May 24, 2010

Shape Shifting in Celtic Mythology

photo via creative commons by Jon
I've been studying the concept of shape shifting (research for a novel I'm working on) and it occurs to me that turning into something or shape shifting has symbolic significance. Many of the Celtic tales have underlying meaning.

Changing shapes in these stories was something that was done to someone (a curse) or done intentionally to oneself for safety or conquest (a spell). I suppose there are other ways to interpret them as well.

One of the most popular ancient tales is The Children of Lir. It's the familiar tale of a wicked stepmother. From
Long ago there lived a king called Lir. He lived with his wife and four children: Fionnuala, Aodh, Fiachra and Conn. They lived in a castle in the middle of a forest. When Lir's wife died they were all very sad. After a few years Lir got married again. He married a jealous wife called Aoife.
Aoife thought that Lir loved his children more than he loved her. Aoife hated the children. Soon she thought of a plan to get rid of the children.
What she did was turn them into swans for 900 years. When the time ended, the spell was broken by a Christian (perhaps St. Patrick) ringing a bell. Of course they were 900 years old, so when they became human again, they died and went to heaven to live with their parents.
That's the story in a nutshell. I the Children of Lir represent the Irish before Christianity came to the island? They were under a type of spell, or disillusionment, until a Christian came and showed the Way. The old Irish legends were preserved by monks in monasteries and thus were given Christian emphasis.
OR, the story represents 900 years of British occupation, as some suggest. Of course, the story is ancient, so this would be reinterpreting or repurposing the legend. But I'm not Irish, so I would not presume to attach a metaphorical meaning to this legend.
All this just to say that there are more hidden meanings to the Irish legends than meets the eye. It's something to ponder.
Next time, let's talk about St. Patrick's shape shifting...
*Image: Children of Lir statue in the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin. The statue is in rememberance of Ireland's struggle for freedom.

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