Moon Sheep

In this day and age, of electric lights and telescopes, the cultural influence of the moon has changed. In our hunter gatherer past everybody would have lived by, and understood the ever-changing yet predictable cycles of the moon. Watching the night sky from their campfires our ancestors saw the moon make its way across the sky, on a path that kept it above the clouds and below the stars, making it unreachable yet not so far away.

There is no doubt that the moon influenced the behavior and spirituality of the ancient people of the great basin as well. Much of what they left us is encoded in their petroglyphs that represent their thoughts and dreams. Some of the more common petroglyphs in the great basin are images of desert bighorn sheep. Many are highly stylized in a form sometimes referred to as a boat sheep. This is because the shape of their body resembles that of a boat. However, I think it's possible to link this shape to something else, and that is a half or crescent moon. The bodies of many of these sheep look like a half-moon. Some of them have a back that is curved far beyond anything that would be possible. Also their tails are not anatomically correct for desert bighorn sheep. They are too large and pointing upward in a way that bighorn sheep really can’t do. Artistically this helps shape the body into a crescent moon shape. So one can ask: Is this a deliberate association on their part, or an unintended similarity. It seems that these attributes are so unusually specific and universal that in all likelihood thay carried some sort of symbolic meaning.

Hunting by moonlight is one of the major hunting strategies for desert bighorn sheep. It is a spot and stalk strategy that entails finding the desert bighorn sheep in daylight and then waiting for the sheep to get into a place where they feel safe and bed down for the night. Then under cover of darkness, or perhaps we should say by the light of the moon, these ancient hunters would sneak up on the sheep and make their kill. In order to do this effectively one needs to have an in depth knowledge of how moonlight is played out on the landscape. Attempting to do this on a moonless night or walking through a large moon shadow would make such an endeavor futile and dangerous.

We all have our own personal and cultural relationship with the moon and stars. For me the moon and the stars are an essential part of the desert experience. While guiding desert bighorn sheep hunts I have used this ancient strategy myself. Of course, in modern times we have to wait till sunrise to make the kill. I can tell you from personal first-hand experience that working your way up a steep rocky slope full of cholla cactus by moonlight, to sneak up on a group of rams with the intent of making a kill is a powerful emotional event. The ancient hunters of this land would experience this numerous times in their life, thus this knowledge of how the moonlight plays out on the landscape and the drama of the hunt would have been a larger part of their lives. This leaves us to wonder, in what manner and to what degree did this knowledge, and these experiences, find expression in the art and symbolism they left behind.

By Carlos Gallinger