Shapeshifting in Celtic Myth

by Kenneth R. White

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 Celtic myth.

There 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.”

The 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 to attain.

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.

There 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

As 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 mercy.

The 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.

Again, 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

The 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.

One 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 verse.

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.

The 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.


As 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