Friday 22 March 2013

Folklore snippets: The wild white cattle of the Hidden Folk

Wild white cattle at Chillingham, Northumberland

In Scandinavia the hidden folk, or huldrefolk, are the elves, trolls and other supernatural peoples who live in the mountains, forests and under mounds.  They're not always hidden, as the following story shows, and it's interesting that their cattle are, as fairy cattle so often are, described as white or light in colour.  

The Huldres in Norway
from Scandinavian Folklore, ed William Craigie 1896

The huldres are women as beautiful as can be imagined, who live in the mountains and graze their cattle there.  These are often fat and thriving, brindled or light in colour.  They themselves, when they appear to men, are dressed in grey clothes, with a white cloth hanging over their face, and the only thing they can be recognised by, is the long tail that drags behind them, which however they for the most past manage to conceal.

White, with red ears

If one hears them play among the mountains, it is so enchanting that one can hardly contain oneself for joy.  This music is called the Huldre’s tune, and there are many peasants who have heard it and learned it, and can play it again.

One time a huldre was present at a gathering, where everyone wanted to dance with the pretty stranger, but in the midst of the merriment the young fellow who was dancing with her caught sight of her long tail. He immediately guessed what she was, and was frightened, but kept his presence of mind and did not betray her, but only said at the end of the dance, “Pretty maid, you are losing your garter.”  She immediately disappeared, but afterwards rewarded him wit fine presents and success in his cattle-rearing.

Now, the herd of wild white cattle in Chillingham Park in Northumberland is thought to have been there for at least 700 years, and is supposedly descended from the extinct European aurochs: the cattle are "small, with upright horns in both males and females. They are white with coloured ears. In the case of Chillingham Cattle, the ear-colour is red."

In the great Irish cycle The Cattle Raid of Cooley,

the Morrigan daughter of Aed Ernmas came from the fairy dwellings to destroy Cuchulain. For she had threatened on the Cattle-raid of Regomaina that she would come to undo Cuchulain what time he would be in sore distress when engaged in battle and combat with a goodly warrior, with Loch, in the course of the Cattle-spoil of Cualnge. Thither then the Morrigan came in the shape of a white, hornless, red-eared heifer, with fifty heifers about her and a chain of silvered bronze between each two of the heifers. 
(Trans Joseph Dunn, 1914: and for anyone interested, here, on a cattle breeder's website, are links to lots of references from Irish legend to white cattle with red ears.)

White with red ears is the colour of fairy hounds, too, so I wonder if the white fairy cows of the Hidden People are a memory of the non-domesticated wild cattle of the past?

Picture credits: 

The Chillingham herd:  Photographer: C. Michael Hogan, Wikimedia Commons
White with red ears: from, author Stuart Wallace, Wikimedia Commons


  1. I love the huldre, I don't know why. Their hollowness shows something vital about the nature of faeries, I think.

    The white cattle are a prominent and common folklore element among the Welsh as well.

  2. Yes, white is definitely one of the fairy colours. I almost had a hollow elderwoman in one of my books, but in the end there' wasn't quite room for her. One day maybe. Do you know the hollow-backed Ash Woman in George Macdonald's Phantastes?

  3. Thanks for this interesting post, Katherine. I read Phantastes just last summer and had thought that he was referencing Greek mythology - the dryads - but the Scandinavian myth would fit his world much better. I love hearing about folklore and mythology, and all the ancient tales that tie us back to the earth. Thank-you so much for sharing this with us.

  4. Thankyou very much for this, searched for +garter +dance +folklore +tail in Google as I'd forgotten the name of the Huldre but knew that story, it's always stayed in my mind for some reason. Love reading anything about them.

    Reading about white cattle made me remember something from a visit to Spain- I attended a bullfight, and at one point a bull was spared (I didn't understand why, the intricacies of bullfighting escaped me then & the appeal escapes me now). This was signified by a number of white calves with bells round their necks being let into the ring before the bull was led out. No idea why, but wouldn't be surprised if that too could be traced back to some deeper symbolic aspect in European folklore. Anyway, thanks again for the read. :)

  5. You're welcome! Glad you found it!