Cows and bulls

Early Irish society was underpinned by cattle-owning (and cattle-raiding). This is clear from much of the literature. The greatest bull-story symbolizes the importance of this animal and of cattle in general to the fertility and florescence of Ireland as a whole. This is the 'Tain Bo Cuailnge' or 'Cattle Raid of Cooley', which chronicles the conflict between two supernatural bulls, the Findbennach, or White-Horned of Connacht in the south and the Donn or Brown of Cuailnge in Ulster.64 The fight between these two giant beasts symbolizes the antagonism and longstanding hatred between Queen Medb of Connacht and King Conchobar of Ulster. The story begins with domestic jealousy: in bed one night, Medb and her consort Ailill each boast of their possessions. It appears that they are equally rich in all things except that Ailill possesses a magnificent white-horned bull. Medb hears of the equally splendid Donn of Ulster and tries in vain to acquire him. Then she declares war on Ulster, to obtain the animal by force. The war culminates in a combat between the two bulls themselves, which rages over days and nights and ranges over much of the land. Finally, the Ulster bull prevails and slays Ailill's Findbennach, but dies of the effort. This symbolizes the Pyrrhic victory of Ulster over Connacht.

What is most interesting about the two bulls is that they are not only supernaturally large, but they possess human levels of understanding and intelligence. Cormac, son of Conchobar and prince of Ulster, upbraids the Donn for flagging and slipping back under the onslaught of his opponent. The Donn comprehends and responds by summoning all his strength to make a greater effort.65 The reason for the human spirit of the two animals is that they are in fact enchanted creatures, metamorphosed from human shape. The Ulster hero Ferghus describes how they are skin-changers who were originally divine herdsmen in human form, named Rucht and Rucne. They underwent a series of transformations, being at one time ravens, then stags, champions, water-beasts, demons and water-worms. Ross66 suggests that the two bulls may originally have been bull-lords, guardians and promoters of the fertility of the herd.

An important early Irish ritual recorded in the literature is the tarbhfhess, which means 'bull feast' or 'bull sleep'. The tarbhfhess was a method of selecting a king by means of divination, associated particularly with the rulership of the royal seat of Tara (Co. Meath). In the ritual, a bull was killed and a man, chosen as the medium, ate his fill of the flesh and drank the broth in which the meat had been cooked. Then he slept and a truth-spell was chanted over him by four Druids. In his sleep, the man then

dreamed and saw a vision of the rightful kingelect —

Bulls and cows are the subject of many other Insular myths and stories. The war-goddess the Morrigan turns a girl named Odras into a pool of water because her cow has been mated by Odras's bull. This punishment was presumably in revenge for the insult done to a goddess in mating her supernatural beast with an earthly creature. The Morrigan herself may have a particular affinity with cattle: when she appears as a young girl to Cu Chulainn and he spurns her, she unmans him by changing into different forms, including that of a hornless red heifer. The colouring may signify the Otherworld association evidenced elsewhere in instances of supernatural cows which are white with red ears, or in the hounds of the Welsh underworld god Arawn which are also white and red-eared. The Irish luchna had three of these cows, on whose heads reposed three men transformed into birds.68 This image immediately calls to mind the iconography of Tarvostrigaranus, the Bull with Three Cranes perched on his back and head (figure 8.11), depicted in Gallo-Roman sculpture (chapter 8). The abundance of cow imagery reinforces the dependence of Ireland upon cattle. The goddess Brigid was reared on the milk of an Otherworld cow. Boann, a goddess of Ireland and the personification of the river Boyne, is called She of the White Cow. In a story of the conflict between the Tuatha De Danann (the divine race of Ireland) and the Fomorians, chronicled in the Book of Invasions, the oppressive king Bres demands an impossible tribute from every Irish household, consisting of milk from a huge number of identically coloured cows. The divine Lugh solves the problem by conjuring a herd of cows by magic; then Nechtan, king of Ireland, dyes all the cows brown.69

Figure 7.13 Bronze bull-mount from a cart or chariot, first century BC, Bulbury, Dorset. Length: 6.4cm. Paul Jenkins.

Figure 7.14 Bronze bull-head mounts, first century BC/first century AD: (a) Welshpool, Powys; (b) Dinorben, Gwynedd. By courtesy of the National Museum of Wales.

Since Stone Age times dogs have occupied a particular place among animals in their peculiarly close relationship to man, sharing his hearth at night and guarding his household, working with him during the day as sheepdogs or hunters. Dogs have a close symbiotic relationship with humans, a relationship that is reflected in the early literature. In the

0 0

Post a comment