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Sheep Casings - Further Information

The fact that sheep casings have an extremely long cultural history can be seen by the following anecdotes.

Sheep casings are able to draw the soul from the body

In his play "Much Ado About Nothing", William Shakespeare has one of his characters say: "Is it not strange that sheep's guts should hale souls out of men's bodies?" This is a reference to stringed musical instruments, which obviously at that time were able to evoke strong feelings in their listeners.

Sheep casings used in the rescue of Eurydike

There are early references in Greek mythology to the usage of sheep casings as strings for instruments. As a child, Hermes the son of Zeus, is said to have made himself a lyre.

The story goes that for this purpose he took a tortoise and having disembowelled it, then laid a cow-skin over the shell and seven strings made of sheep casings above that. Later on Hermes' lyre fell into the possession of Apollon, who subsequently passed it on to his son, Orpheus.

When his wife Eurydike died from snakebite, Orpheus descended into the underworld and started to sing, accompanied by this lyre, in an attempt to win back his wife. The sound of the lyre strung with sheep casings together with the song of Orpheus must have been so heart-rending that not just the bloodless souls wept but Orpheus succeeded in impressing the ruler of the underworld, Hades himself.

The rest is common knowledge: Orpheus was promised the return of Eurydike under the condition that he never looked back on his journey back to the world. At some point he no longer heard her steps behind him and turned around. Although she was still behind him, he lost her forever for having turned around.

Sheep casings used as swimming aids

Sheep casings were not only used as strings for musical instruments. There are reports in existence saying that inflated sheep's guts were used approximately 1,000 years ago by the Persian army as swimming aids for elite battalions of soldiers. The mere sight of an armada of soldiers moving through the waters with strange sausage-like forms must have given rise to a similar horror as Scottish soldiers and their bag-pipes.

How catgut evolved from sheep casings

The fact that "catgut" is not really cats' gut, is of course common knowledge to any expert of natural casings. However, the story as to how cats' guts evolved from catgut is a remarkable anecdote. There is a piece of writing dating back to the 17th century, which refers to fiddlers, who "tickle the dried-up guts of a meowing cat".

Another part of this report includes a section where a man startles every time he hears a fiddle because he always thinks he can hear the cry of a helpless cat. The term "catgut" and the sound reminiscent of the cry of a cat in need when unpractised fingers play an instrument finally lead to the term "caterwauling" and then to the misleading description "catgut".