The Beast Within | Shapeshifters in Irish Mythology
Updated: May 9
Shapeshifting in Irish mythology involves a long list of animals, not just the wolf or vampire, as made popular by modern literature. Transformation served many purposes, such as completing challenges, escaping danger, or exacting punishment. Not only that, but it portrays a potential belief in totemism and reincarnation.
Modern literature and films have latched onto the notion of the shapeshifter as a great moneyspinner; the shelves are full of stories of YA paranormal romance involving teen werewolves and vampires struggling to control their overpowering and little understood impulses. But the mythologies from which these tales derive tell quite a different story.
Take the werewolf, for example. Some time in the late 1100s, a priest travelling from Ulster to Munster came across a man and his wife forced to live for seven years as werewolves. They were good Christian people and true believers, whose ancestors had been cursed for a long- forgotten sin by another priest in the time just after St Patrick.
They were not evil, nor killed other humans. These people and their clan were known as the Werewolves of Ossary, and you can read an excellent article all about them on the blog of Ed Mooney.
The Coir Anmann, a late medieval text, tells of Laignech Fáelad, (a sixth-century Prince of Ossory), ‘a man who used to go wolfing, i.e. into wolf-shapes, and his offspring used to go after him and they used to kill the herds after the fashion of wolves, so that it is for that he used to be called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them who went into a wolf-shape.’
This text tells of a man who took on a wolf form to go hunting, and in fact, the Fianna were said to have howled like wolves before beginning one of their famous hunts. It must have been very stirring!
In the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology (c. C3rd), Airitech had three daughters who were werewolves. Every Samhain, they emerged from the Cave of Cruachan, said to be a gateway to the Otherworld, to kill sheep.
They liked music, so the poet Cas Corach played his harp to distract them, and persuaded them to change back into their human form. Caoilte, a warrior of the Fianna, then cast a spear that penetrated all three at once, and so they were killed.
To become a werewolf is probably the most well known form of shapeshifting, and it even has its own name, Lycanthropy. But there are others, too; to take on the form of a dog, for example, is known as Cynanthropy, and to become a cat is to experience Ailuranthropy. Who knew?
Shapeshifting is basically the power to physically change into another being. Most often, stories of such transformations involve humans into animals, and visa versa, which is known as Therianthropy. But shapeshifting can include metamorphosis into plants, too, and even inanimate objects.
Shapeshifting should not be confused with Theriocephaly, which refers to beings who exist as part human and part animal, such as centaurs, fauns, mermaids, and even the animal headed Gods of ancient Egypt.
The native Americans believed in beings called ‘skinwalkers’; they possessed the ability to change into any animal at all, so long as they were wearing the skin of that animal at the time. This reminds me of the Berserkers; the term comes from the Old Norse serkr, meaning ‘shirt/ coat’ and ber, meaning ‘bear’.
It was said they were thus named because they often wore the skin of a bear into battle; the bear was a manifestation of their god, Odin, and in their battle trance they assumed the fierce strength and courage of the bear as they fought, in an attempt to please him.
The Wolf Men of Tipperary were a bunch of fierce mercenaries who served Ireland’s High Kings, who went into battle wearing wolf skins and were renowned for howling like wolves as they fought. It was said they lived in remote areas, and unlike the Werewolves of Ossory, they could turn into wolves at will.
There is a long list of animals associated with shapeshifting in Irish mythology; the wolf, as we have seen, but also the selkie, the kelpie, the Puca, the swan, the crane, the butterfly, salmon, the deer, the dog, the pig/ wild boar.
Not only does this concept indicate a potential belief in reincarnation, but it is used as a means of highlighting certain characteristics, or events. For example, in the stories of Étaín, Sadbh and the children of Lir, they are all transformed into animals against their will as punishment.
Fumnach was jealous when her husband fell in love with Étaín, so she turned her into a pool of water, and then a butterfly, and blew her far away on a stormy wind. Sadbh was turned into a deer for refusing the amorous advances of the spurned Dark Druid, whilst Aoife turned her four step-children into swans and banished them for nine hundred years out of jealousy of her husband’s love for them.
Shapeshifting was also used as a means of escape from danger, although it has to be said, tragically, it wasn’t always successful. Cian, Lugh’s father, turns himself into a pig in order to merge with a herd grazing nearby and so escape from his enemies, the three sons of Tuirrean, with whom he had a feud.
Unfortunately, they realised what had happened, and two of them transformed into hounds and hunted him down. The third son pierced him with a spear, whereupon Cian resumed his human shape, but his enemies showed no mercy; rather than give him an honourable end, they stoned him to death.
Shapeshifting could also be used to set a challenge. Óengus Óg is forced to identify his lover, Caer Ibarmeith, who has transformed into a swan, from among 150 other swan maidens. Which he succeeds at, of course. Well, he is the God of Love…
Sometimes, humans found themselves with a special animal companion, who perhaps offered them support, advice or comfort; these animal companions turn out to have once been human, and can in fact be thought of more as guides. This has an echo of totemism about it, where a human has a spiritual connection, or kinship, with another physical being.
Fionn’s two hounds, Bran and Sceolán embody this concept. They were conceived as human children, but their mother, Tuirrean, who was actually Fionn’s aunt, was turned into a wolf hound while they were still in utero, so they were born as puppies.
They grew to be Fionn’s closest companions, barely leaving his side at the hunt or in battle. The stories don’t indicate whether the family tie was realised by the beasts or Fionn, but the bond between them was undeniably strong.
Here’s a form of shapeshifting which intrigues me: gendershifting. This simply involves changing from male into female, and visa versa. For example, Fer I, Manannán’s stunted harper turned himself into a woman to gain access to the beautiful child-Princess Tuag, who was not allowed the company of men. He played his harp to lull her to sleep, then kidnapped her, but she was tragically drowned on her journey to the sea God’s home. The Abbot of Drumenaig lived as a woman for seven years, even marrying and bearing children, before becoming a man again.
Perhaps the greatest shapeshifting legend in Irish mythology is that of Fintan mac Bóchra, the Wise. He came to Ireland with Noah’s grand-daughter, Cessair. His family were sadly killed in the Great Flood, but he survived by transforming into a salmon. After a year, he became an eagle, then a hawk, before finally after 5500 years, resuming his human form.
During his lifetime, he amassed great knowledge and wisdom, and so became advisor to all of Ireland’s kings. He finally departed this world some time after the advent of Christianity. His sojourn as a salmon leads some to surmise that he may have been the famous Salmon of Knowledge, as eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill.
Interestingly, there is someone else who shares a similar story. Tuan mac Cairill was a hermit who arrived in Ireland with the Parthalon invasion. He alone survived a plague which killed all of his people. He survived into Christian times, and told St Finnan that he had been born 2000 years earlier, and had lived as a stag, then a wild boar, then a great hawk.
Later, he reincarnated as a salmon, and was caught by a fisherman who served him up to a chieftain named Cairill. However, he was eaten whole by Cairill’s wife. He passed into her womb and she became pregnant, and so he was reborn as Tuan mac Cairill. Weird, huh?