Animals, both domestic and wild, have long co-existed side by side with mankind, and there are very few people who do not feel affection towards one kind of an animal or another. The old saying that the dog is man’s best friend has much relevance today as in days gone by, but for generations animals where more than just friends and companions, as many of them played a central role in the rural economy of the country (O’Sullivan 1991).
The early Irish stories provide a wealth of mythology and traditions relating to animals. It is clear from the stories that animals played a large role in the Celtic consciousness, a role in which beasts where respected and not treated just like a property. They were herded, hunted and consumed, but at the same time they were perceived as being of crucial importance and had a high rank by being closely associated with the supernatural world (Green 1998).
In the continuation I will present some of the most important animals featured in the mythological traditions of early Ireland.
Early Irish society was underpinned by cattle-owning. This is clear from much of the literature. The greatest bull-story (Táin Bó Cuailngé or Cattle Raid of Cooley) symbolizes the importance of this animal and of cattle in general to the fertility and florescence of Ireland as a whole (Green 1998). The bull signifies sovereignty, bravery, manliness and strength (Ní Bhrolcháin 2009). What is most interesting about the two bulls (in the Táin Bó Cuailngé) that they are not only supernaturally large, but they possess human levels of understandin g and intelligence (Green 1998).
According to some mythological traditions the first cows were brought to Ireland by a beautiful maiden from the sea. She brought with her three sacred cows: Bó Finn, the white cow, Bó Ruadh, the red cow, and Bó Dubh, the black cow. All the cows in Ireland are ultimately descended from these three cows. In Irish mythology the goddess Bóann was the goddess of the white cow, and the colours of her cattle were said to symbolise the different phases of the moon. The river Boyne is named after her (O’Sullivan 1991).
Since Stone Age dogs have had a special place among animals in their close relationship with man, sharing his heart at night and guarding his household, working with him during the day as sheepdogs or hunters. Dogs have a close symbiotic relationship with humans, a relationship that is reflected in the early literature. In early Ireland the prefix Cú (Hound of) was frequently used in the Celtic names of heroes, to denote warrior status. The most famous is Cú Chulainn (The hound of Culann). He had a very special and close relationship with dogs. As a young boy he was called Sétanta but after he kills the huge guard dog of Cullan he takes the dogs place and also his name (Green 1998).
Many of the tales in Irish mythology focus on hunting, which was the activity of nobleman and warriors. Both hounds and deer are frequently mentioned in these stories and perhaps the most celebrated hounds of all were Bran and Sceolan, the enchanted hounds of Fionn Mac Cumhaill (O’Sullivan 1991).
Like dogs, horses have (and had in the early Ireland) a special relationship with humankind. They were indispensable in battle, were used in hunting and were regarded as prestigious (Green 1998). So there is no surprise that the horse is the animal that appears most often in inscriptions, iconography and personal names. The horse is one of the most important cult animals among the continental Celts and in Ireland. Excavations on the Hill of Tara have
revealed the bones of both horses and dogs that show evidence of being eaten. The valley between the Hill of Tara and Skryne is called the Gowra (Gabhra) Valley from the Old Irish word gabor (white mare, goat). The native word (ech) is the basis for the mail names Eochu/Eochaid. A female version is used in Roech...