Celtic Mythology:Celtic Shape Shifting
By: Celtic Bard Jeff
There are tales of changelings, where “the fairies would come and take your baby” replacing your little cherub with a fairy child. Their appearance was identical, so you were none the wiser; except when you noticed that your child possessed magical gifts. This potential was so prevalent in Irish folklore that the beautiful girl’s name, Síofra translates as ‘changeling’.
This impression of the Otherworldly behind the human face, plays out explicitly in our strong literary tradition of shapeshifter women. Shapeshifting is the ability to shift from one form (or shape) to another, usually from human to animal, and vice versa. Mythical women tend to shapeshift more than men. In fact, Celtic women love to shapeshift.
Our indigenous wisdom was animistic. Everything possessed a spiritual essence; each creation birthed by nature - human, animal, plant, element - possessed a soul. Our ancestors did not consider themselves superior to nature as we do in our extractive, capitalist societies. In fact, trees were protected from felling by native Brehon Law. People and animals lived side by side. Animals were respected as our teachers and allies.
One goddess who shapeshifts into many animal forms is the Morrígan. Her name translates as ‘Great Queen’ or ‘Phantom Queen’, both are fitting embodiments of her power. She most commonly takes on the form of a hooded-crow but also an eel, a white heifer with red ears (a potent symbol of fertility), and a wolf. Her human form is also fluid - sometimes a divine seductive maiden, others, a warrior queen, or a hideous old hag.
The Morrígan is a representation of the dark feminine, of nature’s wild fury. She is often personified as a blood thirsty sorceress, and indeed, she was a harbinger of battle. In later texts, she is depicted as a tripartite goddess with her sister Badb ‘hooded crow’ or ‘battle crow’, swooping and screeching over warriors on the battlefield inciting terror, along with her other sister Nemain, which means ‘panic’ or ‘frenzy’ (or sometimes, a sister called Macha).
If we focus only on the Morrigan’s bloodlust, we miss sage insight she has to offer - the connection we experience deep in our bones when we hold the land in reverence and honour nature for her power. The Morrígan determined which tribe would succeed in battle and so, who was worthy of the land
The Morrígan also invokes surrender to the void. She reminds us of how the destruction and death of aspects of ourselves or whatever we cling on to that doesn’t serve, are necessary to make space for renewal, for our rebirth, our renaissance. It is within the darkness that infinite possibilities exist. We all begin life in the dark home of our mother’s wombs, and when ready, birth into the light.
In ancient Ireland, the rightful king was symbolically chosen to rule the people by the Sovereignty Goddess who represented the land and nature. This conveyed the harmony of the masculine and the feminine, necessary for society to thrive. If the king’s rule was imperfect, the sovereignty goddess would impose her wrath and crops, livestock, the tribe’s birth rate etc. would suffer. There are many sovereignty goddesses in our mythology, the Morrígan as a tutelary deity, embodies aspects of this. These goddesses were fierce protectresses of the land, of the earth’s mystical essence. The sovereignty goddess was symbolically married to the king in a ritual called the Banais Rígi, where she offered him a wedding libation to indicate her approval of the union and his legitimacy to rule. Before she committed to this ceremony, the goddess often appeared in different forms using her shapeshifting powers to test the worthiness of a prospective king.
One of Ireland’s most famous kings, Niall of the Nine Hostages secured the throne over his stepbrothers, when he lay with the sovereignty goddess while she was in the form of a repulsive hag. Once he committed to her, she transformed into a ravishing goddess. She deemed him worthy of the kingship because in his embracing of her grotesque form, he honoured the dark spectrum of nature; he did not only seek the light.
A tale that resonates deeply with the women I work with, is the selkie. A selkie, meaning ‘seal folk’ (pronounced "SEHL-kee"), is a mythical creature that resembles a seal in the water but assumes human form on land. Stories of selkies feature in Irish, Scottish, and Nordic folklore. These coastlines are wild and unpredictable, and one which humans and seals share.
There are many varieties of the selkie tale. In Ireland, the tradition includes stories of the Maighdean Mara, the ‘sea maiden’. This refers to a type of mermaid (half-woman, half-fish) or a selkie. A popular motif centres on a lonely man stumbling across a selkie on the beach. He becomes so enraptured by her otherworldly charm that he snatches her sealskin, magical cape, or fishtail and holds her captive on land. The selkie eventually returns the man’s love, and they birth a family together. But, as she cannot express her true nature, her essence, or live as her authentic self while in this man’s world, her health begins to drastically deteriorate, her lifeforce leaks.
Source: Celtic Embodiment Image: Deer Woman by Susan Seddon Boulet, 1987