On Cattle Raiding

Nine months after the World Trade Towers fell, an unusual expression of solidarity came to New York from the remote town of Enoosaen in Southern Kenya. Some of the villagers there had decided to donate a small herd of cattle to the people of the United States. “A cow is handkerchief to wipe away tears” said one village elder. They were moved to action by one of their own- Kimeli Naiyomah, a young tribesman who was pursuing his studies abroad in New York City when the attacks took place. After 9/11, the warrior returned to his tiny village in Kenya, bought a cow and then donated it to the US as a token of his sympathy. His generosity inspired the elders to follow suit, and together they pledged 14 heifers and bulls. In America, the reaction to this gift was warm and full of curiosity. The villagers of Enoosaen belong to an ethnic group called the Maasai that is distributed across southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are traditionally nomadic pastoralists.  The news articles on the offering included a few paragraphs of an anthropological tenor, explaining the centrality of cattle to Maasai life. Among the Maasai, they say, cattle are used as currency, and cattle ownership is a metric of status. Ultimately, logistical difficulties prevented the donated cattle from ever actually being shipped to the US. The US offered 14 scholarships for needy youths in the area in return. The villagers insisted that they offered the cows as a free gift without any expectation of reward. [1]


Historically, Maasai warriors were  more famous for robbing cows than for gifting them off. According to an old creation myth, the god Ngai allotted all the cattle on earth to the Maasai. There are songs celebrating their ability as cattle rustlers:

“Grow big, my calf Leletandi,
You of the oxen with white bellies
Which we stole from the cement-walled enclosure
Of the English which was said to be impregnable.” [2]

In some parts of Kenya, cattle-raiding can still be a deadly reality. In 2015, cattle raids conducted between Pokot and Turkana communities in Northern Kenya killed over 50 people. Armed with guns, these raiders were bringing in an ancient and violent form of inter-tribal conflict into the 21st century.

To the pastoral peoples of the ancient and medieval world, cattle was a portable, life-sustaining and socially prized form of wealth. Cattle raising went hand in hand with cattle raiding in some cultures, and the theft of livestock was dramatized and glorified in folk-poetry. Relations between tribes could be shaped by intense histories of raid and counter-raid, death and revenge. I will discuss two ancient works in which cattle raids feature as a plot element – the Tain Bo Cuailnge (“Cattle raid of Cooley”) from Ireland and the Romance of Antar from pre-Islamic Arabia.

Ireland and Arabia – Beyond the edges of the Roman World

Setting of the Tain bo Cuailnge –

Accurately dating the historical setting of the Tain is difficult because the stories contained in it may have had a long oral history before they were committed to writing by medieval Christian monks. The Tain is traditionally taken to describe events in 1st century Ireland, around the time of Christ. The earliest manuscripts we have that tell the complete story date to between the 11th and 14th  centuries.  The Irish warrior culture depicted in the saga may have lasted in some form until the Christianization of the island in late antiquity.

Ancient Ireland lay beyond the fringes of the Roman Empire. The imperium of the Caesars extended to the neighboring island of Britain, whose inhabitants shared some cultural and linguistic similarities with the Irish. The pre-Roman Britons and the Irish spoke related celtic languages, rode chariots into battle, used iron implements and looked to a learned class of druids for direction in matters of law, religion and medicine. The discovery of Roman artifacts like coins and silver ingots in Ireland point to commercial ties between the island and Roman Britain. The Roman general Agricola may have even led a brief military expedition to Ireland in the late 2nd century, and claimed that the land could be overwhelmed with a single legion.

Greek and Roman geographers wrote about the shape, location, culture and terrain of this distant island. Strabo identifies it as the uppermost limit of the inhabited world, and places to the far north of Britain. He says that the Irish are brutish and incestuous cannibals. Pomponius Mela tells us that the cold climate there was unsuitable for grain cultivation, but that grass was so plentiful that cattle might burst if left out to graze too long unsupervised. Solinus describes the Irish as an “unfriendly and warlike people”. In his Geography, Ptolemy identifies the names and locations of various tribes and towns that existed on the island – but we know practically nothing else about them from this or other Greek and Roman sources. During the final centuries of the Roman Empire, the western coasts of Britain were hit by waves of Irish pirates. Among their enslaved captives was the teenage St. Patrick, who would grow up to be Ireland’s patron saint. [3]

During the early Middle ages/Late antiquity, Ireland was divided into a number of small kingdoms like Munster, Connacht and Ulster. The inhabitants of the island practiced a mixture of cereal farming and animal husbandry.

The Setting of the Romance of Antar

The Romance of Antar is set in 6th century Arabia before the birth of Mohammed. Until the modern era, much of Arabia was locked in a state of intertribal anarchy. In pre-Islamic times, the deserts were inhabited by wandering Bedouin communities who reared sheep and camels, and vied with each other for control over livestock, pastures and caravan routes. In Islamic thought, this period, referred to as the Jahiliyya (“ignorance”), is viewed as an age of wanton barbarism, infanticide and alcoholism that preceded the arrival of Islam.

Not all Arabs were desert nomads. Sedentary populations, agriculture and even significant kingdoms (like the Lakhmid or Himyarite kingdoms) existed in ancient Arabia – in Yemen, Bahrain, along the Red Sea, as well as in the lands adjacent to the Roman and Persian Empires. Ancient Arabic dialects were spoken by settled and nomadic Arabs alike. The related Semitic language of Aramaic was then the lingua franca of much of the ancient Middle East. Many religions coexisted in the deserts and towns of pre-islamic Arabia, including Zoroastrianism, Christianity, Judaism and indigenous polytheism. The Romans interacted and traded more extensively with the Arabs than they did with the Irish. Under the reign of the Emperor Trajan, the Romans gained a territorial toehold on the northern end of the peninsula. Frankincense and myrrh, aromatic resins drawn from trees native to Yemen and the Horn of Africa, were brought to Roman markets via busy camel caravan routes. Yemeni ports served as waypoints in the maritime spice trade between Rome and India.

The world Antar lived in was a sparsely populated sandy steppe situated between the Empires of Arabia, Persia, East Africa and Byzantium. [4]

Christianity –

Perhaps the most lasting influence that the Roman Empire had on the development of Ireland and Arabia was in the transmission of Christianity to those places. This religion would eventually displace the native gods and druids of Irish paganism, and heavily influence Islamic theology.  Christianity came to Ireland in the middle of the first millennium through interactions with Britain. The pope’s appointment of a bishop to minister to the Irish Christians in 431 AD represents the first unambiguously datable event in all of Irish history.

By the time Mohammed was born in the 6th century, Christ had been worshiped for hundreds of years in Arabia. There was at least one Christian in Mohammed’s extended family (Waraqa, his cousin-in-law, who predicted Mohammed’s  prophetic career early on), and the Koran includes many verses that refer to the life and deeds of Jesus.

The role of poetry in Arabia and Ireland –

Poetry occupied an august position in the cultural and political life of ancient Arabs. Poets – known as the sha’ir – were thought to possess a special connection with the spirit world of djinn and the gods. Their words were regarded as essential for a tribe’s success in rearing livestock and in warfare. The best poetry was memorized and transmitted down through the generations. The epynymous hero of the Romance of Antar was famed for both his ability in combat and for the eloquence of his poetry. He composed one of the seven prize poems (the Mullaqat) that were, according to legend, suspended on the doors of the Kaabah in Mecca before the days of Mohammed.

Poets could also wield considerable power and prestige in ancient and medieval Ireland. The greatest poets held the title of Rí-Ollam (arch-poet), and enjoyed many privileges, including a handsome pay and a retinue of poets and servants to follow them. They were patronized by Irish kings who wanted a record of their deeds in verse. Like the sha’ir, the Ollams were yarn-spinners and historians. In the Irish sagas, poets are portrayed communicating with dead spirits and foretelling the future.

Both the Tain and the Romance of Antar are written in a mix of prose and poetry. In both Ireland and Arabia, livestock-raids were a fact of life, and the poets sang about it.

Revering the camel in verse:

The beauty of the camel is celebrated in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry. Camels are described as being like “large ships”, or “swift as an ostrich”, “obedient” and “tall as a tower”. They are a frequently used poetic reference point. In the compositions of the sha’ir, the high-pitched notes of a singing girl are compared to the cries that a she-camel makes when she loses her foal. The limbs of a beautiful woman are likened to those of a “long-necked snow-white young camel”. Death is compared to a partially blind camel, who strikes down some as she stumbles and leaves others to grow to old age. Banners led obediently into battle are compared to camels being steered to a pool. One female sha’ir proclaims that:

“THE russet suit of camel’s hair,
With spirits light and eye serene,
Is dearer to my bosom far
Than all the trappings of a queen.”[5]

Both camel meat and milk were components in the diet of the Bedouin. When the hero Antar is received as a guest at a royal feast in Persia, he is amazed by the range of meats arrayed before him and says: “Are these various meats the usual food here? Are they at all times accustomed to such luscious things? For I see no camel’s flesh.”

The cause, progress and outcome of the cattle raid:

The Tain –

Medb and Ailill were the queen and king of the province of Connacht in western Ireland. One day, an argument hatched between them in the royal bedchamber about who was wealthier. Aillil says “It struck me, how much better off you are today than the day I married you.” The headstrong Medb disagreed, saying that “a man dependent upon a woman’s maintenance is what thou art”.

They arranged for a tally to be made of their separate riches. Their finest possessions were lined up – jewelry, pots, cloth and – last of all – their livestock, which included herds of pigs, sheep, horses and cows. In a rather chilling testament to the worth of human life and labor relative to very fine livestock, one of Medb’s rams is described as being “worth one bondmaid (slave girl) by himself” (earlier, a nice chariot is said to be worth over twenty bondmaids!). A difference was apparent in only one regard, Aillil had a white bull named Finnenbach who had no equal in Medb’s flocks. And so Medb schemed to acquire the only stud bull of comparable quality in all of Ireland – a bull named Donn Cuailnge who lived in the Kingdom of Ulster. He was the personal property of Daire, the king of that province. When Daire refused to rent out Donn Cuailnge to Medb for a year, she assembled an army with her husband and marched on Ulster to seize the bull.

At this time, the men of Ulster were disabled by a mysterious sickness. A beardless boy warrior of seventeen named Cuchulainn, known as “the hard hammer”, “the Hound of Ulster” and the “hinderer of hosts”, provided stout and single-handed resistance to Medb’s military advance. Much of the text of the Tain describes his martial prowess in disturbingly gory if somewhat tedious detail. He crushes ribs, splits heads and rides the enemy down by the hundreds in his scythed chariot. Perhaps the most interesting parts of the combat involve descriptions of the “War-spasm” – a violent frenzy that grips Chuchulainn and transforms him into a twisted and bloodthirsty hulk:

“The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from head to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. […] In that style, then, he drove out to find his enemies and did his thunder-feat and killed a hundred, then two hundred, then three hundred, then four hundred, then five hundred, where stopped – he didn’t think it too many to kill in that first attack.”

Supernatural forces and high fantasy feature more prominently in the Tain than they do in the Romance of Antar. Druids can shapeshift, poets can see the future and Cuchulainn is recorded killing 12 birds with one stone.

The story of the Tain is distinguished from the Greco-Roman epics by the presence of a formidable female commander at the helm of a great army – the warrior queen Medb, whose closest Homeric equivalent might be Agamemnon. Scholars have viewed her as a fierce war goddess rather than a historical personality. When choosing among a train of suitors for her hand, she insists that her husband be free of fear, jealousy and meanness. She had an array of lovers and sleeps with an allied commander, Fergus, while on campaign. She offers her “friendly thighs” to the king of Ulster in return for Donn Cuailnge before the start of the war. Sex in general is written about in direct terms throughout the Tain. She is a capable fighter and leads contingents of Connachtmen into the thick of battle.

These details echo what Roman writers had to say about Celtic female leaders in neighboring Britain, both in England and In Scotland. The ancient queen Boudicca led a rebellion against Roman rule in Britain in the 1st century AD, burning the then small town of London and taking the provincial capital of Colchester. The historian Tacitus records a rousing oration she delivered to her soldiers on the eve of her defeat: “In this battle you must conquer or die. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves“. At a later date, during a Roman military campaign in Scotland, when the Empress Julia Domna expressed disgust at the loose sexual mores of Caledonian (read: scottish) women, a native queen replied: “We fulfill the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest“.

The Tain is not free from the stain of sexism, however. When the armies of Connacht are finally defeated, Fergus, her ally and sometime lover, says coldly: “We followed the rump of a misguiding woman. It is the usual thing for a herd led by a mare to be strayed and destroyed.

Although the invasion was repelled, Medb’s army managed to successfully pluck Donn Cuailnge from the hands of Ulster.

The Brown Bull and the White Bull

Midway through the Tain, a druid disguised as a crow sits by Donn Cuailnge, the brown bull for whom thousands of Connacht soldiers had entered the field of battle and sings:

“Dark one are you restless,
do you guess they gather
to certain slaughter
Affliction and outcry
and war everlasting
raging over Cuailnge
death of sons
death of kinsmen
death death!”

After the final battle, Cuailnge is brought before the rival white bull “the prime demon” Finnbennach. According to another Irish story, the bulls were actually the reincarnated spirits of two quarrelling pig-keepers. An arbiter is conveyed there to decide which of the two stud bulls was of superior value. The judge died as a fight erupted between the mighty beasts. They battled with each other for a whole night across the whole extent of ireland. Eventually, Don Cuailnge emerged triumphant, with the dead remains of Finnanbach’s body hanging from his horns, but he was mortally wounded. He slumps over dead by a river after a day, rendering the entire expedition to Ulster essentially pointless.

Antar –

A detachment of horsemen from the Arab tribe of Abs was out on a raiding expedition when they came upon a large Bedouin encampment ensconced in a valley with many camels. They waited until a contingent of camels strayed away from the camp. The Absians seized the opportunity to direct these animals towards their own tents. They bravely fended off bands of pursuing warriors from the tribe to whom the camels belonged. One Absian named Shaddad was particularly smitten by the beauty of a black slave-woman who was found tailing along with the herd. He was willing to surrender his claim to any of the captured camels, so long as he could keep her. He was mocked by his tribesmen, who much preferred the possession of several fine camels to one black slave. Antar was the son of that slave and her noble slavemaster, As the half-black, half-Arab son of a slave woman, Antar occupied a low rung in the social hierarchy of his tribe. Like the boy Cuchulainn, he was a physically imposing youth with a talent for violence. Denied the status of a true Arab, Antar was consigned to the duties of watching over camels and sheep along with the other slaves, a task for which his warlike nature was particularly unsuited. Eventually, he won admission into the ranks of Arab nobility by defending his tribe in a moment of desperate need from an invading force. Even after this act, however, he was routinely denigrated as base-born, a black and a slave. Like any self-respecting warrior nomad, Antar was a braggart. In his boastful war-cries, he refers to his descent without shame:

“I am the black, the slave that assails troops when the dust rises! My pedigree is my sword and my spear!”

“Although I am abused for being black, my acts are the acts of the noble-born”

“Verily, night may be my complexion, but day is my emblen”

“I am Antar, the invincible slave!”

Most of the economic transactions described in the story are carried out through the exchange of livestock rather than money, including the settling of bets, compensations and bridal gifts. After becoming a true Arab, Antar sought the hand of his cousin Abla in marriage. The father, who did not wish to marry his daughter off to a “vile black”, demanded an impossible dowry: One thousand camels of a particular breed from a land near the Persian empire. Antar accepted this challenge, and rode forth to claim these animals for Abla. This is the second major raid in the novel. Faced with a large population protecting this herd, Antar sought to use a mix of stealth and force to lead off the camels. With threats of death he compelled the slaves in charge of the herd to drive them away from the enemy. This raid was unsuccessful. He was detected and the hunting party of the enemy chieftain closed him off and captured him. Eventually, through a succession of adventures stretching across Arabia and Persia, he won the favor of this king and was granted a thousand camels as a token of gratitude.

Slavery and Racism in pre-Islamic Arabia-

In the Roman Empire, slavery had no direct racial basis. Slaves ran the ethnic gamut, from Jewish gladiators to Greek tutors to Gallic mineworkers. This stands in stark contrast to the antebellum American south, where free blacks were a rarity, and white slavery was illegal. In the world portrayed in the Romance of Antar slavery seems to operate along racial lines. The designation of “black slave” is repeatedly used throughout the text in all the translations I can find. The most common form of labor attributed to these slaves in the text is the tending and management of livestock. Antar is able to escape his slave-status and rise to some measure of fame despite being half-black, through acts of valor in defense of his tribe.  But he owes his ascent partly to the fact that he was also the son of a well-esteemed Arab noble. His enemies never fail to admonish him for his blackness. Antar’s mother was a princess in Ethiopia, a fact that she never forgot, but this title held little meaning to the Arab elite. Throughout Islamic history, and for a good while before the rise of Islam, slaves were regularly imported into the Arab world from sub-Saharan Africa. The Koran does not call for the abolition of slavery, but it does exhort slave owners to treat their slaves kindly, and considers the liberation of slaves to be a virtuous act. Slavery was officially outlawed in Arabia at a shockingly late point in its history – 1962 in Saudi Arabia, for example.

One of the most intriguing characters in the story is a renegade (presumably black) slave named Abooddeggi. He was a pirate of the desert, leading a brigand army of slaves “like black eagles”. He was known across Arabia by the wonderfully menacing titles of “the Nocturnal Evil” and the “Depredator of the Age”. He attacked passing parties and encampments, slaughtering them and taking their possessions. He specialized in raping Arab maidens. When he was done, he would transfer them over to his black followers “of the color of pitch and night”, who killed them and roasted and devoured the flesh. It is hard not to see a component or racial resentment in these descriptions – a view of black slaves as subhuman, savage, cruel, lascivious and desirous of Arab women.


1. http://globalpublicsquare.blogs.cnn.com/2013/09/11/remembering-911-an-unexpected-gift-to-america/
2. trans. T.C. Beidelman from Journal of African Languages 4, I (1965) 1-18; African Studies Centre, Michigan State University Press
3. Freeman, Philip. Ireland and the classical world. University of texas Press, 2010.
4. Kennedy, Hugh. The great Arab conquests: How the spread of Islam changed the world we live in. Da Capo Press, 2008.
5. http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/arp/arp033.htm6.
6. The Romance of Antar (http://www.sacred-texts.com/isl/arp/arp087.htm)
7. Tain bo cuailnge (http://adminstaff.vassar.edu/sttaylor/Cooley/)


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