Academic journal article Folklore

Bos Primigenius in Britain: Or, Why Do Fairy Cows Have Red Ears? (Research Article)

Academic journal article Folklore

Bos Primigenius in Britain: Or, Why Do Fairy Cows Have Red Ears? (Research Article)

Article excerpt


Many medievalists, especially scholars of Celtic literature, have observed that red-eared white animals are associated with fairies and other supernatural beings. What has not been satisfactorily answered is why this should be so. This article offers a possible explanation, suggesting that this widespread phenomenon is rooted not in fantasy but in zoology.


It is a commonplace of Celtic [1] folklore that white animals with red ears come from the Otherworld. Cattle of this description occur in some of the earliest Irish sources, while similarly marked dogs accompany the king of Annwn (the Welsh Otherworld) in the Middle Welsh tale of Pwyll and are reported right into this century. In a presentation to the Folklore Society in 1928, Miss Moore Douglas said of the Isle of Man that "fairy dogs, usually white with red ears and feet, are frequently seen running across the fields in the evening" (Howey 1972, 350), and Marie Trevelyan reported that the Welsh Cwn Annwn were sometimes seen as "very small dogs, white as the drifted snow, with tiny ears quite rose coloured inside" (Trevelyan 1909, 47). There also seems to have been a particular fashion for red-eared white horses in the thirteenth century, especially in Arthurian material, but also in at least one Norse saga where the motif is almost certainly borrowed from Ireland (Loomis 1949, 90; Turville-Petre 1953, 248-9). The present discussion will be limited to cattle, as they are the earliest attested animals of this type and as dogs and horses seem to have only acquired this colour pattern by analogy.

Red-Eared White Cows in Medieval Irish and Welsh Sources

The earliest accounts of red-eared white cows are in certain of the Irish heroic tales, including, naturally enough, some of the cattle raids. In the Tain Bo Fraich, the hero's mother gives him "twelve cows out of the fairy-mound, and they white with red ears" (lines 5-6. My translation). [2] In the Tain Bo Cuailnge, the war goddess known as the Morrigan transforms herself into a white heifer with red ears when she tries to destroy Cu Chulainn. In the Compert Mongain ocus Serc Duibhe-Lacha, the hero foolishly promises away his wife in return for the king of Leinster's beautiful red-eared white cattle (Meyer 1895, 75). There are further references to these cattle--always noted for their beauty or purity and frequently specified as coming from the fairy mounds--in Tochmarc Etaine, Tain Bo Regamna, Caith Maighe Lena, and the lives of Saints Brigid, Ailbhe, Mo Lua, Columcille, Finian and Ciaran. The twelfth-century Metrical Dinshenchas also contain a place name stanza about Howth which mentions "seven hundred kine, red eared, pure white." [3] Finally, in one of the Irish law tracts, the penalty for satirising King Cernodon of Ulster includes "seven white cows with red ears" (Dillon 1932, 54). Apart from this last item, the Irish references are all purely literary. Either explicitly or implicitly, they associate these cattle with the Otherworld; at the least, they have a generalised magical aura. So why does white with red ears indicate fairy origin?

There seem to be two main choices of explanation. First, it may be that these are entirely fanciful beasts, associated in the imagination and in fantastical literature with Otherworldliness because red and white are both "magical" colours. The case is clear enough for white. In many cultures, white is variously connected with holiness, with ghosts, or with sacrificial animals. Most relevant in this context is the polysemy of the words for "white" in Celtic languages. Welsh gwyn is a good example, carrying the primary meanings "white, bright, shining, fair" and the secondary meanings "holy, blessed." Red is a bit more problematic. In his classic discussion of Anglo-Saxon magic, G. Storms gives evidence for red having been a magic colour in ancient Germanic society (Storms 1948, 102-3). …

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