The Celtic Wolf is a complex and Otherworldly creature. Wolves, it would seem, have always had varied personalities as diverse as their human counterparts. Where one shapeshifting wolf could be seen as evil, for example, the next might very well turn towards a travelling priest and begin to preach the gospel.
Lady Guest’s 1877 classic, the Mabinogion, was an English translation of some of the 11th century surviving Welsh tales. Not only do we find some of the earliest known stories of Arthur within the text, but we’re also able to observe a few of the first Celtic wolf stories ever recorded. Incidentally, they’re all about shapeshifters.
In the first story, the king’s nephews Gilvaethwy and Gwydion are being punished for having raped one of the king’s virgin handmaidens. Upon receiving their sentence, the two boys are struck by the king with his wooden rod, which in turn changes them into a proud stag and a beautiful hind. Over the next year the pair breed with one another and they knew one another (to use an under appreciated biblical term). Following this first year of exile, the king then strikes the two beasts with his rod once more. This time, however, they’re turned into a boar and a sow. The mating couple returns once more following another year of high-octane pleasure. Finally, the king converts them into a male and female wolf. The wolf pair then mates for another full year. Following this third year of transformation, the two men are finally forgiven and restored to their human forms. With the original rape now being restituted, Gwydion is free to transform into the god-like figure he would become later in the tale[i].
The two boys aren’t the only shapeshifters found in the Mabinogion either. The poet Taliesin brags:
“I have fled as a wolf cub. I have fled as a wolf in the wilderness.”
The Mabinogion has another wolf curse within its pages, as well. In this story, there’s a princess who’s been transformed into a wolf for “her sins.” While living as a wolf the princess has two wolf cubs. It is Arthur who restores them to human form.
In Winifred Faraday’s 1904 translation of the 12th century Tain we find an Irish story involving the wolf. In this tale, the goddess Morigan curses Cuchulain. She says to him:
“I will drive cattle on the ford to you, in the form of a grey she-wolf.”
Later, she makes good of this promise and does just that.
In Sir George Douglas’ 1773 book Scottish Fairy Tales, we begin to see some Aesop-like stories emerging in the lands of the Celts. Within the stories are several talking animals of the forest. Here, the fox is usually tricking the wolf in some way. The fox is generally seen as clever and conniving, while the wolf is portrayed as strong and thick-headed.
In the 1884 book Fairy Mythology of Various Countries by Thomas Keightly, we find a Breton tale that speaks of the werewolf:
“No one who became a wolf could resume his human form, unless he could recover the clothes which he put off previous to undergoing the transformation.”
In Lady Wilde’s 1887 classic Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland we find one of my favorite werewolf stories of all time. In it, a young farmer named Conner is out searching for some missing cows when he stumbles upon a cabin of sorts. It’s dark out, and Conner has lost his way. The host who greets him at the door invites him inside. The family then begins to return home one after the other:
Before Connor could answer another knock was heard, and in came a second wolf, who passed on to the inner room like the first, and soon after, another dark, handsome youth came out and sat down to supper with them, glaring at Connor with his keen eyes, but said no word.
“These are our sons,” said the old man, “tell them what you want, and what brought you here amongst us, for we live alone and don’t care to have spies and strangers coming to our place.”
Then Connor told his story, how he had lost his two fine cows, and had searched all day and found no trace of them; and he knew nothing of the place he was in, nor of the kindly gentleman who asked him to supper but if they just told him where to find his cows lie would thank them, and make the best of his way home at once.
Then they all laughed and looked at each other, and the old hag looked more frightful than ever when she showed her long, sharp teeth.
On this, Connor grew angry, for he was hot tempered; and he grasped his blackthorn stick firmly in his hand and stood up, and bade them open the door for him; for he would go his way, since they would give no heed and only mocked him.
Then the eldest of the young men stood up. “Wait,” he said, “we are fierce and evil, but we never forget a kindness. Do you remember, one day down in the glen you found a poor little wolf in great agony and like to die, because a sharp thorn had pierced his side? And you gently extracted the thorn and gave him a drink, and went your way leaving him in peace and rest?”
“Aye, well do I remember it,” said Connor, “and how the poor little beast licked my hand in gratitude.”
“Well,” said the young man, “I am that wolf, and I shall help you if I can, but stay with us to-night and have no fear.”
So they sat down again to supper and feasted merrily, and then all fell fast asleep, and Connor knew nothing more till he awoke in the morning and found himself by a large hay-rick in his own field.
A wolf then brings Conner some new cows. Surprised, he realizes that it’s the same wolf which had said it would help him in the cabin. As a result, Conner sees himself as a friend to the wolves for the rest of his life.
Elsewhere in the book, a poet exorcises an evil king as the moon rises into the dark night’s sky. When the spirit is cast out of the king, it becomes a large dead wolf[ii].
There are two important passages regarding the wolf in J. F. Campbell’s 1890 encyclopedias Popular Tales of the West Highlands. In volume 1 it is stated that:
“Men learn courage from the lion and the wolf.”
In volume 4 of Popular Tales of the West Highlands we are told of a goblin that appears to some shipwrecked sailors as a pig, a wolf, an old woman, and a ball of fire.
Of course, it’s always nice to see some feral carnivorous creature dancing around upon its hind legs. We receive such a treat in Joseph Jacob’s 1892 work Celtic Fairy Tales. Within these tales we also learn of a prince Llewelyn, who as a baby killed a wolf assassin with his deadly baby fists (in some stories killed by his dog Gelert).
In his next book More Celtic Fairy Tales, published in 1894, Jacobs tells us of a woman who strikes her husband repetitively with a wooden stick. Every time he’s struck he transforms into a different animal. This list includes the wolf.
In the 1906 Book of Saints and Wonders by Lady Gregory we even find a saintly wolf. A priest is wandering through the forest. A wolf asks if she can be blessed and make a confession. After the priest complies, the Irish wolf issues forth the following revelation:
“It was through the sin of the people of this country Almighty God was displeased with them and sent that race to bring them into bondage, and so they must be until the Gall themselves will be encumbered with sin. And at that time the people of Ireland will have power to put on them the same wretchedness for their sins.”
In the year 1911, J. F. Campbell and G. Henderson collaborated on a book called the Celtic Dragon Myth. In it, a wolf tells a herder that if he ever becomes “hard pressed” that he should think of him. The herder does so, later shapeshifting into a wolf. He does this three times in order to fight a ram, a giant, and a dragon. The wolf defeats all three.
In Thomas Rolleston’s Myth and Legends of the Celtic Race – from the same year – we’re told that a full-grown adult wolf was buried inside of a man’s back wound. There, the wolf was found “up to it’s shoulders” inside the flesh. It was a good thing that they found him too. The wounded man had merely felt a pain in his back and had decided to have someone check it out for him.
There is an especially interesting section on wolves in George Henderson’s Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, which was also published in 1911:
The Soul in Wolf-form: The existence of this belief in animal parentage is seen from the Leabhar Breathnach. Here we read: “The descendants of the wolf are in Ossory (Osriage). There are certain people in Ossory; they pass into the form of wolves whenever they please, and kill cattle according to the custom of wolves, and they quit their own bodies; when they go forth in the wolf-forms they charge their friends not to remove their bodies, for if they are moved they will not be able to come again into them (their bodies); and if they are wounded while abroad, the same wounds will be on their bodies in their houses; and the raw flesh devoured while abroad will be in their teeth.”
This belief was current in the days of Fynes Moryson, who mentions the report that in Upper Ossory and Ormond men are yearly turned into wolves. And long before then Gerald, the Welshman, had heard a story of two wolves who had been a man and woman of the Ossorians. They were transformed into wolves every seven years through a curse imposed by St. Naal or Natalis, abbot of Kilmanagh, Kilkenny, in the sixth century. They were banished to Meath, where they met a priest in a wood, shortly ere Earl John came to Ireland in the days of Henry II. They retained the use of language and were fabled with having foretold the invasion of the foreigner. The Latin legend declares the substance of what the wolf said to the priest: “A certain sept of the men of Ossory are we; every seventh year through the curse of St. Natalis the Abbot, we two, man and woman, are compelled to leave our shape and our bounds.” Then having been divested of human form, animal form is assumed. Having completed their seven years, should they survive so long, if two other Ossorians be substituted instead of these, the former return to their pristine form and fatherland.
In personal and tribal names the wolf meets us, e.g. Cinel Loairn, whence modern Lome in Argyll, after which is named the marquisate in the ducal family, from Gadhelic Loam, wolf. In Ireland it is told of Laignech Faelad that he was the man “that used to shift into wolf-shapes. He and his offspring after him used to go whenever they pleased, into the shapes of the wolves, and, after the custom of wolves, kill the herds. Wherefore he was called Laignech Fdelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf- shape.”
The Celtic god Dis Pater, from whom, according to Caesar’s account, the Gauls were descended, is represented as clad in wolf-skin, and holding a vessel, also a mallet with a long shaft, which, Monsieur Reinach thinks, recalls the image of the Etruscan Charon. “A low-relief at Sarrebourg, in Lorraine,” says this eminent authority, “proves that one of the epithets of this Gaulish god was Sucellus, signifying ‘one who strikes well.’ The wolf skin leads to the presumption that the god was originally a wolf, roving and ravaging during the night time. This god has been identified with the Latin Silvanus, the woodman or forester who gave chase to the wolves — of old a wolf himself. On this view, which M. Reinach favours, at least a section of the Gauls had a national legend identical with that of the Romans: like Romulus they were the children of the wolf, and M. Reinach suggests that perhaps it was on this account that the Arverni called themselves brethren of the Latins. If so, we have a close parallel to Gadhelic tradition.
Spenser says that “some of the Irish doe use to make the wolf their gossip;” and Camden adds that they term them” Chari Christi, praying for them, and wishing them well, and having contracted this intimacy, professed to have no fear from their four-footed allies.” Fynes Moryson expressly mentions the popular dislike to killing wolves. Aubrey adds that “in Ireland they value the fang-tooth of an wolfe, which they set in silver and gold as we doe ye Coralls.”
At Claddagh there is a local saint, Mac Dara, whose real name according to folk-belief was Sinach, ‘a fox,’ a probably non- Aryan name. The Irish onchii, ‘leopard,’ also ‘standard,’ whence G. onnchon, ‘standard,’ from French onceau, once, ‘a species of jaguar,’ seems preserved in Wester Ross with the change of n to r, as or chu, written odhar chu, in the sense of wolf: the howl of the creature thus named inspired the natives of old with a fear and awe which had their origin in days when the wolf prowled of evenings among the flocks.
Another interesting mention of the wolf is also found in the text:
“A Breton tale tells of a giant’s life as being in an egg, in a dove, in a horse, in a wolf, which lives in a coffer at the bottom of the sea.”
In the 1932 book Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby we learn of the Wulver. The Wulver was basically a wolf headed man who lived by fishing the lakes of the Shetland Islands. The Wulver would sometimes leave fish on the window sills of poor people’s homes. The beast was both friendly and charitable, unless it was provoked.
Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica – published in 1900 – leaves us with a couple of interesting spells regarding the wolf. The first of these concerns several other creatures as well:
The people repaired to the fields, glens, and corries to eat their quarter cakes. When eating them, they threw a piece over each shoulder alternately, saying: “Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats; there to thee, raven, spare my kids; here to thee, marten, spare my fowls; there to thee, harrier, spare my chickens.”
Finally, we come upon “the Spell of Mary” which was used as protection against a very long list of impeding dooms, evils, mishaps and sorceries. Protection against the wolf is listed alongside many of the other more traditional forms of evil. Within this long list of worldly and otherworldly perils, a person also needed the protection:
Against incantations, against withering glance, Against inimical power. Against the teeth of wolf. Against the testicles of wolf[iii].
Dare we even ask? I guess, with the number of people running around in the form of a wolf in those days, one could never be too careful. If we’ve learned anything from Gilvaethwy and Gwydion it is this: wolves have needs too.
Eurasian wolf by Gunnar Ries Amphibol. 2009
[i] Celtic stories are often metaphoric. There’s a widespread belief that the original transcribers were sometimes recording knowledge that could only be fully understood by “a poet.”
[ii] Interestingly, when the king was possessed by the evil spirit he gorged himself on apples.
[iii] This is only a partial list.