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January 18, 2018

The Bull In Irish Mythology

There is an altar in Paris, which bears the inscription “Tarvos Trigaranus”, which means ‘Bull with three cranes’ (as in, birds). Carved in relief is a tree with spreading branches, in front of which stands a bull, with two of the birds perched on it’s back, and the third on it’s head.

In the Gundestrup cauldron (found in Denmark, and probably dating from the first century BCE), which is decorated in detail both outside and inside in high relief, we see what appears to be a depiction of the hunting/imminent killing of a huge bull on the interior base plate.

A warrior or a deity is shown seemingly about to spear the neck of a prostrate bull which far out-scales him. There are also dogs present, which may lend weight to the possibility of it being a hunting scene.

Pronsias MacCana (‘Celtic Mythology’: Littlehampton Book Services, 1969) links the Donn Cuailgne, Brown Bull of Cooley, to Tarvos Trigaranus, which he calls the ‘three horned Bull’ – indeed he states the two can “scarcely be dissassociated”. He goes on to speak of “a number of widely attested names which seem to imply familiarity with the notion of a bull-deity”, such as the Gaulish name Donnotaurus, which means ‘Brown, or Kingly, Bull’.

In this case, the Irish epic Táin Bó Cuailgne takes on quite a deeper meaning than the simple theme of overly hormonal bulls having a bit of a territorial spat. The two great beasts were never of this world, having reached those forms by changing originally from swineherds of two lords of the Otherworld, through a series of forms including ravens, stags, warrior champions, water beasts, demons and water worms.

Bull symbolism appears in vast quantities when dealing with the ancient ‘Celtic’ world.

From ritual deposits and sacrifices in the late Bronze Age, to carving and other artistic representation of bull figures, to place-names and tribal names representing the animal, and also taking into account the traditions of cattle raiding and ranching which were/are so prominent in Ireland particularly – we see the bull itself, or possibly deity connected with bulls, as a hugely significant figure. World-wide, bulls represent powers of strength, fierceness, and virility, and we have no reason to doubt that the Irish viewed their bulls any other way.

Bull statuary and iconography survives mainly in Gaulish, and some British finds. Being an unnatural form, the triple horned bull mentioned above seems to have been particularly a sacred image. This carries through when we see it being found in shrines, temples, and even the grave of a child (Colchester, England).

Perhaps the triplication of the horns is a way of increasing the potency of the animal’s fertility and virility power; three horns are better than two! Three is also a power number in itself in Irish and Celtic cultures, showing up many times over in relation to many different things.

Whether the imagery we see, or the larger than life creatures we hear tell of, represented a particular deity or simply the attributes of the animal itself is unclear.

Miranda Green (‘The Gods of the Celts’: The History Press, 2011) gives an example of a “silver washed three horned bull”, which was found at a shrine in Dorset, England, and dates from the middle of the fourth century CE. She gives the figures we can see on it’s back as deities, and makes links with the above mentioned bull carrying three cranes – saying they may be examples of the shape shifting we hear about in the tales. It is possible.

What evidence we have, in Ireland and abroad, certainly shows a respect for the attributes of the tarbh (pron. Tar-ev).

As a Taurean myself, I am totally down with the idea of a kick ass Lord of the Bulls, or one who can shift at will to bull form, with all the wonderful qualities that would bring to a situation. Can you spot the bull bias here?!

However, having yet to be introduced to such an entity, or personally encounter one on my travels, I will content myself with exploring, for now, the idea of working with the bull as a ‘power animal’.

It doesn’t have to be a bull either. I am as sick as the next person of coming across those people who assert in all earnestness that their “power animal” or “spirit animal” (neither of which are terms that are culturally appropriate for me or you to use, btw, unless you have a true heritage with certain native tribes) is something ultra cool, like a super sleek panther, or a super strong stallion, when they remind you more of an ageing shetland pony, a bit knackered and up for nothing more than a quiet corner of paddock and a hay hammock which runneth over.

Hey, who knows, maybe that stallion is in there somewhere, stabled for now but ready to break free at the slightest hint of filly. Stranger things have happened.

Rest assured though, your animal ally, if you have one, doesn’t have to be a soaring eagle or a bristling bear. Or even a bull. Your average mouse has a lot it could teach the modern Pagan.

I have a friend, Ailish, who now embraces the fact that the goat is a factor in her life that will probably never go away, and I realised long ago that the humble donkey exerts a bigger influence over me than my sense of street cred is comfortable with. So, there you go.

There are also associations astrologically between Ireland and the sign of Taurus.

William Lilly’s “Christian Astrology”, which first appeared in 1647 and was reprinted in 1985 (by Regulus Publishing Co., London), places Ireland – along with Switzerland and Cypress, among others – as a Kingdom which is specifically associated with the sun sign of Taurus, the bull.

The Easter Rising, which marked the establishment of the free Irish Republic and the attainment of political independence in Ireland, was an armed uprising of Irish nationalists against British Rule. It happened on Easter Monday, April 24th, 1916, and centred mainly in Dublin, placing it firmly in the realm of the Bull.

Since an tarbh is of such importance in the Irish (and broader ‘Celtic’) legends and history, it’s as good a place to start as any.

Working with this established Irish animal ally can lead you to the experience and insight of finding your own personal animal guide/s. The following can be adapted or utilised to suit your own needs.

It would be good to have a working partner or group facilitator who could lead you in this sort of journey, even better if they can play a drum in time to their own words. I know, I used to read things like that back in my baby Pagan days and get a sinking feeling, as I always worked alone then. And I didn’t have a handy tape recorder either, to record myself leading myself on a journey.

Alone is fine. Working alone is even better in some ways, because you create your own rhythm and set your own pace. If you have a drum, beat it as you go. If you don’t have one, or you feel it would distract you, try and get some music to play: something with a heavy drum beat and no words or wailing women.

Settle yourself comfortably. Somewhere outdoors would be good, an open plain or field of rolling grassland would be excellent. Cattlesheds might be going a touch too far, it takes ages to get the cow poo out from between your toes. If you want to focus on a particular Irish Bull, the Donn Cuailgne was to be found in the North East of Ireland, and the Finnbennach in the North West. If you wish to align yourself in either of these directions, that’d be good.

Having said that though, bits of Finnbennach ended up all over the country, giving places like Athlone their names in Gaeilge (the Irish language, please don’t call it Gaelic!), so I doubt if it matters much which way you point your face. Working without crossed limbs and keeping your spine straight spine is good, but don’t go contorting yourself unnaturally. There’s not too many westerners who can hold the lotus position and still keep their mind on the job in hand. Don’t hurt yourself.

Try a straight backed armchair, leaning against a tree or wall, or just lie flat on the ground.

Breathe deeply for you. Focus on each breath as it comes in, filling you with energy, and as it goes out, flowing away all the stresses and strains of your day/week/year/life. Breathe through your nose exclusively. You don’t need to take massive deep diaphragm ones either, just relax into a steady nasal breathing pattern. I believe this to be healthier and easier to maintain than mouth breathing, as you shift away from conscious thought.

Now, just drift your way to thoughts of Bull. Every time your thoughts drift away, just notice it, let go of the distraction, and guide yourself back to the Bull.

What do you know? What do you see, or smell, or hear, or taste, or feel? What do you call it, how do you experience it? Simply keep your focus on Bull, and see what happens.

When you’ve had enough, re-focus on your breathing, and on your physical self – where your body touches the earth, what it feels like, what you can sense around you here and now. And when you’re ready, open your eyes and move around a bit. Maybe eat something.

Now, write it down. Do it again later, and write that down too! Rinse and repeat, and look for patterns, messages, guidance or clarity in the experiences you are having. Let me know how you get on!

If you’re interested in learning more about a native Irish Journey technique that can form the basis for an authentic spiritual/magical practice – Join the 30 Day (free) Guided Journeys Programme below.

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About the Author

Irish Author, Educator, and Guide to Ireland. Co-Founder of the Irish Pagan School, Eel & Otter Press, and Pagan Life Rites (Ireland).

Lora O'Brien

Join our Tuath (community, tribe) to get Course and Scholarship info, and regular (free) Irish resources on topics such as Mythology, History, Society, Spirituality, Storytelling and Travel directly from Lora O'Brien and the team at the Irish Pagan School.

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