Cattle have long been associated with attracting negative forces to a holding probably because of the many legends that connect witchcraft and dark forces with this animal. In ancient times in the British Isles there is evidence that farmers would often burn a calf alive (‘Burn one to save the herd’) in order to halt a sweeping sickness that was ravaging the herd. This action was also used for herds that indicated a problem with fertility. The burning was not chosen by accident as the belief was held that should a calf be burnt in this way then whosoever struck the animals with the problem would suffer the same gruesome end.
Another traditional prevention that was often practised was to hang part of an animal that had died close to the grazing pasture or shelter of the herd, (usually the thigh or leg). Some believe that the significance of this practice can be traced back to ancient times when it was customary to hang an animal in a tree as a form of sacrifice to the gods. By avoiding the unfortunate event of stepping over a calf that is lying on the ground then a farmer was thought to be saved from misfortune. An animal in calf is destined to bring bad fortune to a farmer if it has twins, and should the twins have white streaks upon their backs twice the misfortune would ensue. Perhaps today with modern veterinary practices this may seem folly but according to tradition both omens were signs of darker forces at play.
On a positive note some European traditions are linked to prosperity, the most well known being that to carry the tip of a calf’s tongue in a pocket would lead to good fortune in finance and also indicate that the carrier would be protected from any danger or rather, avoid the temptation of witchcraft to take hold within the herd. The Irish once practised protection for the herd by casting primrose flowers around the cattle sheds, and of course many farmers practised hanging particular pieces of wood with significant symbolism around the holding (See Mystical WWW Trees). Tarring the base of the tail and behind the ears of each animal was a popular practice in Scotland as a prevention too. It was believed that this practice would ensure that the milk would stay fresh and would not be stolen particularly by witches who were thought to love to drink on the milk of cattle.
A universal belief holds that to see a group of cattle laying on the ground or grazing close to one another indicates that rain is imminent. A period of clement weather can be expected if seen grazing on high ground.
Christmas Eve has long been a time when cattle have been thought to turn towards the east as if to pay homage to the birth of Christ and kneel down upon the ground, reputedly having the gift of speech on this night too. Perhaps this was been a reason why cattle were thought to have attracted the attention of darker forces who may have wished to conquer the Christian world and therefore focus their powers upon the animal as if to attack the very root of belief not just within the animal kingdom but to shake the faith of man himself.
In Scotland (UK) ‘The black ox has trampled upon him’ was a traditional saying often uttered when someone was fatally ill (black being the colour of darker forces, and cattle being associated with witchcraft). Long-horn cattle were traditionally thought to be the strongest cattle in the world according to Welsh folklore as told in the ‘Ychen Bannog’. Their main ability was to lure monsters from hideouts and drag them away. In the battle to haul away a monster called ‘Afanc’ who dwelt beneath the water of the River Conway. In the struggle one of the oxen lost an eye which formed a pool called ‘Pwll Llygad Ych’, the pool of the ox’s eye. After this the cattle were set to work but were said to have died from exhaustion helping to transport stones for a church that was to be erected in Cardigan. One rather large stone was to be their downfall and these species of fairy cattle were no more.
According to Welsh folklore, a freckled cow named ‘Y Fuwch Frech’ became a victim of witchcraft in a place called Cerrigydrugion. She grazed on Hiraethog Mountain and was known for supplying a healthy yield to anyone in need of milk. Witches were believed to be the dreaded enemy of cattle and it was said that a witch milked her not into a bucket but into a sieve. The witch was determined to have all the milk and so continued to draw milk until the cow was driven to madness. As a result she drowned herself in Llyn Dau Ychen. The witch had achieved her goal.
The name ‘Fairy Cattle’ is believed to have originated from ancient times when wild cattle wandered Britain. Many of the stories are recalled in Welsh folklore and tell of cattle that produced plentiful milk supplies for anyone who was in need of sustenance. Those who tried to capture one of the cattle were often thwarted and thankfully so, as it was also believed that the only reason the cattle would no longer give milk would be due to humankind growing greedy. Folklore tells of a butcher who tried to slaughter a cow but as he raised his hand the whole arm became paralysed. A person called the ’green lady’ came to the cow’s rescue and the animal escaped to the waters of Llyn Bafrog, and the cow swam away never to be seen in the community again.
In Wales (UK) a common practice amongst farmers wanting to ensure that the new offspring would be born white, it was believed that the cattle had to be mated in front of a location of the same colour. Hence the practice began of whitewashing walls to ensure a successful outcome. Farmers world-wide have often actively encouraged the presence of swallows on a cattle farm particularly in Europe as it was believed traditionally that to destroy the nests would result in the cows yielding milk with blood in it. Perhaps this is due to the many beliefs that surrounded the swallows in relation to the Crucifixion. Although modern science has discovered the disease ‘mastitis’, the symbolic associations of the swallow and the cow at the birth of Jesus are still intertwined within rural folklore.