Welcome, all ye, an’ prepare to pay honors to all things Seelie and Unseelie.
Today we take a look at our favorite fae beasts of Celtic mythology!
Ah yes, the most famous among all Irish fairies, the Leprechaun.
Though much of their lore is well known in America thanks to Saint Patrick’s Day, it should be known that the diminutive, red-haired, bearded man swathed in green is a far cry from the original concept of the leprechaun. Sort of.
The fundamental lore of the Leprechaun can be broken down into some very basic points:
A. Leprechauns are adept shoe makers, and this is their sole profession. (Get it?)
B. They are known for keeping kettles full of gold at the end of rainbows. As stereotypically “whimsical” as this may seem, it should be understood that they guard these kettles jealously, as the gold therein is the spoils of an ancient war between man and fair folk. Just let that sink in.
C. If captured, they will attempt to fight back. If this does not work, they will attempt to deceive their captors into releasing them. If all else fails, they will grant a wish in exchange for release.
And, finally, and perhaps the biggest misconception:
D. They have different uniforms depending on region. Some do wear green, some dress similarly to what Americans would consider a “gnome”, some wear full bright red military regalia… Think less “Lucky Charms” and more “Sergeant Pepper”.
It should be also known that Leprechauns are not really that prolific of drinkers. That would be their vaguely similar, lazy, distant cousins the Clurichauns*.
*Clurichaun: It’s like a Leprechaun, but drunker.
Shape-shifting fairies are not uncommon in lores around the world, but in Celtic myth they seem unusually prolific.
Kelpies (which are men who take the form of water-horses), Selkies (women who become seals), and the Puca (a phantom which can become pretty much anything it feels like, usually a horse) are of course among the best well known, but one of the most widespread ancient superstitions involves creatures called “Changelings”.
These fairies function much like the cuckoo bird: they are able to shapeshift into the likeness of a child (or adult), and use this ability to “replace” one in a human home by kidnapping the human and assuming their identity.
It was believed that looking upon someone with envy or admiration would “alert” nearby fairies to their beauty, social status, or the affection of those around them, and therefore mark them as a potential target.
The only way to tell if someone had been replaced with a changeling is to place the accused in the fireplace and light it. If the accused is a changeling, they would fly up the chimney.
In other words, the belief was, that if you place a changeling in fire, they will perform the highly unusual act of… trying to get out of the fire.
This belief was so widespread in earlier days that not only were murders of family members often attested to it, but many murderers were openly acquitted due to having “only killed a changeling”.
One example of this is the 1890’s murder of Bridget Cleary, who was burned alive by her husband presumably due to her strange behavior and his belief that his wife had been kidnapped and replaced with a monstrous doppelganger.
This bizarre behavior was later attributed to pneumonia, just as many other accusations of changelingism are assumed to have been examples of misinterpreted developmental/physical maladies in infants.
The Irish Grim Reaper takes the form of a headless horseman, the Dullahan.
They are often portrayed as a ghostly (and usually, but not always) male rider with a whip made from a human spine and a carriage resembling the Sedlec Ossuary – and his rotting head held under his arm.
Much like the also-Irish Banshee, the Dullahan makes a habit of visiting domiciles and screaming the name of an occupant in a shrill voice. Whoever hears his or her name called dies instantly.
The Dullahan do not like being looked upon by mortal eyes – if they are spied on, they employ the use of their whip to blind any who see them, which seems crueller than just killing them, really.
The Dullahan are impervious to mortal weapons, no gates or doorways or barricades can bar their entrance, and the eyes on their decapitated heads can see in the dark for miles in every direction.
The only way to defend oneself against a Dullahan is to carry a small amount of gold visibly upon your person, because the Dullahan fears gold, making them terrifying ghosts but terrible accountants.
No, it’s not a leak from the next Pokemon gen (probably), but in fact the Dobhar-Chu is notable for being one of the few cryptids in existence with a body count.
A being not only seen in folklore but also to this day reported among the rivers and lochs of Ireland, the Dobhar-Chu (pronounced kind of like Doo-waar-koo) is something like a hairy crocodile with a dog face and orange flippers.
Indeed, its name roughly translates to “Sea Hound”, chosen by the ancient Celts presumably because it sounds more intimidating than “Otter-dile”.
And intimidating this creature is, as there are some who would go as far as to postulate that the Dobhar-Chu is a juvenile form of the Loch Ness monster, and some even claiming that the beast has been attacking locals as recently as the late 90’s.
The most recent sighting was by an Irish artist in 2003, and the oldest sightings are from the 17th century.
Coming in at number 1 is a demon from the Northern Isles known as the Nuckelavee.
Feared as the most inherently evil being in all of Scotland, the Nuckelavee is a walking, roaring, putrid mountain of rage, and there’s nothing more metal than that.
Telling of its ghastly disposition is that only one (1!) person, a Scotsman named Tammas, has ever seen it and lived to describe it, though his description does nothing to alleviate its fearsomeness.
Are you ready for this?
The only numerical reference given for size is a head 3 feet in diameter. Assuming that that the “A human form is 8 heads tall” formula is correct, that would make the Nuckelavee about 24 feet tall.
He’s demonstrably taller than that, however, as this monster’s legs from the waist down are replaced by a proportionally-sized horse.
Not the legs of a horse, like a Satyr, or the body of a horse, as a centaur, but a full-on horse, replete with tail, neck, whale-like maw, and a hellish, glowing cyclopic eye.
Not freaky enough? Understandable. How about the fact that the horse-legs end not in hooves but tendril-like flippers?
Or that he breathes a rancid plague known as the “Mortasheen”, capable of killing livestock and crops and essentially decimating a countryside within a month?
In addition, his knuckles are known to drag the ground… making his arms exactly long enough to claw his way into your nightmares all the way from Scotland.
AND, in order to cement his status as a monster best seen only in fever dreams and death-metal album covers, this sprawling mass of hate doesn’t have any SKIN.
Black blood flows through his yellow veins, and his bulging, sinewy musculature can be seen without an X-Ray or Body Worlds exhibit.
Tammas was clearly a brave soul, but I will have none of what he was drinking.
The Nuckelavee was the most feared being in Orcadian lore, with farmers and working-class families fearing him the most.
This is understandable, as the beast was known to be enraged by pretty much anything – burning seaweed, farming from peasants in hard times struggling to get by, the concept of happiness somewhere in Scotland – all were enough to set the demon on a rampage.
Luckily, the creature was imprisoned in the sea during the Spring and Summer by the Mither o’ the Sea (Scottish Poseidon), and possesses an unabated fear of… fresh water?
That’s rather anticlimactic.
That being said, the most recent alleged activity by the Nuckelavee was during the kelp production season of 1722, which is still far too recent for comfort.