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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Counting Cows: The Significance of Cattle in Celtic Culture and Folklore

Táin Bó Cuilnge, one of Irish mythology's most renowned stories, tells how Queen Maeve started a war to obtain the prized Brown Bull of Cooley.
Táin Bó Cuilnge, one of Irish mythology's most renowned stories, tells how Queen Maeve started a war to obtain the prized Brown Bull of Cooley.

This past Thursday, July 4th, U.S. citizens celebrated Independence Day, a holiday commemorating the colonists’ momentous decision to break with Britain and its monarchy and to create a sovereign country of their own, one that would be a democratic republic. Heady stuff, when you think about it. But truth be told, for most people in the U.S., the BIG EVENT of the day is the BBQ (or, depending on the part of the country) the cookout. Let’s face it, for most people—everywhere—holidays are about family and food.


And the ancient Celts were no different. On each of the four fire festivals (the major holy days), the ancient Celts gathered as a community, built a big bonfire, said some prayers, and made a ritual sacrifice to the gods, then it was time to eat! And what was for dinner—beef! Admittedly, at Lughnasa, a harvest festival, the first fruits of the harvest were included both in the sacrifice and the meal, but at all four sacred gatherings, the main sacrifice was a bull. Following this was the BBQ. They may not have had hamburgers, but they definitely had themselves some beef.


Beef was a major ingredient in the diet of the ancient Celts. Along with the meat, they regularly consumed a substantial amount of milk, butter, and cheese. Cattle helped keep the Celts alive. But cattle was more than just a source of food for them. The significance of cattle in their culture shows up in folk traditions, mythology, and even law. Today’s post looks at just a few ways cattle were an integral part of early Celtic life.


Symbolism: Bulls were a symbol of fertility and strength.


Stand with Ukraine
Stand with Ukraine

Mythology and Religion: One of the most famous stories in Celtic mythology is Táin Bó Cuilnge (the Cattle Raid of Cooley). This story’s main character is Maeve, the legendary Queen of Connacht. A powerful and fearless warrior woman, Maeve was a queen in her own right of the entire province of Connacht.


One night she and her husband, her consort, had a teasing debate about who had the greatest wealth. In a Celtic marriage, the one who had the greatest wealth was the one who had the most power and authority, so this was an important question. Ultimately, they figured out they were about equal except that her husband, Ailill had recently acquired a prized stud bull. Since cattle were a chief measure of not only wealth but status in Celtic society, this put Ailill above Maeve.


Well, there was no way she was going to stand for that! After all, he was just her consort. But she quickly formulated a plan. She decided to obtain the renowned Brown Bull of Cooley in the province of Ulster. This bull was a highly sought-after stud.


Maeve wasted no time in going to Ulster to buy the bull, but the owner said no. She offered him money, lands, even sexual favors but he refused to part with his stud. Infuriated, Maeve returned home, gathered her warriors, and paid a second visit to the owner. This time she wasn’t taking no for an answer.


Having forcefully appropriated the prized bull, the Queen returned home to gloat to Ailill.


But the people of Ulster said, “Not so fast, lady. That’s our bull.” Okay, that’s not an exact quote but it reflects the sentiment. After all, she wasn’t their queen. So, naturally, a war between the provinces ensued with Cu Chulainn, one of the greatest heroes of Irish mythology battling it out with Maeve’s forces (he did pretty well, too!). The powerful triple goddess, the Morrigan got involved as well, and the whole thing climaxed with a fight to the death between the two bulls.

St. Brigid, like the Celtic goddess of the same name, is highly associated with cows and dairy.
St. Brigid, like the Celtic goddess of the same name, is highly associated with cows and dairy.

You can read how it ends and learn more about Maeve by clicking here. The important point for this post is that one of the most famous stories in Irish literature centers around a bull, the lengths a queen and a famous warrior would go to to acquire or keep it, and the power and status that came from owning said bull. Did I mention that cattle were important in Celtic society? Believe me yet? Here’s more.


Cows were at least significant in Celtic society as bulls and not just during the pre-Christian era. St. Brigid of Kildare, a fifth-century woman (or possibly the Christianization of the powerful and popular pan-Celtic goddess, Brigid) was a contemporary of St. Patrick. She is now the co-patroness of the Republic of Ireland.

Often, she is depicted either standing near a cow or carrying a container of milk. Perhaps this is because of several miracles attributed to her related to milk or butter. It also could be because of the story of how she survived infancy. Brigid’s mother could not nurse her and everything her father gave her made her vomit. So, the poor child survived because she was nursed by a white cow. Perhaps that is why she later was able to perform the miracle of turning water not into wine but into milk.


Tribute and Status: As mentioned above, owning cattle conferred status in Celtic society. The more you owned, the higher your status. It is said that Brian Boru, Ireland’s most famous High King, received tribute from the lower kings in the form of heads of cattle. This is not a surprise. Even to everyday celts, cows were currency. See below.


Laws and Economy: Cattle were such a significant part of Celtic society that roads, in Irish, came to be called bóthar, meaning “cow path.” In the ancient Irish legal system known as the Brehon laws, fines and wages were paid usually in livestock, most often in cows. For example, shipbuilders were paid four cows a year but “the overseer of the poor and the wretched” only earned “one cow of second quality.” Some fines or reparations were paid in a half a cow (a calf).


The Scots have good cause to be proud of their distinctive Highland Cows.
The Scots have good cause to be proud of their distinctive Highland Cows.

I realize all of my examples have been about the Irish, but cattle was important to the Scots and the Welsh as well—and continues to be. Even today, Highland cows are a special Scottish breed and Caerphilly cheese is a prized product of Wales. Bovine significance in all three Celtic nations shows up especially in folklore and folk traditions. Beltane, one of the four festivals celebrated across the Celtic world is associated with the goddess, Brigid, and traditions having to do with cows and dairy figure significantly on the day. Below are just a few.


Folk Traditions: Brigid’s Day is February 1st but she is also strongly associated with Beltane (May 1st). On the Celtic calendar, Beltane marks the start of summer. Brigid is the goddess of summer (along with many other things).


All fire festivals are celebrated with the lighting of a communal bonfire but, on Beltane, two bonfires are lit. Why? So, you can walk your cows between the fires. This, according to folklore, will purify the animals and protect them from illness in the coming year.


Faeries are out in force on Beltane and they’re looking to cause mischief. Folklore strongly recommends, before turning your cows out to pasture on Beltane, you should tie either a yellow ribbon or yellow flowers to their tails. This, it is said, will protect them from faerie mischief and keep the faeries from stealing them. (Faeries are repelled by the color yellow.) 


To protect your home and yourself from faeries, you can scatter yellow flowers around the outside of your house. This might take a LOT of flowers, so there’s an easier way. The folklore says you can appease the faeries (and keep them from cursing you) by placing a bowl of dairy for them on the doorstep.


On Beltane, you also have to keep the old hag Cailleach from sneaking into your house and stealing your dairy (milk, butter, and cheese) or going into your barn and drying up your cows. Resort to yellow flowers for this.

Some versions of folklore say you should be sure to share some of your dairy with your neighbors on Beltane or you’ll incur a faerie curse resulting in your cows all drying up—forever! Unfortunately, other versions say just the opposite—that your cows will dry up if you give any dairy to your neighbor on Beltane. I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe go with generosity and hope for the best.


I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief look into the significance of cattle in Celtic culture.

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Slán go fóill

     All artwork for this post (except for the Ukranian flag and the GIF) by Christine Dorman via Bing Image Creator.

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