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Portugal Travels pt 4: São João's Day Sheep Blessing

When I started planning this trip to Portugal last fall, I contacted Rosa hoping to find out about any shepherds or wool mills we could visit on our trip. She is a proponent of Portuguese wool, making several lines of local wool yarns, and is very connected with farmers and the sheep culture of Portugal. No wool-related trip to Portugal could be complete without getting in touch with Rosa. She responded, "If you come in June we could travel to the mountains and go to one of my favorite wool-related rituals: a blessing of the sheep in a small village." Sheep Blessing in the mountains?! Yes, please!! And so the entire trip was then planned around this mysterious blessing of the sheep. 

Sheep Blessing

We had no idea what to expect for this blessing, but we knew a few details. The participating shepherds are transhumant shepherds, moving their flocks with the seasons from lower elevation to the high mountains. The blessing takes place in the mountains on São João's day (St. John's Day, June 24th), the time when the flocks climb to higher pastures. Rosa kept in touch with a shepherd friend to confirm it would be happening. What time would it happen? It depends on how hot the day was and how long the sheep slept...so in other words - who knows?? But we would be there! 

The streets of Folgosa da Madalena

When we arrived at the tiny village of Folgosa da Madalena on Sunday afternoon it was packed! Everyone had come out to watch the sheep blessing. The streets were decorated for São João's day celebrations, a band was playing, there were booths set up with a raffle and selling beer. There were many shepherds (and future shepherds!) there, many wearing traditional shepherd clothing of a woven wool vest, a blanket (or more modern variation, a jacket) over one shoulder, and carrying a staff. Everyone packed the streets around the centrally-located church and waited for the sheep blessing to begin.

Any shepherd is welcome to bring their flock to participate in the sheep blessing. The blessing used to happen inside the church, but now it takes place in the square around the church. The shepherds who want to participate will bring their flock to the village, some walking days to arrive. Each flock, with two or three shepherds working, gets a turn at the sheep blessing. Until it is their turn, they keep their flock in a group, moving it closer to the center of town as their turn nears.

Sheep Blessing in Sao Joao, Portugal

When the shepherds begin the sheep blessing, they guide their flock into the square by the church. Without missing a step, the shepherds quickly kneel and cross themselves at the entrance to the church. They then lead their flock around the church counterclockwise, increasing in speed until the front of the flock catches up to the back of the flock, creating an unbroken ring of running sheep around the church. They step aside, and allow this self-perpetuating loop of sheep to run around the church at least three times (or more if they have made a promise or request to God). The shepherds then must stop the sheep, reverse the direction of their flock and run again, clockwise this time. Depending on the size of the flock and the skill of the shepherds, it would take about 10 minutes for each blessing. 

Family of Sheep Hearders in Sao Joao

The shepherds often seemed to be generations of a family working together. It was amazing to see this tradition being passed down to younger shepherds. One of our favorite groups was a woman shepherd working with her father and very young daughter. The little girl already had amazing shepherding skills, wielding her staff to encourage her sheep to steer clear of bystanders. 

Many shepherds put bells on each sheep, creating a symphony of sound when the sheep run. There is a popular bell maker in town, whose handmade livestock bells seemed to be in high demand! Often goats were mixed in with the sheep. Some goats wear very large bells making a deep, low ring. Some had multiple bells attached down the length of their horns to make an even more amazing chorus! 

Decorated horns in the Sheep Blessing

One tradition is for the shepherds to decorate their goats with bright pom poms. The last shepherd of the day (and Rosa's friend) had decorated his goats with beautiful and bright pom poms and ribbon-wrapped horns. It was so awesome to see this tradition! Rosa let us know that the shepherds themselves do the decorations to the animals. 

Sheep

The sheep blessing happens once a year, and when the shepherds succeed at the ritual, it means good things for the coming year. Alternately, if they are unable to get the flock to connect or to reverse direction, it is bad news, bringing dishonor to the shepherds. Luckily, everyone did an amazing job and every last sheep was blessed this year! About 10 - 12 flocks total were at Folgosa da Madalena for sheep blessing this year and it was amazing to watch them all. 

The sheep that we saw are a very special sheep to the region, Bordaleira della Serra da Estrela and Churra Mondegueira. These sheep and their shepherds are revered by the local communities for their delicious and culturally important cheese, Serra da Estrela cheese. The mountain range of Serra da Estrela is known for this famous cheese, which has protected PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) in the EU. It can be anywhere from creamy when it is young to sliceable as it ages. It is absolutely delicious, and we ate it every single day while in the mountains. I'm not sure you can get it here in the states, and yes, it's worth a visit to Portugal to try it. 

Group photo at the Sao Joao Day Sheep Blessing

Planning a trip halfway around the world with wool aficionado friends--people whom wool brought together in fact--to see transhumant shepherd's spiritual connections with their animals was an emotional experience for all of us. We felt an immediate kinship and connection. Meeting amazing people because of our shared love of wool and craft was a truly moving and exceptional experience. 

Stay tuned tomorrow for a wrap-up and more Portugal beauty!

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