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Welcome to Unreal, a podcast about Irish History, stories, and tradition.
Early Irish forests were thick with wolves. Fierce, fast and predatory, it’s no wonder these animals inspired so many myths and stories before their extinction. One myth of wolves which has captured imaginations for centuries, is the legend of the werewolf- men and women who could walk through the world in the shape of wolves. Irish stories of werewolves aren’t as famous as other legends, but there are plenty of them, all the same.
The wild wood holds wild creatures, and wildness is catching – will it catch a hold of you? I’m Ruth Atkins, and this is Unreal.
The myth of lycanthropy – humans turning into wolves, whether through curse or by personal choice and magic – has been in the world for thousands of years. Ancient Greek mythology spoke of whole tribes of men that transformed into wolves for a few days every year.
Early Christians used and believed the legends also – they spoke of witches spells and heathen magic that could make men into wolves. As Christianity grew, so too did the myth of the werewolf – spreading through medieval Europe in the 11th to 13th century. Like much mythology about “half-human” creatures, the werewolf was a useful metaphor for paganism – although the people of pagan tribes may appear beast-like and dangerous, the soul deep within their bodies is human, and can be reached and converted to Christian thinking.
Although Germany and France have probably had the strongest tradition of werewolf stories at this time, Medieval Ireland had plenty of its own – particularly around Ossory, a kingdom that covered most of present-day Laois and Kilkenny. You might remember Ossory from my earlier episode about Dame Alice Kyteler, and Ireland’s first witch trial – it was definitely thought of in these times as being a place filled with sinister magic and curses. The Laighne Faelaidh people of Ossory were said to pass into the forms of wolves whenever they pleased, killing the local cattle much as wolves would do. If they were wounded as wolves, the same wounds would be found on their human bodies, and the raw flesh they had chewed while in wolf form could be found between their human teeth.
Gerald of Wales, a 12th Century priest and historian, wrote of an encounter with these Ossory wolf-people in his topography of Ireland. A priest was travelling through the woods towards Meath, when a wolf to his camp-fire.
“Be not afraid,” said the wolf – “there is no reason you should fear, where no fear is.”
The priest was astonished, and asked the wolf to explain who he was, and how he had come to speak and behave like a man.
“The people of Ossory are under a terrible curse.” Said the wolf. “Every seven years two of our number, a man and a woman, must leave our homes and human form, and go through the world as wolves. Should we survive it, at the end of seven years we may return and become human again, and two more people from Ossory must go as wolves in our place.”
The wolf begged the priest to come with him, for his partner the she-wolf was sick and dying nearby. He wanted the priest to give his female companion her final blessing. The priest was afraid but he followed the wolf through the forest, to a tree not far from where he was camping. There in the hollow was a she-wolf in terrible pain, and the groans and sighs that she made were those of a woman, rather than a wolf. She gave thanks to God and allowed the priest to perform last rites. However, when it came time for the priest to give her communion, he hesitated. He was not sure it was right to give communion to an animal – however human she seemed. Seeing the priest’s worry, the male wolf went up to his partner, and using his claw for a hand, he tore off her wolf-skin, folding it back from head down to navel. There in the middle of the skins was an old and dying woman, and the priest gladly gave communion to her then, before the he-wolf rolled back her skin so that she was a wolf once more.
This sympathetic view of werewolfs – that they are merely the victims of a curse that they are unable to stop – was pretty widespread. Ireland’s early legal system, the Brehon laws, even decreed that women who were cursed with werewolfism must be watched over and nursed, that they do no evil to anyone and kill no stock. Werewolf women were even entitled to nursing payments – according to the dignity of their husbands of course.
A much later story collected by Jane Wilde also spoke of a werewolf curse. King Fergus of Ulster, had a mortal hatred of Cathal, the King of Munster, and he bewitched a basket of apples with an evil spell, and disguised them as a gift. The more apples King Cathal ate, the more he longed for them, and he ate, and ate, until there was not an apple left in Cashel, nor in all the countryside round him.
A great hunger was on King Cathal then, and he ate up all the cattle and the grain and the fruit for miles around, and still cried for more. Soon the people were in despair, for they had no more food, and starvation was over the land.
Now a wise man happened to be travelling through Munster at that time, and hearing of the king’s state, he asked to be brought to him. The wise man uttered powerful incantations, and announced to the lords and chiefs that when the moon rose the spell would be broken. That night, just as the moon rose, a great cry was heard from the king’s room, and the lords and chiefs rushed to see what had happened.
There on the floor lay a huge dead wolf, who had been in the king’s body for a whole year, and had been the source of his hunger.
But although some thought of werewolfs as needing to be saved from a curse, plenty of others had a much less sympathetic view. Many believed that only powerful dark sorcery could allow a person to turn into a wolf, and just as those accused of witchcraft faced persecution throughout Europe, too did those accused of werewolf-ism.
One Irish saint, so the stories go, almost became a victim of this persecution himself – St Ronan. Although Ronan lived in the 6th century, the story of his life was written in the 12th century, so it fits in with the myths of werewolves that were flourishing at this time. St Ronan was an Irish bishop who went to live in northern France. Ronan travelled to Brittany by boat, and settled in the kingdom of Cornuaille, determined to live a life of solitude and prayer. Soon, word got around about this strange lonely figure and his holy life – but not everybody admired him. Slowly but surely, people nearby grew suspicious, and the rumours flew.
Some people began to say that Ronan was not a holy man at all, but a sorcerer and a necromancer – and worst of all, that he used his magic powers to take the shape of a brutal beast. He stalked the countryside, people said, taking animals and children for its prey. Eventually, a local woman called Keban took Ronan to court, and accused him before the King of killing her daughter.
That man called Ronan, you will know at any time to be transformed into a wolf, and not only exercise slaughter of cattle, but also of men. In fact, from me, he has taken away my daughter, and swallowed them up together.
Ronan pleaded that the peasant woman was making up malicious stories about him – he claimed that Keban had suffocated her daughter herself, by locking her up in a tiny space where she couldn’t breathe. To prove Ronan’s sanctity and holy powers, the king unleashed his two fierce dogs to rush at the saint, but, calling on God, Ronan was able to calm the animals before they reached him.
The little girl, the story says, was found dead in the very place that Ronan had named, and so he was exonerated, and allowed to resume his old way of life. The anger of the local people now turned to Keban, and they began to call for her execution, just as she had called for Ronan’s. But Ronan, saint that he was, had a better plan, and, he layed his hands on Keban’s daughter and brought the dead girl back to life.
When you are accused of being a werewolf, it’s certainly lucky to have the powers of a saint. Many others across Europe were less fortunate, suffering torture and execution just as witches did. In the Irish tales of the Fianna, werewolves also met a less happy end. Werewolves in these stories belonged to the fairy people – just another menacing magical trick, which meant that they had to be stopped. There is a fascinating story of the fate of the Wolf-women of Cruachan cave, who faced the wrath of the Fianna’s best warriors.
Cruachan Cave, which is part of an ancient burial mound called Rathcroghan in Coungy Roscommon, was the sight of many supernatural occurrences in Irish mythology – nearby was Queen Maeve of Connaught’s residence, and every legend from around there claims that the area was filled with fairy magic.
Caoilte mac Ronan, a warrior of the Fianna, was walking in the area once, when he met an old man with rough grey hair. “We have great troubles in this place,” said the man, whose name was Barnech. ‘Every year, three she-wolves emerge from the Cave of Cruachan, and destroy all our sheep by night.’ These were fairy women – the three daughters of Airitech, who transformed into wolves so that they could plunder and kill. Caoilte learned that the wolf-women could be charmed by the music of harps and lutes, so early in the morning his minstrel Cass corach went to the top of the cairn with his lute, and played sweet music all day, until the fall of his evening clouds. As darkness fell, Cass corach saw three wolves coming towards him, and they lay down in front of him, listening as he played. But Cass corach had no way to attack the wolves – his hands were occupied with playing the lute, and he knew that the moment he stopped playing, and the wolf women were too quick and dangerous – they would pounce before he had a chance to attack. So, at the close of day, the wolves went away from him unharmed, and creeped back into their cave.
Cass corach went to Caoilte and explained what had happened. “Go there again tomorrow,” said Caoilte, “and convince them to change to their human shape.”
The following day, Cass corach played again, and the wolves once again came forward and crouched on their forelegs, listening to the music. As he played, Cass corach began to speak softly to them. “If only you wolves were humans,” he said, “this music would sound even sweeter. Listening as humans to music is so much better than listening as wolves.” The wolf women heard Cass corach and were tempted, and eventually they cast off their long dark wolfskins, and lay as human women, side by side and elbow by elbow, listening to the music.
On a hillside nearby, Caoilte was watching. As the three daughters of Airitech lay unaware, Caoilte leaned back and flung his spear as hard as he could towards them. The spear passed through the breast of each woman, so that they lay dead on the spear, like a skein drawn close together – and never again did wolves or wolf-women harm the sheep of this place, though it was known from then onward as the Glen of the Wolf-shapes in their memory.
It was pretty common in Ireland for fairies to take on the shape of wolves like this. All the better for hunting with, after all! But fairies were not always evil. They had strong sense of the bonds of justice, and always repayed a kindness – as another of Jane Wilde’s stories shows.
A young farmer named Connor went out searching one afternoon for two missing cows. As evening drew in and the sky grew dark, Connor spotted a tiny hovel and knocked at the door to ask for shelter. It was opened at once by a tall, thin, elderly couple, with keen, glittering eyes and long sharp teeth.
“Come in,” they said, “you are welcome. We have been waiting for you.”
Connor sat down by the hearth, and as he did so, a knock came to the door, and through it walked a young black wolf. The wolf crossed the floor into an inner room, and a few moments later, out came a dark, handsome young man, who sat down at the table and looked at Connor.
“You are welcome,” he said, “we have waited for you.”
Before Connor could answer another knock was heard, and in came a second wolf, who passed on to the inner room like the first. Soon after, another dark, handsome youth came out and also sat down.
“These are our sons,” said the old man, “tell them what you want, and what brought you here amongst us.”
Feeling frightened, Connor told them about his missing cows.
One of the young men stood up. “Do you remember, one day down in the glen you found a little wolf with a sharp thorn in his side? You helped him, and gave him a drink, and went your way leaving him in peace and rest?”
“I remember it well,” said Connor.
“Well,” said the young man, “I am that wolf, and I will help you too. Stay with us to-night and have no fear.”
So Connor feasted with the family, and soon fell fast asleep. When he woke in the morning, he found himself back in his own field, with no sign of the mysterious house or family.
He looked over his yard and his stable and his field, and there was still no sign of his cattle. But suddenly, in the field close by, he saw three of the most beautiful strange cows he had ever set eyes on. And when he reached the gate, a young black wolf was watching. Then Connor knew that the wolf man had kept his word. He kept the cows, and they grew to be the finest in the whole country, and Connor grew rich and prospered; for a kind deed is never lost, but brings good luck to the doer for evermore.
Werewolves, whether they were viewed with sympathy or suspicion, were usually seen as something unpredictable– just like wolves themselves. That’s where the fear came from. They were ferocious and sly, and although they sometimes helped people, as in stories like this, they could just as easily leave a farmer without his livestock, or even without his life.
Strangely though, wolves were also very much admired in legends. Wolfs are hunters, strong and fast – and they travel in packs with strong bonds of loyalty. So they have a lot more in common with the heroic warriors of myths and legends than you might think. To be like a wolf in battle and in hunting was something that warriors of old should aspire to, and this view of wolfish characteristics led to many tales of warriors who were raised by or defeated wolves in their youth.
A warrior called Fiachna was born of a woman who, when she was pregnant, gazed out at a wolf on a hillside worrying a flock of sheep – “of you and I will be born a son who will worry men just as that wolf worries sheep” she said to her husband. Fiachna’s father cried out in fear, “may no such boy come into the world!” and he did not love his son when he was born, for Fiachna did indeed have the nature and power of a wolf. One day, Fiachna came to his father’s dwelling, and his father set a savage hound loose and urged the dog to kill his son. At that same moment, a hawk, circling from above, swooped down and tried to snatch up the boy also. Fiachna had a stick in one hand and immediately he thrust it down the hounds throat, while with his other hand he grabbed the hawk by its neck and held it tight. His mother, watching from nearby, saw her son with a hawk in one hand and a hound in the other, and she gave a start so great that she never again bore a child.
One of the most famous Irish figures associated with wolves was a King – Cormac son of Art son of Conn of a Hundred Battles, who ruled over Ireland in the time of the Fianna. Much like the famous brothers, Romulus and Remus, who brought Rome to greatness in ancient days, Cormac mac Art was said to have begun his life deep in the forest, where he was raised by a wolf mother alongside her cubs.
When Cormac Mac Art was conceived, his father told his lover, Etan that the son she bore would be king over Ireland. Art died in battle the following morning, and when Cormac was born Etan asked her maid to watch the boy while she slept. However, the maid soon drifted off too, and that night a she-wolf came to their camp and stole away the baby to her den. A man called Lughna, heard Etan cry out on finding her son’s bed empty. He sent out word that he would give a great reward to anyone with knowledge of Cormac’s whereabouts.
Eventually, someone chanced by the cave on his travels, and spotted a pack of wolf-cubs playing, with a young boy following them on his hands and knees. Lughna went straight to the cave when he heard, and took Cormac and the wolf-cubs back to his homestead to raise as his own.
Lughna’s own sons, Ochomon and Nathanach, did not take kindly to having a wild little boy for a foster brother, and when Cormac lashed out at them one day, they jeered and mocked him. “There he goes,” they shouted, “a fellow without a clan or a father!”
Ashamed, Cormac asked Lughna if this was true. “It is not true,” said Lughna, “you have indeed a clan and kindred, and you are a prince’s son – the son of Art, son of Conn of the Hundred Battles, one day you will rule Ireland as your forefathers did. The land pines for you even now.”
Cormac did indeed become High King of Ireland, and under him the palace of Tara was more beautiful than it had ever been, and the rivers full of fish, the woods full of game, and the land full of all good things, for as long as he lived.
And always, to the end of his life, Cormac kept wolves about him. He knew their speech and they knew his, and they were friendly and tame with Cormac, for they had been foster-brothers together in the wild wood.
I had always thought of werewolves as being a mainly German and Norse legend, so I’ve been really fascinated to see just how many Irish stories feature them. But in a time when there were more wolves in Ireland than men, perhaps it’s not surprising that they inspired our storytelling. It’s a testament to how much these animals dominated the thoughts and fears of people when they ruled our great forests.
Today, the forests and the wolves have vanished, and so too have these stories been all but forgotten – overlooked in favour of other legends, that have more relevance in our wolf-free lives.
But, as we’ve all heard recently from certain Irish politicians, wolves may yet make a comeback in Ireland! And perhaps, if that happens, so too will these stories re-emerge. What will the modern-day werewolf be like, I wonder? Something tells me I won’t want to find out!
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unreal. You can find links to the sources and music from today’s episode on my website, Unrealpodcast.com. You can follow the show at Unrealpod on facebook or twitter, and subscribe wherever you get your podcast. And if you enjoy the show, please do consider leaving a rating and review, or telling a friend. I’ll be back soon with a new tale to tell, and until then, go néirí on bóthar leat.