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  • Writer's pictureChristine Dorman

From Folklore to Fiction: My Celtic-Inspired Novel Characters

Tired of the same fantasy cast of characters? Celtic folklore offers alternatives, such as the madra dhu (black dog) and the cu sith, a green-furred faerie dog. Both are deadly.
Tired of the same fantasy cast of characters? Celtic folklore offers alternatives, such as the madra dhu (black dog) and the cu sith, a green-furred faerie dog. Both are deadly.

In my novel, Music of Dragons, the main character, Siobhan, is a seventeen-ages-old Faerie who, in a search to live life her way, becomes entangled in a web of international political intrigue. Along the way, she has to travel through a malevolent forest as well as a haunted grove. As I developed the story, I knew I didn’t want to populate those scary places with the same old stock characters from fantasy novels and horror films: vampires, werewolves, zombies, and so on. So, I turned to Celtic folklore for inspiration. And I found lots of it, much more than I could fit in one story.

Last week, I discussed Siobhan, her mother (who’s a banshee), and the terrifying Sluagh Sidhe. This week, I want to share a little about a few other Celtic folklore beings that ended up as characters in my book. They are the cat sith and cu sith from Scottish folklore, the ceffyl dwr from Welsh folklore as well as its Scottish and Irish counterparts—kelpies and the each uisce—and the Puca, who can be found across Celtic lore.

Finally, there is Cay, the unicorn. Unicorns are not unique to Celtic folklore. In fact, they can be found in the folklore of most cultures across the world. But I feel comfortable including Cay in this discussion because unicorns are the national symbol of Scotland. And part of the reason the unicorn is a symbol of Scotland points to how contemporary culture often portrays this mystical creature inaccurately.

Cat Sith

Stand with Ukraine and against tyranny.
Stand with Ukraine and against tyranny.

The first magical creature Siobhan encounters as she goes through treacherous Ard Nathair Forest is one that I based loosely on the Scottish faerie, the cat sith.

“A dark creature emerged from the bushes, sat down about an arm’s length away, and gazed up at her with flame orange eyes. Covered in shimmering and sleek black fur, it had a feline form but was several times larger than any cat Siobhan had ever seen. Its head came up to her knees. In a deep, musical voice, it purred, “Hello-o-o Jul-lia.”

This character is a pest and a con artist, which is fortunate for Siobhan. The cat sith of Scottish folklore is a soul-stealer. It enters the rooms of those who have just died, walks over the corpse and, in so doing, steals the deceased’s soul. Even the living have reason to fear the cat sith. It is a faerie and prone to cursing people with life-long misfortune.

Cu Sith

Another familiar-yet-different being Siobhan encounters in the forest is the cu sith. The word cu, in Scots Gaelic, means “dog,” but this magical being is no ordinary dog. It is the size of a calf and covered in shaggy green fur. The cu sith’s long tail is curled upward and its hair often is braided. In the lore, it is a silent hunter which stalks the highlands. When it finds its quarry, the faerie dog lets out three long bays. Anyone who’s still around to hear the third will die.

When Siobhan comes across cu sith, it takes no notice of her as it is stalking other prey. Intrigued by its green fur, she stops to watch it. Then it bays, sending a chill through her. After hearing it bay a second time, she wants to run but cannot move. As the dog opens its mouth again, a raven shrieks overhead. Distracted by that sound, Siobhan doesn’t hear the third fatal bay, and as the faerie dog turns towards her, she finally manages to flee.

The Puca is a mischievous shapeshifter who, even when he appears in human form, will retain some animal features.
The Puca is a mischievous shapeshifter who, even when he appears in human form, will retain some animal features.

The Puca

The Puca is found in Irish, Scottish, and Welsh folklore. It is among my favorite faeries. I like it because it’s mischievous and can be quite fun. Unfortunately, it can be cruel, too, when it’s in the mood. Faeries can be capricious and the Puca is no exception to that rule.

This faerie is a shapeshifter. Often it appears in animal form. Even when it takes a human form, it usually has some animal feature somewhere on its body. The first time Siobhan sees the Puca in human form, the faerie looks like an elderly lady. Her gray hair is tied in a messy bun, loose hairs sticking out in all directions. She has pointed, wolf-like ears and amber, cat-shaped eyes. She wears a long dress of moss green with a hole cut in the back to accommodate her fuzzy rabbit tail. The next day, the Puca appears as a young woman with long black mane-like hair and a raccoon tail.

The Puca in my story offers Siobhan some blueberry wine although she says she hates blueberries. She is difficult to converse with as she makes puzzling, often contradictory statements. One of her pastimes, she says, is to give people incorrect directions then sit back and watch the fun as the person becomes hopelessly lost. But, in the end, she assists Siobhan on her journey. Pucas can be helpful when they like somebody. Click here to read more about the Puca of Celtic folklore.

Water Horses

Celtic water horses are exquisitely beautiful, deceptive, and homicidal. I created a character called the Capall Agamecht. He is an amalgam of the Irish each uisce, the Scottish kelpie, and the Welsh ceffyl dwr. The Capall Agamecht appears to Siobhan as a pony with a lavender body and silver mane. His purple eyes sparkle with moonlight. He has feathery violet wings which drip water like raindrops. He is charming and speaks in a soft, almost hypnotizing way. The pony encourages her to get on his back so he can fly her to wherever she wants. When she politely turns down his offer, he transforms into a large black stallion with eyes of fire and hits her with her hooves as he takes flight. But that’s better than what would have happened if she had gotten on his back. As you’ll see in the next paragraph.

Celtic Water Horses, such as Kelpies and the Ceffyl Dwr are exquisitely beautiful, deceptive, and homicidal.
Celtic Water Horses, such as Kelpies and the Ceffyl Dwr are exquisitely beautiful, deceptive, and homicidal.

Kelpies live in the lochs and rivers of Scotland. They are shapeshifters who often appear as either horses or ponies. The Kelpie persuades humans to take a ride on him, but once the person is on the horse’s back, he will rush headlong into the water, drowning then eating his victim. The Irish each uisce is similar except that he resides by the sea. The Welsh ceffyl dwr also persuades its victims to get on its back. Even though it’s wingless, this horse will fly high into the air then disappear mid-flight, leaving its victim to fall to his or her death. That was the Capall Agamecht’s intention with Siobhan.

The final character I want to mention is Siobhan’s mentor, Cay. He is a silver unicorn with gems woven into his mane. Unlike Celtic water horses, unicorns are not deceptive. In both fiction and folklore, they fairly routinely are depicted as good and pure. In my story, unicorns are considered a sacred race of beings. Cay is good but he’s not My Little Pony cuddly. He is dry-witted and a bit supercilious. He can pop to wherever he wants, and he tends to pop up when Siobhan is doing something she knows she’s not supposed to do (for example, making a thunderstorm, which is her favorite thing). Cay can be a nag and—even more annoying—he usually is right.

Despite popular portrayals, in Celtic folklore unicorns may be pure but they’re not defenseless. They are strong and fierce fighters who can be dangerous if threatened. Also, they do not have wings. Pegasus has wings. Winged horses have wings. Unicorns do not.

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Slan go foil!

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