitive man, Enkidu, is 'civilised' by wise shepherds. 
  Shepherds are central to Greek and Roman mythology: Orpheus, Apollo, Pan, Paris, Endymion, all spent time looking after sheep.  
  The image of Orpheus as a shepherd (below left) comes from a Roman sarcophagus in Ostia.  Claude Lorrain's picture (below right) shows Apollo keeping the sheep entertained. We will have more to say on Orpheus  when we look at early images of Christ as the Good Shepherd. 
   Do sheep enjoy a good tune? I've no idea. 


Apollo guarding the herds of Admetus
Private collection

  The soulful looking chap (below ) is 'Paris as a Shepherd' by van Dyck. This is an unusual image of Paris. Usually he is shown making his judgement, picking his favourite out of three attractive naked women. I wonder why that's such a popular theme? 


Wallace Collection, London

 

   The story of the shepherd Endymion is a rather odd one. Having fallen in love with the good-looking shepherd, the goddess Selene (or Luna) asked Zeus to send him to sleep on a permanent basis. She then visited the sleeping Endymion, which resulted in her giving birth to fifty daughters.  (But he was fast asleep - so how did that work?)
   The story wasn't too crazy for Keats to adapt it for his rather overlong poem.  The first line is a great success (A thing of beauty is a joy forever) but the next 4000 or so don't quite measure up. 

    Selene and Endymion  became quite a popular theme in French Rococo and Romantic paintings, but most of them are far too kitsch to include here - Google Endymion images if you really want to see them. Below is another  Roman sarcophagus, this one  in the Louvre, showing a sleeping Endymion. How he was able to sleep with all that going on around him is anybody's guess. 

   
   A familiar type-scene from classical mythology involves potential heroes such as Oedipus, Paris, and Romulus and Remus being abandoned in babyhood then discovered and brought up by shepherds.
  


Pietro da Cortona
Romulus and Remus being given shelter by Faustulus
 The Louvre, Paris


Antoine-Denis Chaudet
Oedipus revived by the shepherd Phorbas

  Probably the most all-encompassing classical shepherd is Hermes, especially when adopting the persona of Hermes Kriophoros, Hermes the Ram Bearer, the Lord of the herds, who leads his sheep to water and carries a ram on his shoulders. One Greek tradition is for a young man in the guise of the Kriophoros to run around a city bearing a ram, to protect the inhabitants from plague. 
  This image became an important one  in early Christian art.


Museo Barracco, Rome

Why shepherds?
  For nomadic tribes, the shepherd is a powerful religious metaphor.  He guides and cares for his flock, he is vigilant, and wise. He is God's (or the Gods') delegate on Earth. He also symbolises the change from a hunter-gatherer to a pastoral society. The metaphor is so strong it has outlived the period when real shepherds were powerful figures in society. 

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