Fearghal Duffy: Metamorphoses in Irish Myths

We who are involved in this project have been encountering the word ‘metamorphosis’ on a daily basis for several months now that it had risked becoming one of those words, which when it becomes overly familiar, its essence and significance becomes somehow diluted.  So I thought it might be useful to present a few instances of metamorphoses from the early Irish myths and sagas to re-freshen the imaginative potential of the term.

The word itself, of course, has been in artistic currency for a very long time. The ancient Roman poet Ovid (43 BC–AD 18) produced a collection of poems and myths which he called Metamorphoses with transformation being the unifying theme of all the narratives he included in his compendium. The opening line of Metamorphoses makes clear his objective: In nova fert animus mutatas dicere formas corpora “I intend to speak of forms changed into new entities”. The transformations that take place include changes in identity from animal to man, from woman to tree, from mortal to god or, quite simply, from one season to another. It was Ovid’s belief that myths, stories, and poetry were there to be reinvented, retold, reinterpreted, and represented, thus revivifying the peoples’ culture, just as endless cycles of birth, growth, decay, and death were what gave new life to nature: “All things are changing; nothing dies. The spirit wanders, comes now here, now there, and occupies whatever frame it pleases. From beasts it passes into human bodies, and from our bodies into beasts, but never perishes. And, as the pliant wax is stamped with new designs, does not remain as it was before nor preserve the same form, but is still the self-same wax, so do I teach that the soul is ever the same, though it passes into ever-changing bodies…And since I am embarked on the boundless sea and have spread my full sails to the winds, there is nothing in all the world that keeps its form. All things are in a state of flux, and everything is brought into being with a changing nature…there is nothing in all the world that keeps its form. Time itself flows on in constant motion, just like a river. For neither the river nor the swift hour can stop its course; but, as wave is pushed on by wave, and as each wave is both impelled by that behind and itself impels the wave in front, so time both flees and follows and is ever new For that which once existed is no more, and that which was not has come to be; and so the whole round of motion is gone through again” (Metamorphoses, Book XV).

In tribute to Ovid and his Metamophoses I hereby present a few vignettes of metamorphoses from the ancient Irish tradition.

 The Story of Túan mac Cairill

Tuan mac Cairill

This text, which dates from around the ninth-century, is a story in which Túan, who lives in a hermitage, tells his story to a monk named Finnia, revealing that he arrived in Ireland along with the very first settlers, who subsequently died of a plague, with Túan being the sole survivor. Túan then spent time living alone in the wilderness and grew old:

‘Then I was fleeing from refuge to refuge and from cliff to cliff, protecting myself from wolves. Ireland was empty for thirty-two years. Age came upon me at last, and I could no longer travel. I was in cliffs and in wildernesses, and I had caves of my own.’

Then the next wave of settlers landed:

tuan mc cairill 2

‘The son of Agnoman landed, my father’s brother. I used to see them from the cliffs, and hid from them: I was shaggy, clawed, wrinkled, naked, wretched, sorrowful. I was asleep one night. I saw that I went into the shape of a wild stag. I was there thereafter: I was young, and in good spirits, and the lord of a herd, and I made a circuit of Ireland with a great herd of stags around me.’

It was during this time, whilst Túan was in the shape of a stag that Nemed and his followers settled Ireland. They too didn’t survive and all died.

Túan stag


Then again, Túan reveals:

“Age came upon me at last, and I fled from men and wolves. I stood one night at the entrance of a cave. I remembered, and I knew how to go from one shape into another. I went into the shape of a wild boar. I found that swift, then, and I was in good spirits, and I was lord of the boar-herds of Ireland, and I used to make a circuit of Ireland. And I had furthermore a dwelling in this region of the Ulaid, which I visited in the time of my old age and wretchedness. For it is in one place that I used to change all these shapes.’

Túan boar

It was during his time in the shape of a boar that the next waves of settlers arrived into Ireland, The Fir Domnann and the Fir Bolg. But then eventually:

‘Age came-upon me, and my mind was sorrowful, and I could not keep company with the boars and the herds, but was alone in caves and cliffs. I went ever to my dwelling. I remembered every shape in which I had been. I fasted my three days’ fast. I had no strength. I went into the shape of a hawk. I was content with that. My spirit was very mighty. I was happy, eager. I flew across Ireland. I learned all things.’

Túan eagle2

During Túan’s time as a hawk the Túatha Dé Danann arrived in Ireland, followed by the Gaels. Then Túan grew old as a hawk:

‘Once I journeyed in the hawk’s shape, in which I was, to the hollow of a tree, above a stream. My mind was sorrowful. I could not fly, and I feared other birds. I fasted an ennead [a time interval of nine days, months, or years] then, and went into the shape of a fresh-water salmon. God puts me into the river. That was wondrous for me then, and I was vigorous and happy, and I was a master of swimming. I escaped from every peril: from the hands of fishermen and from the claws of hawks and from the spears of fishers, so that the wounds of them are in me.’Túan salmon

Túan was eventually caught by a fisherman and was eaten by the wife of Cairell, king of Ulster. Túan ended up in the queen’s womb and nine months later was born as Túan son of Cairell who remembered everything that had happened to him since he first arrived in Ireland through his successive changes into a stag, boar, hawk and salmon. In this wise, he was able to reveal to the learned Finnia the entire history of the invasions of Ireland.

John Carey, ‘Scél Tuáin Meic Chairill’, in Ériu Vol. 35 (1984), pp. 93–111.  

The Colloquy of Colum Cille and the Youth at Carn Eolairg

This short tale is also structured around a conversation between two learned figures, in this instance Saint Colum Cille, and a youth, who is attested in the text to be a renowned Ulster figure called Mongán mac Fiachna. The narrative begins with the saint asking the youth where he has come from? The youth replies:

‘I have come’, said the youth, ‘from unknown lands, from known lands, that I may know from thee the spot in which knowledge and ignorance have died and the spot where they were born, and the spot in which they were buried’.

A cryptic answer if ever there was one, but Colum Cille seems to comprehend the youth’s abstruse language, since he proceeds to ask him then about the history of Lough Foyle (Lough Feabhail) and the youth reveals that before the lake had appeared, a wonderful kingdom had prospered in that location:

‘It was yellow, it was flowery, it was green, it was hilly, it was full of drink, was rich in silver, it was full of chariots.’

But then the youth makes the metamorphic revelation:

‘I abandoned it when I was a deer before deer, when I was a salmon, and when I was a seal of great strength, when I was a roving wolf, when I was a man I took up my abode with sails…Though I know neither father nor mother…I speak to living men…to the dead.’

Colum Cille was a wee bit unnerved by the pagan redolence of this youth’s revelations and lest his clerical companions should hear anymore heathen wizardry, the saint enters into a private colloquy with the youth who reveals to him ‘heavenly and earthly mysteries’. When Colum Cille’s colleagues asked what the youth had told him, the reticent saint replied that ‘it was a proper thing for men not to be told’.

And so, dear reader, we must be content to take Colum Cille’s word on this matter, since the text doesn’t reveal what the youth said.

Kuno Meyer and Alfred Nutt, ‘The Colloquy of Colum Cille and the Youth at Carn Eolairg’, in Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie, Vol. II (1899), pp. 313–320.

The Quarrel of the Two Swineherds

two swineherd

This short tale is a preliminary story to the greatest Irish epic ‘The Cattle Raid of Cooley’ featuring the warrior par excellence Cú Chulainn, who, for most of the tale, single-handedly withholds the Connacht forces,  preventing them from stealing the Donn Bó Cúailnge ‘the brown bull of Cooley’. Queen Medb of Connacht desired this brown bull as she was jealous of his husband’s wealth exceeding her own, since he possessed a great white bull called the Finnbhennach (‘white-horned’). Having the brown bull in her possession would even out the score. This ‘fore-tale’ concerning the two swineherds tells of the remarkable origins of the two bulls.

The two swineherds kept pigs for the king of the síd (‘fairy-mound’) of Munster, and the king of the síd of Connaught. Friuch (‘Boar’s Bristle’) was  the name of the Munster king’s swineherd and Rucht (‘grunting’ ‘pig’) the name of the Connacht king’s swineherd. The story tells us that up until then they had been good friends and that they ‘both possessed the lore of paganism, and used to shape themselves into any shape’.

However, people attempted to cause strife between the pair of swineherds, claiming that one was more powerful than the other. This eventually led to the two swineherds disagreeing over which one of them actually was the most powerful. What ensued was a sustained quarrel between the two swineherds whilst undergoing various metamorphoses. First, they were ‘two full years in the shape of ravens.’

two ravens


After that they were two full years in the shape of great water-beasts, one year living and devouring each other in the Shannon and the other in the Suir. After this they reassumed human-shape but returned as champion warriors and resumed their fight under these guises.

After this they became water-beasts again, but this time they were small worms. One of them went into the spring of Uaran Garad in Connaught, the other in the river Cruind in Ulster. One of Medb’s cow imbibed one worm whilst the cow of an Ulsterman imbibed the other worm. And this is how the two swineherds were reborn as the white bull of Connacht and the Brown Bull of Cooley.

two bulls

These fascinating episodes of metamorphosis in the early Irish tradition feature figures that combine traits of both animal and human nature, and are thus symbolic of the unity and

connection that exists between the supposedly separated realms of culture and nature, natural and supernatural. Even when they are in animal form these figures retain their human consciousness. And Túan mac Cairill, when he is finally reborn in human form, retains the memory of his time as a stag, boar, hawk and salmon. Such a mythical figure conveys the symbolic message of the inseparableness of nature and culture. In the early Irish imaginary world, the ontological and conceptual boundaries that separate us from other entities are not so fixed and separate but are porous and variable, and remind us at a very deep level that the true Self is deeply embedded within nature.

Fearghal Duffy

Metamorphosis Collaboarator

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