The Beast Within | Shapeshifters in Irish Mythology

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.


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The Coir Anmann, a late medieval text talks of Laignech Fáelad, (a C6th 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.

This in turn sounds very similar indeed to the Wolf Men of Tipperary, 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.

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 intrigued me; gendershifting… and you thought it was a modern phenomenon! This simply involves changing from male into female, and visa versa.

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.

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?

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62 Comments on “The Beast Within | Shapeshifters in Irish Mythology

  1. Pingback: My Ideation – rebekahquinnblog

  2. Pingback: Introducing SWANSKIN… | aliisaacstoryteller

    • Lol! Well in that case, I’m glad you liked it. Its interesting to see Irish shapeshifting involving other animals than the wolf, for a change.

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  4. That is some very interesting reading, great mythology of changing forms, the wearing of animals skins into battle, reminds me of the Scottish bag pipers, they seem to wear an animal skin or fur, maybe akin to harnessing the powers of that animal, you really do a lot of research to present such an indepth subject

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    • Thank you! These posts started out as the research for my books which I didnt use but didnt want to waste. Now they have taken on a life of their own, but they give me an excuse to delve deeper into research, which I love. Haha! There is a lot of rubbish on the net written about Irish mythology, assumptions made and weird interpretations that have no foundation, but I want to present the mythology to new readers as close to the original as possible. Having said that, the texts we have inherited have been corrupted by time, or personal ambition of the writer, or mistranslation, or religious thinking, or are simply incomplete. We just have to do the best with what we have, and realise how lucky we are to still have them. 😊 Glad you enjoy them and thanks for letting me know.

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  5. Hey, I just remembered the other thing I wanted to say! Women swallowing creatures who they then birth as a baby… very weird, as far as human anatomy goes, for sure! But, that kind of story isn’t only found in Irish myth. In the Welsh Mabinogion, Cerridwen chases Gwion through a series of shape changes, for instance, he turns into a salmon and she an otter, or he turns into a hare and she a hound. Finally when he turns into a grain of wheat, she turns into a hen and swallows him and nine months later she gives birth to a baby boy, Taliesin, the greatest bard who eveer lived. In druidry such tales have many meanings of course but many understand them to provide a spiritual roadmap to personal transformation, to shifting and transforming yourself through the stages of initiation into rebirth as the essence of who you are. These myths can be not just entertaining but lived, to walk between the worlds and travel the harrowing and breathtaking path to awen, inspiration, which is at the heart of, particularly modern, druidry. In February the head of the Anglesey Druid Order, Chris Hughes, gave a talk on living the path of the Mabinogion. Whatever else it may be, he suggested, quite convincingly, the tale of Taliesin is a map to an inner spiritual journey. I went to it, it was absolutely excellent–Chris was born in Wales and really knows his stuff, as well as is fluent in Welsh. Anyway, after his talk he shared with me that he considers the story of Fionn and the salmon of wisdom as an equivalent tale from the Irish tradition, in terms of the journey and the symbolism, not the details of course. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that– meaning, I hardly felt reassured. 🙂 . I’ve come to think he is right, and I shouldn’t have been so worried.

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    • Although the salmon that was eaten by Fionn was eaten by a man and therefore not rebirthed. Which makes this story quite unusual, dont you think? Fionn was already Fionn, although eating the salmon certainly transformed him in that he gained knowledge and second sight. I suspect however, that had more to do with the druid training he got from Finegas than eating the salmon. There are lots of stories of women swallowing creatures and giving birth to ‘unusual’ offspring, such as Etain, Cuchullain, even the two bulls of the Cattle raid of Cooley were reborn from Sidhe to bulls after transforming through a series of forms, finally into worms, which were eaten by two grazing cows. A slightly different take on the story.

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      • Yeah, you’re right, it certainly is not an equivalent tale in terms of its form, and what happens in it. The similarity might simply just be in that it is an Irish story about receiving awen/inspiration, and so is the story of Taliesin. Oh and in both stories, the person invested in acquiring the awen gives the task of transforming to someone else, and in both cases the person who tends the fire whether for the salmon or the cauldron of awen is the one who gets the wisdom. I’ve decided not surprisingly to take away the point that you shouldn’t let someone else procure your wisdom for you. 🙂 After that there’s really nothing in common. And that’s fine with me. If it came to it I don’t think Carridwen and I would be a good match when it comes to transformations… let’s just say that’s because, and this is also somewhat evident in the story about her, she likes unilaterally telling people what to do, and I know how I feel about that. 🙂

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  6. I absolutely loved reading this post, Ali! Sorry I couldn’t comment earlier, I lost internet for several days this week.

    You know, when I was first trying to wrap my head around changing energy/light weaving like I’ve shared with you, I got very freaked out because I thought I might get shape-shifted. I didn’t have to worry about that, thank goodness! 🙂

    I’ve always wondered whether these stories hold a clue to a shamanic element in ancient Celtic culture. Or perhaps they were names for people or clans who were exceptionally untamed in an animal-like fashion. Other times, like with selkies, I’ve wondered if the stories didn’t help families grieve for loved ones who drown in the sea. And who knows, maybe there are some complete-transformation shapeshifters out there… 🙂

    Oh, lol, I’m informed that it is highly possible that many fianna members did, perhaps, actually houl before hunts… but mind you only while very far from any animal worth pursuing, otherwise the whole venture would be pretty pointless 🙂 … howling is great fun, more people should try it.

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    • Lol! That last bit of your comment made me smile… I imagine it was a great way to release the trnsion and excitement which must inevitably build before a great hunt… as well as put them in the mindspace of a hunter.

      Yeah, who knows the kernal of truth behind such stories, although I think there always is one. I definitely think there was a shamanic element to ancient Celtic culture. I actually dont think they worshipped Gods at all, but simply honoured their ancestors, at least in Ireland. The old stories dont refer to the Danann as Gods. It was only in later writings that that happened, probably because the Christians who were writing them down couldnt conceive of anyone having such magic powers unless they were a god. Just my opinion.

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    • I’ve actually never heard of Maya! Love how that article speaks of her as if she’s real! Perhaps it was indeed a silver tipped spear which killed the werewolf girls, I never thought of that! 😀

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  7. Gendershifting, salmon swallowing baby makers…. um…. ok, this officially takes the biscuit for randomness! I love these randoms myths!!

    Loved the nod to Egypt too… some stories I could tell you about that. Will save it up for a wonder post me thinks!

    Proper smashed it out the park with the photo AGAIN, Ali 🙂 ❤

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  8. I dunno what I’ll do with posts like these, Ali… I would have heard a lot of this when I was a kid in national school, but it’s not until you see it all written down and put together that you begin to wonder what they were smoking back then at all. It all seemed quite normal when I was 8!!

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  9. Great post, Ali! I take full advantage of the shapeshifting part of Irish myth in my contemporary fantasy (now shelved until I finish my WIP). It’s great fun to use a facet of a mythos that is “lessor known”, meaning I don’t think many people realize just how much shapeshifting actually exists in Irish myth (vs Greek myth or other Eastern European mythos)

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  10. Fantastic as always Ali and have taken the liberty of sending the link to your blog to the Irish Tourist Board who I feel could benefit from spicing up their current offering on Ancient Ireland. I have had a very nice response to say they will be visiting you.. I hope that they do as your posts could do a great deal to bring people to Ireland.

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  11. Another brilliant post – thank you 🙂

    Wasn’t Arthur himself conceived through a shapeshifting trick? I seem to recall that his father fancied the wife of another king. To bed her, he took the shape of her husband, thus tricking her into having sex with him. The result was Arthur Pendragon.

    This comment wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Greek gods (Zeus in particular) and their sex-fueled antics, of course! You may enjoy this short story of mine that deals with that:

    http://nicholasrossis.me/2015/07/13/free-story-the-things-we-do-for-lust/

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    • Absolutely, Nick! In fact, I would say far more of that sort of thing went on in greek myth than in Irish! And they were pretty liberal hehe! Im just out for a run so will read your story when Im back. Cheers for the link, look forward to it! 😊

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  12. Well, you just about covered all angles their Ali, Fascinating as always and thanks for the mention. One question I always wondered about when it came to these shapeshifting tales. Did the shift take place in physical form or on the astral plane?
    I have witnessed people in a trance like state, similar I guess to the Berserkers, but this is more of a mental shift.
    Intruiging subject 🙂

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    • Yes, I wonder about that. Shapeshifting specifies physical transformation, but surely that must mean the illusion of a physical manifestation? Or reincarnation? If so it has similarities with shamanism.

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      • Most certainly does, if you look at many of the shamanic cultures, they all have similar accounts and beliefs regarding the subject.
        I remember in my late teens, I would have regular re-occurring dreams of flying, and I put them down to just dreams, that is until one day I was walking through a certain town in North Kildare, and I had one of those Deja Vu moments. Then I looked up and had a flashback to those dreams.
        If only we could understand our mnds a bit better???

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        • Ooooh fascinating Ed! A flashback to a former life, maybe? I think were mostly not supposed to remember. Fintan and Tuan were the exception, it seems. Most like Etain didnt remember.

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          • Wouldnt that be cool, but I dont think thats what happened. The mind is such a complexed thing and we only use a very small portion of its potential. Mainly because we dont understand how much of it works. I reckon our ancestors knew alot more about it than we did. Sure having to remember all those tales and poems by heart would be hard enough even by todays standards!
            Imagine what you would need to recall a past life?

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  13. They were transformed back into human shape in early Christian times, David, and just had time to be baptised before dying of extreme old age. It is a very sad story. Glad you enjoyed the post! 😊

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  14. A great post as always Ali. I remember feeling so sad when I was small and first heard the story of the children of Lir. I wonder if their time is up yet?
    xxx Massive Hugs xxx

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  15. Pingback: The Beast Within | Shapeshifters in Irish Mythology | Scenes of futures past

  16. I spent most of this post thinking, “Isn’t there a great myth about shape shifting into a hawk??” Of course you have it!
    Great collection of these stories!

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    • Thank you! I dont think there was an animal untouched by it lol! The ancient Irish were very spiritual people and heavily influenced by nature and all that was around them.

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      • I often get the shape shifter stories of the Native Americans and the Irish confused because they have so many, and quite a few are very similar. I was so happy to see you mention that as well!

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      • There is a wonderful Choctaw myth about panther shifters. Have you ever read anything by Tim Tingle? He was one of the first (if not THE first) to be allowed to tape record and share stories from the Elders. His book Walking the Choctaw Road is full of them. He also has several books out with the beliefs, myths, and legends…including a MG series that kept me on the edge of my seat!

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    • Yes, I have to say, its looking that way to me too, although I know very itle about it. I need to learn more. Even the early Christians believed in reincarnation, until the pope I think decided people would be less unruly if they believed they only had one shot at it.

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  17. I have a soft spot (maybe that isn’t the right word) when it comes to werewolves. I love the old tales and think it’s interesting how legends of shapeshifters and werewolves factor into so many different cultures. It’s even said that Nebuchadnezzar, the King of Babylon was turned into a wolf when God cursed him. As always, an awesome post!

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    • Thank you Mae! I thought you’d like this post. Its interesting that different cultures treated shapeshifters so differently. In Ireland, they were not persecuted at all until the middle ages, when it was said to be witchcraft and evil, and anyone, especially women, who had pets were accused of it.

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