Magical Faery Cows

The Llyn Barfog cow is called home

I have discussed faery beasts and faery livestock before a few times, but one aspect of this subject has been neglected until now. That is the curious matter of magical cows.

In Wales, these supernaturally productive beasts are typically from the herd known as the gwartheg y llyn, the lake cattle (and, in other words, the ‘faery cows,’ given that many of the tylwyth teg are thought to dwell under lynnoedd or lakes.) An example of such a beast is the so-called fuwch gyfeiliorn (stray cow) of Llyn Barfog, which was found alone by a farmer, was rounded up and was incorporated by him with the rest of his herd. She bred very well and gave plentiful milk, cheese and butter. After some years, the man felt she had reached the end of her productivity and he began to fatten her for slaughter. The cow, being magical, overheard his plans and promptly left for the lake from whence she’d come- taking with her all her calves; in some accounts, she was called back by her owner, one of the gwragedd annwn or lake women (see, for example, Sikes, British Goblins, 36-37)

An extension of the idea of the highly productive faery cow is the magically bountiful cow. Across Britain it is quite common to find folk accounts of cows that suddenly appear and produce plentiful quantities of milk, feeding an entire community for a period of time until, normally, someone abuses the cow’s generosity- and it vanishes. One such animal was the faery cow of Cefn Bannog. She appeared suddenly and was able to produce milk enough for all who had need of it. Whether people turned up with jugs or bowls or buckets, she could fill them without being exhausted. Eventually, though, this never-ending supply of milk was abused by a person with a sieve; the cow could never fill the container to the brim, of course, and, in anger and despair, she went to the a lake two miles away, taking her two calves with her, and was never seen again in the district. Similar stories are known in England, as well, for example at Audlem in Cheshire, at Stanion in Northamptonshire, at Kirkham and Whittingham Moors, both in Lancashire, and in Warwickshire. At Stanion, Kirkham and Whittingham, the mistreatment of the cow led to its death of a broken heart and the local churches displayed a rib of the beast in testimony to her beneficence. In Scotland, an identical story is told of the white cow of Calanais (Calanish) on Lewis.

These stories usually say that the origin of the beast was mysterious, but a few explain where she came from. In Shropshire, on Stapeley Hill, near the megalithic monument called Mitchell’s Fold, a cow appeared in a time of dire drought and famine. She had been sent by the faery queen to feed the local people until conditions improved; a faery woman was turned into a cow for the duration, apparently (not a pleasant experience, presumably, but such is the power of the faery queen over her subjects). Again, the cow would appear twice a day to supply all households with their needs so long as they only came with one receptacle each day. Eventually, a witch arrived who had replaced the bottom of her pail with a sieve. The faery cow realised it was being abused; firstly, she kicked the witch, so that she became rooted to the ground. Then the cow disappeared, leaving the local people bereft. In revenge, a cairn of stones was piled up around the witch who had injured them so cruelly (Byegones, July 1893, 118-119).

In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes also gives an intriguing variant of the Llyn Barfog story:

“The milk-white milch cow gave enough of milk to every one who desired it; and however frequently milked, or by whatever number of persons, she was never found deficient. All persons who drank of her milk were healed of every illness; from fools they became wise; and from being wicked, became happy. This cow went round the world; and wherever she appeared, she filled with milk all the vessels that could be found, leaving calves behind her for all the wise and happy. It was from her that all the milch cows in the world were obtained. After traversing through the island of Britain, for the benefit and blessing of country and kindred, she reached the Vale of Towy; where, tempted by her fine appearance and superior condition, the natives sought to kill and eat her; but just as they were proceeding to effect their purpose, she vanished from between their hands, and was never seen again. A house still remains in the locality, called Y Fuwch Laethwen Lefrith (The Milk-white Milch Cow.)”

(British Goblins, 38)

This faery intervention in human affairs in order to help them is not entirely unknown. Assistance with tasks to individuals and to specific households by hobs and brownies is, of course, pretty familiar. Help to large groups and whole communities is much less common, but readers might possibly recall the decision of one Scottish faery queen to help the women of the world by bestowing wisdom upon them, something I highlighted in a previous post. Nevertheless, one element will be familiar- and that is the warning never to try to take advantage of or to trick the faes. This can only ever led to loss and regret.

Mitchell’s Fold stone circle