Where The Two Magicians Come From



“The Two Magicians” first appears in print in 1828 in two sources, Peter Buchan’s Ancient Ballads and Songs of the North of Scotland and John Wilson’s Noctes Ambrosianae #40. It was later published as number 44 of Francis James Child’s English and Scottish Popular Ballads, and it is this version that is presented below.

The ballad tells the tale of a blacksmith. He threatens to take the virginity of a lady, but she vows to keep herself a maiden. A transformation chase ensues, differing in several variants, but containing such things as she becomes a hare, and he catches her as greyhound, she became a duck and he became either a water dog or a drake.

Francis James Child (1825 – 1896) was an American scholar, educator, and folklorist, best known today for his collection of folk songs known as the Child Ballads. These were published in five volumes between 1882 and 1898.

Child believed The Two Magicians to be derived from one of two fairy tale forms. In the first, a young man and woman flee an enemy by taking on new forms. This type is Aarne-Thompson type 313, the girl helps the hero flee; instances of it include “Jean, the Soldier, and Eulalie, the Devil’s Daughter”, “The Grateful Prince”, “Foundling-Bird”, and “The Two Kings’ Children”. In the second, a young man, studying with a sorcerer, flees his master by taking on new forms, which his master counters by equivalent forms. This is Aarne-Thompson type 325, the magician and his pupil; instances include “The Thief and His Master”, “Farmer Weathersky”, “Master and Pupil”, and “Maestro Lattantio and His Apprentice Dionigi”.

Another suggestion that has been made is the ballad has links with the Welsh tale of the birth of Taliesin. Gwion, servant of Ceridwen, accidentally drinks three drops of magic potion from her Cauldron of Inspiration. The furious Ceridwen chases after him, and they both shape-shift as he tries to escape her. Finally Gwion turns himself into a grain of corn. Ceridwen turns into a hen and eats him, and nine months later gives birth to Taliesin. However, as it will be shown, the likelihood is that the origins of The Two Magicians can be traced back even further into the past.

One of the attributes often credited to shamans, as well as to witches and other kinds of magical practitioner, is the ability to shape-shift from human into animal shape. Sometimes this change is a literal one, human flesh transformed into animal flesh or covered over by animal skin; in other accounts, the soul leaves the shaman’s unconscious body to enter into the body of an animal, fish or bird. And it is not only shamans who have such powers according to tales from around the globe. Shape shifting is part of a mythic and story-telling tradition stretching back over thousands of years. The gods of various mythologies are credited with this ability, as are the heroes of the great epic sagas.

In Nordic myth, Odin could change his shape into any beast or bird; in Greek myth, Zeus often assumed animal shape in his relentless pursuit of young women. Cernunnos, the lord of animals in Celtic mythology, wore the shape of a stag, and also the shape of a man with a heavy rack of horns. In the Odyssey, Homer tells the tale of Proteus–a famous soothsayer who would not give away his knowledge unless forced to do so. Menelaus came upon him while he slept, and held on to him tightly as he shape-shifted into a lion, a snake, a leopard, a bear, etc. Defeated, Proteus returned to his own shape and Menelaus won the answers to his questions.

Japanese fairy tales warn of the danger of kitsune, the fox-wife. The fox takes on the form of a beautiful woman in these stories, but to wed her brings madness and death. In Tibet, a frog-husband is an unexpected source of joy to a shy young bride. He is not a man disguised as a frog but a frog disguised as a man. When his young wife burns his frog skin to keep her lover in the shape she prefers, the frog-husband loses his magical powers, gracefully resigning himself to ordinary human life instead (Berman, 2007, pp.134-135).

There are stories of shape-shifting in our folklore too. The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry described in Scottish ballads, is a man upon dry land, a selkie [seal] in the sea, and he leaves a human maid pregnant with his child. And Irish legends tell of men who marry seal or otter women and then hide their animal skins from them to prevent them from returning to the water. Generally these women bear several sons, but pine away for their true home. If they manage to find the skin, they then return to the sea with barely a thought for the ones left behind.

Additionally, there is strong, though not conclusive, archaeological evidence to indicate that what we call shamanism was once practised in this land:

[In Upton Lovell in Wiltshire there is a round barrow covering] an adult male skeleton with rows of thin, perforated bones about his neck, thighs and feet. They had almost certainly hung in fringes from his clothes With him were fine stone axe-heads, boars’ tusks, white flints and pebbles of a stone not found in the area. A similar mound at Youlgreave, Derbyshire, held a man with the teeth of a dog and a horse under his head and a round bronze amulet on his chest. With him were an ace, quartz pebbles and a piece of porphyry. The ashes of another burial from a lost barrow near Stonehenge were mixed with four stained rectangular bronze tablets, one plain and the others incised with a cross or a star or a lozenge (Bronze Age tarot cards?). All these suggest the presence not so much of a priesthood as of shamans or medicine people, familiar in the tribal peoples of the modern world (Hutton, 1993, p.109).

This leads us to believe that there could well be a shamanic past behind Beowulf and other Old English poems and early poetry could well be an art form rooted in tribal tradition that therefore retains traces of native beliefs. “Too many reflexes occur in the literature for us to ignore the influential role shamanism played in Anglo-Saxon prehistory” (Glosecki, 1989, p.3), and how it went on to influence later poetry / ballads too. It is highly likely, for example, that “descriptions of Sabbath experiences and familiar-encounters found in early modern European witch trials were expressions of popular experiential traditions rooted in pre-Christian shamanistic beliefs and practices” (Wilby, 2005, p.5). In this article, the shamanic themes to be found in The Two Magicians, Child Ballad 44, will be explored.

The term ‘shaman’ is a controversial one. Initially employed by early anthropologists to refer to a specific category of magical practitioners from Siberia, the term is now widely used to denote similar practitioners from a variety of cultures around the world. This application of an originally culture-specific term to a more general usage has caused problems with regard to definition, with disagreements among scholars over whether certain features, such as soul flight or possession, or certain types of altered states of consciousness, should or should not be listed among the core characteristics of shamanism (Wilby, 2011, p.252).

As a result, there are as many definitions of shamanism as there are books written on the subject. Here is my version:

A shaman is someone who performs an ecstatic (in a trance state), imitative, or demonstrative ritual of a séance (or a combination of all three), at will (in other words, whenever he or she chooses to do so), in which by means of a shamanic journey, aid is sought from beings in (what are considered to be) other realities generally for healing purposes or for divination–both for individuals and / or the community.

A shamanic journey is one that generally takes place in a trance state to the sound of a drumbeat, through dancing, or by ingesting psychoactive drugs, in which aid is sought from beings in (what are considered to be) other realities generally for healing purposes or for divination–both for individuals and / or the community.

As for shamanic ballads, they are based on or inspired by shamanic journeys, and contain a number of the elements typical of such journeys. They consist of ballad-types where a being with supernatural powers plays an integral and necessary part in the central ballad action, and these “beings with supernatural powers fall into four classes: supernatural beings; supernatural ex-mortals; mortals with supernatural powers; and creatures with supernatural powers” (Harris, 1991, p.64).

In The Two Magicians, both the blacksmith and the lady can perhaps best be described as mortals with supernatural powers or, in other words, shamanic practitioners. As is the case with the shaman of a community, the work of the blacksmith involves the transformation of forms too, and there is traditionally a strong association between the two.

What can be concluded from this is that what initially appears to be little more than a tale of seduction, could well have originally been based upon a shape-shifting contest. And not only in former times, but even today on neo-shamanic workshops, such exercises are undertaken by trainees as a means of developing their skills.


The Two Magicians


44.1     THE lady stands in her bower door,

            As straight as willow wand;

            The blacksmith stood a little forebye,

            Wi hammer in his hand.

44.2     ‘Weel may ye dress ye, lady fair,

            Into your robes o red;

            Before the morn at this same time,

            I’ll gain your maidenhead.’

44.3     ‘Awa, awa, ye coal-black smith,

            Woud ye do me the wrang

            To think to gain my maidenhead,

            That I hae kept sae lang!’

44.4     Then she has hadden up her hand,

            And she sware by the mold,

            ‘I wudna be a blacksmith’s wife

            For the full o a chest o gold.

44.5     ‘I’d rather I were dead and gone,

            And my body laid in grave,

            Ere a rusty stock o coal-black smith

            My maidenhead shoud have.’

44.6     But he has hadden up his hand,

            And he sware by the mass,

            ‘I’ll cause ye be my light leman

            For the hauf o that and less.’

44.6b   O bide, lady, bide,

            And aye he bade her bide;

            The rusty smith your leman shall be,

            For a’ your muckle pride.

44.7     Then she became a turtle dow,

            To fly up in the air,

            And he became another dow,

            And they flew pair and pair.

44.7b   O bide, lady, bide, ’C..

44.8     She turnd hersell into an eel,

            To swim into yon burn,

            And he became a speckled trout,

            To gie the eel a turn.

44.8b   O bide, lady, bide, ’C..

44.9     Then she became a duck, a duck,

            To puddle in a peel,

            And he became a rose-kaimd drake,

            To gie the duck a dreel.

44.9b   O bide, lady, bide, ’C..

44.10   She turnd hersell into a hare,

            To rin upon yon hill,

            And he became a gude grey-hound,

            And boldly he did fill.

44.10b O bide, lady, bide, ’C..

44.11   Then she became a gay grey mare,

            And stood in yonder slack,

            And he became a gilt saddle,

            And sat upon her back.

44.11b Was she wae, he held her sae,

            And still he bade her bide;

            The rusty smith her leman was,

            For a’ her muckle pride.

44.12   Then she became a het girdle,

            And he became a cake,

            And a’ the ways she turnd hersell,

            The blacksmith was her make.

44.12b Was she wae, etc.

44.13   She turnd hersell into a ship,

            To sail out ower the flood;

            He ca’ed a nail intill her tail,

            And syne the ship she stood.

44.13b Was she wae, etc.

44.14   Then she became a silken plaid,

            And stretchd upon a bed,

            And he became a green covering,

            And gaind her maidenhead.

44.14b Was she wae, etc.


Writing or talking about shamanism has always been problematic as “the subject area resists ‘objective’ analysis and is sufficiently beyond mainstream research to foil …writing [or talking] about it in a conventional academic way” (Wallis, 2003, p.13).  Shamans have their own ways of describing trance experience. Outsiders might call them ‘metaphors’, but to shamans these metaphors, such as ‘death’, are real, lived experiences … Metaphor is a problematic term extracted from Western literary discourse which does not do justice to non-Western, non-literary shamanic experiences. In recognising this limitation, metaphor may remain a useful term for explaining alien shamanic experiences in terms understandable to Westerners (Wallis, 2003, p.116).

Perhaps this is why the accounts of memorable shamanic journeys were often turned into folktales or ballads, as it was the only way to make them both understandable and acceptable to people not familiar with the landscapes to be found and experiences to be had in such worlds.



Berman, M. (2007) The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Child, F. J. The English and Scottish Popular Ballads. Boston, New York, Houghton, Mifflin and Company [1886-98]. Ballads originally transcribed by Cathy Lynn Preston. HTML Formatting at sacred-texts.com. This text is in the public domain.

Glosecki, S.O. (1989) Shamanism and Old English Poetry, New York: Garland Publishing Inc.

Harris, J. (1991) The Ballad and Oral Literature, Harvard University Press.

Hutton, R. (1993) The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles: Their Nature and Legacy, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Wallis, Robert J. (2003) Shamans/Neo-Shamans: Ecstasy, Alternative Archaeologies and Contemporary Pagans, London: Routledge.

Wilby, E. (2005) Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Brighton: Sussex Academic Press.



Michael Berman

Michael Berman’s published work includes The Power of Metaphor for Crown House, The Nature of Shamanism and the Shamanic Story for Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Shamanic Journeys through the Caucasus and Shamanic Journeys, Shamanic Stories for O-Books, Journeys outside Time for Pendraig Publishing, and Tales of Power for Lear Books. A Bridge to the Other Side: Death in the Folk Tradition and Georgia through Earth, Fire, Air and Water are both due to be published by Moon Books in 2012. For more information please visit www.Thestoryteller.org.uk


You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Jan 4, 2012

    […] Read the full article […]

Leave a Reply