The Celtic cultural legacy - whether imagery on ancient artifacts or in medieval literature - suggests that the Celts, in both pagan and Christian times, recognized no clear distinction between the realities of this world and the features of the Supernatural.
The Mystery of Celtic Cultural Legacy: Magic and Metamorphosis
By Mr Ghaz, December 7, 2010
The Mystery of Celtic Cultural Legacy: Magic and Metamorphosis
Metamorphosis, the ability to change shape or form, is a prominent motif in many Celtic tales, and examples are also to be found in Celtic art. The deer-like characteristics of the god Cernunnos-antlers and hooves-certainly suggest that shapeshifting between the animal and human worlds was believed possible, but images of this deity are among the handful of Celtic artifacts that actually attest to this. Other images imply a welding of human and animal essences rather than forms, as in the Gaulish statue of a war god who bears the image of a boar, a symbol of war and hunting, as an attribute (see illustration, opposite).
This wide eyed animal head, probably a bull's, is a bronze mount from a 3rd century BCE wooden wine flask found at Brno-Malomerice in the Czech Republic. The protagonists of Celtic myth often transformed themselves into animals.
The interest in magical transformation among the Celts may be rooted in a feeling for the fluidity of the cosmos-the malleability of the boundaries between this world and the next. Movement between the mortal world and the Otherworld was thought to take place at certain special times of year. In Irish myth, the hero Oengus assumed the form of a swan to follow his lover into the Otherworld on the feast of Samhain, when the barriers between the two realms were at their most fluid.
Rebirth into a new life through metamorphosis is also touched upon in the tale of Oengus. The hero’s brother Midir was unable to resist falling in love with the beautiful maiden Etain. This brought on the wrath of Midir’s first wife, who, in a fit of jealousy, transformed Etain into a huge red fly. Oengus took pity on the girl and partly undid the magic by allowing her to return to human form each night after dark. But the wife was not satisfied with this, and one day sent a strong wind to blow the fly into the wilderness. After many years, Etain fell into a cup of wine and was swallowed. This allowed her to be reborn as a beautiful maid. When eventually Midir found her again, Etain was the wife of the king of Ireland and oblivious to her previous life. By tricking the king into letting him kiss Etain, Midir reminded the girl of her past life and she fell in love with him again. Both turned into swans and flew away to Midir’s home.
As the stories of Oengus, Midir, and Etain illustrate, birds were frequently the result of human mutation in Celtic belief. Another tale relates how the Children of Lir were magically transformed into swans by their wicked stepmother and sang in the Otherworld. Images of a carrion bird perched on the back of a horse, which appear on Iron Age coins from Brittany, may reflect Celtic tradition known form Ireland in which battle goddesses assume the form of crows and ravens, particularly at the time of a warrior’s death. The Irish war goddesses may also appear as beautiful young women or ugly hags-they take on their hideous aspect after they have been wronged in some way.
In some accounts, supernatural beings assume the forms of animals. The set of Irish tales known as the Fenian cycle is rich with examples of transformation. The divine wife of the Irish hero Fionn and the mother of his son Oisin, first appears to her husband as a fawn, having been transformed as punishment for failing to fall in love with a druid. Fionn’s aunt was briefly turned into a dog, during which time she gave birth to a canine son, who later became one of Fionn’s trusted hounds. In the Welsh Mabinogi tales, a magical woman who plagues heroes (the wife of Llwyd Cil Coed, the “Gray Man of the Wood”), takes the form of a mouse to conduct her torment.
A stone image of a Gaulish god, found at Euffigneix, Haute-Marne, France, and thoughts the date from the 1st and 2nd century BCE. The presence of the torc around the neck identifies the figure as a deity-probably of nature. The boar impression in its right side indicates that the essences of the god and the animal were believed to be inseparable.
Welsh legend abounds in accounts of magical shapeshifting. In one story, magicians create a beautiful woman, Blodeuwedd, out of flowers. However, she later proves unfaithful, so the magicians punish her by turning her into an owl, believed to be a creature of the evil forces of darkness. Another tale recounts how Lleu, a Welsh hero, turns into an eagle after being struck with a spear, but recovers his human form through the care of his magician uncle. Culhwch, another hero, must face a giant boar (a transformed king who would not mend his evil ways) in order to retrieve a comb, scissors, and razor so that the father of his bride-to-be may groom himself for the wedding.
According to some scholars, these shapeshifting and magical motifs may indicate a Celtic belief in regeneration and the afterlife, which was envisaged as a more perfect version of ordinary life. It is certainly true that many Celtic deities were believed to have a specific regenerative function: divine attributes such as fruit and grain imply fecundity, while animals such as snakes (which shed their skins several times a year to reveal new growth underneath) and deer (which annually shed their antlers and grow new ones) may also imply an association with the cycle of death and rebirth.
Early Christian tradition regarded a variety of creatures as symbols or embodiments of Christ and the evangelists. Given the Celts’ own associations between divinity and metamorphosis, the Irish manuscript artists took to this tradition with enthusiasm. For example, the flesh of the peacock was said to be incorruptible, and so the bird came to represent the eternal, resurrected Christ. Similarly, the early Church associated the gospel writers with celestial creatures that appear in the Bible. Matthew was symbolized by a man or an angel, but the other evangelists were all animals: a lion for Mark, an ox for Luke, and an eagle for John.