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The Noble Beasts of Lithuania

Lithuania’s vast forest tracts were some of the last havens for two species of spectacular wildlife, the European bison and the aurochs, or stumbras and tauras respectively in Lithuanian. Archeologists have found images of these animals in cave paintings, clay figures, and carvings from the Stone Age. Similarly, the stumbras and tauras are imprinted on the history and culture of Lithuania. Even the language shows their traces. Being large bovine animals, equally symbolic of wild­ness and strength, the bison and the aurochs are often confused and misidentified. Part 1 of this two-part series in the Movember/December 1999 issue of Lithuanian Heritage dealt with the stumbras, its history in Lithuania, and its rescue from extinction. In the following article, Part 2 of the series, we consider the tauras, a legendary beast whose descendents are domestic cattle of today.

Part 2 – Tauras
ACCORDING  TO  A  LITHUANIAN  LEGEND,  KING Gediminas was  out hunting in the vicinity of the  stream  called  the  Vilnia  where  it flows into the Neris river. There he slew an [unusually large wild bull  identified as be­ ing a  member of a  now extinct species  known to sci­ ence as Bosprimigenius and to Lithuanians as  “tauras.” This species of wild ox is called the aurochs in English. Since  the  animal  in  the  tale  is  described  as  large,  its height at the withers would have been at the upper end of the range for an aurochs, which is 1.6 meters. That’s approaching six feet.  The animal’s weight might have been  around 800 kilograms  (nearly 1800 pounds),  the upper  end  of the weight  range  estimated for the  au­ rochs bull.

It was late  in the day,so Gediminas decided to camp out rather than return home in the dark to his castle at Trakai. That night  he  is said to have dreamt  about  an  iron wolf whose  howl  was like  the  howls  of a  hundred  wolves  combined. The  story goes  on  to relate  how   chįef seer, Lizdeika,  interpreted the dream  to  mean  that  it was    that  place  that Gediminas  will  found  a capital  city  which  will becom e  renow n  w orldw ide.  Of course,  the  city is Vilnius where  there is even a hill bearing the name  “Tauro Kalnas”  or  aurochs’  hill.  This  hill  is located  between  Pam ėnkalnio  and Tumo-Vaižganto  streets  on  which  is situated  the  Profsąjungų  Rūmai  (the Soviet-era Palace of Unions.) The  horns  of Gediminas’  wild  bull were probably fashioned into drinking vessels  and kept as  trophies  in  accor­ dance with an ancient custom.  Writing about  Lithuanian  hospitality  and  the types  of drinking vessels  that  Lithua­nians used,  historian Teodoras Narbu­tas  (1838)  states: “Those  vessels  made  of horn were placed on stands, usually of precious metal,  and  w ere  decorated  with gem stones,  fitted  with  handles, covers,  and  hanging  decorations.  Such  horns  were usually passed from  generation  to  generation,  as  a significant remembrance  of the  one who  had  killed with  his  own  hands  the  animal  whose  horns  these were.  Descendants  of the  grand  ducal  family  kept horns  of an  aurochs  that  Gediminas  had  killed  on Tauro Kalnas at Vilnius.  In 1429, while Vytautas was visiting with Emperor Sigismund  [of the Holy Roman Empire]  in Lutsk,  the  Lithuanian ruler presented him with a splendid drinking horn.”* We will never know whether the  Gediminas legend has any basis in fact,  and we can’t even be certain that the  animal  that  he  slew was  indeed  a  member of the species Bos primigenius as this animal is confused with the bison C Bison  bonasus ) with great regularity.  Since it is  definitely known  that both bison  and aurochs were present during the  medieval period,  it will  have  to be assumed that the  original  tellers  of the  tale  knew the difference. The aurochs  is regarded by scientists  as the  ancestor.

Early Lithuanians hunt an aurochs ( tauras ) while keeping wolves at bay.
Early Lithuanians hunt an aurochs ( tauras ) while keeping wolves at bay.
Perphaps no other Lithuanian ruler is associated with the aurochs more than King Gediminas (1316-1341)
Perphaps no other Lithuanian ruler is associated with the aurochs more than King Gediminas (1316-1341)


*  Lutsk  (Luckas  in  Lithuanian),  located  in  present-day   Ukraine, w as o n e o f the most important Lithuanian cities during the  14th- 16th centuries, an d  o n e o f the residences of Vytautas the Great. A sum m it o f European heads o f state w as co n v en ed  by Vytautas in January o f 1429 to discuss an d  solve eastern  and central European problem s.  T he  rulers  o f the  Holy  R om an  Empire,  Poland,  M us­ covy,  an d   the  Teutonic  Order,  an d   the  representatives  o f the Pope, the King o f Denmark, the Byzantine Emperor, the Golden Horde,  the  Hanseatic  League,  the  Russian  cities  o f Novgorod, Pskov,  Riazan,  T ver  and  m any  other  provinces  an d   territories attended .  During   this  conference ,  the  Holy  R om an  Emperor promised   to  sen d   Vytautas  a  royal  crow n.  In  o rd e r to  feed   the participating dignitaries and their retinues for fifty days, Vytautas had  one  hundred   aurochs  slaughtered   each  day,  in  addition  to hundreds o felk,  steer and lam b.

Al­though it is extinct as a wild species, it’s genes for the most part still exist in  that  vast  pool  of  cattle  genes including  those  that give  domestic cattle  their  characteristics  such  as high milk production,  docile dispo­sition, meatier carcass, and coat col­ors that mark particular breeds. Just as the  aurochs has left a rich legacy in the form of all those  eco­nomically valuable  cattle  breeds, so has  the very name  of the animal spawned  an  interesting  cluster  of words  in the  Baltic lexicon.  It’s obvious that the Lithuanian word “tau­ rė”  or  chalice  reflects  the  fact  that the  animal’s  horns were  once used as  drinking vessels.  It  is  also  obvious  where  the  Latvians  got  their word for trumpet, “tauris.” But what of the  Lithuanian  word  “taurus,” meaning  noble,  honest?  In  the minds of the ancient Balts the name of this  animal  was  an  appropriate metaphor  to  describe  a  superior individual.  The  adjective  “taurus” possibly  evolved from  an  expres­sion  in  Lithuanian  translating  as “he’s a bull of a man.” There’s a par­allel  in  the  English  language  in the  word  “bully,”  an  adjective meaning  “excellent”  or  “first rate.” In  the  popular  etymological  con­ sciousness the word bully is associ­ated with bull the animal. Numerous  names  of places  and bodies  of water derived from  “tau-ras”  dot the  Lithuanian  landscape. There  are  the  towns  and  villages of Tauragė,  Tauragnai,  Tauralaukis, Tauraginai,  and  Taurkalnė.  Tau- rupys, Taurija, Taurožė, Taura, Tau­ rė,  Tauragna,  and Taurosta  are  the names  of streams.  On  the  shore  of Tauragnas  lake  is  the  fortress  hill called Taurapilis.  Linguists  can  de­ bate till the  cows come home as  to whether the town of Tauragė got its name from a wild ox’s horn,  a land form  on  a  river  bend  where  wild oxen  once  roam ed,  or  from  the name  applied  to  craftsmen  (“tau- ragiai”)  who  fashioned  drinking vessels,  trumpets,  and  other useful articles from horn. What seems cer­tain is that the town’s name as well as  that  of Tauragnai  and Tauragna consists  of two  parts:  wild  ox  — “tauras,”  and horn — “ragas.”

One  of the  main  reasons  for the disappearance  of the  aurochs was the  rapid  developm ent  of  agri­ culture,  especially  in  the  eighth through  the  thirteenth  centuries. The  natural  habitats  of  these animals  were  river  valleys,  forest clearings  and  very  sparse  forests. Human activity pushed them to the densest  forests  where  they  ended up with  relatively poor feeding  ar­eas. When in contact with free rang­ing  cattle,  the  aurochs  might have become  infected with cattle  diseas­ es  and  parasites.  They  may  have been  a  nuisance  to  farmers whose fields  they invaded or whose  cows with which they may have attempt­ ed  to  mate.  Also,  the  aurochs  may have  been  caught  for  domestica­tion.  Hunting  was  the  last  straw. Ironically,  it  was  in  hunting  pre­serves  owned  by  the  nobility  that the aurochs had a chance of surviv­al.  One such preserve, the Jaktorow Forest  in Poland,  was  the  place where the very last wild aurochs,  a cow, died of old age in  1627. There  seems  to be  no  clear  idea as  to when  the  last tauras  expired on the  territory of Lithuania.  It was most  probably  in  the  early  1500s, which  is  quite  late  in  history,  as this species  died out long before  in most  parts  of Europe  and Asia.  A colorfully  illustrated  antique  map of the Baltic area dated  1539 shows part  of Lithuania  in  its  southeast­ern  corner.  It  depicts  Sigismund The  Old  (1506-1548),  King  of Po­ land and Grand Duke  of Lithuania, seated on his throne.  A fire,  an oak grove,  and  a  serpent  are  shown and  captioned  as  objects  of vene­ration  by  the  ancient  pagans.  In addition,  there  is  an  armed  man being thrown from his horse by an “urus,”  Latin  for  aurochs.  Clearly in  the  mind  of the  m ap’s  creator, Lithuania was an exotic country still inhabited by infidels  and ferocious wild  beasts.  But  the  traveler  and diplomat  Sigismund  von  Herber- stein, who was keenly interested in both the  aurochs  and the  bison  as big  game  animals,  failed  to  see  or hear of any aurochs during his trav­els  through  Lithuania  in  the  years 1517  and  1526.  Moreover,  the  aurochs  is  not mentioned  in  the  First Lithuanian  Statute  (1529). Imagine  the  following  scenario:

Scientists assemble genetic material of an  extinct  animal  species  and generate  living  individuals  of that species.  Then  they  introduce  the animals  into  a  suitable  environ­ment  w here  they  flourish.  Does this  sound  like Jurassic  Park,  the science  fiction  book  and  film  by Michael  Crichton  in  which  dino­saurs  were  recreated  from  bits  of DNA  found  preserved  in  amber? Yes,  but  we  are  speaking  here about the  real world,  not fantasies out of the mind of a paperback writ­ er.