Bailey Flannery, “Animal Transformations: Medieval Commentary on Consent and Sexual Violence”
Mentor: Jacqueline Stuhmiller, Honors College
In tales across the Celtic tradition, men transform into animals after mastering women through sexual violence. The fourth branch of the Mabinogi, a collection of ancient Welsh myths, offers a prime example through Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, who abuse their statuses and magical abilities in order to rape a woman named Goewin. Once she describes her experience and accuses them of raping her, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy turn into creatures of the hunt. This is not simply a punishment, but also an oblique reference to the love-hunt: an age-old, inherently violent metaphor of erotic pursuit in which men chase and forcefully overtake their female prey. Through their transformations into animals, this tale indicts not just Gwydion and Gilfaethwy, but also the love-hunt’s model of gender relations and masculinity—a toxic masculinity based in violence. Unlike their male counterparts, the women of these tales turn into animals when they use their powers of speech and wisdom to reject the love-hunt and master themselves instead. Examples include the Mabinogi’s Rhiannon and Irish mythology’s Macha, both of whom transform into horses. Notably, horses are physically powerful and impressive, yet they are also non-predatory creatures, suggesting Rhiannon and Macha’s non-violent mastery. Furthermore, horses often serve as the tools of men without granting their consent; their bodily autonomy is similarly violated. Thus, when Rhiannon and Macha turn into horses, this symbolizes a reversal in which woman and animal alike rebel against their would-be masters, opening the possibility of alternative gender relations that undermine the love-hunt and assert women’s bodily autonomy. By examining the Mabinogi and other Celtic tales, such as “The Weakness of the Ulstermen” and “The Dream of Oenghus,” I will demonstrate that the animal transformation is ultimately sympathetic to women, elevating their voices and experiences in the face of sexual violence.