Saturday, 10 August 2019

Bull of Crom Dubh

Large thick, carved, rectangular standing stones, like these two, are in east Cork (Ireland) known as ‘bull stones’. When asked why, people say "probably because once they tied the bull to them…." (From Patheos: Bull Stones : the approach of Domhnach Chrom Dubh )



The most spectacular large thick, carved, rectangular standing stone in Ireland can be found in the Bronze Age Grange Stone Circle. But there it is called Crom Dubh stone.


Interestingly the ceremonial entrance into the circle is aligned with the sunrise on the 1st (2nd) of August, Lughnasadh, the day that marks the beginning of the grain harvest in Ireland. 

Lughnasadh is actually Crom Dubh day. The last Sunday in July or the first Sunday in August depending on the area is known as Domhnach Chroim Duibh - Corm Dubh Sunday. You can read more about this in my post "Reek Sunday"

The Grange stone circle, which is also locally known as Rannach Crom Dubh, is said to be built by Crom Dubh, old Sun and Grain god of Ireland himself. Archaeologists found lots of cattle bones in the circle, suggesting that cattle (bulls) could have been sacrificed inside the circle...You can read more about Grange stone circle in my post "Grange circle"

And interestingly, the bull was until recently still sacrificed to Crom Dubh on Lughnasadh, Domhnach Crom Dubh (Crom Dubh's Sunday). 



In this story from Irish folklore commission archives, Crom Dubh offers a bull  to St Brendan as an animal to be sacrificed during the building of a church.

"Saint Brendan and his brethren are erecting a church at Cloghane, at the foot of Mount Brandon. They ask the local pagan chieftain, Crom Dubh, for a contribution. He volunteers a bull, knowing full well that the bull is wild and dangerous. Brendan's monks attach a halter to the bull's neck and lead the animal placidly away. The bull was slaughtered and his meet was eaten by the workers and his blood was used for mortar. Crom Dubh is furious and demands the bull's return. Brendan writes the words Ave Maria on a slip of paper and suggests to Crom Dubh that the paper weighs more than the bull. Nonsense, asserts the pagan chieftain. A scale is arranged and, sure enough, the paper outweighs the bull. Crom Dubh is so impressed that he submits to conversion, along with all of his tribe."

A pattern (patron saint day) to Crom Dubh's honor is held in the village of Ballybran on the last day of every July ever since. It is called in Irish Domach Crom Dubh (Crom Dubh Sunday). In the old days, the turas (pilgrimage) was made at dawn. That would mean a night climb or a vigil on the hill. The ’rounds’ consisted of praying at the ruined oratory and then encircling it and the pillar-stone and the ‘graves’ nine times while saying the Rosary, and ended by taking a drink from the well. When these exercises finished, pilgrims went down the eastern slope to the village, where a famous Patron was held. Some villagers add that the Patron used to take place in the graveyard around the head which represented Crom Dubh. Marie MacNeill attested to the antiquity of the head and surmised that the stone was probably taken to the top of Mount Brendon for the harvest festival of Lughnasad.

In the OS Name Books for this parish, dated 1841, there is a note indicating that Croum Dhu was the god of the harvest whom pagans worshipped...

Symbolically this describes the conversion of the Irish to christianity, the defeat of Crom Dubh, the Old Sun God of the Irish. This defeat of Crom Dubh is usually in the in the southern part of Ireland attributed to St Brendan and in the northern half of Ireland to St Patrick.

But also, bulls are a replacement for human sacrifice. And Crom Dubh, under his old name Crom Cruach, demanded human sacrifices...The fact that the bull's blood was used for mortar points at human sacrifices performed to insure successful erection of buildings. This type of human sacrifices was recorded in epic poetry from Serbia. Similar rituals, today involving animal sacrifices on house walls are still practiced during building of a new houses in Serbia. You can read more about it in my post "New house".


What is even more astonishing is the description of the pattern, the saint's day celebration from Ballybran. It is dedicated not to st Brendan but to Crom Dubh. How is this possible?

I believe that after Christianisation people just continued with the old Celebration of Crom Dubh, held on his day, as before. Farmers are very superstitious and very conservative when in comes to rituals related to farming. And Crom Dubh being directly linked to grain farming, had to be respected, and his rituals had to be performed, Christianity or no Christianity, or the harvest might fail...

One other thing is very interesting. Does the fact that the the original mass used to be held on the graveyard confirm that Crom Dubh Day pattern in Ballybran was an ancestor cult celebration...And would that also indicate the Crom Dubh was seen as an ancestral deity?

Another story, from Galway, also links Crom Dubh with a bull.

On his way into Mayo St Patrick he came to Maam Eán, the only pass in the Maam Turk mountains. Looking down on a vast pastiche of misty tones of cream, green and gold all the way to the ocean, tradition tells us that he blessed Connemara, before moving on.

The great Irish scholar Máire Mac Neill tells us that before St Patrick arrived on the scene, the mountain pass, between two remote territories, was guarded by the pagan god Crom Dubh.

The god was originally associated with fertility and good harvests, but the threat of Christianity made him watchful, and distrustful of strangers.

"When Crom Dubh saw St Patrick climbing towards him he changed his shape into a fierce speckled bull (tarbh breac) and charged.


There was a fearsome struggle as the saint wrestled with him. After some time, as the two forces pushed, heaved, and dragged each other over the mountainside, the saint eventually forced his enemy into the lake where it drowned. The lake has since been known as Loch an Tairbh – the bull’s lake. The legend then goes to state that since St Patrick drove the bull into the lake, there is a strange red glow on it ever since. Interestingly another legend tells us that the lake is enchanted, where a serpent (ollphéist ) is imprisoned in its depths."

Legends about bulls and dragons (great serpents) living in lakes and demanding human sacrifices can be found in several places in the Balkans. You can read more about this in my post "Water bull".




There is another legend which says that when the bull saw St Patrick, he was overcome with repentance, and knelt before him.

Maam Eán was a place where up to the end of the 19th century a famous Pattern, where large crowds gathered, took place every year on Garlic/Garland Sunday (the last Sunday in July), Crom Dubh Sunday...

"In Aughagower, Co Mayo there is a church and a round tower in Aughagower graveyard which was built by St Patrick who is the Patron saint of the village. Crom Dubh was a man who lived in Liscarney, and he was very rich. When St. Patrick was building the tower in Aughagower this man gave him a bull for food for his men. After this Crom Dubh got sorry for giving the bull. He went to St. Patrick and told him to give him back the bull. The bull was killed and St. Patrick told his men to gather all the bones and the skin. They did so and St. Patrick rose him to life again. Crom Dubh took the bull and went home. It is said that the bull killed him afterward. After this event the saint went up to the north of Ireland."


In Munster and Connacht folklore Crom's bull was believed to be immortal.

In one of the legends "St Patrick requests food from Crom Dubh, and Crom Dubh sends his live bull to St. Patrick, hoping that St. Patrick will be killed by the animal.  Crom Dubh’s "evil plan" doesn’t work, because the bull willingly surrenders and offers itself up to be sacrificed: slaughtered, skinned, roasted and eaten.  This enrages Crom Dubh and after the bull had been consumed, he demands that Saint Patrick return his bull to him, knowing full well that this was a preposterous request.  To Crom Dubh’s amazement, Saint Patrick instructs that the animals hide and bones be reconstructed and he resurrects the bull.  At this point, there are two variations of the story’s finale, but both are obviously Christian-centered.  One is with Crom Dubh being so awestruck that he immediately converts to Christianity.  Another is where the bull kills the Pagan Crom Dubh..."

The bull is the symbol of summer, because summer starts in Taurus, Bull. Bull is also the symbol of grain which grows during the summer and is harvested during autumn. As summer ends bull (summer, grain) gets symbolically "killed" (autumn arrives and grain gets harvested). The grain is then eaten but summer comes again next year and new grain grows and is on Crom Dubh's day again ready to be "killed" and eaten...

Around Galway Bay at Samain every household skinned and roasted a bull in honour of Crom Dubh, and one may assume that Crom Dubh and the Bull were originally synonymous."


Crom Dubh being the harvest deity had both first and last fruit sacrifices dedicated to him, which is why we find bull sacrifices to Crom Dubh performed both at Lughnasadh (beginning of autumn, harvest) and at Samhain (end of autumn harvest).  

At Cois Fhairrge, Galway, Ireland, bulls were sacrificed to Crom Dubh (harvest-giver and weather-ruler) as late as the 18th century. The hide of the bull would be preserved and sleeping in it was a rite of divination

This preserving of the skin of the bull sacrificed to Crom Dubh is very interesting because the Irish annals say that bull skin was used to select the next High King of Ireland.

The Tarb fheis, or bull feast, was a ceremony used to select the next High King. It involved the sacrifice of a white bull, after which the Druid, or poet, would ‘chew the flesh and drink the broth’. Following this meal, the poet was wrapped in the bull’s raw hide to dream. If his dream was unsuccessful in identifying the new King, he faced death.

According to the Togail Bruidne Dá Derga, ‘The Destruction of Da Derga’s Hostel’, on this occasion, the poet dreamed the future King would arrive in Tara naked and surrounded by birds. Young Conaire Mór was out hunting birds, when the leader of the flock suddenly threw off his feathers and revealed himself as the King of Birds, and Conaire’s true father. He advised Conaire of the details of the new prophecy, whereupon the young man immediately removed his clothes and set off for Tara accompanied by the Bird King and his flock. Thus the prophecy was fulfilled.

This ceremony is also explicitly described in a story preserved in the Lebor na hUidre, or ‘Book of the Dun Cow’, c 1106 AD, in a story called Serglige con Culainn, or ‘The Wasting Sickness of Cuchulainn’.

This seems to show that the Irish kings drew their authority directly from Crom Dubh.

This following ritual performed on the Mount Callan in County Clare is very interesting. In "On the Evidences Bearing on Sun-Worship at Mount Callan, Co. Clare":

Professor O'Looney:

"...about the ancient assemblies of Buaile na Greine and the ceremonies which took place at Altoir na Greine in olden times...I think the topographical features of the place, and the fact that the sun is dominant on this particular spot from early dawn till evenings close, is the true origin of the name Buaile na Greine which simply means the Plain of the Sun or the Sun beaten lawn. The application of the word Altoir is not older perhaps than the time of Michael Comyn's romance of Torolb Mac Sháirin, the only written work in which the name Altóir na Greine is applied to this great stone altar or table. It is more probable that Alt na Greine the height or eminence of the sun, one of the older names of this peak, was converted into Altóir in after times, and that the name Altóir na Greine applied by Michael Comyn to the great stone monument which then stood on this eminence, prevails to the present day while the older name of the place is entirely forgotten.
It seems to me that the assemblies on buaile na Greine were the representatives of the ancient Oenachs, fairs, and Tocomracs or general assemblies, of that part of the country.
You will see from the passages I translate from Michael Comyn's account of the adventures of Torolb Mac Stairn and his three sons that the slaying and immolating of quadrupeds formed part of the ceremonies at Altóir na Greine, indeed I may say we have no other ceremony but that and we have the important additional statement that the ceremony closed with the cooking and eating of the quadruped killed there.

The killing of the quadruped at Altoir na Greine goes far in support of my view that those assemblies represented the more ancient Oenachs. The poem on the celebrated Oenach Tailtein preserved in the books of Lecan and Ballymote contains the following quatrain from which it appears that a similar practice formed part of the rites of that ancient fair.

The three forbidden bloods:
Patrick preached (against) in it
(i.e. in the fair of Tailtein)
Yoke oxen and slaying of milch cows
And the burning of the first fruits
(first born)

The Oenach of Buaile na Greine dwindled down to be little more than a local patron but, however thinned the population was by extermination and other misfortunes the traditional custom of meeting on Buaile na Greine still continued in one form or another. The same delightful eminence on which Altoir na Greine stood still continued a favourite resort on certain festive occasions: and the sports, games, and feasts were celebrated till very recently. The games and sports of later days were nothing more than hurling, wrestling, jig dancing and other simple feats of that class, and, as the inhabitants of the place were not over wealthy in latter days, the feasts were of a homely sort and very simple..."

Professor O'Looney is wrong on so many accounts here.

1. Every place facing south and unobstructed by anything else is the place "where the sun is dominant on this particular spot from early dawn till evenings close". How many other such places are called Buaile na Greine (enclosure of the sun) or Altoir na Greine (altar of the sun)? Plus we know that another site where people gather on Crom Dubh day was a pre Christian solar cult centre. This is the Holy mountain of Crom Dubh, where St Patrick finally defeated Crom Dubh, the mountain which was then renamed into Croagh Patrick (Patrick's mountain). The ancient Bronze Age carved stone, now called Patrick's chair :) is the place from where an extremely rare solar spectacle, the ruling sun, can be observed twice a year. The extraordinary phenomenon of the rolling sun down the slope of Croagh Patrick was perfectly captured in this animated gif made from still images by one of my favourite Irish photographers, Ken Williams.


You can read more about the holy mountain of Crom Dubh in my post "Sun mountain". 

2. Fairs were in the past usually organised on holy days. The bigger the holy day the bigger the fair. So it is quite possible that the gathering around the Altoir na Greine also involved the fair.
3. The "slaying and immolating of quadrupeds" and "cooking and eating of the quadruped killed" at gatherings always has religious connotations. Communal feast are sacrificial feast where the deity is one of the participants. The feast that was organised on the day of Crom Dubh and which consisted of roasted bulls, animals sacred to Crom Dubh, was a sacrificial feast dedicated to Crom Dubh. That killing of bulls at fairs was indeed a religious ceremony can be seen from the explicit ban by St Patrick of "sacrificing bulls and first fruits", both sacrifices "demanded" by Crom Dubh.

Now continuing in "On the Evidences Bearing on Sun-Worship at Mount Callan, Co. Clare" Sr Samuel Ferguson goes on to say:

"...In Mount Callan in County Clare, on Domnach Lunasa, or Lammas Sunday, the first Sunday of the Month of August, people celebrated first - fruits day, and a great day on Buaile na Greine (enclosure, circle of the sun). On Laammas Sunday, called Domnach Crom Dubh, and anglicised Garland Sunday every household was supposed to feast his family and household on the first fruits, and the farmer who failed to provide his people with new potatoes, new bacon, and white cabbage on that day, was called a Felemair Gaoithe, or wind farmer, and if a man dug new potatoes before Crom Dubh's Day he was considered a needy man, and hence this Sunday was called first - fruits Sunday. On this day all went to Buaile na Greine with their contribution and their lons (or food supplies) to hold the fair.

The ceremonies consisted of strewing summer flowers on the altar and festive mound, of which we have been speaking up to this, under the name of Altóir na Greine, or Altar of the Sun, but which is on this day used as the altar of Crom Dubh.

The assemblage of this day is called Comthineol Chruim Duibh, or the congregation or gathering of Crom Dubh. And the day is called from him Domnach Chrom Dubh, or Crom Dubh's Sunday, now called Garland Sunday by the English speaking portion of the people of the surrounding districts.
The name is supposed to have been derived from the practice of strewing garlands of flowers on the festive mound on this day as homage to Crom Dubh: hence the name Garland Sunday.
Assuredy I saw blossoms and flowers deposited upon it on the first Sunday of August 1844, and put some upon it myself as I saw done by those who were with me. I was then a mere lad, but very inquisitive. The assembly was at this time a mere gathering of boys.
We thus find a new deity introduced on the Altar of the Sun, and sun - worship and pig - worship upset.

If you ask me who Chrom Dubh was I can only tell you I asked the question myself on the spot. I was told that Chrom was a god, and that Dubh or Dua meant a sacrifice, which in combination made Crom Dubh or Crom Dua that is, Crom's Sacrifice: and this Sunday was set apart for the feast and commemoration of this Crom Dubh, whoever he may have been.

The feast, games and sports of this day merged into a sort of patron or festive fair, which continued to be celebrated on Buaile na Greine for a considerable time. The principal amusements were feasting, drinking, and singing, racing, hurling, dancing and other such sports, the patron being sometimes held for several days. The priests and wise old men of the surrounding parishes, growing tired of this practice admonished the people to abandon the custom of going to Mount Callan, and counselled them to give up customary feasts and patron of Buaile na Greine, and subsequently they got up a patron at St. Muchans, in the Union of Ennistymon whither they invited all to come.
Hence they set up races, goals, moneen dances and other sports to attract the people hither, and here, while the young and sportive were at their sports, the old and pious were engaged in performing rounds at St Muchans Holy well and praying on the bed of the patron saint.

This patron of St Muchan's was subsequently removed to Leacht Uí Chonchobair, now Lahinch where the tribe of O' Connor of Corcomroe were in the habit of meeting to celebrate the Oenach Gabha or mourning assembly (fair) of their chieftain O'onnor, King of Western Corcomroe, who was buried in that place and who Leacht (monumental pile) gave the name Leacht Uí Chonchobair to this place.

The Leacht has now disappeared and its place is now occupied by the Victoria Hotel at lahinch, and I question if there are many who can tell much of its history, and nothing now remains to commerate the last of the O'Connors Kings of western Corcomroe, but the word Leacht, the present contracted form of Leacht Uí Chonchobair, or Lahinch.

Thus I have collected the traditional history of the ancient assemblies of Buaile na greine, showing how it has existed perhaps from a time even anterior to Conan Maol down to the present day, and how it still survives, probably in greater multitudes and more true to the characteristics of an ancient Oenach or Tochomrac Tuatha than it was since the system of territorial and tribe government, under the ancient Brehon Laws, ceased to give a political importance to those assemblages, of which, I have no doubt, the Oenach of Buaile na Greine was one.

As for the Altoir na Greine, I saw it in 1844 - 1845. The altar was a rude construction much in the form of a large bin or chest, but empty underneath. The altar past was composed of seven large grey flags - four upright flags standing in the ground, two at either end, about four feet apart, and one great flag reaching down upon them, and two upright flags standing in the ground behind them on the western side and rising about two feet or eighteen inches above the table stone of the altar. there were some stones of various shapes and sizes around it, at the back and at the ends and an elevation or mound of clay and small stones. Its position was south west from Leaba Chonain. You looked south west across the lake to Crag na Sean Ean.

In the year 1859 I met a poor man who fixed a temporary residence near this part of the mountain. He told me he made a cabbage garden in this locality, and as stones were scarce to fence it, he broke up the whole altar structure and split the large rocks and flags with his crowbar to make a fence for his garden. It will be observed that the man of the cabbage garden died soon after. I was at his funeral soon after. The stones were subsequently removed and utilized in making and patching the line of road that runs underneath, from Synge's lodge to the Hand Road.

I must claim the indulgence of my readersfor the frolixity of these quotations. But the matters discussed are so interesting and from so inherent a part of the history of the mountain that without their inclusion, the story of Leaba and Leac Chonaín would be incomplete..."

In Armagh there is the story of a bull that prevented Patrick from building a church, so Patrick cursed him and he went mad. Eventually the bull was caught and killed, and buried under a standing stone at Corran. This stone, part of The Bull’s Tracks, was once associated with the bull of Cualgne (from the Cattle Raid of Cooley). Another version of the story says that St Patrick was trying to build a church on Armaghbreague mountains during the day, but the bull kept destroying it during the night. After the church was destroyed for the third time, St Patrick got so mad, he picked up the bull and flung it from the mountain. The bull landed on the spot today marked with the bull stone.


On an island north of Skye there was a tradition of sacrificing a bull in August, on a day dedicated to "going around some ruinous chapels, taking of omens from a hole in a round stone…, adoring of wells and … pouring of milk upon hills as oblations."

Interestingly there is another God whose name sounds almost exactly like Crom Dubh, to whom bull has been sacrificed on the 2nd of August...I will talk about this in my next post: Bull of Grom Div...You can read more about this in my post "Bull of Grom Div".

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