Magic, divine intervention, shapeshifting – what do these things offer the modern mind, concerned with time clocks, definitive proofs and skeptical disbelief? Yet to the ancients, shapeshifting was a well known tale, found in stories and mythologies across the world.
Shapeshifting and transformation are found in many of the stories of Celtic mythology. Sometimes a Goddess or God facilitates the shapeshifting on their own. At other times the transformation is done to the being – human or divine.
The Flower Goddess, Bloedwedd was created by the magician Gwydion from flowers. After Her betrayal and murder of Her husband Llew, who transformed into an eagle, Gwydion changed Bloedwedd into an owl. She remained in this form as a Goddess of Life and Death and keeper of deep wisdom.
Etain was transformed into a butterfly, worldwide symbol of transformation, by her husband’s jealous first wife. After thousands of years She fell into a glass of wine, was consumed by a Lady and then reborn again as the beautiful Etain. She later transformed into a swan, symbol of love and purity, and flew off with her original beloved.
After Gwydion helped his brother, Gilfaethwy committ rape, as punishment, King Math changed them both into three different animals for one year each. In these forms they learned the ways of the animals and gained humility and greater understanding of their place in the natural world.
The great poet Taliesen began life as a simple boy, Gwion Bach. To escape the wrath of the Goddess Cerridwen, whose brew of wisdom he had accidentally tasted, he and She transformed into a hair, a fish and a bird. Finally he became a grain of wheat, which She ate and then birthed him again as Taliesen.
Some accounts of Boann say she was transformed into a salmon after the water sprung forth from the sacred well which created the River Boyne. It was believed that the salmon possessed all the wisdom of the worlds.
Some Goddesses shift shapes between human and animal forms on a regular basis. Aine, Summer Goddess, took the form of Lair Derg, a red mare that no one could outrun. In Her horse form She offered guidance to the people through Her ability to access the heights, and to express freedom, strength, and endurance.
Artio, Wildlife Goddess, sometimes appeared as a bear who itself was associated with transformation. In this form She journeyed in the darkness and emerged to the light returning with new wisdom and insights to share with the world.
The Morrigan was a shapeshifter in the realm of life and death. In her raven/crow form she was seen as the harbinger of death to the warrior who saw the omen. She also appeared as a cow, a wolf and an eel. Being in these animal forms She gained access to insights on life, prosperity and death.
Elen of the Ways, in her most ancient guise as the Horned Goddess, perhaps shifted form into that of a reindeer. Flidais, another shapeshifting goddess who was associated with and could become a deer or a cow might also be a later incarnation of the paleotlithic Reindeer Goddess. In the ancient days in Northern Europe the reindeer was the source of all – food, shelter, and clothing. The reindeer, the deer and the cow held the key to prosperity for our Northern European ancestors.
Birds play an important role in Celtic mythology. Through out time birds have been symbols of birth, death, healing and as messengers between the mundane world and the Otherworld.
Fand, Celtic Sea Goddess and Shapeshifter loved being in her sea bird form. Together with Her sister, Li Ban, they traveled with their flock of enchanted birds. Each pair of birds was joined by a silver chain, but Fand and Li Ban’s brilliance shown even brighter as they were linked by a golden chain.
Swans appear frequently in Celtic mythology, often connected with a goddess. They are associated with love, purity, the soul, and music. Like Fand in seabird form, swans linked with a goddess can always be recognized by the gold or silver chain hanging around their necks.
Caer Ibormeith, Celtic Goddess of Dreams and Prophecy, was a shapeshifting goddess who spent one year as a beautiful woman and then the next year as a swan. Accompanied by 150 swans, She underwent this transformation every year on Samhain, a liminal time when swans were seen as guides to the Otherworld.
In these animal forms the ones who have been transformed are able to learn something about the natural world not easily accessible to humans. Their perspective is broadened to a more intimate knowledge of the wild, natural world which they are then able to impart to the human family. Shapeshifting allows the being access to greater realms of consciousness. The Shapeshifting Goddesses move between the realms of the Otherworld and this world, bridging the two for the earthborn.
It can be difficult for us with our modern sensibilities to access the wisdom of the ancients who lived immersed in a world of mystery and wonder. We live in a world of 0’s and 1’s, a world made into a well-oiled machine where things of mystery are discounted as untrue. Through an understanding of the ancient myths and the shapeshifting deities we can open ourselves again to the unknowable mysteries of the universe and the ever transformative nature of life.
Judith Shaw, a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, has been interested in myth, culture and mystical studies all her life. Not long after graduating from SFAI, while living in Greece, Judith began exploring the Goddess in her artwork. She continues to be inspired by the Goddess in all of Her manifestations. Originally from New Orleans, Judith now makes her home in New Mexico where she paints as much as time allows and sells real estate part-time. She is now in the editing stage of her deck of Celtic Goddess Cards, which should be released this summer. Give yourself the gift of one of Judith’s prints or paintings, priced from $25 – $3000.