Thursday 22 June 2017


Ceridwen by Christopher Williams

A guest post by Laura Marjorie Miller

Have you ever dreamt that you are being pursued, and to evade your pursuer, you leap into the air? Can you recall the form you are in when you take flight in your dream? Do you have any form? Is it merely your consciousness sensing what is before, around, and—most importantly—behind you? Or have you ever checked to see if you are even still human?

The chase is an archetype engridded in our dreams, primordial. And shapeshifting, being one of the most ancient and original forms of magic, has to do with the understanding of creation as well as with survival.

‘Fith-fath’ is an ancient Celtic term for a shapeshifting spell. Fith-fath is pronounced ‘fee-fah’ and has many different glosses: it may mean ‘shapeshifter’ and it may mean ‘effigy’ and it may mean ‘words of magic’ and it may mean ‘poetic art’ but one thing is for sure: it is a powerful charm. And perhaps with charms it’s best to leave alone the exact dictionary meaning of things, otherwise you will be in the wrong frame of mind for a charm, too fixed. Not magic enough.

Whatever it ‘means’, the fith-fath is a shamanic spell, plunging the magic-user into the undifferentiated field of creation so they may come out again in a different form.

Perhaps that is why the fith-fath appears in the story of the goddess Cerridwen, whose cauldron brews the cosmic soup from which all forms arise, and into which they dissolve. The fith-fath see-saw plunges you deep down into the unified field and hoists you back up again as something else. Which is why fith-fath spells are often spoken with protections invoked, for what if you did not come back out again as you were?

A fith-fath charm was—or is, because you can still choose to use it—of service not only to hunters, but also to warriors, travelers, and smugglers, rendering them unrecognizable to authorities, brigands, enemies, and animals. One translation of fith-fath is “the deer’s aspect,” for it may originally have been a charm for hunting tribes that follow deer, to make hunters invisible entirely or invisible by disguising them as their prey animal.

The Carmina Gadelica tells the story of the youth Ossian (Oisín), who, while hunting, encounters a beautiful deer in the woods who turns out to be his mother:

‘Do not hurt me, Ossian,’ said the hind; ‘I am thy mother under the “fīth-fãth,” in the form of a hind abroad and in the form of a woman at home…. Come thou home with me, thou fawn of my heart.’

Oison's mother running as a hind - Arthur Rackham

So sometimes you have to be careful. Witches are forever becoming wounded while in their fith-fath forms: a farmer shoots a fox’s paw off in his garden and then later a woman of the village appears without a hand. The danger is in getting hurt while in such a state, or even, as Granny Weatherwax senses in Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies and young Arthur in T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, dissolving so much of your human self away that you have trouble returning and maybe you never come altogether back. You may need protection.

A famous fith-fath is the hare incantation of Isobel Gowdie, the 17th century Scottish witch, given at her trial confession, which includes a protection: 

I shall go into a hare
With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
Ay while I come home again.

Gowdie invoked the Devil on the way in and G-d on the way out:

            Hare, hare, God send thee care.
            I am in a hare’s likeness now,
            But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.

When I was little, and found these incantations in my grandmother’s folklore books, my heart thrilled at it. I instinctively felt the frisson of it, the delectable danger, the enticement like an electrical outlet to a child with a fork, and I knew that it was real. Still to this day I know. 
But what was I feeling exactly? How does a fith-fath work, and in a story or ballad, what is its purpose for our understanding?

One place the fith-fath shows up is in the motif and archetype of the wizard’s duel, or transformation chase. The duel or chase, usually a test of an apprentice differentiating himself from an overpowering master, is a motif that arises in several European fairy tale versions, traded from fireside to fireside by travelers until it criss-crossed the continent, from Straparola to Grimm, surfacing as well in Norway and Denmark.

For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to use fith-fath and wizard’s duel somewhat interchangeably, because at the core of the archetypal myth of the transformation chase is the key to how the fith-fath works.

The Archetype: Cerridwen and Gwion

Cerridwen is a goddess who lives on an island at the bottom of a lake in Wales. She has two children, one a fair daughter, the other a dark and disfigured son named Morfran. With concern for her son’s fate and future, the enchantress Cerridwen determines that she will brew a potion that will ease his life by giving him gifts of sorcery. The potion she settles upon will take a year and a day to brew, so she enlists (or enslaves) a youth named Gwion Bach to tend the fire and stir the brew, while she adds medicinal herbs and appropriate incantations to her cauldron throughout the year, at optimal astrological timings.

When the time arrives for the potion to be delivered, three drops of the brew fly out of the cauldron and burn Gwion’s finger. He reflexively places it in his mouth to suck it cool and in that instant absorbs all the powers of Cerridwen’s potion. There are none left for Morfran and the cauldron explodes, draining its contents into the dirt. In some tellings, Gwion is a rapscallion who pushes Morfran out of the way to get the brew for himself; in others, he is an innocent bystander. I reckon that such a powerful potion chooses its own recipient, and the drops jump of their own conscious will, convergent with the will of fate.

Whatever the case, Gwion knows he needed to get out of there fast. So he takes off running, with Cerridwen in hot pursuit. Racing through a field, he realizes that as a boy he cannot outrun her, and in that instant of airborne stride turns into a hare and hits the ground bounding. Not to be outdone, Cerridwen shifts into a greyhound and courses Gwion until in desperation the boy/hare hurls himself into the nearest stream, becoming a fish the instant he hits the water. Cerridwen dives after him as a hungry otter, chasing him in the current. Gwion leaps out of the stream and into the air, winging for dear life, as Cerridwen explodes through the surface of the water, drops showering from the tips of her wings, a mighty hawk. Gwion flies into a nearby barn, lands to catch his breath on a pile of grain and then—changes himself, or is changed, into a seed. Alighting on the pile, Cerridwen turns herself into a great black hen, pecks him up in her beak and swallows him. 

Gwion - by Thierry Brasseur

The rest of the tale is how the bard Taliesin came to be. But I will leave it there, a tale-trace, so you can hear the shape of the striving, the severity of the testing, the desperation and wit of the hunt.

Does something about this sound familiar, even if you had never heard the myth?

It may put you in mind of the Wizard’s Duel sequence in the Disney animated version of T.H. White’s The Sword in the Stone (1963).

The Wizard’s Duel

The Wizard’s Duel ( ), storyboarded by Bill Peet and animated by Milt Kahl, is a lively setpiece between Merlin and his rival/nemesis Madam Mim (contesting who has possession of Arthur). The combinations of animals defy ecology and grow more outlandish as the contest escalates, introducing tigers, rhinoceroses, rattlesnakes, and walruses to the mix, and culminating with Mim as a dragon, finally outdone by a germ that is Merlin, who infects her.

When I was a beginning magic-user in Nashville, my then-mentor had an ongoing rivalry with a sorcerer who used to frequent the local English pub. The two were always putting hexes and curses on each other (which unfortunately affected each other’s associates). My fellow students/best friends in magic and I used to playfully refer to this as a wizard’s duel, although in this case a reckless and immature one. But we would make ourselves laugh at the time, imagining them as Mim and Merlin.

Unlike Gwion and Cerridwen, the Mim/Merlin duel is a match between peers: wizards of similar stature, and practice. As with the archetypical chase, there actually is risk involved, physical pain being traded around, and peril, however cartoonishly it may be portrayed.

The Fith Fath

Another occurrence of the shapeshifting duel in art is named outright ‘Fith-Fath Song,’ composed and performed by acclaimed pagan musician Damh (pronounced “Dave”) the Bard.

Damh makes his version a paganized riff on Isobel Gowdie’s incantation, reworking Gowdie’s fith-fath to be a game between the Goddess (Our Lady) and the Horned God, a competition for life between ‘their’ creatures, with a solo party representing the Lady playing against a band of the male god’s agents:

I shall go as a wren in spring
With sorrow and sighing on silent wing
And I shall go in our Lady’s name
Aye, ‘til I come home again

Then we shall follow as falcons grey
And hunt thee cruelly for our prey
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again

Then I shall go as a mouse in May
Through fields by night and in cellars by day
And I shall go in our Lady's name
Aye ‘til I come home again

Then we shall follow as black tom cats
And hunt thee through the fields and the vats
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again

Then I shall go as an autumn hare
With sorrow and sighing and mickle care
And I shall go in our Lady's name
Aye till I come home again

Then we shall follow as swift greyhounds
And dog thy steps with leaps and bounds
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again

Then I shall go as a winter trout
With sorrow and sighing and mickle doubt
And I shall go in our Lady's name
Aye till I come home again

Then we shall follow as otters swift
And bind thee fast so thou can’tst shift
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again.

Although done by proxy, it is a contest still between Lord and Lady, testing one state of being that preys on another in a chase, with a churning transfiguration from form to form. The victory is won when the Horned God’s animals bind the solo speaker so that he can no longer access his power to transform.  

The Chase

Tori Amos is a musical mythologist, and her song ‘The Chase’ from the album Night of Hunters is the Cerridwen and Gwion pursuit exactly, but this time played out between two females: Tori, and an opposing voice that belongs to her daughter Tash. The aim of this competition is “out-creation,” and the way shapeshifting is accomplished here is described as a change in “frequency”: a conscious alteration of the vibratory field until it can congeal so another solid state may arise. Quickness of wit is the test, and the transformations here have an agency that Gwion’s don’t, or may not, have: how fast and effectively can you change? How speedily shift? 

Out there are hunters
Let’s say predators
I have weapons
That could destroy them
You must out-create
It’s the only way
I am the hunter
And the hunted
Joined together
You create duality
And neutrality….
I’ll be the hare
Then I’m the greyhound
Chasing after you
Then I will change my frequency
To a fish that thinks
Then you will find yourself
In the paws
Of the otter
Near her jaws
Then I’ll grow my wings
As a flying thing
Flying thing, you be warned
I’m the falcon
Watch me change
To a grain of corn
A grain of corn
Hear the alarm
In your head
I’m the hen
Black and red
And you’re in my barn
They would have won
Use your head or you’ll be dead.

© Tori Amos

The mettle of Tori’s protagonist is tested by this other entity, which could be an outer challenger or an inner voice. Whether they are distinct organisms or as polarities of the same consciousness, the use of female voices for both competitors emphasizes the point that regardless of distinction, the duelists in the archetype swim in the same magic, hunter and hunted, joined together in a matter of life or death.

Sometimes the contest becomes gendered, especially when the fith-fath becomes a mating song.

Two Magicians

‘The Twa Magicians’ is a Child Ballad, and I particularly favor the version of it performed by Steeleye Span on their 1974 album Now We Are Six. 

She looked out of the window as white as any milk
And he looked in at the window as black as any silk
Hello, hello, hello, hello, you coal black smith
You have done me no harm
You never shall have my maidenhead
That I have kept so long
I'd rather die a maid
Ah, but then she said and be buried all in my grave
Than to have such a nasty, husky, dusky, fusky, musky
Coal-black smith—a maiden I will die

She became a duck, a duck all on the stream
And he became a water dog and fetched her back again

She became a star, a star all in the night
And he became a thundercloud and muffled her out of sight

She became a rose, a rose all in the wood
And he became a bumble bee and kissed her where she stood

She became a nun, a nun all dressed in white
And he became a canting priest and prayed for her by night

She became a trout, a trout all in the brook
And he became a feathered fly and caught her with his hook

She became a corpse, a corpse all in the ground
And he became the cold clay and smothered her all around

Blacksmiths are by nature magic, as I have written elsewhere: ‘There is an old, old belief that blacksmiths have magical powers…. Smiths have expertise to work with what is inorganic, the same way a witch works with organic plants and parts. They are powerful: the groundedness of material nature itself but they also know that nature is not static. Metal is strong, but capable of being cajoled into forms both beautiful and useful. Smiths are elemental transformers. They go down into something that looks solid, fluidify it, and change it. It is a return to a primal state, a source state, a working-back in time. In the forge… what is solid becomes fluid through flame.’ (Imbolc in the Forge: A Threefold Meditation).

In ‘Two Magicians,’ we encounter a magic-working woman who has met her match in a smith. There is a light-heartedness and rowdy defiance, a sense of one-upmanship to this ballad. Perhaps that mood comes from the way Steeleye Span performs it, but it seems that the woman derives delight from staying one step ahead of her pursuer/suitor.
And she does prevail in the end, because she dies rather than be with him—or maybe she only temporarily becomes a corpse, to turn back into herself later, and that’s her secret, because according to the defiant vow she has made, these are the terms in which they will be together. That, or he really has outlasted her and the victory is his.
There is a reading of this ballad that could easily see the smith as an unwanted pursuer. I am going to choose to read it—admitting this is a choice—as the woman’s way of making sure that her lover is worthy of her. It is a way of asserting a parity between lovers, that the one who would court you is on a par, at least as adept of a magic-user: is he as skillful as you? Is his craft as sound and high?

It’s more than testing, more than even “Are you worthy to be with me?” It is: “Are you as good as I am?” 
The Sorcerer-Shaman, cave painting in
Les Trois-Frères, France

The Splitting of the Archetype

What do the incarnations of this archetype have in common (other than a predominance of otters)?

It is fascinating to see how an archetype splits, because that is what makes it an archetype: it is a motif that contains multitudes, white light split by a prism: like the Empress in the Tarot deck who splits into all the Queens. All of these frequencies and more can live in the original myth—or the closest we can come, anyway, to the original, which retreats back into time and past memory.

The archetype is the key. It’s fascinating to dissect tales in their particularity and curiously to compare them, but there has to be a deeper why to make the pursuit truly meaningful, beyond just mental. What’s going on if we take the fith-fath even deeper, to the bottom of the cauldron at the bottom of the lake? Like the unified field of the cauldron’s cosmic psychedelic brew, the archetype of Cerridwen and Gwion ties the tale versions together. So to understand what is happening beneath the surface of the wizard’s duel, the fith-fath, the transformation chase, we look to what is bubbling and combining over that central fire.

Part of the excited apprehension of the fith-fath is the way it challenges the stability of form. It presses upon us that being a human is incidental. And that we are more connected to the rest of creation than we may comfortably like to acknowledge.

For that’s the shamanic secret: this core story holds within it something of eternity, of galaxies, of souls dissolving back into the mix and then meeting each other in new forms: predator and prey over and over in new iterations and combinations. Such an understanding gives depth even to the madcap whimsy of Merlin and Mim. Who are the souls we always meet? Who are our rivals and lovers, antagonists and supporters, that we keep encountering over eons of lives? Because we in essence are shapeshifters, our outer forms are malleable from incarnation to incarnation. And in these different guises, we meet one another again and again.

And how, in those incarnations, do we test each other? Even though the chase is remorseless—How do we help make each other better, spur each other to improve, to evolve? I asked an evolutionary biologist once what he reckoned an impala felt, being pursued by a lioness. ‘Adrenaline,’ he replied. ‘Excitement. This is one of the most important things they exist for and what they have evolved to do.’

Strong predators help to evolve better prey. Faster, cleverer, more adaptable prey assists the evolution of predator species. Just as when we refine old iterations of ourselves or leave them behind, life according to its essence is improving, on a cosmic and macrocosmic level, spiraling ever upward, like the arms of a galaxy swirling in the brew Cerridwen stirs.

Laura Marjorie Miller writes about myth, travel, natural history, ocean conservation, and other soulful subjects. Her work has appeared in such places as Utne ReaderParabolaFaerie, YankeeUMass Magazine, and This is her second essay for Seven Miles of Steel Thistles. She is based in Massachusetts, where she lives with a cat named Huck. Find her at and on twitter at @bluecowboyyoga . 

Picture Credits

Ceridwen - by Christopher Williams (1873-974) Wikimedia Commons

The Sorcerer-Shaman, cave painting, Les Trois-Frères, France, Wikipedia

Oisin's mother running as a hind - by Arthur Rackham

Gwion - by kind permission of Thierry Brasseur (T.Brass)