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Ox, cow and bull in folklore imagery and tales

БНР Новини
Photo: BGNES

In ancient myths the cow, the bull and the ox are sacred animals, connected with the celestial sphere and the gods inhabiting it. The ancient Egyptians imagined the sky as an enormous cow that gives birth to the Sun as a calf. The “celestial cow” is also part of Scandinavian sagas as well as of the myths of African stockbreeders. A number of deities take the form of a bull or the bull is their attribute and sacrificial animal – the Indian Indra, the Egyptian Apis, the ancient Greek Zeus and Dionysus. Transformed to a white bull, Zeus abducts the beautiful Europa while his wife Hera is often said to be ox-eyed and is sometimes depicted with the head of a cow. The Old Testament also bears the markings of the cult of the bull, with the story of the golden calf idol, anathemized and destroyed by Moses in Mount Sinai. This reverence is also seen in the Taurus constellation while one of the evangelists Luke appears as a bull.

Animal symbolism also appears in Bulgarian folklore tradition. According to some legends, the Earth is supported by the horns of an ox standing on a turtle or fish. And when he shakes his head, earthquakes follow. The Sun is often seen as an ox, a calf or a buffalo. The Moon is a cow – because the symbol is female and because the new moon is horned. It is said that once a year, in March, the Moon comes down to Earth and when it tries to climb up to the sky again, it bellows like a cow; it bellows also when it is lonely. Popular belief has it that some wise men can pull the Moon down to Earth as a cow and milk it for its wonder-working milk which cures all disease.

In Bulgaria, the ox, the cow and the bull are also held in high esteem in everyday life. There are a number of feast days on which their health is celebrated – St. Sylvester, St. Vlas, St. Modest. On Christmas Eve a special ritual loaf is baked in the shape of a ploughman with oxen.

In traditional culture the ox is particularly valuable – because it is a gentle animal, but also because of the work is does: pulling the plough or the carriage and transporting all kinds of goods. Hence the simile popular to this day: Work like an ox. Or, as one proverb goes: A man without land is half a pauper, without oxen – one whole pauper. The peasants would call their oxen “angels” and address them as “father”, “dad” or “brother”. Flogging or abusing the oxen is considered a major sin. If someone was to do this, he was said to be “beating the angels”. It is believed that he would soon be left without any oxen – i.e. he would be left a pauper out in the street. An unmarried lass or a young bride must never “cross an ox’s path” or the path of a man; this was considered a sign of respect and deference. It was said that even the wolf though he attacked any domestic animal, would never touch the ox and would avoid him – otherwise he would be killed. For their ability to ward off the powers of evil, cattle horns and skulls would be mounted over doors and gates or on house or sheep pen fences. And one more thing – old oxen are never slaughtered, they are left to die a natural death and are buried with the respect due them.

According to tradition, cows are also given “right of way” especially if they are pregnant or have just calved. A cow must never be harnessed or used as a beast of burden, especially for ploughing – that is considered a major sin. A peasant who harnesses his cows for ploughing is said to be a pauper and a poor wretch. The village bull kept as breeding stock is held in great esteem and is said to be “father of the village herd”. Unlike other livestock he is entitled to graze wherever he wishes to with the village paying for the damages. When he grows old, the bull is sacrificed at a village fete and a younger one is brought in. Cow-bull relations are still part of latter-day folklore, as in the anecdote about the three bulls who saw a herd of cows in the distance:  “Let’s charge them!” said the youngest bull. “Why charge them?” the middle aged one retorted. “They’ll come of their own accord.” “But what if they do?” said the third and oldest bull, all in a flutter.

The image of the water bull is particularly intriguing in ancient folklore – a mythical creature, master of the lake. There is one such legend about a locality called Ezerishteto (derived from the word ezero, lake) near Kostenets village in the region of Sofia. There was once a lake there inhabited by a water bull. When the village cattle neared the lake, he would come out and start a fierce battle with the village bull, in the end he invariably killed him. The peasants sat down to think, and as they were skilful blacksmiths, they decided to make their bull a pair of sturdy iron horns to fight the water bull with. Their plan was a success – the water bull was mortally wounded. With a terrifying roar the animal disappeared into the waters of the lake and they turned red. Soon, the lake dried up and a spring appeared on the same spot.

English version: Milena Daynova

Ass. Prof. Vihra Baeva is a folklore expert at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Studies with Ethnographic Museum

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