Celtic Lore: Shapeshifters of Myth and Legend

This article was first published 11 March 2021 on #FolkloreThursday.com titled, Shapeshifters from the Celtic World by zteve t evans.

Shapeshifters

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.

Irish Shapeshifters

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.

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Queen Mebd: Wolf-Queen – Goddess of Sovereignty

Queen Mebd: Wolf-Queen

In Irish mythology Queen Mebd is a colorful character –  an archetypal warrior-queen – ambitious and strong-willed, who knew her own mind  and how to get what she wanted.  She was described as a lusty fair haired wolf-queen who was so beautiful men were robbed of two thirds of their valor on seeing her (1).  Probably her best known role is the instigator of the Cattle Raid of Cooley or Táin Bó Cúailnge which she undertook with her husband Aillil during a more congenial time in their relationship. Presented here is a brief glimpse of the roles Mebd filled as wife, queen and goddess of sovereignty, looking her most famous exploit, The Cattle Raid of Cooley and finally her death.

Husbands and Marriage

During the Ulster Cycle in Irish mythology she was a much married queen of Connacht.  Her main consort in the important stories of this period was Ailill mac Máta.  She ruled from Cruachan, now known as Rathcroghan, County Roscommon.  One of her former husbands was the king of Ulster, Conchobar mac Nessa who became her enemy. 

There is no doubt that marriage to Mebd was a challenge for any man and needed someone of powerful character to fulfill the role.  Mebd had three demands her husband had to agree to in order to marry her.  First, he must be completely without fear. Second, he must be without meanness.  The third and most important was he must be devoid of all jealousy.  The last was essential for Mebd took many lovers and she was not a woman who could be possessed.   One of these lovers was Fergus mac Róich.  

According to tradition it took seven men to satisfy her sexually but Fergus only once.  Ailill, on learning of the affair, forgot Mebd’s third demand and became jealous of Fergus  and had him killed.  However, such were the intrigues of the Connacht court that when Mebd learnt Ailill was having an affair behind her back she ordered Conall Cernac to kill him.  He gladly took on the task in revenge  for the killing of Fergus but as he was dying Aillil ordered his warriors to kill Conall.

A traditional patriarchal view of Mebd might see her as an immoral sex-predator who lusts for men, but a closer look may reveal a different idea of who she was and what she represented. 

Goddess of Sovereignty

There are several versions and spelling of her name including Maeve, Maev, Mave or Maiv, may have meant the ruler.  Another interpretation is “mead-woman” or “she who intoxicates,” which many see as evidence of her being a goddess of sovereignty or representative of one.  In ancient and medieval  Ireland, mead and its consumption played an important part in the inauguration ceremony of a new king. Her many marriages to kings and  her liberated sexual behaviour are also considered as evidence of her status as a sovereignty goddess. She may have been one and the same with  Medb Lethderg who was the wife or lover of nine kings at Tara.

According to one version of the myth the sovereignty of the land was bestowed upon the king by a goddess of sovereignty, or her representative, on behalf of the Earth Mother.  Her presence by his side as consort signified the approval of the goddess and a powerful public symbol the king was divinely chosen.  The king acted as the steward of the land ensuring its fertility and wellbeing which promoted regrowth and renewal of vegetation and crops.  Traditionally he was expected to be without blemish and if he was sick, injured, or grew old he was replaced by a younger more virile man.

It is the association with the goddess of sovereignty that causes a rethink of her being labelled as merely promiscuous or immoral.  Modern morals should not be used as a yardstick; these were different times with different ways of doing things and different social values.

The Cattle Raid of Cooley

Mebd was never the subordinate wife and queen.  She believed she had a right to be of equal wealth as her husband.   After taking stock of both their total possessions she realized her husband owned a more powerful and virile stud bull named Finnbennach. This gave him a slight edge which greatly annoyed her.

The only bull in Ireland that could rival Finnbennach was named Donn Cúailnge who was owned by Dáire mac Fiachna,  a vassal of Conchobar’s her former husband.  Mebd decided she must have Donn Cúailnge to make her equal to her husband and she was determined to get him by any means.   

She sent messengers to Dáire requesting him to loan her the bull. In return she offered wealth, land and sexual favours.  Dáire initially agreed to the deal.  However, he changed his mind when one of her messengers in a drunken state foolishly revealed that she would have taken it by force anyway.  On hearing this Dáire reversed his decision.

Mebd was still determined to have the bull and mustered her army and  war bands from all over Ireland rallied to her.  With the support of her husband, Ailill, she launched an invasion of Ulster to take Donn Cúailnge.

The defenders of Ulster were stricken by a curse that rendered them unfit for battle at the time of their greatest need.  This had been inflicted on them as revenge and punishment by the goddess Macha, whom the king of Ulster had forced into a chariot race with while she was heavily pregnant.

The only one left to oppose Mebd’s invasion was the young warrior Cúchulainn who with the help of his charioteer waged a guerrilla war against the invaders.  He used a custom that enabled him to claim single combat against one of Mebd’s champions at each river ford her army needed to cross.  Using this tactic he held up the invasion while the Ulster defenders recuperated. However, despite the hold up, Mebd managed to take Donn Cúailnge. 

Eventually the incapacitated defenders of Ulster recovered and led by King Conchobar rally to the defence of the realm.  After a final battle against Conchobar, Mebd retreated having got what she came for took the bull back to Connacht.  To decide who was the most powerful and valuable bull Donn Cúailnge and Finnbennach were matched in a fight against each other.  Donn Cúailnge killed Finnbennach but also died of his wounds leaving Mebd and her husband Aillil equal in wealth and status.

Death of Mebd

In later years it Mebd’s custom to bathe in a pool on an island named Inchcleraun (Inis Cloithreann), on Lough Ree, near Knockcroghery. However, this was to prove to be her undoing. Mebd had previously murdered her sister. Her son Furbaide seeking revenge for his mother’s death waited for Mebd until she came to bathe.  According to tradition, he killed her with a hardened piece of cheese fired from his sling, which was the nearest projectile he could find in a hurry.  Her son Maine Athramail succeeded her to the throne of Connacht.

Her final resting place is uncertain.  She is said to be buried standing upright to face her enemies.  According to one legend she is buried in a 40 foot high stone cairn in the top of Knocknarea in County Sligo.  Another possible site for her burial place is her home in Rathcroghan, County Roscommon at a place now called ‘Misgaun Medb’.

There is no shortage of colorful and extraordinary characters in Irish mythology and Queen Mebd must surely rate somewhere at the top of the list.

© 03/06/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright June 3rd, 2020 zteve t evans