The theme of shapeshifting is found in Celtic myth regardless
of the specific country one invesigates. Throughout my studies
of Celtic lore I have found that there were very specific reasons
or circumstances for shapeshifting. These reasons fall into
at least four different categories, they are punishment, survival,
protection or as a means to facilitate rebirth. Sometimes a
story will fall into more than one of these categories, such
as the Welsh story of Llew Llaw Gyffes.
Shapeshifting for Survival and Rebirth
In the Welsh story of Taliesin, who as Gwion Bach transforms
himself into various animal shapes to escape the wrath of the
goddess Ceridwen. Gwion transforms himself into a hare, a fish,
a bird and finally a grain of wheat. Ceridwen in an attempt
to catch him also transforms herself. She becomes a greyhound,
an otter, a falcon and a hen. It is as a hen that she finally
catches Gwion, who is at this stage a grain of wheat, she swallows
Gwion and by so doing becomes pregnant and eventually gives
birth to Taliesin.
The story of Taliesin has many similarities with the Irish
story of Tuan mac Cairill. Tuan is the great-grandson of Partholon
who was the leader of one of the five invading races of Ireland.
Tuan is the lone survivor of this race and lives out many lives
on the island as a stag, a boar, a hawk and finally as a salmon.
It is as a salmon that he is caught by a fisherman and served
to the wife of Cairill. The lady becomes pregnant and gives
birth to Tuan. The similarity of these two myths strikes home
when we understand that both Tuan and Taliesin had full memories
of their previous lives as humans. In both cases, their second
lives as a human were both brought about by a woman eating
them and becoming pregnant. This theme too echoes throughout
is a common misconception concerning these two myths that
I wish to clarify. One may think that these two stories
relate to reincarnation. That is not accurate; in both instances
the main characters maintain their identities in every form.
John and Caitlin Matthews have provided us with some insight
into the Celtic view of stories of this type. They quote Cormac’s
Glossary that gives an definition of transmigration, which
in the Gaelic is tuirgin, “a birth that passes from every
nature into another… a transitory birth which has traversed
all nature from Adam and goes through every wonderful time
down to the world’s doom.”
Matthews’ go on to explain that these “transitory
births” often traverse the realms of animals while the
subjects retain their original memories and intelligence. But
not only do they retain their original memories, they also
retain the knowledge and experiences of their lives as animals.
Therefore, it could be said that the act of transformation
granted them knowledge they wouldn’t otherwise be able
Sometimes, the shapeshifter undergoes the change in order
to survive some great disaster. And this sometimes goes hand
in hand with the rebirth senario, but not always.
We can look at the story of Llew for an example of transformation
following a personal disaster. After Blodeuwedd and her lover
attempt to kill Llew, he is transformed into the shape of an
eagle. Gwydion find him perched on a tree, decomposing flesh
falling from him, which is eaten by a sow. Gwydion then uses
his Druidic wand to transform Llew back to his human shape.
As a punishment for her treacherous ways, Gwydion transforms
Blodeuwedd into an owl.
are many more instances of rebirth and survival in the manner
described above. In fact, Celtic myth is full of them,
but I haven’t the space to address them all. The Celts
believed that everything was possessed of a spirit and great
care was taken by Celtic women not to partake of certain foods
or plants for the fear of becoming pregnant.
Transformation as Punishment
with Blodeuwedd’s transformation into an owl, a person
could be transformed to inflict some sort of punishment for
transgressions, real or perceived. Ossian’s mother was
one such person. She was transformed into the shape of a deer
by the Druid Fer Doirche. In this story, she is turned into
a doe while pregnant with him. He is born of her while she
is in deer form and retained throughout life a patch of “fawn’s
hair” on his forehead where she licked him. Ossian becomes
a member of the Fianna and later comes face to face with his
mother while out hunting. She is able to show him her true
form and thus prevent Ossian from shooting her. Ossian then
warns to to flee, for the Fianna would not show her the same
children of Lir were transformed into the shapes of swans
by their stepmother Aoife because she was jealous of Lir’s
love for them. The children were doomed to remain in this shape
for many years until finally they resumed their human shapes
and died old and tired.
The Welsh story of Math ap Mathonwy we find another example
of transformation used as a punishment. Gwydion and his brother
Gilfaethwy create problems for Math when they start a war with
Pryderi, King of Annwn. This war is all to draw Math away from
his royal foot holder Goewin. Gwydion kills Pryderi and Gilfaethwy
rapes Goewin. Math in a rage over these transgressions changes
Gilfaethwy and Gwydion into deer. Gwydion a stag and Gilfaethwy
a doe. In these bodies they are forced to live as mates until
death at which time they are again transformed, this time Gwydion
becomes a sow and Gilfaethwy a boar.
they live life as mates and produce many off spring. After
the “incarnation” as pigs they live again
as wolves. Gwydion the he-wolf and Gilfaethwy as the she-wolf.
Shapeshifting for Protection
father of Lugh, Cian mac Cainte encounters his sons enemies.
Since Cian was outnumbered he strikes himself with his wand
and changes himself into a boar.
of Lugh’s enemies,
Brian mac Tuirenn, derides his brothers for not being able
to distinguish a real boar from a druidical boar. Thus, he
strikes his brothers with his wand, changing them into hounds.
In this shape they pursue Cian and mortally wound him. Cian
then resumes his human shape before he dies. This form of transformation
for protection didn’t work, but there are other examples.
There is in Highland Scotland folklore a specific spell used
to affect the transformation of an individual. This type of
spell is known as fith-fath (fee-faw) and as most Celtic spells
was chanted verse. The folklore behind the fith-fath states
that it was employed to bring about invisibility by transforming
the subject into a different form. Alexander Carmichael informs
us that the fith-fath was applied to circumstances where a
person needed to walk unseen, which was usually done in the
shape of an animal, or when one wished to transform one object
into another. Hunters would use this spell when hunting, as
it afforded them the luxury of hiding from their prey, and
hiding the slain prey from any who would steal it. One can
imagine a hunter chanting the fith-fath and taking on the shape
of a deer, how better to approach their quarry unseen and unsuspected.
Carmichael has provided us with a translated fith-fath spell
meant to ensure that the person whom it was chanted over would
become invisible to all the animals and beings recited in the
A magic cloud I put on thee,
From dog, from cat,
From cow, from horse,
From man, from woman,
From young man, from maiden,
And from little child.
Till I again return.
The “magic cloud” could
easily be a invocation of the powers of the god Manannan,
who being the god of the
sea had control over the mists and fogs. These mists and fogs
were controlled by the god with his magic cloak or mantle.
This same mantle was shaken between Fionn and his Fae lover,
so that they would forget each other. So, what the chanter
of this verse is asking is that the subject be covered by the
cloak of Manannan. This same spell could be used to transform
the subject into an animal or some other object.
Matthew’s find a correlation between the fith-fath
and the spell known as the lorica in Irish lore. They translate
the words fith-fath as “deer’s aspect” and
give a similar translation for the Irish feth-faidha. The feth-faidha
is another name for the chant known as “St. Patrick’s
Breastplate.” The breastplate was used by the Irish saint
to confuse the soldiers of King Loegaire, thus changing Patrick
and his attendants into deer. The breastplate runs thus:
I arise day
Through the strength of heaven,
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendour of fire,
Speed of lightening,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.
I stated above the people who were transformed were able
to gain some knowledge from living as animals. Through this
experience they were able to better appreciate nature and gained
a closer affinity for nature. So we see several instances from
Celtic myth where transformation was used as a means of survival
or of protection. Taliesin and Tuan both used transformation
as a means of survival and to bring about their eventual rebirth.
Hunters and even the Irish Saints used transformation to protect
themselves or cause them to become “invisible.”
John Matthews presents a theory that states that some transformations
were necessary for an exchange of knowledge between otherworld
beings and a seeker or shaman. These transformations required
the seeker to confront a threshold guardian or to become that
guardian themselves. In a later essay I will address this theory
in greater detail.
The Encyclopedia of Celtic Wisdom by Caitlin and John Matthews
The Celtic Tradition by Caitlin Matthews
Fire in the Head by Tom Cowan
The Magic Arts in Celtic Britain by Lewis Spence
An introduction to Celtic Mythology by David Bellingham
The Druids by P.B. Ellis
The Druids-Magicians of the West by Ward Rutherford