Monday, April 17, 2017

A Load Of Old Bull?

There is a vast corpus of striking imagery from Mt. Bego in the Italian/French Alps. The images, dated to between 3,200-1700 B.C depict many stylised bulls or oxen. There are about 13,000 ‘corniform’ carvings, being a substantial percentage of the 40,000 carvings discovered at the site. 

Carvings from Mt Bego.

This reverence for the animal persisted in the Alpine regions into the later Hallstatt period. After the Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain the bull became linked to certain deities and cults. For example the god Esus, the strong or roaring one, was often portrayed in the company of bulls. There were also specific bull-gods, such as the Gallic Tarvostrigaranus.  In Graeco-Romano realms the bull was linked with the chief of the gods, Zeus/Jupiter, proving how powerful an image it was. The image hints at tribal memories of times when the mighty auroch roamed the lands. The auroch were  huge wild bulls that became extinct by the 2nd Millenia BC (although according to some sources the species survived into the 1600’s in Poland). 

With a lot of animal symbology  natural qualities become  sympathetic attributes ie; certain beneficial qualities of a particular animal are desired to be transferred, or acquired, by a human.  In the bull’s case these 'desired qualities' are strength and endurance. This is a reoccurring theme in many cultures. 

There appears to have been a symbolic association with the moon and the bull in many ancient religions. Of course visually the crescent of the horns could easily have been identified with the moon and this doesn’t suggest a cross fertilisation of early ideas. Such ideas could have been formed and associations deduced  by communities where stylised symbols were used. 

Brone Age Celtic figure. The triple horns suggest heightened potency.

Cattle were also linked with fertility and prosperity. This association was another practical one extending from the days when cattle were a tribesman’s wealth. The first rune of the Viking futhark, Fehu (Feoh in old English),  means money and cattle. In Vedic India cows were once payment for poets - something similar was not unknown in ancient Ireland, as is mentioned in the Táin Bó Regamna: Cú Chulainn, encountering the Morrighan disguised as a travelling poet, asked her where she got the cow that she led. The goddess replied that it was given in return for a poem. 

Bull skulls have been found at Celtic shrines, and the animal was often slain in sacrificial rites. This practice was not only confined to the Celtic regions. Bull worship and sacrifice was vital to the Minoan civilisation. Often such sacrifices coincided with communal feasting celebrations in which the sacrifice was on the menu.

The sacrifice of cattle in ritual was to yield a portion of wealth to the god/goddess. The inclusion of carved wooden bull figurines at shrine dedicated to Sequana, the goddess of the River Seine in France, may well be sacrificial offerings made by those unable to afford to sacrifice a real cattle.

Stylised bull from Pictish Scotland, Late Iron Age.

As hinted at previously, there is a strong link between cows and poet inspiration. In Vedic and Grecian myth this theme is alluded to in the Rig Veda and there are similarities between the myth of  Orpheus and the tripartite craftsmen of Hindu myth, the Rbhus. The latter are craftsmen who also craft words, which is exactly what a poet does. 

Indeed there appears to be a strong Indo-European root-myth in which a divine hero slays an underworld serpent, releasing the cattle of the dawn from the cavern of its stomach. It is said that a true poet must learn the names of the footprints of the cattle. This obscure reference (and the fact that in Hindu myth this is also linked to Soma) perhaps alludes to hallucinogenic mushrooms that grow in cow dung. Perhaps naming the footprints was an allegory for naming the ’shroom. Who knows, but if you want inspiration of deep-seated and far-sighted proportions mushrooms will do the trick!* 

This notion of cattle as wealth and  as providers of poetic inspiration is heightened by the produce obtained from the milk-cow. As providers of milk and butter they are benefactors to the community and therefore, symbolically, themes of abundance, prosperity and fertility abound. Sacrificial offerings of large slabs of butter have been found in bogs in Ireland dating to the later Bronze-age, attesting to the power of the motif and providing an insight into other ways the cow was sacrificed. 

In the male aspect we see strength, endurance, and the warlike nature of men. These themes are epitomised in the famous Irish tale the “Táin Bó Cuailnge”, in which a brown and white bull  symbolise the warring tribes of Connacht and Ulster. In the final section of the tale the bulls battle on the Plain of Aei, ripping each other apart.*  Here we see a warlike aspect of the bull in vivid Celtic imagery, it is a insight into the cattle raiding nature of the warrior Celts, possessing powerful metaphoric insight. 

“It was not long before the men of Erin, as they were there early on the morrow, saw coming over Cruachan from the west the Brown Bull of Cualnge with the Whitehorned of Ai in torn fragments hanging about his ears and horns. The men of Erin arose, and they knew not which of the bulls it was.” 

From the Táin Bó Cuailnge


It is interesting to reflect that the first runic imprint in the futhark alphabet is that of cattle! 

They are both swineherds who have been reborn as the mighty beasts.


Futhark, A Book Of Rune Magic - Edred Thorsson
Inherited Bovine Aspects In Greek Reflexes of the Indo-European Serpent Slaying Myth - John-Andrew McDonald
Encyclopaedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore  - Patricia Monaghan
Symbol and Image in Celtic Religious Art - Miranda Green
Prehistoric Britain - Timothy Darvil


Mt Bego link Here

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