The bull is a symbol of physical and mental strength, of ‘bull-headed’ perseverance. Like other animals with similar characteristics it also represents virility and fertility; its symbols, in fact, were worn in the bed chamber on the wedding night to encourage sexual strength and endurance.
The bull also represented wealth, since its presence in the lives of the Celts meant abundance and plenty.
The Tarvos Trigaranus, or Bull with Three Cranes, was a Gaulish god relating to the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The myth tells how one day in early spring, near the sacred well of Coventina a beautiful bull calf was born, with a reddish-gold coat and clear, intelligent eyes. As he played, three cranes flew near to admire him, and he bowed reverently in greeting. From that moment on the cranes never left him. These three cranes can be related to other bird triplets in Celtic mythology, such as the three birds of the horse-goddess Rhiannon (related to Epona).
The bull grew, magnificent and beautiful, and all came to admire him, gods, men and beasts alike. Tarvos Trigaranus lived peacefully in a world that had never yet known Winter.
One day, the hunter god Esus, who constantly roamed the world in search of a worthy prey, came upon this magnificent creature as it slept, with the three cranes perched on its back. As Esus drew his knife to kill the bull the cranes screeched out in warning. Thus began a long battle between Esus and Tarvos Trigaranus, which ended with the death of the bull beneath a great Oak. The bull’s blood poured onto the roots of the tree and instantly its leaves turned a deep golden-red. The cranes, after catching some of their beloved bull’s blood in a bowl, flew away southwards.
There began then a time of desolation and gloom, as Winter settled on the earth for the very first time. After a long period of hardship the people beseeched Mother Earth to bring back life and warmth to the world. Their prayers were answered, and the cranes returned from the South, again carrying the bowl with the bull’s blood, which they poured onto the hard ground beneath the great Oak, and instantly from the blood-soaked soil the bull was reborn, bringing with him the Spring and new life to the world and joy to all of nature.
However, the hunter god Esus heard of the rebirth of Tarvos Trigaranus and resolved to slay him once again, and this was the start of cycle in which the bull is slain and then brought back to life by the great Mother – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that rules the earth, the seasons and all living creatures.
An extremely detailed study of the Celtic Bull with Three cranes can be found here.