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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

Don’t Believe Your Eyes: Seven Celtic Shapeshifters

Seals or Selkies?  In Celtic lands, what you see isn't always what you get.
Seals or Selkies? In Celtic lands, what you see isn't always what you get.

Roaming through the Celtic lands is a joy. The mountains, the meadows, the lochs, rivers, and pools are beautiful, even mystical. But there is more to see than landscapes and seascapes. Seals play in the water just off the Scottish coast and in the Atlantic Ocean by Tintagel Castle in Wales. Sleek horses and adorable ponies add to the grace of Irish vistas. Scotland, Ireland and Wales can be paradise for birdwatchers. But be warned! That cormorant posing on a rock, drying its wings in the wind, may be a livestock-stealing faerie and that pretty pony you’re about to ride may be a malevolent faerie planning your murder. Celtic faeries are not cute little beings with butterfly wings. They come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Most don’t have wings. Some are mischievous, all are capricious, and some are malicious. The faeries you should most look out for, though, are the ones you may not realize are something supernatural. Here are seven of my favorite Celtic shapeshifting faeries.

SELKIES are Scottish faeries who, in their natural form, look like seals. They have the ability, however, to take on human form and walk on land. They accomplish the transformation by removing their skin. The majority of stories about Selkies have to do with the females coming ashore, shedding their skin, and having a walk on the beach only to find themselves trapped into marrying a human man. The Selkie females, in their human form look like exquisitely beautiful women. Without their skin, however, they cannot change back into their seal selves. In folklore, human men catch Selkie wives by hiding the skin. In the end, it doesn’t really pay off. No matter how long the Selkie is married to the human and no matter how many children they have together, she will always yearn to return to the sea and constantly will search for her skin. Once she finds it, she will leave husband and children without a second glance. End of story.

The Cat Sith steals souls by walking over corpses.
The Cat Sith steals souls by walking over corpses.

The CAT SITH gives black cats a bad name! Another faerie from Scottish folklore, it takes on the appearance of a large (i.e. dog-sized) black cat with a splash of white on its chest. Often its back is arched and its hairs stick up like a Halloween cat. In fact, All Hallow’s Eve—or more accurately, Samhain—is considered this faerie’s special time. On Samhain’s Eve (October 31st), the Cat Sith goes from house to house, seeking milk or cream. When it finds a saucer left out for it, the faerie will bless all those who live there. Those families who neglect to leave milk out for the Cat Sith will regret it as the faerie will curse the family’s cows to dry up.

If that was all there was to this faerie, it could be considered fairly innocuous. But there’s a darker side to it. The Cat Sith doesn’t show up just at Samhain. It often appears when someone in the house has died. Unless the deceased’s family is vigilant, the Cat Sith will steal the person’s soul by walking over the corpse. To protect their deceased relative, family members keep a watch at the Wake, on alert for any sign of a black cat. If one shows up in the house, the relatives use music, riddles, catnip, and other devices to keep the Cat Sith away from the corpse.

According to some versions of Scottish folklore, the Cat Sith is actually a witch, not a faerie. These versions say a witch can transform herself into a cat and back to human form nine times. If she tries for a tenth time, she will be stuck in cat form forever. That said, the Scots Gaelic word for “fairy” is sithiche. The Scots Gaelic word for witch is bana-bhuidseach. Based on that, it seems the Cat Sith, originally was a faerie.

The DUNNIE resembles a Scottish Brownie in that it’s a small, dark-skinned, human-looking faerie, but that’s where the similarity ends. Brownies are helpful, non-shapeshifting faeries who do chores around the house while the family’s asleep. Dunnies are mischievous shapeshifters who change form to play tricks on humans. One of the Dunnie’s favorite tricks is to change into a horse and, when a human rides him, the Dunnie finds the muddiest part of the road and vanishes, leaving the human to fall into the muck.

Never trust a Celtic horse, especially near water.
Never trust a Celtic horse, especially near water.

A word of advice: in the Celtic lands, never trust a horse. Why? Read on!

KELPIES are water horses. They tend to hang around lochs, rivers, and streams. There is a way to recognize (or at least suspect) a horse is a Kelpie. Water will drip from the horse’s mane. Like a Dunnie, it will entice a human into taking a ride but this shapeshifting faerie is much more treacherous. Once the human is astride the Kelpie’s back, a sticky substance oozes out of the horse’s skin, acting like a glue. The faerie then races into a nearby loch or river, drowning the victim then eating it.

The Kelpie usually appears as a beautiful black horse but, at times, will look like a sweet little pony. It does this to ensnare a child for a snack. The faerie also will assume the form of a handsome young man in order to seduce young women.

Wales’ version of the Kelpie is the CEFFYL DŴR. Its habitat is waterfalls, lakes, and pools. This faerie usually looks like a dark horse with fiery eyes, although it can appear luminous and beguiling too. It may have wings but even when it doesn’t, it can fly. The Ceffyl Dŵr has been known to burst out of the water, trampling humans to death. Its most common method of murder, however, is to lure a traveler onto its back where the human gets stuck fast, as with the Kelpie. A twist to the story, though, is that, instead of running into water, the Ceffyl Dŵr flies into the sky. Once it has reached a good height, the faerie horse vanishes, leaving the human to plunge to his or her death.

Again, never trust a Celtic horse, especially if it’s near water.

A Boobrie may look like a cormorant but it's actually a shapeshifting, livestock-stealing faerie.
A Boobrie may look like a cormorant but it's actually a shapeshifting, livestock-stealing faerie.

Another faerie that can appear as a water horse is the BOOBRIE but, most often, it looks like a cormorant or other water bird. There are stories, as well, of it shifting into the form of a bull. Whatever shape it takes, its main occupations are killing and eating. Fortunately, this faerie isn’t after humans. Boobries like eating calves. They mix it up once in a while by eating lambs and otters. If thirsty, this faerie will shapeshift into a fly, land on horses, and drink their blood. When the Boobrie takes on the form of a horse, it will gallop not only on land, but over lochs, its hooves making the same clip-clop sound they would make on the ground.

Perhaps my very favorite Celtic shapeshifter is the PUCA (Pwca in Wales). This faerie universally appears in the folklore of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, and it is the most versatile of the shapeshifting faeries. It can appear in any form it chooses but most often takes the form of an animal. Even when it appears as a human, it will sometimes have an animal feature, such as cat’s ears or a horse’s tail. In animal form, its fur will be dark. It can be distinguished in its horse form from a Kelpie or a Ceffyl Dŵr because its eyes are golden. Even in animal form, the Puca retains the ability to speak and can be helpful, offering advice to humans it likes. Having a true faerie temperament, it is capricious and can be offended easily. When it is, the Puca can be spiteful and even vicious. In any case, the Puca is always mischievous and enjoys confusing humans and playing tricks on them.

Is it a cute little bunny or a mischievous Puca?
Is it a cute little bunny or a mischievous Puca?

The Puca can appear at any time and in any place but he is associated particularly with Samhain and blackberries. Irish folklore warns people not to eat blackberries after Samhain (November 1st) because that’s when the Puca spits on them and ruins them. In Wales, children are told not to eat overripe blackberries because the Puca’s spirit has entered them and will enter the bodies of those who consume the berries.

So there you have it: my seven favorite Celtic shapeshifters. I hope you’ve enjoyed the post. Thank you for reading. Please LIKE and SHARE. To SUBSCRIBE for FREE, just click on the “Sign Up” button in the upper right of the page.

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