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The Ox

( Originally Published 1918 )



"THE taming of the ox took place in Asia a very long time ago when our western countries were covered with wild forests in which a few miserable tattooed tribes wandered, living by the chase. Bringing the ox under subjection must have been one of the most memorable of events for the native of the Orient, since thereby the animal's powerful shoulders lent themselves to the labors of agriculture, and the tiller of the soil profited accordingly. It must also have been a very dangerous undertaking, no doubt impossible without the help of the dog. The friendly goat perhaps came to man of its own accord; the peaceful sheep let itself be folded without resistance ; but the ox, terrible in power and anger, throwing the disemboweled enemy heavenward with a toss of its horns, certainly did not let itself be led from its native forest to the stable without a fight. No account has come down to us of the brave men who first dared to attack the formidable beast with the hope of subjugating it; nor does any record remain of the difficult training which, perhaps prolonged through centuries, finally reduced the wild creature to a state of docility. The very first historical reference to the ox in the earliest annals of our race shows him to us as a patient, docile beast, submissive to the yoke, and in short no other than he is today.

"But if these bull-tamers of ancient times remain unknown, all the East preserves the memory of their invaluable achievement. The man was forgotten, but the animal was feted, here in one way, there in another, according to the fancy of a simple, imaginative people striving in every possible manner to evince gratitude for services rendered. I have told you of ancient Egypt and its raising of marble temples to the bull, and I have also described its practice of bowing the forehead to the dust when the majestic beast passed with its retinue of attendants. Elsewhere it was enjoined on every one as a religious duty of the most sacred kind to raise at least one ox; and, again, in still another country, where horned cattle were not yet plentiful enough to make it permissible to use them for food, the laws punished with death anybody who killed or even maltreated one of these animals. In our day, in India, the cow is a thrice-sacred animal. Its tail, symbol of honor, is carried as a standard before the great; and to win favors from Heaven the people believe there is no surer way than to smear the body with cow's dung and then go and wash in the waters of the Ganges.

These anointings with the holy dung make you smile, children; in me they arouse serious reflections. From what depths of misery must not the domestic animals have raised us if the Hindoo of our time still preserves in these strange rites some vestiges of the ancient veneration of the entire Orient for one of these animals, and that one the most important, the ox?"

"I should say it was a strange rite," declared Jules, "to daub oneself with dung in honor of the cow. They might have hit on a better way."

"In every age and in every land popular imagination has easily lent itself and still lends itself to extravagant notions. In the most important city of the South I have seen, I, Uncle Paul, the people leading through the streets, in triumphal procession, the fattened ox that was to be sacrificed on Easter Eve. A laurel branch on its forehead, many-colored ribbons on its horns, the peaceful beast bore on its shoulders a pretty little, child, rosy, plump, clothed in a lamb's skin. A retinue accompanied it in bright-colored costumes. Is not that a vague re-minder of the procession of the bull Apis, with this difference that the Egyptian bull returned after the ceremony to its perfumed manger, while ours meets its end in the heavy blow awaiting it at the slaughter-house? It is the custom for the be-ribboned ox to be led from door to door, where its escort never fails to present the basin for offerings, great and small; for it is to be noted that at the bottom of every superstition is found the quest of the piece of coin.

Thus takes place throughout all France, with more or less pomp, the procession of the fattened ox.

"But here is a peculiarity worthy of note. If the house has a wide enough entrance door, the ox is led into the vestibule, where its presence is supposed to confer honor; and if by good luck at that moment the animal deposits on the floor some. of the material used by the Hindoo for smearing himself, it is the greatest possible blessing for the visited. A prosperous future is presaged by a few spans' breadth of this dung, according to the hope and belief of the simple folk. You see, my friends, without leaving home we find, under a little different form, the Indian customs that make you smile so. I cannot but see therein the survivals of the ancient honors paid to the bull. Without explaining these customs to themselves, without knowing their origin, without understanding their significance, the people perpetuate them among us."

"The survivals from those old customs," remarked Jules, "prove clearly that the acquisition of the ox left an ineffaceable trace on man's mind ; but, once more, why didn't they hit on some better way to honor the ox?"

"Well, if you want something better as a mark of honor, perhaps this will satisfy you : the invaluable animal has its name written forever among the stars, those jewels of the sky. I will explain myself. History tells us that we owe the invention of astronomy to the shepherds of the East, who spent their leisure night-hours, under the mildest of skies, in deciphering the secrets of the stars while their flocks rested in the open air. To get their bearings in the midst of the infinite multitude of stars, these shepherds gave to the principal groups or constellations names that have been perpetuated and that science still uses. Man's most precious possession received at that time a celestial consecration by having its name given to such and such a part of the sky. One of the constellations was called Taurus (the bull) ; and that is what it still is and always will be called. In this group are seen stars that form an angle, the two branches of which represent the animal's horns; there is also a superb star that darts red fire and suggests the sparkling eye of an infuriated bull. What greater honor could the bull receive than to be thus placed among the splendors of the sky?"

"The shepherds' idea fully satisfies me ; nothing better could be imagined for the glorification of the ox. Other domestic animals doubtless have had places assigned them in the firmament?"

"Of course. Another constellation is called Aries (the ram), another Capricornus (goat-horned)." "And how about the dog?" Emile asked.

"The dog was not to be forgotten : is it not man's earliest ally, the courageous servant that made possible the taming of the herd? Its name has been given to a magnificent constellation in which shines the brightest star in the sky."

"And the others, the cat, horse, pig, and donkey?"

"None of them received from the ancient shepherds the honor of a place in the firmament, their acquisition being undoubtedly more recent and of less importance. Briefly, my friends, the most esteemed and the most ancient of our domestic animals have been glorified by honors never bestowed upon prince, emperor, or monarch. Man's gratitude has placed them among the splendors of the firmament.

"In Asia, where it originated, the ox is no longer found wild; but in the pampas of South America the species has resumed its primitive freedom and, mingled with horses that have become equally wild, lives in vast herds beyond the supervision of man. Pam-pas is the name given to the immense plains extending from Buenos Aires to the foot of the Cordilleras of the Andes. During the rainy season they furnish rich pasturage of tall grass, but in the dry season verdure disappears and the soil becomes a powdery plain where thistles wave. Nothing, not even a tree, breaks the uniformity of these plains, the limits of which cannot be seen in any direction. There lives the wild ox, descendant of the domesticated ox that the Spaniards brought to this part of the New World, for the species did not exist anywhere in America before the arrival of Europeans.

"The few pairs that escaped from their stables or were left to themselves in the pastures of the pampas three or four centuries ago, have multiplied so rapidly that to-day the number of cattle there is incalculable. More than two hundred thousand are slaughtered every year, and still the herds show no sign of diminution. The carnage has long been and still continues to be carried on for the sake of the hides, or at least this is in great part the purpose."

"They kill the cattle just for the hides?" asked Jules incredulously. "Then the meat isn't good for anything?"

"It is excellent, but they do not know what to do with it, there is so much. The population of the country not being sufficient to consume this enormous quantity of food, the cattle are slaughtered, the hides removed and cured, after which they can be kept indefinitely, and the flesh is left behind as a useless encumbrance. This is a waste much to be regretted, for with us meat is becoming scarcer every day, and our food problem would find a ready solution in the pampas cattle that now feed only carnivorous animals.

"It is true that attempts are made to save a part of this copious supply of provision. The meat is cut into strips which are dried in the sun or salted or smoked, as a means of preservation; and in this state commerce carries them to all parts of the world. Unfortunately, I must acknowledge, this meat preserved by salting, smoking, or drying is not very palatable eating. Let us hope that improved methods of preserving will be introduced, and that some day South America will furnish Europe a rich supply of butcher's meat.

"In the present state of things the pampas cattle are hunted principally for their hides. I say hunted, for the cattle of the grassy plains of Buenos Aires may be called veritable game, since these animals do not fall, as do our cattle, under the blow of the butcher's hammer, but are pursued in the open pasture and killed on the spot. The hunter is on horseback. For weapon he has the lasso; that is to say, a very long and tough leather thong, fastened at one end to the saddle-bow, armed at the other with balls of lead. When the hunted animal is within reach, the hunter throws the perfidious leather thong, which, whistling and following the course of the lead, encircles the animal's horns and neck. At the touch of the spur the horse gallops off, putting forth all its strength, and drags the half-strangled ox after it. A plunge of the dagger in the heart finishes the beast. After removing the skin and rolling it up on the crupper of his horse, the cattle-hunter resumes his quest, leaving to the birds of prey the dead bodies whose bones, whitened by rain and sun, will serve him on future expeditions as material for building himself a hut."

"A hut of bones!" exclaimed Emile.

"Yes, my friend. On those vast plains wood is lacking as well as stones. Therefore bones, piled one on top of another, serve the hunter of the pampas for building him a. shelter, where he rests under a grass roof. The skull of an ox with long horns serves him as a seat by day and a pillow at night."

It seems to me I shouldn't sleep very well with my head between the two horns of an ox's skull."

"The hardened hunter of the pampas sleeps on it as on feathers."

"And what do they do with all those hides that they get by hunting the. ox?" asked Jules.

"There is an extensive commerce in those hides. Ships bring them to us, well salted, so that they will keep. In our tanneries the salt is washed out, and then with oak-bark they are made into leather for boots and shoes."

"Then the leather of our shoes may come from some ox strangled by the lasso on the pampas?" Louis queried.

"There is nothing impossible in that. I would not say positively that we are not wearing shoes made from the hide of a wild ox, for Buenos Aires supplies a considerable part of our deficiency in leather. It may be, on the other hand, that our shoes come simply from the domestic ox, whose hide is put to the same use as that of the South American bullock. You are at liberty to ascribe your footwear to either source."

"For my part," Emile declared, "I choose the wild ox, and perhaps its body is now being used by some hunter for his hut."

"To finish the subject of tame cattle that have run wild, I will say a few words about the herds of Camargue. A little below Arles, about seven leagues from the sea, the Rhone forks and encloses between its two branches and the Mediterranean a large triangular plain. That is Camargue, a shifting tract subject to the action of both fresh and salt water, receiving the alluvial deposits of the river and the sands of the sea. There are three different regions to be distinguished in going from the river-banks to the interior of the island, where there is a large pond known as the Valcares Pond. These regions comprise the cultivated territory, the pasture land, and the group of ponds. The first, running the length of the two outlets of the Rhone, is wonderfully fertile, being made so by the annual deposits of silt. Rich harvests gild these strips of land along the river, the current of which prevents the infiltration of salt from the sea. Going further, one comes to the salt marshes, and finally, from the center of the island to the sea, stretches the region of ponds. This last is merely dry land in the making, a plain in the process of formation, with the river constantly adding its accretions of soil and the sea forever washing them away.

`In the portion devoted to pasturage roam thou-sands of bullocks that have reverted to the wild state, unprovided with shelter of any sort and free from all surveillance except such as is exercised by mounted keepers who, at long intervals, come and round up the unruly herds with the aid of a trident. Black, small, and stocky, with fierce eyes and menacing horns, they have resumed the primitive characteristics of the race. Bad luck to whoever should come and disturb them at their sport among the reeds. Only the herdsman, mounted on a fast horse and equipped with a trident for pricking the nostrils of the beasts, can control the wild herd. In one particular alone are we reminded that they are still man's servants, victims destined for his slaughter-houses and sometimes also, alas, set apart for his entertainment in the barbaric bullfight : on their shoulders the mark of the proprietor is branded with red-hot iron.

"Over the same prairies gallop, heedless of bad weather and proud of their freedom, horses descended from those that the Arabs, once masters of the south of France, left in these regions. They are white in color, small, active, and skittish. Their mouth knows not the bit, nor their hoof the shoe. At harvest time they are led up from their pasture-ground to tread the threshing-floor and thresh the wheat. The work finished, they are set free again.

"Of all our domestic animals the ox is certainly the most useful. During its lifetime it draws the cart in mountainous regions and works at the plow in the tillage of the fields; furthermore, the cow furnishes milk in abundance. Given over to the butcher, the animal becomes a source of manifold products, each part of its body having a value of its own. The flesh is highly nutritious ; the skin is made into leather for harness and shoes ; the hair furnishes stuffing for saddles; the tallow serves for making candles and soap ; the bones, half calcined, give a kind of charcoal or bone-black used especially for refining sugar and making it perfectly white; this charcoal, after being thus used, is a very rich agricultural fertilizer; heated in water to a high temperature, the same bones yield the glue used by carpenters; the largest and thickest bones go to the turner's shop, where they are manufactured into buttons and other small objects; the horns are fashioned by the maker of small-wares into snuff-boxes and powder-boxes ; the blood is used concurrently with the bone-black in refining sugar; the intestines, cured, twisted, and dried, are made into strings for musical instruments; finally, the gall is frequently turned to account by dyers and cleaners in cleaning fabrics and partially restoring their original luster.

"But this does not exhaust the list of the animal's merits. Under man's care, under the influence of climate, soil, and manner of living, the ox has become modified and has given us many different breeds that have adapted themselves to the most varied conditions of existence; one breed furnishing more work, another more meat, and still another more dairy food, according to our choice. Among the breeds scattered over France I will limit myself to the following.

"A stocky body, large and strong head, short, thick horns, short and massive neck, powerful legs, bold appearance, quick walk, medium-sized and well-shaped body—these natural endowments make the Gascon breed one of the best for work. Its coat, generally brown or tawny, is always lighter along the back. The chief source of this breed is the department of Gers.

"The Salers breed is originally from the department of Cantal. Its coat is bright red, often with white splashes on the rump and belly. The horns are large, smooth, black at the tips, of symmetrical shape, and pointing a little backward. Very rustic, sober, intelligent, vigorous, inured to toil, the Salers ox is an excellent worker. When fattened at the end of its toilsome service, it gives abundant, firm, and savory meat. The cow, if well fed, can furnish as much as twenty liters of milk a day.

"The Breton breed stocks the five departments of ancient Brittany. It is characterized by smallness of body, readiness for work, and remarkable excellence of milk, which is rich in butter-fat. The cow's coat is spotted with white and black in large splashes, and she has a black muzzle, slender horns, bright eyes, and determined gait. The ox, similarly spotted with black and white, has powerful and very pointed horns ; but the peaceful beast never dreams of using its formidable weapons.

"The Normandy breed furnishes animals of enormous size, little adapted to work, and hence reserved for the butcher. Some of these gigantic animals raised in the rich pastures of Normandy are said to have attained the weight of 1970 kilograms. In the Normandy ox the head is long and heavy, muzzle broad, the mouth deeply cut, the skin thick and hard, the hair close, sometimes red, sometimes brown, sometimes black and white. The horns are rather short and are borne well forward on the forehead. On an average the cow gives 3000 liters of milk a year.

"The Garonne breed, occupying the basin of the Garonne River from Toulouse to Bordeaux, is likewise tall, corpulent, and almost as highly esteemed for butchering as the Normandy breed. Its coat is uniform in shade, resembling in color the yellow of wheat. The horns, which turn forward, are white all over; the edge of the eyelids and the nose are pale pink. In fact, the whole physiognomy of the animal has something remarkably peaceful about it."



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