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St. Patrick and the Ossory Werewolves

By Minjie Su

How a tale of cursed werewolves in Ireland finds its way to 13th century Norway.

Konung skuggsjá, ‘The King’s Mirror’, is an Old Norwegian treatise composed around the mid-13th century. As its title suggests, in terms of genre it belongs to the Speculum Principum literature, or ‘Mirror of Princes’; it is meant to show the readers (in this case, the royal princes) what they need to learn by heart if they want to be remembered as good and just rulers.

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Yet this Norwegian ‘mirror’ is unlike the other specula. To start with, Konungs skuggsjá is structured as dialogues between a father and his son. Anxious to venture into the unknown world, the young man turns to his ancient, wise father for advice, so he may remain ‘on the high road of virtue’. In response, the father explains to him the ways of merchants, of courtiers, and, lastly, of kings and princes. The idea is that, as an inexperienced man, the son should first travel the world and gain knowledge to prepare his for his entrance to royal court. The merchant life, therefore, is a ‘coming of age’ sort of thing, not unlike the Grand Tour hat is customarily undertaken by well-to-do (and young women) during the Victorian Age.

One piece of knowledge that passed from father to son is about St. Patrick and some werewolves. It took place before Ireland was fully Christianized; and St. Patrick was hard at work converting pagans. One day, he encounters a certain pagan tribe. Unfortunately for St. Patrick (or, for the tribesmen, as it turns out), these men are remarkably stubborn: not only that they do not wish to be converted, they have decided to mock the preacher as well as his god. They howl at the saint as if they were wolves. The logic is probably that they consider St. Patrick’s words make no more sense than wolf’s howl, so he only deserves to be responded to in this way.  Enraged, the saint prays to God for retribution. As a result, the tribesmen as well as their descendants, are to suffer a werewolf curse; some of them have to be trapped in wolfish form for seven years in a row, while some of them have to go through the transformation every seven years.

The general consensus among scholars is that the root of this little episode can be traced back to De mirabilibus Hibernie, ‘On the Wonders of Ireland’, an 11th century Latin poem attributed to a Patricius, who has been identified as Patrick, Bishop of Dublin (NOT to be confused with St. Patrick). The verse goes:

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There are some men of the Irish race,
Who have this wondrous nature from ancestry and birth:
Whensoever they will, they can speedily turn themselves
Into the form of wolves, and rend flesh with wicked teeth:
Often they are seen slaying sheep that moan in pain.
But when men raise the hue and cry,
Or scare them with staves and swords, they take flight [like true wolves].
But whilst they act thus, they leave their true [i.e. their own] bodies
If any man harm them or any wound pierce their flesh,
The wounds can be seen plainly in their own bodies:
Thus their companions can see the raw flesh in their jaws
Of their true body: and we all wonder at the sight.

~ Translation from Elizabeth Boyle, “On the Wonders of Ireland: Translation and Adaptation,” in Authorities and Adaptations: The Reworking and Transmission of Textual Sources in Medieval Ireland

Another source is Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica (‘Topography of Ireland’), dated to the late 12th century. Here, Gerald records a monk’s account of encountering two werewolves while travelling through Ossory (between the Kingdoms of Leinster and Munster). One night, he is approached by an exceedingly polite wolf who, to the monk’s horror, starts to speak to him and begs him to give the last rites to his dying companion. After the wolf has proved himself to be a very ‘catholic’ wolf, the monk follows the human-beast to the side of a dying she-wolf. To vanish the monk’s last trace of doubt (and fear), the wolf ‘unzips’ the she-wolf’s skin, revealing an old woman. According to the wolf, a curse has been laid on their people by St. Natalis that a pair – a man and a woman – will be randomly chosen to become wolves; if they can survive seven years, they will be restored to human form while another pair take their place. The curse is meant to be passed on through generations, but for what reasons? The wolf does not tell.

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An illustration from Topographia Hiberniae depicting the story of a traveling priest who meets and communes a pair of good werewolves from the kingdom of Ossory. British Library Royal MS 13 B VIII, ff 1r-34v

Despite all the deviation, the werewolf account of Konungs skuggsjá is apparently related to both. John Carey, in his article ‘Werewolves in Medieval Ireland’, traces the Konungs skuggsjá werewolves to the legend of Laigne Faelad, brother of King Feradach mac Duach (d. 583 or 584) and ancestor of Ossory’s kings until the arrival of the Normans. In Cóir Anmann (‘Fitness of Names’), entry 215, Laigne Faelad is remembered as the shape-shifter and the ‘first’ of the werewolves in Ossory. The Norwegian author may have known this detail very well, suggests Carey, but omitted it due to Norwegian readers’ unfamiliarity with Irish geography. Another detail that has been altered on the author’s behalf is that St. Natalis becomes St. Patrick, probably because the former – as a local saint – is not as a household name as St. Patrick.

Plot-wise, it would not be unfair to say that the Konungs skuggsjá werewolf story is like a prequel to Gerald of Wales. It explains the ‘origin’ of the sympathetic couple. The werewolf curse passes from the offenders to their progeny, marking the initial crime on their metamorphosed bodies. If read side by side, the werewolf episodes in Konungs skuggsjá and Topographia tell of an accursed race, punished by God for their ancestors’ blasphemy. However, by the time of Gerald of Wales, the werewolves obviously have learned the true faith very well – they hate to miss any important rites even when they are wolves on the outside. Perhaps, in the not faraway future, the Ossory werewolves may be redeemed – and the curse, broken.

You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Top Image: Statue of Saint Patrick in Aghagower, County Mayo, Ireland. Photo by Andreas F. Borchert / Wikimedia Commons

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