The great thing about Classics is that even the most boring of animals (which, let’s face it, sheep generally are) can turn out to be quite weird and wonderful after all. As a philologist, I’ve always been rather fond of Greek sheep, for two reasons:
One: they provide important evidence for pronunciation changes in the Greek language. If anyone ever asks you to prove that Ancient Greek was pronounced differently from Modern Greek, by far the easiest way to do it is to point out that Ancient Greek sheep go βῆ βῆ [bē bē]:
ὁ δ’ ἠλίθιος ὥσπερ πρόβατον βῆ βῆ λέγων βαδίζει
“The silly man goes around going baa baa like a sheep” (Cratinus, fragment 43)
Unless your interlocutor can find a breed of sheep that makes a noise like vee vee, you can at this point be regarded as having won the argument.
(The wonderfully onomatopoeic but sadly uncommon term βληχητά, “bleaters” [blēkhēta], will also do the trick.)
Two: I’ve always liked the word πρόβατον [probaton]– which originally could mean almost any four-footed farm animal, but in Attic almost always refers to sheep. LSJ has some boring explanation of this being because the smaller animals tend to προβαίνω [probainō], ‘go in front of’, the herd, but since προβαίνω more often means ‘go forwards’ I’d like to propose an alternative etymology, ‘a thing that goes forwards’. This could be connected with the old story about the Welsh [originally: Spartan?] sheep whose legs are shorter on one side than the other, so they can balance on hillsides more easily. Of course, this is fine as long as they’re only going in one direction across the hillside (so that the uphill leg is shorter than the downhill leg), but when they reach the fence they can’t turn round, because then the downhill leg would be shorter than the uphill leg, and they’d fall over. So the farmer has to drive out in his tractor [cart] to pick them all up and put them back at the other end of the field, to start all over again. Hence, τὰ πρόβατα [ta probata].
Before anyone starts accusing me of drawing wildly fanciful anachronistic parallels, I would like to call your attention to the following story from Herodotus 3.113:
“In Arabia, there are also two amazing kinds of sheep which are found nowhere else. First, there are sheep whose tails are so long – three cubits or more – that they would get sore from being dragged along the ground, if the sheep were allowed to trail them behind them. In fact, though, every shepherd knows enough woodwork to make little carts on to which they fasten the sheeps’ tails, one for the tail of each animal. The second kind of sheep have broad tails which are as much as a cubit across.”
Thus proving that farmers have been playing the “let’s fool the gullible townies with crazy stories about sheep” game for – well, probably ever since people first started living in towns.