I. Bull of Battle: Tracing an Epithet
In the opening line of The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as tarv trin* ‘bull of battle.’ This has always struck me as a sacred title suitable for Gwyn (‘White’ ‘Blessed’) as a divine warrior-huntsman and psychopomp on an intuitive level. Tracing its origin has led to fascinating discoveries.
Gwyn is not the only one awarded this title. In The Gododdin, a poem from The Book of Aneirin which praises the exploits of the warriors who died in the catastrophic battle of Catraeth, Eithinyn is called tarw trin twice. Caradog and ‘a man of Gwynedd’ are referred to as tarw byddin ‘bull of an army’.
In The Triads we find Tri Tharw Unben ‘Three Bull-Chieftains’ and Tri Tharw Caduc ‘Three Bull-Protectors’. Amongst them are several famous warriors of the Old North: Cynfawr ap Cynwyd Cynwydion, Gwenddolau ap Ceidio, Urien ap Cynfarch, Gwallog ap Lleenog and Afaon, son of Urien’s bard, Taliesin.
More strangely we find Tri Tharw Ellyll ‘Three Bull-Spectres’. Ellyll means ‘spirit, phantom, ghost,’ ‘goblin, elf’ or ‘wraith’ whilst gwyd ellyll refers to ‘furious activity in battle’ and is related to gwyllt ‘wild’ ‘mad’. ‘Bull-Spectres’ may be bull-epitheted warriors who went mad through battle-trauma or their ghosts.
These bull-epithets are more than poetic metaphors. Anne Ross says their underlying significance is ‘an especially apposite title for eminent warriors in a society which at one stage likened its tribal god, leader in war and protector of his people, to a great horned bull, possessing all the most impressive and desirable qualities of the animal.’
Gwyddno addresses Gwyn as ‘awesome / Leader of many’ and enters his protection. Gwyn’s rulership of Annwn and recitation of the names of prominent warriors whose deaths he attended demonstrate his role as a psychopomp and tribal or ancestral deity.
If Gwyn is the ‘tribal god’ of the men whose souls he gathers and other bull-epitheted warriors, who is the ‘great horned bull’ to whom he is likened?
II. The Great Horned Bull
Cattle played a central role in Celtic society and bulls were highly valued for their virility and strength. Therefore it is surprising we do not have an equivalent of Deiotarus ‘Divine Bull’ or Donnotaurus ‘Lordly Bull’ in Britain.
However in Paris we find a sculpture named Tarvos Trigaranus (‘The Bull with Three Cranes’). He is depicted on ‘The Pillar of the Boatmen’ (1AD) thick-set, heavy-chested, with two cranes back-to-back on his back and a third crane on his head. He stands in front of a willow. On an adjacent panel Esus (‘Lord’) is pictured cutting a willow-branch.
On a similar monument from Triers on a single stone a man cuts down a tree with a bull’s head and three cranes or egrets in it. At Maiden Castle in Dorset a bronze bull with three horns carrying three female figures was found at a 4AD shrine and may have a basis in legends of shapeshifters who took the form of cranes.
This intrigues me because with Gwyn as a bull of battle we find Gwyddno Garanhir (‘Crane-Legs’). In a personal vision, after their conversation, Gwyddno took the form of a crane and flew to Annwn with his wife and mother who were also cranes. I saw a bull and three cranes before knowing anything about Tarvos Trigaranus.
Miranda Green suggests a naturalistic explanation for the Bull with Three Cranes: ‘egrets and cattle are symbiotically linked in that the birds feed on tics and other pests which infest the hides of the cattle.’ The cattle egret is variously named ‘cow crane’, ‘cow bird’, ‘cow heron’, ‘father of ticks’ and performs this role. Could an egret picking tics from a bull’s back be the source?
Cattle egrets are native to Africa, Spain and Portugal and only spread to northern France in 1981 and Britain in 2007 so it appears this is not the case. Cranes migrate from Sweden through Germany and France to Spain and Mexico but their stops are only temporary and wouldn’t explain a long-term link with local cattle.
Although cattle egrets have only just arrived in Britain, lasting relationships exist between longhorned cattle and wetland birds. English Longhorns originate from Craven and were popular before Holstein Friesians were imported in the 19th C. They are currently being revived as ‘wetland lawnmowers’ at nature reserves because their grazing of long grasses leaves tufts for wildfowl to feed on and hollows left by their hooves are used by nesting lapwings and redshanks.
It seems possible such relations date back two thousand years to when aurochs existed alongside wetland birds. Paris’s ancient name was Lutetia (‘marsh’). The image of the ‘great horned bull’ Tarvos Trigaranus was no doubt born from Lutetia’s landscape and inhabitants.
III. The Sacrificial Bull
Auroch bulls could stand two metres high at the shoulder and weigh 1000kg. In his Gallic Wars (48-49BC), Julius Caesar describes an aurochs as ‘a little below the elephant in size, and of the appearance, colour, and shape of a bull.’ These mighty beasts were prized prey for hunters and sadly hunted to extinction in Britain in the Iron Age.
The hunting and killing of an aurochs-like bull is depicted in the bottom of the Gundestrup Cauldron. A hunter or huntress aided by three hounds prepares its slaughter with a blade. Cleverly this death-scene is also one of regeneration. The dead bull lies in a near foetal position surrounded by foliage. On a separate panel three bulls are killed by three hunters accompanied by hounds above and beneath.
A sculpture of a sacrificial bull in the same position is found in Paris. On two altars from Alpraham near Chester we find the same bull sculpture and a hound with a close resemblance to one of the three in the bottom of the Gundestrup Cauldron.
We possess several written records of bull sacrifices. Pliny’s Natural History (1AD) refers to a complex Druidic healing ceremony in Gaul where a white-robed Druid climbs a tree and cuts mistletoe with a golden sickle on the sixth day of the moon. Afterward two white bulls ‘whose horns are bound for the first time’ are sacrificed with prayers to an unnamed god. This is followed by ritual feasting.
In Tara the way of selecting a new king was through a tarbhfhess (‘bull feast’). A bull was slaughtered then a medium ate its meat and drank its broth. Four Druids chanted a truth-spell whilst he slept and received a vision of the king. A trace of similar rites in Britain is found in Rhonabwy’s Dream where Rhonabwy experiences a prophetic vision sleeping on an ox-hide.
Stories of bull sacrifices are supported by archaeological evidence. At the war sanctuary of Gournay-sur-Aronde, cattle (including bulls) were led to a pit, killed by a single blow to the nape of the neck then left to decompose; their blood and rotting flesh feeding the earth and underworld deities. Broken weapons were piled in pits surrounding the dead animal.
Afterward the cattle bones were separated. The heads were removed and stored whilst the neck, shoulder and spine were deposited in ditches either side of the entrance with the weapons. About 3,000 bones and 2,000 bent and broken weapons were found. This provides clear evidence of associations between bulls, battle and the underworld gods.
In Britain a complete bull was found interred in a subterranean Cambridge shrine which may have been a sacrifice to the chthonic deities. A West Yorkshire chariot burial surrounded by bones from 300 cattle is suggestive of ritual feasting taking place over hundreds of years. At Maiden Castle human burials were discovered with joints of beef.
This accumulation of evidence shows the importance of the bull as a sacrificial animal whose flesh was deemed incredibly sacred as food for humans and the gods. The sacrifice of a bull would have been a considerable cost for a community. From it powerful magic stemmed for healing, prophecy and war.
IV. Magical Bulls and the Underworld
A pair of magical bulls: Finnbennach (‘White-horned of Connacht’) and Donn Cúailnge (‘Brown Bull of Cooley’) appear in the Táin Bó Cúailnge (‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’) and fight to their deaths at the end. These bulls were originally divine herdsmen and also took the forms of ‘ravens, stags, champions, water-beasts, demons and water-worms.’
Their capacity to shift shape suggests they were theriomorphic bull deities and progenitors and protectors of their herd (which may be extended metaphorically to people). Donn Cúailnge bears resemblances to Donnotaurus ‘Lordly Bull’ whereas Finnbennach may be connected to the special white cattle sacrificed by the Gaulish Druids.
In Culhwch and Olwen, the impossible tasks fulfilled by Arthur and his men for Culhwch include the capture and yoking together of three pairs of legendary oxen: ‘two oxen of Gwylwlydd Winau’, ‘the Melyn Gwanwyn (‘The one of the yellow of spring’) and the Ych Brych (‘Brindled Ox’)’ and ‘Two horned oxen… Nyniaw and Peibiaw.’
Nyniaw and Peibiaw are the sons of Erb, King of Archenfield, ‘whom God transformed into oxen for their sins.’ I suspect this is a Christian overlay for divine herdsmen who defied the boundaries of man and ox like Finnbennach and Donn Cúailnge.
In Culhwch and Olwen it is not explained how the Brindled Ox is captured or where from. This may be derived from his appearance in The Spoils of Annwn at Caer Fanddwy (‘Fortress of God’s Peak’). Along with seven other Caers, Caer Fanddwy is located in Annwn. The Brindled Ox is described: ‘thick his headband / Seven score links / on his collar’.
The headband gives him a human-like apparel and puts me in mind of Anne Ross’s description of bronze heads on Bronze and Iron Age bucket mounts. One has a ‘hair-line defined by means of a narrow, notched band.’ Human heads with bull’s horns and birds emerging from bull’s heads appear together and are suggestive of shapeshifting bull deities. Such ancient iconography may lie behind the Brindled Ox.
In The Conversation of Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir, Gwyn speaks of his sorrow at witnessing battle at Caer Fanddwy: ‘a host / Shields shattered, spears broken, / Violence inflicted by the honoured and fair.’ It seems likely Gwyn refers to the struggle between Arthur and the people of Annwn for the Brindled Ox and this is how he was captured. Of Arthur’s side ‘except seven / none rose up.’
I believe it is no coincidence Gwyn, a bull of battle and ruler of Annwn, is present at the capture of the Brindled Ox. The Chief of Annwn is a central figure in The Spoils of Annwn and Gwyn is a potential candidate for this title. The Chief of Annwn possesses a magical cauldron. This could well be connected with a bull sacrifice and feast.
V. Fairy Kine
The notion cattle come from the underworld is deeply ingrained in the lore of Ireland and Wales. In Cruachan, King Conn steals cattle from the Sidhe then covers his land with magical snow. To melt the snow, the Sidhe kill three hundred white cows with red ears and spread their livers across the plains. For this reason, Magh Ai is called ‘The Plain of Livers’.
Here we find white cows with red ears belonging to the Sidhe (‘fairies’) which presumably come from the Sidhe (‘mounds’). A shining white coat and red ears are traditional significators of otherworldly origins.
Several Welsh stories refer to Gwartheg y Llyn (‘Kine of the Lake’) watched over by divine herdswomen called Gwragedd Annwn (‘Wives of the Underworld’). Wirt Sikes says their favourite haunts are ‘lakes and rivers… especially the wild and lonely lakes upon the mountain heights’ which ‘serve as avenues of communication between this world and the lower one of Annwn, the shadowy domain presided over by Gwyn ap Nudd.’
Gwragedd Annwn were rumoured to appear at dusk close to Llyn Barfog, in the hills behind Aberdovey, clad in green with hounds and ‘beautiful milk white kine’. When one of these cows strayed, falling in love with cattle from a thisworldly herd, a farmer managed to catch her. She produced calves, milk, butter and cheese like none seen in Wales.
Unfortunately the farmer decided to fatten her up to eat. Once she was fatter than the fattest cow he’d ever seen he called for the butcher. As the butcher raised his ‘red right arm’ and ‘struck fair and hard between the eyes’ with his bludgeon the blow went straight through the cow’s ‘goblin head’ raising a deafening shriek and knocking over nine men. A green Graig appeared on a crag above the lake crying:
‘Dere di felen Emion,
Cyrn Cyfeiliorn-braith y Llyn,
A’r foci Dodin,
Codwch, dewch adre.
Come yellow Anvil, stray horns,
Speckled one of the lake,
And of the hornless Dodlin,
Arise, come home.’
The milk white cow returned with all her progeny, leaving only one cow who turned from white to black. This legend explains the origin of Welsh black cattle.
VI. White Park Cattle
Historical records exist of payments of ‘real’ white cows with red ears. An Irish law tract states the penalty for satirising King Cernodon of Ulster included ‘seven white cows with red ears’.
In Wales The Laws of Hywel Dda (10th C) determined fines by numbers of colour-pointed cattle. The honour price for an insult to the King of Aberffraw was ‘100 cows for each cantref (‘hundred town’) in his dominion; a white bull with red ears for every hundred cows.’
The Lord of Dinefwr’s honour price was ‘as many white cattle with red ears that will extend, the head of the one to the tail of the other from Argoel to the palace of Dinefwr, with a bull of the same colour for every score.’ The Welsh sent 400 white colour-pointed cows and a bull to King John (who reigned 1199 – 1216AD) in a failed attempt at appeasement.
A fascinating fact that emerged from my research is that white cattle with red ears really existed and are still with us in Britain today. On Dinefwr Park in Carmarthenshire, Cadzow in Lanarkshire and Chartley in Staffordshire herds of White Park cattle are thriving. They are white and ‘have a pigmented skin with red or black ears, eyelids, muzzle, feat and teats. Sometimes there are freckles on the face, neck or shoulders. Sometimes the tail switch is white.’
White Parks could be the source of the laws and earlier stories about white bulls and fairy kine. They even carry a recessive gene resulting in black calves which could explain the remaining black cow in the story from Llyn Barfog. Although scholars have speculated they were brought by the Romans, genetic research has proved this is not true. These Ancient British cattle could come from the underworld.
VII. The Bull and the Portal
In September 2012, Gwyn appeared to me as a bull of battle: a white warrior in a bull-horned helmet stepping with spear and shield straight out of 6th C Wales into 21st C Preston to gift me the imperative of ‘enchanting the shadowlands.’ Now my book is complete I’m being led through the portal opened on that day to explore the connections between the modern world and ‘Heroic Age’.
The image of Gwyn in the numinous prophetic aegis of tarv trin emerged from a Brythonic society not only at war with the Anglo-Saxons but plagued by bloody internecine warfare between its rulers. Gwyn served as a psychopomp to the Men of the North and the death of an era.
1500 years on thankfully wars between rival kingdoms in Britain are at an end. However we still face battle and conflict in relation to environmental and political issues.
Gwyn appears again in the Old North calling me to enter Annwn, learn to shift shape like his herdsmen and women. To seek the friendship of a great horned bull with horns of willow filled with singing birds, an island of dancing cranes, stampedes of wild white red-eared cattle careering from lakes stopping traffic on country lanes. To return with horns and hair full of birds and twigs to speak visions of hope for a new world alongside the marsh and the gods of the deep.
*The change in spelling from tarv to tarw results from the transition between Old and Middle Welsh. Tarv would have been pronounced ‘tarb’ whilst tarw is ‘tar-oo’. The shift from tarw to tharw is caused by the spirant mutation. Many thanks to Heron for this information and help with understanding Jarman’s translations in The Gododdin.
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Anne Ross, Pagan Celtic Britain, (Cardinal, 1974)
Anne Ross & Don Robins, The Life and Death of a Druid Prince, (Touchstone, 1991)
Heron (transl), Gwyn ap Nudd and Gwyddno Garanhir (2015)
Janet Vorwald Dohner, The Encyclopedia of Endangered and Historic Lifestock and Poultry Breeds, (Yale University Press, 2002)
Jean Sprackland, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, (Vintage, 2013)
Lady Augusta Gregory (transl), Cuchulain of Muirthemne, (Sacred Texts, 1902)
Miranda Green, Animals in Celtic Life and Myth, (Routledge, 1998)
Miranda Green, Dying for the Gods, (The History Press, 2002)
Peter Thomas Ellis, Welsh Law and Custom in the Middle Ages, (University of Bristol)
Rachel Bromwich (ed), The Triads of the Island of Britain, (University of Wales Press, 2014)
Rachel Bromwich and Simon D. Evans (eds), Culhwch and Olwen, (University of Wales, 1998)
Sarah Higley (transl), Preiddu Annwn: The Spoils of Annwn, (The Camelot Project, 2007)
Sioned Davies (transl), The Mabinogion, (Oxford University Press, 2007)
Thomas Kinsella (transl), The Tain, (Oxford University Press, 1969)
W.A.McDevitte & W.S.Bohn (transl.), Julius Caesar, Gallic Wars, (Sacred Texts, 1859)
Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, (Lightning Source, 1880)
‘Thirteen calves born at WWT Martin Mere‘, Wetland and Wildfowl Trust
‘Ancient chariot burial excites experts‘, BBC News
‘The famous white cattle of Carmarthenshire’s Dinefwr’ Park‘, Wales Online