Shape-shifter: she moves between realms, between forms: from girl to woman to deer to woman to deer [too woman, too dear] to woman and to deer
Again. it is she alone who causes the change but not she who
Decides it. prey in all forms pray in all forms. defense is hunger and
Hunger is defense, and her
Bones know both so well. i mourn for the forms unavailable. i would hide you in a
Hive, a Shadhbh, alive.
The story of the goddess Sadhbh (pronounced Sive) is one of my favorites. It is also one of the saddest and most intense, and given the canon that is Irish mythology, that’s really saying something. It goes something like this: Sadhbh is a goddess of the otherworld, of the ancient supernatural race known as the Tuatha Dé Danann (Tribe of the Gods). She is born into privilege, to wonderful parents. In some variations of the tale, she is royalty, the daughter of a king and queen. As a young girl, her life is a happy one, albeit sheltered. She loves music and spends time in her favorite valley where the deer run.
On the brink of womanhood, Sadhbh has a rude awakening to the evils of humanity. She is approached by her mother’s druid, a much older man called Fer Doirich/Fear Doirche (Dark Man). He confesses his love for her, that he cannot live without her. But his love is not pure, it is predatory. She realizes that her whole life, his attention, his personalized gifts were not innocent; he was grooming her. When she refuses him, in some versions of the tale, he turns her into a deer as punishment. In other versions, (including a version I heard recently which has quickly become by favorite by Sorcha Hegarty of Candlelit Tales), it is Sadhbh who turns herself into a deer as a defense mechanism. She strips herself of riches, her beauty, and her family to change into a form where she can blend in with the herd and outrun her predator. It is somewhat of an unconscious transformation in the way that women of every era since this tale was first told have changed themselves, protected themselves using various tactics of erasure and dissociation to hide from abuse, from the dangerous gaze.
Fer Doirich chases Sadhbh across Ireland. She is nearly hunted at every turn, by him, by hunters, and by hounds. Among them is the great legendary warrior Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his hounds. They chase her with spear and fang. But the moment Fionn sees her eyes, he is compelled to save her. There is something about her unlike the other deer, something human. He brings her back to his home so she will not be hunted. Within the safe walls of his castle, Sadhbh turns back into a woman. She and Fionn fall in love and Sadhbh becomes pregnant. But danger lurks always for Sadhbh; she knows Fer Doirich will never give up. Fionn goes off to battle, and Sadhbh misses him terribly. So when she finally sees him walking toward the castle with his trusty hounds Bran and Sceolan, she runs toward him and embraces him. It is then that the uncanny disguise unravels and Sadhbh’s heart sinks. Fer Doirich has tricked her with the dark powers of his hazel wand.
He drags her away from her beloved home and brings her through a portal to the otherworld, trapping her there in a valley bordered by sheer cliffs. He begs, threatens, cajoles, uses violence. When he realizes that Sadhbh is pregnant, that she has loved another, he is so angered by this that he leaves her alone. She lives in fear wondering if and when he’ll return, wondering if Fionn will ever know what happened to her. The only thing she knows for certain is that she must deliver this baby alone, and that she must turn back into a human before it’s time to give birth. Slowly, day by day, feature by feature, she transforms back, a slow and painful reclaiming of her true self. And when the transformation is complete, she gives birth to a son, and she is no longer alone.
But nothing gold can stay. Fer Doirich returns and attempts to take Sadhbh away once more, this time leaving her child alone in the valley where he will not be able to survive without his mother. Though the dark druid is stronger than Sadhbh, his powers greater, nothing can match the power of pure love and sacrifice. As he is about to bring her to another realm, it is the strength of Sadhbh’s will that hurls her son through in her place, out of limbo. The force of this causes she and Fer Doirich both to shatter. They vanish.
Fionn Mac Cumhaill searches the world over for his wife. Years and years go by, but she is nowhere to be found. When he comes across a boy of seven in his travels, and his hounds take a liking to him as they once did his mother, Fionn knows he has found his son. He names him Oisín (meaning ‘little fawn’) and brings him home.
Sadhbh is associated with goodness, the goddess of transformation, motherhood, love, and change. The versions of the tale where Sadhbh has agency, where she transforms herself (rather than be cursed into another form by the druid) ring the truest to me. It is something every woman knows well. She is vulnerable, unsafe, broken at times, but I don’t see her as a victim. She returns to herself for the sake of her son. She is able to love and trust Fionn fully though she has been traumatized by the only male attention she has known. And in the end, it is her sacrifice that saves her son, and therefore, a piece of herself.
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