Shapeshifting in Celtic Mythology

Shapeshifting, the ability to change from one form into another, appears in many mythologies throughout the world. The stories told by the ancient Celts were no exception. 

One of the best known figures in Celtic mythology, The Morrigan, was associated with war, destiny and fertility. Legends often told of her magical shapeshifting powers. It was said she could transform into a raven, although she was also believed to have battled the fearsome warrior, Cú Chulainn in the forms of a heifer, an eel and a wolf. When Cú Chulainn eventually realised that he had been mortally wounded, he tied himself to a large stone so that he could die standing up, face to face with his enemies. There he remained for three days, still capable of striking fear into his foes. No one dared approach him. It was only when the Morrigan, in the form of a raven, perched on Cú Chulainn's shoulder that his enemies knew he had died.

While some shapeshifting was due to magical powers, there are other examples of transformations caused by angry, vengeful spells and curses. One of the most well known is found in the tragic Irish legend of “The Children of Lir”. This famous legend centres around the four children of Lír and Aoibh. They were a girl named Fionnuala, and three boys; Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. After the death of Aoibh, Lír married her sister, Aoífe who became jealous of his love for the children and transformed them into swans. The four children lived in this form for nine hundred years. They retained the ability to speak and sing so beautifully that anyone who heard them would stop in their tracks to listen. Different stories were told of how the spell was finally broken. In one version, this happened when a bell rang out to tell of Saint Patrick bringing Christianity to Ireland. He was able to baptise them before they died peacefully in their human form.

Fionn MacCumhail was the most celebrated leader of the warriors known as the Fianna. He was accompanied into hunts and battles by his two faithful hounds, Bran and Sceolan. They were said to be Fionn's relatives; some stories say they are his cousins, others his nephews. Their mother, Uirne (or Tuiren), had been transformed into a wolfhound when she was pregnant. She gave birth to two pups; one male and one female. Although Uirne was eventually able to change back to her human form, her offspring, Bran and Sceolan could not, and they lived the rest of their days as Fionn's loyal hound companions. When he first discovered his wife, Sadhbh, she was in the form of a deer, under the spell of a wizard who was an enemy of her father. The two hounds made no attempt to chase her. They sensed that she was a human in animal form, just like them. Fionn's discovery of Sadhbh broke the spell. She became human once more and they married. Sadly one day the wizard caught up with Sadhbh, and changed her back into a deer again. Fionn searched far and wide for his beloved wife but he never found her. He did, however, discover a child in the woods and knew at once that he was their son. He named the boy Oisin, which means "Little Deer".


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