Of Cu Chulain and Cowboys: Reflections on an Irish Epic and Westerns

It’s the week of St. Patrick’s Day, which means it’s time for an Irish-themed post! I’m part Irish and feel a strong connection to that heritage. So every March, I’ll be covering a topic related to Irish mythology, history, or media—or even all three. Erin go bragh!

What would you do for a cow? Probably not much, and you probably send hundreds of people die in a battle over one. Yet that is the subject of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, also translated as The Cattle Raid of Cooley. I had been planning to read the Táin for a while knowing only that it was one of the most important epics in Irish cultural history. When I actually sat down with it, I was startled, partly because it was about stealing a bull and partly because certainly elements reminded me of the cowboys and ranchers of the Western genre. Now, I’m not saying one is directly related to the other. However, they do work remarkably well as mirrors, helping us to look deeper at the themes they share and those they don’t.

The Importance of Having a Cow

Eric Jones / The statue of Donn Cúailnge, the Brown Bull of Cooley, on the Green at Bush. CC BY-SA 2.0

The Táin has a prominent place in Irish mythic history. It is the longest tale in the Ulster Cycle, a collection of stories set the 1st century B.C.E. relating to the northern province of Ulster.1 Events are considered at least partially historical, though there are fantastical elements like two harpist-druids transforming into deer to escape suspicious warriors.2 It is also part of a genre known as Táinte that generally focused on cattle driving or raiding.3 The oldest known written version of the tale comes from, appropriately enough, Lebor na h-Uidre or The Book of the Dun Cow from around 1100.4 Details vary between versions, but this is the basic plot:

After arguing over who is richer, Queen Medb (pronounced like “Maeve”) and her husband Ailill compare their assets and discover Ailill has a white bull unequaled in Medb’s herd. Medb sends a messenger to Ulster to ask for the loan of Donn Cualnge, the Brown Bull of Culgne who is equal to Ailill’s white. While the offer is at first accepted, her messenger accidentally insults the bull’s owner, so Medb decides to take the bull by raid. She leads forces from four provinces into Ulster while the men there are suffering from an echo of labor pains brought on by a curse. Only the fabled warrior Cú Chulain stands in their way, but he kills so many of Medb’s people that they strike a bargain to travel only while one champion a day goes to fight him. Finally they get the bull only to face battle with the now recovered warriors of Ulster. They end up retreating but bring the bull back, where he fights with and kills the white bull before running off to drop parts of his rival around Ireland before eventually dying himself.

Cattle have long been a vital part of Irish society. Prior to the introduction of Christianity, cattle were the main currency, possibly along with female slaves since “cumul” refers to the value of both.5 This is likely why Medb first tries to buy safe passage by Cú Chulain with cows and “bondwomen” before the single-combat deal.6 Cattle raiding was seen as a normal, even noble “sport” to the point that kings were expected to lead a raid after being crowned.7 Later, Christian churches allowed the raiding to continue in return for a share in the cattle. After the creation of English plantations—land seized from Irish nobles and resettled by mostly Protestant English and Scottish—around the late 1500s,8 raiding took on political tones. The infamous Irish Rebellion of 1641, which started in Ulster,9 included some cattle raiding but was better remembered for violence against Protestant colonists. Cows are still important in the Irish economy today, but stealing neighbors’ cattle is no longer considered fine sport

Cattle Raiding Context

Herding cattle. Photo by Su00fcleyman u015eahan on Pexels.com

Ireland is far from the only place with cattle raiding in its mythology. As an infant, Greek god Hermes runs off to steal cows from Apollo,10 and the Vedas of Hindu mythology have several prominent cattle raids. In fact, as popularized by the sci-fi film Arrival, the Sanskrit word for war “gavisti” is said to literally translate as “the desire for more cows.” This interpretation likely comes from “gav” meaning “cow,” though it’s possible that “desire of battle” is equally valid.11 While I’ve seen the claim that cattle raid myths are told by “all people who keep cattle,”12 they aren’t truly universal. I couldn’t find any examples from Korea even though June Hur’s historical novel The Silence of Bones indicates cows were so “precious” in the late Joseon era that unauthorized slaughter was treated like human murder.13 Then again, human culture is messy and rarely complies with simple rules.

Many of the cultures with prominent cattle raiding traditions are classified as Indo-European. This means they speak Indo-European languages—like Irish Gaelic, Greek, German, and Hindi—and are believed to have a common cultural ancestor. Early studies of this group became unfortunately connected to the Aryan race theory, which saw the diverse speakers of Indo-European languages as evidence of a light-skinned race conquering its way through Europe and Asia.14 This idea held on a long time in India, with upper caste Hindus using it to claim they were racially superior Aryans while lower caste Hindus used it to label both British colonizers and Brahmins as Aryan invaders.15 More recent Indo-European studies focuses on cultural connections since it’s better recognized that language and culture don’t necessarily spread along biological, “racial” lines.

Though Celtic Irish are classified as Indo-European, the Táin actually doesn’t fit the Indo-European model that well. Tales seen as exemplary of the Indo-European cattle raid myth—Trita and Indra fighting Visvarûpa in Vedic India and Hercules/Herakles fighting Geryon—feature a male hero winning or recovering cattle who are somewhat interchangeable with “abducted queens.”16 The often monstrous thieves then face some sort of punishment. By contrast, Medb is a queen who steals a bull that dies rather than being recovered, which proves no barrier to making “peace with the men of Ulster and with Cú Chulain.”17 This reflects raiding’s non-criminal status in ancient Ireland, but the myths suggest this was unusual among Indo-Europeans. There’s a Vedic law that lists death as the punishment for stealing a cow,18 and even baby Hermes is put on trial.

I’ve seen a few theories for why the Táin is so different from the general Indo-European pattern. One article tries to claim it’s because the Irish relied more on agriculture than a “pastoral nomadic” lifestyle.19 But the ancient Greeks were also primarily agricultural, as was Joseon-era Korea. Then there’s the Maasai of Tanzania and Kenya, whose mythology so glorifies the nomadic pastoral lifestyle that hunters are “poor” and agriculturalists “destructive.”20 Traditionally, the Maasai viewed themselves as having “a right” to all cattle and thus raiding them was no crime.21 Interestingly, Maasai law also required a person who killed another to pay “blood wealth” to the deceased kin,22 similar to the Irish “body price.”23 While the exiled Ulster king Fergus mac Roth mentions visiting both Spain and Africa,24 I doubt this indicates a direct connection. It’s more likely that Irish cattle raiding grew from a combination of cultural heritage, innovation, and exchange rather than only one of these.

The West in Fact and Fiction

Photo by Gerhard Lipold on Pexels.com

The same might be said of cattle rustling in North America. After the American Civil War, cattle ranching and driving became big business on the Western frontier. As in ancient Ireland, this made stealing cattle a great way to increase wealth. However, different cultural values meant rustling was definitely treated as a crime. Hatred for thieves ran so high they might be lucky if dealt with legally rather than by mobs. Yet potential profits were so tempting that in the early days of Texas cowboy culture “virtually everyone stole cattle.25 Stampeding whole herds off was an early strategy that gradually gave way to re-branding calves and sneaking them away.26 Clearly the practice wasn’t exactly like Irish cattle raiding, but similar environments may have led to a similar pattern. Or perhaps, as with the Táin compared to Indo-European and Maasai practices, cultural inheritance and inspiration also played a part.

And yes, there is a slim possibility of cultural inheritance here. The American cowboy grew from various cultural roots. Most of the iconic elements in the lifestyle came from Mexican and South American vaqueros, including lariats, the Western-style saddle with a horn, and branding cattle.27 Newly independent African Americans were another substantial presence: 1 in 4 among early cowboys.28 Finally, Irish and Scottish immigrants, particularly the Protestant “Scots-Irish” from Ulster, were part of the mix.29 Their influence was mainly seen in music and dance. Country music is believed to have developed from a fusion of Celtic and African styles, with fiddling coming more from the Celtic side and the banjo developing from West African instruments.30 Probably other groups helped shape the cowboy as well, but these three were among the strongest.

If this mixed heritage surprises you, it’s probably because the vision of cowboys portrayed in media has too often ignored it. Classic Westerns have a reputation for flattening the colorful and complex reality of the Western frontier into a black-and-white world where non-white characters are either erased or villainized. That’s one reason I’m not a big fan of Westerns, though I’ve had enough exposure to recognize basic tropes like cattle rustlers. Contrary to reality, where a cowboy might rustle on the side, rustlers are often depicted as evil opposites of virtuous cowboys. Some films, like The Ox-Bow Incident (1943) and Hang ‘Em High (1968), do portray people falsely accused of rustling. And another common Western theme features conflict between rich cattle businesses and individual homesteaders, such as Shane (1953) and the controversial Heaven’s Gate (1980). In this theme, the cattlemen may be more villainous than rustlers.

The Táin and the Cat

So, is any Western film or novel clearly based on the Táin? Not to my admittedly limited knowledge, though if you do know of one, please tell me about it! Still, The Cattle Raid of Cooley could certainly hide in a stack of Westerns. The wiki for HBO’s Westworld also mentions Medb in connection to the brothel madam/host Maeve Millay.31 However, most likely the Táin was not a conscious template for any Western. It’s just possible themes may have subtly trickled into various storylines from that Irish element in frontier culture.

Ironically, the film where I saw the most similarities to the Táin does not involve rustling. Cat Ballou (1965) is a comedic reinterpretation of Roy Chanslor’s novel, itself inspired by the famous outlaws Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and Etta Place.32 Cat’s story also resembles that of Ellen Liddy Watson/ “Cattle Kate,” who was falsely accused and killed for cattle rustling after a conflict over land with the wealthy cattleman Albert John Bothwell.33 Like Etta, Cat starts as a school teacher, but like Ellen, her father is killed for refusing to give up his ranch to the wealthy Sir Harry Percival’s development company. While Ellen never committed any verified crimes, Cat does rob a train and kill a man. In a probably accidental echo of ancient Irish law, it’s the killing and not the robbing given for “why they’re hanging, hanging Cat Ballou.”34 Incidentally, Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye singing ballads throughout the film strikes me as similar to the harpists who accompany Medb to record and cheer, only with banjos instead of harps.

My favorite fan-made trailer for Cat Ballou. You can view the original here.

Cú Chulain resonates strongly with the Western vibe and somewhat with the gunslinger Kid Shelleen. In his stand against Medb’s forces, Cú is a lone figure guarding the land, who can shoot a pet squirrel off Medb’s shoulder with his slingshot35 but won’t kill unarmed women and youths, unless they annoy him.36 Cúchulain could even fit into the Kid trope, as he’s only 17 and started his fighting career as a literal 7-year-old kid.37 Shelleen, meanwhile, is a vision of a Kid who outlives his glory days and starts drinking. Shelleen’s initial reliance on alcohol is ironic since Medb (which can mean “drunk” or “mead”)38 starts getting men drunk to convince them to fight Cúchulain.39 Especially intriguing is the scene where Shelleen prepares to fight his brother, Tim Strawn, with a solemn bath and donning his finest clothes.40 Prior to battling his foster-brother Ferdiad, Cúchulain hastily runs off for a good “bathing” and hair dressing.41 There’s no sharpening swords or polishing guns, just an urgent need to gussy up.

I focused in on Cat Ballou partly because of Cat’s background. Though she isn’t the daughter of the High King of Ireland like Medb, she has a relatively privileged position that evolves into “queen of the outlaws, her highness Cat Ballou.”42 While Medb is a legitimate queen of a whole Irish province, her forces on the raid do include quite a few Ulster exiles.43 Cat really only leads Kid Shelleen, rustlers/outlaws Jed and Clay Boon, and former ranch hand Jackson Two Bears, alternating charm and tantrums to keep them hooked. Medb was known to be temperamental, as well as for using “friendship” with benefits as a bargaining tool, something her husband accepts as “necessary.”44 Cat doesn’t go that far, though she does pose as a prostitute to get close to Sir Harry. And while Cat isn’t a trained warrior like Medb or even a sharp-shooter like Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, I see in her the same fighting spirit when she declares, “You’ll never make me cry” after trying to shoot Strawn.45

Many of the differences between Medb and Cat reflect the differing attitudes toward women in their societies. Cat lives in a world dominated by men who, to quote her own ballad, act like she’s “evil” if she doesn’t “behave.” Even her relatively open-minded father calls her as “crazy” for worrying about a very obviously real hitman.46 While there are sexist comments in the Táin about men following “the lead of a woman,”47 ancient Irish law actually gave women far greater rights regarding property and marriage than the U.S. in the 1800s.48 When I first read the argument scene, I thought it was purely competitive like Annie’s “Anything You Can Do” number. Yet it turns out that in Irish marriage law, partners with equal possessions had equal power.49 Medb could have gone for even greater wealth and greater power, but she makes it clear to Ailill that she chose him specifically because he was her equal in wealth and war.50 Whereas Annie and Cat have to be better just to be equal, Medb is secure in a world that supports her equality.

How Medb does not have to pursue equality.

Well, that was a wild ride! I warned you crazy connections are kind of my thing, but that was even crazier than my folk song/manga connection last year. So, what are your thoughts? Are the similarities I touched on hints of some historical trace or are they simple coincidence? What other characters or stories from the Western genre or really any genre do you see as echoing Medb or the Táin?

  1. “Ulster Cycle,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed Mar. 3, 2021, https://www.britannica.com/art/Ulster-cycle.
  2. Dunn, Joseph, trans., The Ancient Irish Epic Tale Táin Bó Cúailnge (London: Dodo Press, 2007), 85.
  3. Dunn, Preface, [1].
  4. Dunn, Preface, [5, 9].
  5. Isaac, Ali, “Cattle Raids and the Mysterious Giant Bull,” AliIsaacStoryteller, last modified July 5, 2020, accessed Mar. 1, 2021, https://www.aliisaacstoryteller.com/post/cattle-raids-and-the-mysterious-giant-bull.
  6. Dunn, 107.
  7. Isaac.
  8. Williams, Sean, Focus: Irish Traditional Music (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), 54, https://books.google.com/books/about/Focus_Irish_Traditional_Music.html?id=s5aOAwAAQBAJ (accessed Mar. 4, 2020).
  9. Galloway, Edwin Marshall, “Thieves Apostates and Bloody Viragos: Female Irish Catholic Rebels in the Irish Rebellion of 1641,” MA thesis, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Aug. 2011, https://dc.etsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2513&context=etd, 31.
  10. “Hermes Myths 1,” Theoi Greek Mythology, accessed Mar. 5, 2021, https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/HermesMyths.html.
  11. Siddharth Bharadwaj, 2018 answer on the question, “What is the literal translation of the Sanskrit word for war?,” Quora. Accessed Mar. 1, 2021. https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-literal-translation-of-the-Sanskrit-word-for-war.
  12. Lincoln, Bruce, “The Indo-European Cattle-Raiding Myth,” History of Religions 16, no. 1 (Aug., 1976): 42-65. JSTOR (1062296). 44.
  13. Hur, June, The Silence of Bones (New York: Feiwei and Friends, 2020), 180.
  14. Thapar, Romilla, “The Theory of Aryan Race and India: History and Politics,” Social Scientist 24, no. 1/3 (Jan. – Mar., 1996): 3-29. JSTOR (3520116). 5.
  15. Thapar, 7-8.
  16. Lincoln, 53.
  17. Dunn, 367.
  18. Schwabe, Calvin W., Cattle, Priests, and Progress in Medicine (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press., 1978), 28. Accessed through Google Books Mar. 6, 2021. https://books.google.com/books/about/Cattle_Priests_and_Progress_in_Medicine.html?id=3h6RJVdZOlkC.
  19. Brenneman, Jr., Walter L., “Serpents, Cows, and Ladies: Contrasting Symbolism in Irish and Indo-European Cattle-Raiding Myths,” History of Religions 28, no. 4 (May, 1989): 340-354. JSTOR (1062706). 343.
  20. Galaty, John G., “Being ‘Maasai’, Being ‘People-of-Cattle’: Ethnic Shifters in East Africa,” American Ethnologist 9, no. 1 (Feb., 1982): 1-20. JSTOR (644309). 6-7.
  21. Eliot, Charles, Introduction to The Masai: Their Language and Folklore, by Hollis, A. C. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1905), xiii. Accessed through Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/dli.ministry.04199/mode/2up.
  22. Galaty, 10.
  23. Dorney, John, “Irish Clans in the Sixteenth Century,” The Irish Story, posted Aug. 15, 2017, accessed Mar. 3, 2021, https://www.theirishstory.com/2017/08/15/irish-clans-in-the-sixteenth-century/.
  24. Dunn, 337.
  25. Wolfe, Matt, “Ride Along with the Cow Police,” Oxford American, Apr. 26, 2016, https://www.oxfordamerican.org/magazine/item/814-ride-along-with-the-cow-police.
  26. Feldman, Lauren, “Lost Skills of Old West Cattle Rustling,” American Cowboy, Aug. 23, 2016, last modified Feb. 13, 2017, https://www.americancowboy.com/people/lost-skills-west-cattle-rustling-53879.
  27. Watkins, Thayer, “The Origins of the Cowboy Culture of Western America,” San José State University, last modified June 19, 2015, accessed Mar. 4, 2021, https://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/watkins/cowboyculture.htm.
  28. Nodjimbadem, Katie, “The Lesser-Known History of African-American Cowboys,” Smithsonian Magazine, Feb. 13, 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lesser-known-history-african-american-cowboys-180962144/.
  29. Romero, Sue, “A Few Irish Influences on American Culture,” Craobh Dugan-O’Looney, posted Feb. 22, 2019, accessed Mar. 11, 2021, https://www.uticairish.org/blog/a-few-irish-influences-on-american-culture.
  30. Devaney, Erik, “How the Irish and the Scots Infleunced American Music,” London Celtic Punks, posted Feb. 28, 2016, accessed Mar. 13, 2021, https://londoncelticpunks.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/how-the-irish-and-the-scots-influenced-american-music/.
  31. “Maeve Millay,” Westworld Wiki, accessed Mar. 2, 2021, https://westworld.fandom.com/wiki/Maeve_Millay.
  32. Royle, Alan, “‘Cat Ballou’ (1965 – Lee Marvin’s Masterpiece,” Historian Alan Royle, posted Mar. 26, 2017, accessed Mar. 12, 2021, https://filmstarfacts.com/2017/03/26/cat-ballou-1965-lee-marvins-masterpiece/.
  33. “History of Cattle Rustling in the Old West,” Buckaroo Leather, posted Feb. 10, 2011, accessed Mar. 4, 2021, http://buckarooleather.blogspot.com/2011/02/history-of-cattle-rustling-in-old-west.html.
  34. Cat Ballou, directed by Elliot Silverstein, Los Angeles, Columbia Pictures, 1965.
  35. Dunn, 86.
  36. Dunn, 84.
  37. Dunn, 44.
  38. Brenneman, Jr., 346.
  39. Dunn, 152.
  40. Cat Ballou.
  41. Dunn, 225.
  42. Cat Ballou.
  43. Dunn, 9.
  44. Markale, Jean, Women of the Celts (Rochester: Inner Traditions International, 1982), 99.
  45. Cat Ballou.
  46. Cat Ballou.
  47. Dunn, 358.
  48. Markale, 32-35.
  49. Markale, 37.
  50. Dunn, 2.

9 thoughts on “Of Cu Chulain and Cowboys: Reflections on an Irish Epic and Westerns

  1. That’s fascinating to see how the cow is sacred in the Irish heritage! I know there are many other heritages, cultures, and religions that consider the cow sacred. I believe that’s how the phrase “holy cow!” came about!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This post is fabulous. I love the way you have weaved in cattle raiding traditions and the Western. You have mentioned some fine westerns in this regard (and Westworld – the films I love, but the tv series is more of a love hate relationship). Every now and then you can still hear the Ballard of Cat Ballou on the radio where I am 😂 I think cattle rustling (or the rustling of animals) is universal, and appears in different forms e.g. pigs in some countries and horses in others. Historically, where I am, rustling horses was a very serious offence and the harsh treatment of horse stealers led to the rise of a number of bush rangers in the past e.g. Ned Kelly. Cattle rustling (and sheep rustling) still occurs where I live. These days it is big business with there is a fraud and bloodline squad in place to investigate rustling activities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, but it was just such a strong impression. I actually watched Cat Ballou for the first time for the post. It was quite fun, although it took a long time to get that song out of my head. 😄 I still haven’t seen either Westworld.

      Oh, yes, if animals were kept, somebody was stealing them. 😅 There’s a semi-infamous event called the Pig War near where I’m at that sounds hilarious, but I get the impression it was no laughing matter. And like you say, rustling is still going on. It sounded like it was on the rise from some of the articles I read.


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