Táin Bó Cúailnge, “the driving-off of cows of Cooley”, commonly known as The Cattle Raid of Cooley or The Táin, is a legendary tale from early Irish literature, often considered an epic, although it is written primarily in prose rather than verse. It tells of a war against Ulster by the Connacht queen Medb and her husband Ailill, who intend to steal the stud bull Donn Cuailnge, opposed only by the teenage Ulster hero Cú Chulainn.
Traditionally set in the 1st century AD in an essentially pre-Christian heroic age, the Táin is the central text of a group of tales known as the Ulster Cycle. It survives in three written versions or “recensions” in manuscripts of the 12th and later centuries, the first a compilation largely written in Old Irish, the second a more consistent work in Middle Irish, and the third an Early Modern Irish version.
The story begins with Ailill and Medb comparing their respective wealths and find that the only thing that distinguishes them is Ailill’s possession of the phenomenally fertile bull Finnbhennach, who had been born into Medb’s herd but scorned being owned by a woman so decided to transfer himself to Ailill’s. Medb determines to get the equally potent Donn Cuailnge from Cooley to equal her wealth with her husband. She successfully negotiates with the bull’s owner, Dáire mac Fiachna, to rent the animal for a year until her messengers, drunk, reveal that they would have taken the bull by force even if they had not been allowed to borrow it. The deal breaks down, and Medb raises an army, including Ulster exiles led by Fergus mac Róich and other allies, and sets out to capture Donn Cuailnge.
The men of Ulster are disabled by an apparent illness and can not fight. The only person fit to defend Ulster is seventeen-year-old Cú Chulainn, and he lets the army take Ulster by surprise because he’s off on a tryst when he should be watching the border. Cú Chulainn, assisted by his charioteer Láeg, wages a guerrilla campaign against the advancing army, then halts it by invoking the right of single combat at fords, defeating champion after champion in a stand-off lasting months. However, he is unable to prevent Medb from capturing the bull.
After a particularly arduous combat he is visited by Lugh, who reveals himself to be Cú Chulainn’s father. Lugh puts Cú Chulainn to sleep for three days while he works his healing arts on him. While Cú Chulainn sleeps the youth corps of Ulster come to his aid but are all slaughtered. When Cú Chulainn wakes he undergoes a spectacular ríastrad or “distortion”, in which his body twists in its skin and he becomes an unrecognisable monster who knows neither friend nor foe. He makes a bloody assault on the Connacht camp and avenges the youth corps sixfold.
After this extraordinary incident, the sequence of single combats resumes, although on several occasions Medb breaks the agreement by sending several men against him at once. When Fergus, his foster-father, is sent to fight him, Cú Chulainn agrees to yield to him on the condition that Fergus yields the next time they meet. Finally there is a physically and emotionally gruelling three-day duel between the hero and his foster-brother and best friend, Ferdiad. Cú Chulainn wins, killing Ferdiad.
Eventually the debilitated Ulstermen start to rouse, one by one at first, then en masse, and the final battle begins. To begin with Cú Chulainn sits it out, recovering from his wounds. Finally, Cú Chulainn enters the fray and confronts Fergus, who makes good on his promise and yields to him, pulling his forces off the field. Connacht’s other allies panic and Medb is forced to retreat. She does, however, manage to bring Donn Cuailnge back to Connacht, where the bull fights Finnbhennach, kills him, but is mortally wounded, and wanders around Ireland creating placenames before finally returning home to die of exhaustion.
Táin bó Cúalnge, in its chapter entitled “The battle of the bulls“, tells a story about the battle of the bulls:
As regards Medb, it is related here : She suffered not the hosts to disperse forthwith, but she gathered the men of Erin and led them forth to Cruachan to behold the battle of the bulls and in what manner they would part from one another. For during the while the battle was being fought, the Brown Bull of Cualnge with fifty heifers in his company had been brought to Cruachan.
As regards the Brown Bull of Cualnge, it is now recounted in this place : When he saw the beautiful, strange land, he sent forth his three bellowing calls aloud. And Finnbennach Ai (‘ the Whitehorned of Ai ‘) heard him. Now no male beast durst send forth a low that was louder than a moo in compare with him within the four fords of all Ai, Ath Moga and Ath Coltna, Ath SHssen and Ath Bercha. And the Whitehorned lifted his head with fierce anger at the bellowing of the Brown of Cualnge,and he hastened to Cruachan to look for the Brown Bull of Cualnge.
It was then the men of Erin debated who would be fitted to witness the fight of the bulls. They all agreed that it should be Bricriu son of Carbad that were fitted for that office.For, a year before this tale of the Cualnge Cattle-raid, Bricriu had gone from the one province into the other to make a request of Fergus. And Fergus had retained him with him waiting for his treasures and goods. And a quarrel arose between him and Fergus at a game of chess.” And he spake evil words to Fergus. Fergus smote him with his fist and with the chess-man that was in his hand, so that he drave the chessman into his head and broke a bone in his head. Whilst the men of Erin were on the foray of the Tain, all that time Bricriu was being cured at Cruachan. And the day they returned from the expedition was the day Bricriu rose. He came with the rest to witness the battle of the bulls. And this is why they selected Bricriu, for that Bricriu was no fairer to his friend than to his foe. ” Come, ye men of Erin ! ” cried Bricriu ; ” permit me to judge the fight of the bulls, for it is I shall most truly recount their tale and their deeds afterwards.” And he was brought before the men of Erin to a gap whence to view the bulls.
So they drove the Brown Bull the morning of the fight till he met the Whitehorned at Tarbga in the plain of Ai: orTarbguba (‘ Bull-groan ‘), or Tarbgleo (* Bull-fight ‘); Roi Dedond was the first name of that hill. Every one that had hved through the battle cared for naught else than to see the combat of the two bulls.
Each of the bulls sighted the other and there was a pawing and digging up of the ground in their frenzy there, and they tossed the earth over them. They threw up the earth over their withers and shoulders, and their eyes blazed red in their heads like firm balls of fire, “and their sides bent like mighty boars on a hill. Their cheeks and their nostrils swelled like smith’s bellows in a forge. And each of them gave a resounding, deadly blow to the other. Each of them began to hole and to gore, to endeavour to slaughter and demolish the other. Then the Whitehorned of Ai visited his wrath upon the Brown Bull of Cualnge for the evil of his ways and his doings, and he drave a horn into his side and visited his angry rage upon him. Then they directed their headlong course to where Bricriu was, so that the hoofs of the bulls drove him a man’s cubit deep into the ground after his destruction. Hence, this is the Tragical Death of Bricriu son of Carbad.
Cormac Conlongas son of Conchobar saw that, and the force of affection arose in him, and he laid hold of a spearshaft that filled his grasp, and gave three blows to the Brown Bull of Cualnge from ear to tail, so that it broke on his thick hide from ear to rump.” No wonderful, lasting treasure was this precious prize for us,” said Cormac, ” that cannot defend himself against a stirk of his own age!” The Brown Bull of Cualnge heard this — for he had human understanding” — and he turned upon the Whitehorned. Thereupon the Brown of Cualnge became infuriated, and he described a very circle of rage around the Whitehorned, and he rushed at him, so that he broke his lower leg with the shock.* And thereafter they continued to strike at each other for a long while and great space of time, and so long as the day lasted they watched the contest of the bulls till night fell on the men of Erin. And when night had fallen, all that the men of Erin could hear was the bellowing and roaring. That night the bulls coursed over the greater part of all Erin. “For every spot in Erin wherein is a * Bulls’ Ditch,’ or a ‘ Bulls’ Gap,’ or a ‘ Bulls’ Fen,’ or a ‘ Bulls’ Loch,’ or a ‘ Bulls’ Rath,’ or a ‘ Bulls’ Back,’ it is from them those places are named.
- Oscan: buv-
- Umbrian: bum (acc.sg.)
- Volscian: bim < *būm (acc.sg.)
- Latin: bōs (loanword from Sabellic, the expected latin form being *ūs/*vōs)
- Old Irish: bó
- Irish: bó
- Manx: booa
- Scottish Gaelic: bò
- Middle Welsh: bu “oxen”
- Brythonic: *boukkā
- Breton: buoc’h
- Cornish: bugh
- Welsh: buwch
- Ancient Greek: βοῦς (boûs)
bodva – trident
bodul – Vlah, Morlak, highlander, Celt. Vlah was one of the names used for Serbs in medieval time
bodimice – go head first (literally with your horns first). Stab with the point of the knife. Steep downward direction.
bodrosts – courage, vigor (full of energy and bravery like a young man with erection or a bull)
uboj – wound
ubojica – killer
ubojstvo – murder
boja – color, maybe from blood which appears when you get stabbed (bo)
bol – pain, what you feel when you get stabbed (bo)
These two Irish words seem not to have root in Irish but in Slavic languages coming directly from the words bo (stab), boj (stabbing, battle) and bol (pain)…
No apparent root exists for the above two words in Irish.
Middle Irish bot (“tail; membrum virile”), from Proto-Celtic *buzdos (“tail, penis”), perhaps from Proto-Indo-European *gwosdʰos (“piece of wood”).
First I have to say that the etymology from the root “bo”, “bod” meaning to stab, something pointy used for stabbing, poking, seems a lot more plausible. In Serbian, the word for extremity, anything sticking out of the body, like a leg or an arm or a penis is “ud”. The extremity used for “pricking”, sticking (stabbing) into something (vagina) would be bud = boud = bo + ud = stab, prick + extremity = penis. Also horn is an euphemism for erect penis. In English we say someone is “horny” when they are aroused…Horned animals are symbol of virility. Piece of wood isn’t in any way related to virility and can not be the root for the word for penis.
But what is even more interesting is that in Serbian word “buzdovan” means battle club exactly like budža…Both words also mean penis and someone important, who sticks out.
Bullfights in Serbia and in Bosnia are an ancient tradition preserved to the present time by the Serbian highland population. Unlike its Spanish counterpart, the Bosnian bullfight does not involve humans as active participants and does not result in the death of the bulls. These fights are duels between the bulls themselves. Fights happen in an open field, as each bull tries to chase its opponent away from a loosely defined pitch.
These fights are an extension of natural fights for dominance that occur between male animals of many species in the wild. Fatalities are almost nonexistent, as animals fight within the limit of their natural instincts: When a bull is losing badly, he’ll back down.
Bullfights of this sort are organized in many places in western Bosnia and the neighboring Croatian regions of Lika and the Dalmatian Littoral. Arguably the most famous, however, is the so-called Corrida of Grmeč, or Grmečka Korida in Serbian.
Grmeč is a mountain in the extreme west of Bosnia. The area is in the the I2a haplogroup epicenter. I2a is the the haplogroup found to be higher in the old Ulster and Connacht. The name is of recent origin and is a version of a Spanish word. The original Serbian name for the event is “bodljavina” meaning fight with stabbing. The event itself is of ancient origin. Records show the annual bullfights go back for over 230 years but that is just the first time the event was recorded. No one really knows how old the tradition is.
The bullfights are organized on every first Sunday in August. Before the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the venue of the Grmeč event was on Medjedje Brdo (Bear hill) near Sanski Most. But the community of Sanski Most was destroyed by the wars and most of the Serbs from that area have been either killed or expelled, and the fights have been moved to the village of Oštra Luka, part of a Serbian territory of Republika Srbska.
Bullfights attract thousands of spectators each year, mainly locals and their visiting relatives, but also increasingly curiosity seekers from other places. They are accompanied by a typical country fair, along with barbecues, copious amounts of beer, and folk music. In 2005, the Grmeč event was honored by a postage stamp issued by Republika Srpska (a Serbian entity in Bosnia).
This is a picture from the event now.
These pictures are from the events held in the 1980s. You can see that Medjedje Brdo is a natural amphitheater perfect for these kind of spectacles.
Some of the old greats. Champion bulls from 1981 and 1973.
Here you can see videos of the actual bull fights:
How is it possible that this ancient ritual, described in the old Irish epic Táin Bó Cúailnge, has been preserved by the Serbs?
One of the most interesting things about these ancient Serbian bull fights, is that they are organized on the first Sunday in August, which is in Ireland known as Crom Dubh Sunday. Crom Dubh was an ancient Irish god who could take the shape of a bull. I believe that originally these bull fights were organized on the 2nd of August, the day of Perun, Thundering sun Ilios, who is also Triglav, Dabog, Hromi Daba, Serbian equivalent of Crom Dubh. Perun’s sacred animal was a bull and bull was the sacrificial animal killed and roasted on the Perun day.
Each year, the Swiss canton of Valais hosts a series of cow fights known as combats de reines (“queen fights”), which began in the 1920s and has drawn as many as 50,000 spectators in a year. The winner is called La Reine des Reines (“the queen of queens”) and increases dramatically in value. At the end of the year, a grand final is held in Aproz, where the six best from seven districts do battle in six weight categories.
Cows naturally fight to determine dominance in the herd, and this is the behaviour that is exploited in cow fighting, using cows from the local Herens breed. With their horns blunted, the fights are mainly a pushing contest. Any cow that backs down from a fight is eliminated until one cow is left standing in the ring.
I am not sure how old this tradition is and was it only formalized in the 1920s. I would appreciate any information that would clarify this issue.
In Portugal we have the same type of bull fights called “chega de bois” or “chega de touros”.
On the Portuguese web page about this tradition you can read that: “We are unable to determine the origin of the ritual of bull fights, so we are assuming it is connected to the belief that Dionysus , god of vegetation and crops, could take the physical form of the bull as a symbolic representation of masculinity and bravery”. I think that now we know the origin of these bull fights and which god they are dedicated to. The god of grain, Crom Dubh, Hromi Daba, Grom Div, the thunder giant, the god of weather and therefore grain…
What is very interesting is that this is the area of Portugal where on the old maps we find the “Celtic” tribe called Seurbi. The Seurbi were an ancient Celtic tribe of Gallaecia, living in the north of modern Portugal, in the province of Minho, between the rivers Cávado and Lima (or even reaching the river Minho). Are Seurbi Serbs? Serbs are after all the people whose ancestral deity is Dabog Hromi Daba, Crom Dubh, Grom Div….
I will talk more about Crom Dubh and the bull in my next post.