Transformation Stories

From Irish Druids and Old Irish Religions, 1894

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Transformation stories are numerous in the ancient legends of Ireland. A specimen is given in the Genealogy of Corea Laidhe. A hag, "ugly and bald, uncouth and loathesome to behold," the subject of some previous transformation, seeks deliverance from her enchanted condition by some one marrying her; when "she suddenly passed into another form, she assumed a form of wondrous beauty."

Some enchanters assumed the appearance of giants. The Fenians of old dared not hunt in a certain quarter from fear of one of these monsters. Cam has been thus described in the story of Diarmuid—"whom neither weapon wounds, nor water drowns, so great is his magic. He has but one eye only, in the fair middle of his black forehead, and there is a thick collar of iron round that giant's body, and he is fated not to die until there be struck upon him three strokes of the iron club that he has. He sleeps in the top of that Quicken tree by night, and he remains at its foot by day to watch it." The berries of that tree had the exhilarating quality of wine, and he who tasted them, though he were one hundred years old, would renew the strength of thirty years.

The Fate of the Children of Tuireann, in an Irish MS., gave a curious narrative of Tuath days and magic. It was published by the "Society for the Preservation of the Irish Language." The sons had to pay heavy eric, or damages, on account of a murder. One failed, and died of his wounds. Lugh got helped by Brian the Druid against the Fomorians, who were then cruelly oppressing the Tuaths, exacting an ounce of gold from each, under penalty of cutting their noses off. Druidical spells were freely used by Lugh, the hero of the story.

The eric in question required the three sons to procure the three apples from the garden of the Hesperides,—the skin of the pig, belonging to the King of Greece, which could cure diseases and wounds,—two magic horses from the King of Sicily,—seven pigs from the King of the Golden Pillars, &c.

Once on their adventures, Brian changed them with his wand into three hawks, that they might seize the apples; but the King's daughters, by magic, changed themselves into griffins, and chased them away, though the Druid, by superior power, then turned them into harmless swans. One son gained the pig's skin as a reward for reciting a poem. A search for the Island of Fianchaire beneath the sea was a difficulty. But we are told, "Brian put on his water-dress." Securing a head-dress of glass, he plunged into the water. He was a fortnight walking in the salt sea seeking for the land.

Lugh came in contact with a fairy cavalcade, from the Land of Promise. His adventure with Cian illustrated ideas of transformation. Cian, when pursued, "saw a great herd of swine near him, and he struck himself with a Druidical wand into the shape of one of the swine." Lugh was puzzled to know which was the Druidical pig. But striking his two brothers with a wand, he turned them into two slender, fleet hounds, that "gave tongue ravenously" upon the trail of the Druidical pig, into which a spear was thrust. The pig cried out that he was Cian, and wanted to return to his human shape, but the brothers completed their deed of blood.

Not only the pig, but brown bulls and red cows figure in stories of Irish magic. We read of straw thrown into a man's face, with the utterance of a charm, and the poor fellow suddenly going mad. Prince Comgan was struck with a wand, and boils and ulcers came over him, until he gradually sunk into a state of idiocy. A blind Druid carried about him the secret of power in a straw placed in his shoe, which another sharp fellow managed to steal.

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