- Lee Murphy
As the game of Magic expands, with more and more worlds and planes making their appearance, it makes some sense to see additional creature types – at least from time to time. We’ve also lost a few creature types over the years. Having just left St. Patrick’s Day behind us, we felt it an ideal time to look at some of the creatures which frequent Celtic folklore and see how right or wrong Wizards got it.
Magic: The Gathering is a game of synergies. The idea of tribal decks has been a 'thing' for many years now, and as we see more goblins, faeries, elves, and so forth, it’s important that these fit the template which has taken shape and evolved, since those heady days of Alpha, Beta, and Summon Will-o'-the-Wisp. It’s also important for the game, that they fit the template of how they’re represented regionally and culturally.
To the South
A since-retired creature type Banshee (now Spirit) is very much of Irish origin. The bean sí or bean sídhe (pronounced as it sounds in English, translated as 'Woman of the Faeries') would be heard keening, heralding a coming death in the family i.e., you would only hear her if someone in your family was about to die. Although legend does state that she (or indeed many banshees) could be heard by all if someone of great importance was about to pass over. In terms of how the six banshees in Magic play out, they pass the flavour test, each bringing with them some downside for opposing players, be it life loss, resource denial, or straight-up removal. In terms of popular culture the banshee is usually misrepresented, with Harry Potter and Supernatural getting some parts right, but a whole lot more wrong. There is absolutely some room for a deeper look at this creature type within the game, as there are mentions in the 14th century Cathreim Thoirdhealbhaigh, alongside stories of 25 banshees under the leadership of Aibell.
In the Midlands
Faeries as a catch-all umbrella creature type, could be very broad, since technically a great many creatures within the realm of folklore are… well… faeries. As above, we see that Banshee is now Spirit, as indeed are other related creatures, such as the rusalka (featured in Guildpact), a creature very much like the banshee in terms of its relation to impending tragedy, the varying ghosts, and random one-ofs like Ghost Ship and Xenic Poltergeist. In terms of origin, faeries are represented right across Europe, coming from the Latin fata, which also gives us Fates – essentially women with mystical powers capable of directing the pace of life around them.
Malicious and selfish, faeries are well represented in literature, known for their inclination to cause harm by design or inadvertently through thoughtless pranks. There are a great many creatures in Magic: The Gathering with the creature type Faerie, and invariably they’re individually weak, not so powerful, but possessing of abilities related to combat trickery, evasion, or disruption.
A brief look at faeries in pop culture would in itself be an article, given the glut of fantasy movies and the like over the last few decades, but it’s worth noting that Oona, Queen of the Fae is a nod to the High Queen of the Daoine Sídhe (the faerie folk), whose name was Úna (Oonagh sometimes, and of course Oona). The character Oona, from the Tom Cruise movie Legend, was also named for Úna, whose husband Finvarra was depicted in the deplorable TV series Mystic Knights of Tír na nÓg. Tolkien himself borrowed heavily from the Irish folklore surrounding the faeries, using much of it in his depiction of Middle Earth elves. George R.R. Martin’s Green Men also follow a similar story as the faeries of Irish legend, sharing the land with mankind until eventually forced to surrender their farms and territory to the growing human population, bar fairy forts, rings of trees, usually positioned in the middle of a tilled field. As early man began to expand, these forts were left as places where the faeries could remain undisturbed, so that no ill would befall the hapless farmer.
To the Waters and the Wild
Kelpies, in terms of origin, almost certainly came to Scotland from Scandinavia and the Germanic peoples of Northern Europe, although its name is undoubtedly Celtic. This shapeshifting water spirit was said to be able to take human form, in order to lure unsuspecting travellers into the water, and to be able to take horse form in order to roam more freely. Legend has it that while in human form, the kelpie would have the hooves of its horse form. Magic only features a few kelpies, nominally creature type Beast, and it must be said that this is very much a flavour fail. Unless, perhaps, if you ascribe to the theory that the Loch Ness Monster, Nessie, is a kelpie…
A bit further to the west again (and to the north), and you’ll find selkies (which literally means ‘seal’), creatures which appear as seals while at sea, but which can take human form if they so desire. Majority of the stories surrounding selkies tend to be romantic tragedies, with male selkies seducing lonely wives of fishermen, and female selkies coming ashore to take a husband (or being forced into a marriage). It never ends well. Within Magic, there are just three selkies, from Eventide, all of which are creature type Merfolk. Here we give Wizards a pass, because maighdean mhara (maiden of the sea) is used in much of the folklore, a term often used for mermaid, the creature from which merfolk is taken.
There are two Pucas (Cemetary Puca, Crag Puca) with creature type Shapeshifter. This is surprisingly accurate, although púca means ghost.
The Dullahan might as well be the most recognisable of all, in that it became a core part of early 19th century American folklore, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Stillmoon Cavalier from Eventide is a Dullahan (although mistyped as a Zombie Knight), a headless horseman upon a fearsome black steed, itself often featuring sharpened teeth and fiery eyes. It was nearly unstoppable (much like the Magic card).
Aisling Leprechaun from Legends. No. Just no. Nothing about this card is right. Not the convention used to name it, not the colour. The notion of leprechauns being green is rooted in a mix of sentimental tropes, enduring stereotypes, and the introduction of European folklore which all blended into what you have today. Think Red, think malicious, think petty…
This was but a brief look at one element of the creatures of Magic: The Gathering. The source material is rich and varied, and there are many stories to while away an evening in front of the fire… Just remember to leave a little something on the window ledge, for the faerie folk, so they don’t disturb you.
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