The other day I was browsing Tumblr and I turned up a post on Irish werewolves. I knew Irish mythology and folklore had lots of shapeshifters, but I had never heard of werewolves. Better still, it turned out that not only does Ireland have werewolves, but also its own form of Úlfhéðnar, the berserker-like wolf-warriors of Scandinavian legend.
There are no real wolves in Ireland any more, but they were once a very real menace, which would explain the large number of stories about them.
Both these are Irish words for “werewolf”. As you will see, the Irish werewolf is a complex creature, just as often helpful, or at least benign, as dangerous. Most of the websites and posts I read say that Irish werewolves were considered guardian spirits who protected children, wounded men, and the lost, although they mostly don’t give sources. Incidentally, if your name is Whelan or Phelan, it comes from the word faol, “wolf”. Putting the encounter between the Morrígan and Cúchulainn in here is a bit of a stretch, since she’s a goddess, but I couldn’t resist.
Werewolves of Ossory
Geraldis Cambrensis or Gerald of Wales wrote the Topography of Ireland in the 12th century. He was in the entourage of Henry II, and lived long enough to serve under Richard I. (O’Meara: 11-2) He takes the attitude that the Irish are barely civilized, although I’m sure that the Normans looked down their noses at Wales just as much.
He relates the most fantastic stories as fact; clearly Ireland was exotic enough for marvels to be an everyday occurence. The tale of the Werewolves of Ossory begins with a priest travelling from Ulster to Meath. He and his companion were taking a rest by a fire in a clearing, when a wolf came up and started talking to them. He said:
There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who, through the curse of Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their place, they return to their country and their former shape.
No doubt the wolf’s extremely formal speech reassured them. He then explains that his female companion is dying, and asks the priest for Last Rites. The priest follows the wolf to their lair, where he sees the female wolf, who is clearly about to die. He has doubts, however, about administering the sacrament to an animal, so the male wolf reaches out and pulls off her wolfskin to reveal an old woman underneath.
He then gives her the sacrament and she dies. The wolf then stays with the priest and his companion all night, talking. The best part of the story is that the priest supposedly passed it on to the bishop, who sent it all the way up to Pope Urban III. (I’m sure it provided some light relief from his dispute with the Holy Roman Emperor.)
A variant of this story comes from the Norse Konungs skuggsjá, which has the pagan Irish mocking St. Patrick’s preaching by howling like wolves. (115) The enraged saint curses them. (Clearly, he disagreed with St. Paul about turning the other cheek.) Another legend says he changed King Vereticus into a wolf, so this was something of a habit with him.
xiv. The descendants of the wolf are in Ossory. They have a wonderful property. They transform themselves into wolves, and go forth in the form of wolves, and if they happen to be killed with flesh in their mouths, it is in the same condition that the bodies out of which they have come will be found; and they command their families not to remove their bodies, because if they were moved, they could never come into them again.
That last detail is interesting; often we hear of shamans and other magicians sending forth their spirits, during which they lie as if dead or asleep.
Laignach Faelad: Wolf Men of Tipperary
A text called the Coir Anmann says:
215. Laignech Fáelad, that is, he was the man that used to shift into fáelad, i.e. 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 Fáelad, for he was the first of them to go into a wolf-shape.
These warriors sound a great deal like the Norse version:
These were fearsome warriors who, howling like wolves, fought for the ancient kings of Ireland, and were every bit as fierce and ferocious as the beasts they assumed the shape of. They lived in remote areas, and unlike the werewolves of Ossory, they could turn into wolves whenever they wanted!
According to several websites, these warriors would fight for any king who could pay their price – but this was not measured in gold, but in the flesh of newborn babies. These wolf-warriors supposedly flourished during the reign of Tigernmas, who also followed Crom Cruach, according to the Book of Leinster version of The Roll of the Kings:
So he died in Mag Slecht, in the great Assembly thereof, with three-fourths of the men of Ireland in his company, in worship of Crom Cruaich, the king-idol of Ireland; so that there escaped thence, in that fashion, not more than one-fourth of the men of Ireland; under Mag Slecht.
I can’t help but see a faint echo of the Norse úlfheðnar and berserkr here, cross-fertilized with the Biblical Baal who received sacrifices of the Canannites’ first-born children. Tigernmas, however, seems to have been a real king, who mined the first gold and introduced gold-working.
Morrigan vs. Cúchulainn
A wolf is just one of the many forms of the war-goddess the Morrígan; even the Dindsenchas describes her as the “shapeshifting goddess”. (D’Este & Rankine: 83) In the story of the Taín Bo Cuilange, she first threatens the warrior Cúchulainn: “I will drive the cattle on the ford to you, in the form of a gray wolf.”
Later, she fufilled her prophecy, when Cúchulainn was trying to protect the cattle of Ulster against Queen Medb’s raiders. First she incited the warrior Loch to go against him, then she appeared herself to attack him three times: first as a hornless red cow with white ears, then as a giant black eel, and finally as a gray-red wolf. (The unusual colours tell us these animals were supernatural.) As one translation has it: Then the she-wolf attacked him, and drove the cattle on him westwards. He throws a stone from his sling, so that the eye broke in her head.”
Historically, a fiann was a group of landless young men and women, often aristocrats who had not yet inherited property. There are many stories about these bands, mainly the Fenian Cycle or Fiannaíocht, which tells the stories of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his warriors. Faoladh has an article about them and werewolf bands in general, and their relation to witches like the benandanti, who fought off sorcerers who stole the grain and animals of the local farmers. The most interesting bit is the testimony of a man named Thiess from Livonia:
His initial testimony is remarkable: he does not deny being a werewolf, but he says that werewolves are the dogs of God, and that they go into Hell, which lies across the sea, three times a year to recover grain, cattle, and so forth that are stolen and taken there by sorcerers. The foodstuffs are guarded by guards who brutally beat those they catch with broomsticks wrapped in horsehair. If they are unable to recover the grain, then there will be a poor harvest. He claims that werewolves go off into the woods, take off their clothing, and put on a wolf skin. By this means, they are transmuted into wolves, and they roam around in groups up to 30 strong, tearing to pieces any animal they come across, roasting it, and eating it. Occasionally, they also steal animals from farms for the same purpose.
Faoladh sees a parallel between the myth of the Battle of Magh Tuiread and these magic-workers: the Fomorian king tries to starve the people of Ireland by levying such hard taxes that they had no food, so that the other gods, led by Lugh, rise against him and defeat him and his clan. After that, Ireland flourished. It certainly gives a new spin to an old legend.
To finish, two different types of legend, each of which shows a wolf or werewolf acting out of character. The first comes from Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends, and is a variation on the story of Androcles and the Lion. It features a man named Connor who was searching for some missing cattle and became lost. He found a house and knocked on the door, but it turned out to be full of werewolves.
Connor was first angry, then afraid. However, it turned out he had removed a thorn that had stuck in a little wolf, and now the grown beast remembered him with gratitude. He had dinner with them, and slept, but when he woke in the morning everything was gone. (Just like in fairy stories.) A wolf trotted up with new cows for him, and he realized it was the one he had helped.
The other involves two saints and another, legendary, figure who were all suckled by wolves, like Romulus and Remus. The saints were Ailbe and Ciwa, and the legendary figure Barre, who was an ancestor of Amairgen, the ollamh of the Milesians.
So we can see that werewolves were ambiguous figures. It is worth noting that 14 Irish saints had the name Faolan or Faelan (from fael, wolf), as well as 10 members of the Fianna, including Finn’s own son. (MacKillop: 199)
PS- For Coronation Street fans, current villain Pat Phelan is appropriately named. As the actor who plays him says: “Phelan comes from the Irish for ‘wolf’ and it is very fitting because Pat Phelan is the Wolf of Weatherfield… The Lone Wolf of Weatherfield.”
Giraldis Cambrensis/John J. O’Meara 1982: The History and Topography of Ireland, Penguin Books (reprint).
MacKillop, James 2004: A Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology, OUP.
Rankine, David and Sorita D’Este 2005: The Guises of the Morrigan: Irish Goddess of Sex and Battle: Her Myths, Powers and Mysteries, Avalonia Press.
Sconduto, Leslie A. 2008: Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance, McFarland.
The Wolves of Ossory:
Folklore and Sources
Legendary Irish Wolf Warriors
Fianna and Werewolves: