The Great Myths #13: The Two Men Who Became Bulls (Irish)

One of the many preludes to the great Irish epic, The Táin:

What caused the two pig-keepers to quarrel?

It is soon told.

There was bad blood between Ochall Ochne, the king of the síd in Connacht, and Bodb, king of the Munster síd. (Bodb’s síd is the “Síd ar Femen,” the síd on Femen Plain; Ochall’s is the síd at Cruachan.) They had two pig-keepers, called Friuch, after a boar’s bristle, and Rucht, after its grunt. Friuch was Bodb’s pig-keeper, Rucht was Ochall’s, and they were good friends. They were both practiced in the pagan arts and could form themselves into any shape like Mongán mac Fiachna.

The two pig-keepers were on such good terms that the one from the north would bring his pigs down with him when there was a mast of oak and beech nuts in Munster. If the mast fell in the north the pig-keeper from the south would travel northward.

There were some who tried to make trouble between them. People in Connacht said their pig-keeper had the greater power, while others in Munster said it was their who had greater power. A great mast feel in Munster one year, and the pig-keeper from the north came southward with his pigs. His friend made him welcome.

“Is it you?” he said. “They are trying to cause trouble between us. Men here say your power is greater than mine.”

“It is no less, anyway,” Ochall’s pig-keeper said.

“That’s something we can test,” Bodb’s pig-keeper said. “I’ll cast a spell over your pigs. Even though they eat this mast they won’t grow fat, while mine will.”

And that is what happened. Ochall’s pig-keeper had to bring his pigs away with him so lean and wretched that they hardly reached home. Everybody laughed at him as he entered his country.

“It was a bad day you set out,” they said. “Your friend has greater power than you.”

“It proves nothing,” he said. “We’ll have mast here in our own turn and I’ll play the same trick on him.”

This also happened. Bodb’s pig-keeper came northward the same time next year into the country of Connacht, bringing his lean pigs with him, and Ochall’s pig-keeper did the same to them, and they withered. Everybody said then that they had equal power. Bodb’s pig-keeper came back from the north with his lean pigs, and Bodb dismissed him from his pig-keeping. His friend in the north was also dismissed.

After this they spent two full years in the shape of birds of prey, the first year at the fort of Cruachan, in north Connacht, and the second at the síd on Femen Plain. One day the men of Munster collected together at this place.

“Those birds are making a terrible babble over there,” they said. “They have been quarrelling and behaving like this for a full year now.”

As they were talking they saw Fuidell mac Fiadmire, Ochall’s steward, coming toward them up the hill and they made him welcome.

“Those birds are making a great babble over there,” he said. “You would swear they were the same two birds we had back north last year. They kept this up for a whole year.”

Then they saw the two birds of prey turn suddenly into human shape and become the two pig-keepers. They made them welcome.

“You can spare your welcome.” Bodb’s pig-keeper said. “We bring you only war-wailing and a fullness of friends’ corpses.”

“What have you been doing?” Bodb said.

“Nothing good,” he said. “From the day we left until today we spent two full years together in the shape of birds. You saw what we did over there. A whole year went like that at Cruachan and a year at the síd on Femen Plain so that all men, north and south, have seen our power. Now we are going to take the shape of water creatures and live two years under the sea.”

They left and each went his own way. One entered the Sinann river, the other the river Siuir, and they spent two full years under water. One year they were seen devouring each other in the Siuir, the next at Sinann.

Next they turned into stags, and each gathered up the other’s herd of young deer and made a shambles of his dwelling place.

Then they became two warriors, gashing each other.

Then two phantoms, terrifying each other.

Then two dragons, pouring down snow on each other’s land.

They dropped down then out of the air, and became two maggots. One of them got into the spring of the river Cronn in Cuailnge, where a cow belonging to Dáire mac Fiachna drank it up. The other got into the well-spring Garad in Connacht, where a cow belonging to Medb and Ailill drank it. From then, in this way, sprang the two white bulls, Finnbennach, the white-horned, of Ai Plain, and Dub, the dark bull of Cuailnge.

Ruch and Friuch were their names when they were pig-keepers; Ingen and Eitte, Talon and Wing, when they were two birds of prey; Bled and Blod, Whale and Seabeast, when they were two undersea creatures; Rinn and Faebur, Point and Edge, when they were two warriors; Scáth and Sciath, Shadow and Shield, when they were two phantoms; and Cruinniuc and Tuinniuc when they were two maggots. Finnbennach Ai, the White, and Donn Cuailnge, the Brown, were their names when they were two bulls.

This was the Brown Bull of Cuailnge –
dark brown dire haughty with young health
horrific overwhelming ferocious
full of craft
furious fiery flanks narrow
brave brutal thick breasted
curly browed head cocked high
growing and eyes glaring
tough maned neck thick and strong
snorting mighty in muzzle and eye
with a true bull’s brow
and a wave’s charge
and a royal wrath
and the rush of a bear
and a beast’s rage
and a bandit’s stab
and a lion’s fury.
Thirty grown boys could take
their place from rump to nape
– a hero to his herd at morning
foolhardy at the herd’s head
to his cows the beloved
to husbandmen a prop
the father of great beasts
overlooks the ox of the earth.

A white head and white feet
had the Bull Finnbennach
and a red body the colour of blood
as if bathed in blood
or dyed in the red bog
or pounded in purple
with his black paps
under breast and back
and his heavy mane and great hoofs
the beloved of the cows of Ai
with ponderous tail
and a stallion’s breast
and a cow’s eye apple
and a salmon’s snout
and hinder haunch
he romps in rut
born to bear victory
bellowing in greatness
idol of the ox herd
the prime demon Finnbennach.

– translated by Thomas Kinsella,
in The Táin: From the Irish Epic Táin Bó Cuailnge, 46-50

Read the other Great Myths here

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