This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.
Shapeshifters are found in most mythologies and folk traditions around the world from ancient to modern times. In such traditions, humans change into vampires, werewolves, frogs, insects, and just any about any other creature imaginable and back again. Sometimes the transformation is controlled by the transformer who shifts shape at will. Other times it is an unwelcome event such as a punishment and sometimes it is forced by a magical spell but there are many other reasons besides. Shapeshifters can be good or bad, often moving the story forward in a novel way or have some kind of symbolism that the teller wants to get across to their audience. There are many different kinds of shapeshifting and here we look at different examples from Ireland, Wales and Scotland that provide differing glimpses of shapeshifters in action in the myth, folklore, and tradition of these three Celtic nations.
In Irish mythology, the Morrigan was a shapeshifting war goddess who could transform into a woman of any age and also change into animal or bird form. She had the power of prophecy and as a war goddess would sing her people to victory in battle. Sometimes she could be seen swooping over the battlefield in the form of a raven or crow and devouring the bodies of the slain.
In the story of the “Táin Bó Cúailnge”, or “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” the Morrigan appears as a crow to warn the bull named Donn Cuailnge that Queen Medb is plotting to abduct him. Queen Medb attacks Ulster after the bull but is resisted single-handedly by the hero Cú Chulainn fighting a series of duels with her champions at a ford. In battle, Cú Chulainn undergoes a spectacular change in his form described as ríastrad or “warp-spasm” that sees him his body twist and contort into the most grotesque and fearsome appearance terrifying his opponents.
Birds have always played and important part in human culture appearing in the legends, myths and fables of people all around the world. Presented here are five legendary and mythical birds from different parts of the world, each with their own folklore and fables attached.
The Legendary Alicanto Bird
In Chilean folklore and mythology the Alicanto is a strange, mythical, bird that inhabits a strange but very real place known as the Atacama Desert ( Desierto de Atacama) and other parts of Chile, South America. The desert is rich in minerals and ores and according to legend is home to a mythical bird called the Alicanto that is said to eat different ores of metal. Its wings are said to shine at night with beautiful metallic colors and its eyes radiate colorful lights. These wonderful illuminations are said to be caused by the different metals it has eaten. For example, if it eats gold it emits a golden light or if it eats silver its light is silvery and if it eats copper it may be reddish though its wings are often described as being a coppery green. Sometimes it may eat more than one kind of metal resulting in different colors being emitted. Because of the light it emits it does not have a shadow.
Because of the heavy nature of its diet the bird spends most of its time on the ground being too heavy to fly and considered flightless. When it has not eaten for a long time it becomes lighter and can run much faster. It lays two eggs whose shells are made from the metal it eats. According to folklore, miners and prospectors would secretly follow an Alicanto hoping it would lead them to a rich deposit of metal ore or a secret horde of treasure known as an entierros. These legendary hoards were said to have been hidden by indigenous people hiding their treasure from the Spanish. It was also said pirates and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake hid their treasure in the desert.
Hopeful miners or prospectors would follow the light of bird’s wings in the darkness. If the Alicanto became aware of them it turned off the light losing its follower in the thick darkness. If the follower was of bad character and not true of heart the bird would lead them over a cliff to death. One legend tells how a Chilean Silver Rush was sparked on 16 May, 1832 when a miner named Juan Godoy followed an Alicanto to rich outcrop of the precious ore. This event led to a rush to mine silver with many miners striking rich.
The Basan in Japanese Mythology and Folklore
In Japanese folklore and mythology the Basan is a chicken-like bird sometimes called Basabasa, or Inuhōō and also known as the “Fire Rooster”. It was said to have its home on the Japanese island of Shikoku in the mountains of Iyo Province which is now known as Ehime Prefecture. According to old depictions it looks like a large chicken with a large, intensely red comb. It is said to breathe ghost-fire from its beak which is not hot but a cold fire that glows.
They made their homes in bamboo covered mountain recesses but were known to occasionally materialize late at night in human settlements. The wings of the Basan are said to make a strange and unearthly rustling sound when flapped. If a human inside a house hears this noise and looks outside to investigate they will just get a glimpse of the bird as it disappears before their eyes.
The Firebird in Slavic and Russian Folktales
In Russian and Slavic folklore the Firebird is a beautiful, magical bird that is much desired but has a reputation of being both an omen of doom and a blessing for those who manage to find one of its feathers, or capture it. The Firebird is described in various ways but essentially as a bird with brilliant, glowing orange, red and yellow plumage giving it the appearance of fire, hence its name. The feather continues to glow even when one is lost making it a valuable prize for the finder emitting enough light to fill a large room. They are usually depicted in the form of a fiery bird of paradise of varying in size with the story and artist. It is an extremely beautiful bird and although not usually regarded as particularly friendly is not aggressive, or vicious, but is associated with danger. This is because of its role as a bringer of danger to whoever finds it and very often a bringer of doom to those who demand its capture.
The typical structure of a firebird story begins with the finding of a feather by the hero. All though initially pleased with the find the hero eventually begins to see it as the cause of all of his troubles. This is followed by a bullying king or tsar ordering the hero to undertake one, or more, difficult and dangerous quests in search of something rare and valuable.The hero often has the assistance of a magical animal helper such as a horse or wolf who guides him throughout. The final quest is usually for the Firebird which must be brought back alive to the tsar or king. On the quest the hero has a number of adventures and wins the love of a beautiful princess. On return with the Firebird the tsar or king dies and the hero becomes ruler and marries the beautiful princess obtaining his heart’s desire. In many ways it is a rite of passage for the hero who grows in wisdom and maturity throughout until he becomes strong and able enough to become the ruler.
The Boobrie in Scottish Folklore
In the legends and folklore of the west coast of Scotland the Boobrie is a shapeshifting entity that usually appears in avian form. It is also known to take on other forms such as that of a water horse or bull. The Boobrie was said to make a deep bull-like bellowing call described as being similar to that of a common bittern though these are infrequent visitors to the region. When it appears as a water horse it has the ability to gallop over the tops of lochs and rivers as if they were solid land. It was also known to manifest as a huge vampire-like insect in summer that sucks the blood of horses. However, its preferred form appears to be that of an oversized water bird such as a cormorant, great northern diver or the extinct flightless great auk. Although considered mostly aquatic it was known to take to the land sometimes concealing itself in tall patches of heather.
The Boobrie is considered to be a voracious predator. Otters are said to be its favorite food and although it eats these in great numbers it will raid ships carrying livestock having a liking for calves, lambs and sheep. Of course this made it an enemy of the local island farmers of the area. One legend from the Isle of Mull tells how a farmer and his son were ploughing a field beside Loch Freisa. They were using a team of four horses but ran into trouble when one lost a shoe and could not continue.Looking round they saw an unknown horse grazing peacefully close by. Wanting to get the ploughing finished they decided they would try the unknown horse in place of the one that lost its shoe. Hitching it up along side the other three they were heartened to see the unknown horse seemed to take to the task with ease and their ploughing progressed well.
The Anqa of Arabian Mythology
In Arabian mythology the Anqa is large, marvelous and mysterious female bird. It is said she flies far away only returning once in many ages but can be found at the place of the setting sun. She is also known as Anka, Anqa Mughrib or Anqa al-Mughrib. Mughrib, has several meanings such as “strange, foreign,” “distant” or “west sunset” signifying the mystery and fantastical attributes of the bird.
Zakariya al-Qazwini, in his book, “The Wonders of Creation” describes the Anqa as very beautiful with four pairs of wings, a long white neck. He claimed it possessed a small resemblance to every known living creature and they were related to birds that lived alone on Mount Qaf. He also claimed they were wise gaining wisdom and experience through their lifespan of 1700 years and mates when it reaches the age of 500 and an egg is produced. When the chick hatches it will stay in the nest for 125 years before it leaves. The Anqa is so large its diet consists of large fish and elephants and nothing else.
Many, many years ago, in the time of King Arthur, when our ruler’s beards were greater than their commonsense, there were two other kings named Nynio and Peibo. Each ruled over a fine and rich kingdom and their subjects enjoyed peace and prosperity. The two kings were friends and liked to go walking in the countryside in the evenings. They would often indulge in friendly banter trying to out do each other bragging about their accomplishments or possessions to one another. Most of the time this was just good-natured teasing but on one occasion things got wildly out of hand. One evening as they were out strolling, as the stars were appearing, Nynio looked about and making an extensive gesture to the sky with his hands said,
“Look above and all around, Peibo, my friend, see what a wonderful and extensive field I possess!”
Peibo looked all around the sky and asked, “Well now, where is it?”
“It is there, above and around as far as eyes can see, the entire sky is my field and mine alone,” boasted Nynio with pride.
“Oh, is that so? answered Peibo.
“It is,” said Nynio.
“Well, now,” said Peibo, not wanting to be out done, “Can you see all of the great herds of cattle and flocks of sheep that are in that field and grazing. Each and every animal is mine and mine alone.”
“I see no herds of cattle, I see no flocks of sheep,” replied Nynio.
“Look harder,” replied Peibo “they are the great swathe of stars that stretch across the sky with smaller herds and flocks scattered here and there.See how each one shines with gold or silvery brightness. See how the moon, their beautiful shepherdess guards and takes care of them for me and me alone!”
“It is my field and they shall not graze in my field,” replied Nynio indignantly.
‘Yes they shall,” replied Peibo firmly.
“They most certainly shall not!” replied Nynio angrily.
Both kings were now becoming very heated and angry with each other and became possessed by a madness.
“Shall!” snapped Peibo.
“Shan’t!” Shouted Nynio.
“‘Tis war!” They both cried together.
In their madness they returned to their kingdoms, mustered their armies and wrought bloody and merciless war on each other. Both kingdoms were laid waste as both armies fought each other in a cruel and merciless war of attrition. The fighting only stopped because of the sheer exhaustion of the two sides. There was no victor save foolishness and what were once two fine and prosperous kingdoms lay in smoking ruins with the people left traumatized and starving.
The King of Wales, a giant named Rhitta Gawr, heard about the madness of the two kings and how they had destroyed their own fair and prosperous kingdoms through their foolishness. He consulted with his wise men and his barons and it was agreed that they should take advantage of the present weakness of these once strong and prosperous kingdoms. Therefore, he mobilized his army and invaded and conquered the two broken kingdoms, capturing the two monarchs and cutting their beards off to teach them a lesson.
News that Rhitta Gawr had invaded and conquered the two warring kingdoms spread throughout the island of Britain and reached the ears of twenty-eight kings. They were appalled at the foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the wanton destruction of the two kingdoms and outraged by the invasion of Rhitta Gawr. However, what really made them angry was the shaving of the royal whiskers of the two mad kings by the giant. They deemed inflicting this humiliation on two monarchs, despite their foolishness, had gone too far. Therefore, to avenge what they saw as a degrading and humiliating act on two of their own status they united their armies and declared war on Rhitta Gawr. The battle was long and bloody and Rhitta Gawr eventually defeated the coalition of kings and had them brought before him.
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!” he told them in jubilation. With no further ado or ceremony he ordered the royal whiskers of the defeated kings to be shaved off completely.
News spread beyond Britain of the victory of Rhitta Gawr and how he had shaved the beards of his enemies. The kings of twenty-eight neighboring realms were outraged. Not so much at the initial mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo, or the defeat of the twenty-eight kings. No, it was the shaving of the royal whiskers that outraged them and they merged their armies and attacked Rhitta Gawr. The battle was ferocious and bloody but once again Rhitta Gawr defeated and captured his enemies and once again jubilantly declared,
“Look around, look upon the Earth and look around the skies. All you see is my vast field. All the herds and flocks, all the pastures are mine!”
With no further ceremony he ordered that the beards of the defeated be cut off. When they had all been shaved clean he stood before them and addressing his own troops pointed at the beardless, defeated, kings and declared,
“See, these animals that once grazed here! These are now my pastures and I now drive them out and they shall graze here no more!”
Rhitta Gawr now possessed the beards of a sizeable number of kings which made a sizeable pile of whiskers and somehow, for some reason a very strange idea came into his head. Somehow, the notion grew on him that he would use the pile of royal whiskers to make a fancy mantle to wear around his shoulders. He believed he would look very elegant and magnificent and the cloak being made from the whiskers of kings he had defeated would emphasize his own power and glory.
The more he thought about it the more obsessed he became with the idea while the sheer grossness of it completely escaped him. Therefore he had a mantle made from the king’s whiskers to wear around his broad shoulders that reached down to his heels. Rhitta Gawr was at least twice as large as the largest man so the size of the garment and volume of whiskers he had collected was considerable.
When the mantle was made he tried it on. In his own mad mind he thought he looked very elegant and the height of fashion but realized there was something missing. After considerable contemplation he decided he needed an exceptionally splendid beard to make a collar to finish off the entire magnificent piece. There was only one royal beard that would be magnificent enough to do his mantle justice and that was on the chin of King Arthur, the greatest king of Britain.
He sent a messenger bearing a demand to King Arthur commanding him to shave off his beard without delay and give it to the messenger to bring back to him. He promised out of respect to Arthur his royal whiskers would adorn the most prominent place on his wonderfully elegant new mantle which would be the height of fashion. If he refused to comply he warned he would fight him in a duel to decide the matter.
Unsurprisingly, Arthur was not impressed by the command. He was, however, angry with the mad foolishness of Nynio and Peibo and the defeat and humiliation all the other kings by Rhitta Gawr. Surprisingly, he did not seem the least perturbed at the giant’s taste in mantles but the forced shaving of the beards of all of the vanquished really annoyed him. Furthermore, the very idea that he would willingly offer up his own royal whiskers to the arrogant giant really inflamed him.
Angrily, he informed the messenger that but for the laws of his Court, which even he must obey; he would have slain him there and then for bringing such an offensive suggestion before him. He told him to tell his master this was the most arrogant and insulting demand he had ever heard and for his impudence he would take his head, beard and all. Wasting no time he mobilized his army and marched to Gwynedd in Wales to meet Rhitta Gawr in battle.
The two met face to face, beard to beard and the giant towered above glowering down. Arthur stood his ground and glared back fiercely.
“Give me your whiskers!” demanded Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t” replied Arthur angrily.
“Shall!” roared Rhitta Gawr.
“Shan’t! replied Arthur.
“T’is war!” they both cried together and immediately began fighting, trading blow for blow with great ferocity and strength.
Although both received many wounds and were greatly bloodied they fought long and hard neither yielding to the other, each giving as they received. At last Arthur was taken by a fury. He drove forward catching the giant a mighty blow slicing through his helmet and splitting his forehead and quickly followed through with a strike to his heart. Rhitta Gawr died and Arthur kept his royal whiskers.
The giant was placed on top of the highest mountain of that region which was known as Eryi in those days. Arthur ordered the soldiers of both armies to each place a stone over his body raising a cairn to cover him. That place became known as Gwyddfa Rhitta or Rhitta’s Barrow. Today the Welsh call it “Yr Wyddfa” which means “tumulus” and the English call it “Snowdon”, meaning “snow hill,” One consolation for Rhitta Gawr was that at least he did come to adorn a truly magnificent work of nature though judging by his taste in mantles it is doubtful he would have appreciated it.
To think that all this came about through the madness of two kings and the fact that the rulers of Britain had greater beards than their commonsense. Looking around today it is worth noting that few of our rulers wear whiskers and perhaps that speaks for the greatness of their commonsense!