On Shapeshifting

Shapeshifting is oft discussed, little practiced, and much misunderstood. But what is shapeshifting outside of fiction and fantasy in both ancient and modern magical practice? To start, shapeshifting is not the literal physical transformation of a human into animal form as this is not realistically possible as much as some believe and wish it to be true. Some psychoactive plants can convince a person they are an animal, or more commonly make them behave like an animal, just as a masked and costumed shaman may imitate an animal’s every movement and sound in ritual,  but still the person or shaman’s form does not physically change. Instead, shapeshifting as a magical practice involves either a part of the magician’s soul transforming into a spirit animal (known in the Germanic tongue as the fetch) and leaving the body to journey vast distances in both our realm and the otherworlds, or, another method is for the magician’s soul to leave their body and “ride” a living animal or external spirit animal or familiar in this or the otherworld. In the latter instance “riding” being a metaphor for possession as in spirit riding within Haitian Vodou where the Lwa possess a person and speak and act through controlling their body. “Riding” is also found in European folklore in stories of witch’s using unsuspecting people as “horses” and riding them ragged – not as in the witch’s are literally changing people into horses, but rather possessing them and using their body instead of the witch’s own like in the Scottish tale “The Blacksmith’s Wife of Yarrowfoot“.

There are also many tales in both European and Native American lore of souls of dead relatives appearing to their loved ones as animals and in this too, spirit possession fits. In lore found in tales and mythology across cultures there are also instances of animals taking on human form to commune with us and I myself have met a wolf possessing a man – it was quite an uncanny experience to say the least!

It is traditional for witches and also fairy doctors or medicine men and women to shapeshift into or “ride” liminal animals which have longstanding otherworld associations such as toads and frogs, deer, hares, cats, water birds, birds, and bats – animals of the moon, the night, and which dwell in-between elements of earth, water, or air. In order to shapeshift the magician must first possess the ability to separate their soul from their body. To do this their body and soul must first be in harmony. To attain this harmony one must be able to function in and understand the difference between both the real world and the otherworld as well as truly knowing themselves. Differing methods can be found throughout continents, cultures, mythology, and folklore – from the skinwalkers of the Navajo, the witch-hares of Celtic lands, and the animal-costumed  spirit dancers of the Coast Salish to the werewolf and shapeshifting myths found in Greek and Norse mythologies. In some cultures psychoactive plants are consumed as a part of the ritual, in others the drum is the vehicle through which the spirit of the magician can leave the body and transform into an animal, and yet in others animal pelts or other body parts are worn by the magician wishing to transform.

“The shamanic costume tends to give the shaman a new, magical body in animal form. The three chief types are that of the bird, the reindeer (or stag), and the bear – but especially the bird.”

~ Mircea Eliade, Shamanism

In the Irish tale “Forbhais Droma Dámhgháire” from the Book of Lismore, the druid Mogh Roith calls for his speckled bird mask adorned with billowing wings, the hide from a hornless bull, and his druidic gear and being wrapped in the bull hide wearing his mask he [his spirit] flies up into the sky using an enchanted fire as a conduit and transforms into a bird gaining the power of flight in order to magically defeat Cormac Mac Airt’s army. Also from Celtic lore, seventeenth century Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie gave instructions and spoken charms for shapeshifting into specific animals during her voluntary trial. Her and other witches from around the same time period admitted they did not physically transform and the only outward change of appearance was of wearing the pelt of an animal or a mask – but they were not asked about spirit possession in these trials. The incantations Isobel Gowdie provided are as follows–

To change into a wild hare:

I sall gae intil a haire,
Wi’ sorrow and sych and meikle care;
And I sall gae in the Devillis name,
Ay quhill I com hom againe.

To change into a cat:

I sall gae intil a catt,
Wi’ sorrow and sych and a black shat;
And I shall gae in the Devillis name,
Ay quhill I com hom againe.

To change into a crow:

I sall gae intil a craw,
Wi’ sory and sych and a black thraw;
And I shall gae in the Devillis name,
Ay quhill I com hom againe.

To change back:

Haire, Haire, [catt, craw, etc] God send thee caire [back],
I am in a hairis likness just now,
Bot I sall be in a womanis likenes evin now.

The Dangers of Shapeshifting

The dangers of the magical practice include not being able to return to your body due to forgetting you are human, forgetting which realm you belong to, or journeying too far to return resulting in coma or the death of your physical body and also to be captured or stolen as a spirit in the otherworld resulting in the same consequences or to be hunted, injured, or killed while “riding” an live animal in this world. Many of us have heard the tales of witches stealing milk from cows by shapeshifting into hares or witches who when injured or killed as a hare or other animal either turned into a human or were found in their home with the same injury as the animal as in the true tale of “The Witch Hare” collected from Mr. and Mrs. Hall by W.B. Yeats. This is not a case of “die in your dreams, die in real life”, but rather if your soul is injured, captured, or destroyed so is your body.

Precautions the Shapeshifting Magician May Take

  1. Set a firm time limit before shifting so no matter what happens or where you are you are pulled back into your body.
  2. Use a red witch’s cord and tie it to yourself and also to your spirit so when you wish to return you can follow the cord back from the spirit realm to your unconscious body. This method uses sympathetic magic as in what you do ‘magically’ in the physical world is reflected in the spiritual realm.
  3. Have a safe word or an incantation like Isobel Gowdie’s that when spoken or thought acts as a triggering device to pull your spirit back into your body.
  4. Carry magical protection charms on your body so you cannot be harmed or your spirit stolen while travelling in the otherworld. Magical charms and tools also exist in the spirit world when properly made and consecrated.
  5. Have a spotter, especially when starting out and practicing and give them a time limit so they can try to rouse you so you are aware of your body and are pulled back to it more easily. A bucket of cold water splashing on one’s face tends to work pretty well…

Author Sarah

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Join the discussion 11 Comments

  • Awesome, awesome article!

    In Latin Santeria, shapeshifting or riding the Orishas is always done with people who are not riding as helpers to bring people back. The smoke of cigars and Florida Water are rubbed on the feet and forehead of the riders to bring them back quickly.

    What you say about the precautions is SO important – I have come back from riding with bites, burnts, bruises… shapeshifting is definitely not for the fearful!

  • Very fine article! In many shamanic traditions, shape shiftingcomes in two forms: 1) literally appearing to change one’s form; 2) changing form in the Dreamtime. Shapeshifting becomes an everyday occurrence in the course of doing work. And yes, it can be dangerous.

    I think your fine writing and perfect illustrations are the best I have seen in a Healer’s blog. You have done well!

  • Scylla says:

    In my Trad, during the shapeshifting, the sitter/helper/etc. uses a particular whistle (i.e. whistling with their mouth, not an instrument) to draw the person back. It’s a fading, plaintive, sound. It’s meant to pierce the underworld (overworld, otherworld, interstitial world) and “provoke the heart” of the Witch. Essentially, suggesting that the animal form feels different emotions, and that calling on the Human ones will remind them, and bring them home.

    Our ragtag astral meetings resembled nothing so much as traditional illustrations of the Sabbat. Some arriving as beasts, animals, mythological beings. Others arriving in their goth club finery, or dressing gowns. To me, the first indication that we had close ties to something older than the 70’s.

  • Jae says:

    Is it not too much to hope that perhaps, you may write further about that meeting with the wolf possessed man?

    Several family members used to tell tales about St. Patrick and deer-shape shifting, I can’t recall much of it for I was very small and there was the time one great-grandfather took an new take on “Daniel and the Lion’s Den”….that Daniel literally shape-shifted or was a shape-shifter and the lions honoured that.

    Another tale told over and over was tales of old old families coming to the New World because they were accused of being shape-shifting families. The “latents” on on a coat-of-arms indicated the animals or birds the family was connected to, as well as hints from their names that “exist to this day.”

    Of course, there was and still a bit of a disagreement about something called “Master Animals”…some family story-tellers insisting these Master Animals, long and often seen in the hills on our various family farms, were truly, humans.

    A lovely easy to read story is “Ketura and the Lord of Death”, I think is the title. When I mentioned it to a great-uncle, he went off on a tale from his childhood, which came straight from Scotland about a girl lured into the woods by a massive stag to meet the Lord of Death yet, it was suggested, strongly, the stag WAS the Lord of Death.

    And of course, we were told to never ever walk or drive down Werewolf and WolfPen roads late at night and if we had to, to never ever go off the paths or roads, no matter what we saw or heard in the trees and woods or by the spring.

    Thank you again, for a wonderful article.

    • Sarah says:

      Very interesting lore there! As I come from a Scottish background there is an abundance of animals and plants on our family crests… it definitely makes sense about my attractions to specific plants and animals!

      I was with another ‘shamaness’ when I met the wolf-man. We had gone to a remote park in the city to attend a ritual, but it had been cancelled without our knowledge. While at the meeting spot in the forest the wolf-man also showed up supposedly for the ritual. He appeared ageless but had salt and pepper black hair and beard and grey eyes. He was well tanned and his skin was weathered from being much outdoors, in fact, he looked like he’d never been indoors in his life. He was very lean and muscular, but small. He did not have a sense of humour, he was a very serious man, but friendly in his own way without pretence or small talk. He told us many things about life and ritual – not all of which I remember as most of it seemed for my friend. When we realized the ritual wasn’t happening we both left and on the way home we looked at each other and said almost the same time – that wasn’t a man, that was a wolf. A few weeks later when I was walking through a market on the other side of the city I saw him – we both locked eyes and nodded at each other and that was all. My non magical friend with me at the time just commented that it was rather strange.

      I’m just happy he found us and not the other way around as I would never want to be such a being’s prey! I wouldn’t want to get on such a being’s bad side either as the lack of humour to me also meant a lack of patience or understanding for our silly human mistakes.

  • Wade macMorrighan says:

    Say, speaking of animals, maybe one day I should tell you of the time when I unintentionally engaged into a trance-state and had a visionary encounter with my Familiar, Snake! Since i have longed to look through the ethnographic and anthropological record dealing with shamanism to see if any similar reports exist, particularly with the unusual entrance to the cave we entered in to.

  • Jae says:

    Thank you Sarah, for sharing you tale of the encounter with a wolf-man! I totally understand what you mean about not wanting to be on the wrong side of someone like that! Maybe the wolf-man has little humour because of what’s been done to him and the lands they need are shrinking so fast! Just pondering on it for I agree with you on the vital importance of being able to laugh and be silly, even, at times. And many things are full of humour if one only can see and feel it!

    Since moving back up here, I keep having the strangest encounters with these people and all the stories told to me as a child-young adult keep coming back. I had almost forgotten about Werewolf Road until we happened upon it driving late at night and this little voice inside said, “Oh maybe that’s why these strange men keep popping up and speaking to you!” Even once at the grocery store, this tall, slender man with very unnerving piercing blue eyes kept staring at me, really hard. I wasn’t imagining it and then he was following me around and just staring. His hair fell down to the middle of his back, and he moved with an elegance and grace that was very noticeable. When he finally did speak to me, (after my husband had moved away from me for a moment) he stepped in front of me and said,”You don’t know do you? You really don’t know what you are!” Can you imagine that!? His voice was low and rather growly really, maybe just husky but very polished and smooth. His body language made me think he was a bit threatened or something or unsure, maybe? When my husband came back, they both did that guy-nod type thing and I still am not sure if I heard him correctly or not. I occasionally see him, once even in the little local hospital and he watched me go down the hall, making no attempt to be discreet as he watched me either, not even looking away when I looked back at him.

    Later on I discovered that there is a small group of Skin-walkers in the next county and the person telling me about them was totally serious about it all. He said the same thing, “Don’t ever get out of your truck or walk out there at night, especially near the river.”

    I truly wish I had been able to write down more of the stories my relatives told me….my father’s mother’s family came to the Carolinas as part of something to do with Bonnie Prince Charlie and my great-grandfather sounded very Scottish when he spoke, even my middle name, he told me, is Scots for “true love”. Or that even in this country, the Scottish and Irish didn’t intermarry until well after World War II. Like all old families in the Upper South, we have long long histories!

    Oh! One of the strangest things of the many strange things this person told me about the SkinWalkers up in the next county, is that they don’t always ask someone’s permission before they initiate someone! I laughed and said it was probably nothing more than a bunch of good ol’ boys out in the woods and it was odd how serious this person was/is about it all!

    Take care and thank you so much for your wonderful work!

    • Sarah says:

      That is quite the story Jae! I’ve had such things happen to me before, but more often the people were spirits and not animals. It’s always uncanny though, but I don’t remember being uncomfortable or scared, even when non-magical friends who were with me were frightened of them.

      I know what you mean about the Scots not intermarrying – they used to have whole settlements here in Canada of only Scots people – Maxville, Ontario for instance where my Grandfather is from. It would be wonderful if he were still alive so I could ask him about the stories and superstitions from his youth. I’m only one quarter Irish and even then it’s Black Irish which is more connected to the Milesians and Basque than it is to Irish – hence the dark hair, eyes, and pale skin I inherited from my Black Irish grandfather… and of course unintentionally my sweetie is a Scot! Due to the settlements though, a lot of lore and practices survived. Storytelling and large family gatherings are still pretty strong in my father’s family and the regular family communal meal is very important to my mother’s family.

      Slainte mhor!

    • Scylla says:

      I will say this, in all good advice: When people tell you tales about Walkers, they’re not embellishing. Take them very seriously.

      It doesn’t matter whether or not there’s a group of people that turn into wolves. What matters is whether or not there’s a group of people who put on skins and BELIEVE that they become wolves. Specifically if they call themselves by the Walker title. That title means something very specific, and that specificity is not a benign one.

  • Jae says:

    Thank you for your response, Scylla. It’s rather nice to hear from someone that seems to have a sense of what I’m talking about or seen. You say that the title means something very specific, are you meaning Skin Walking as mentioned in the Native American tribes? I know very little about things like this, only those old stories from childhood and a few recorded Cajun-French stories at the U. of Indiana I once listened to for a class project.

    At a local place in the next county, I overheard some folks talking about people “running around in the woods, wearing skins of rabbits and deer.” Now, really, can deer or rabbits be really bad? It’s only that there have been some odd events I can’t seem to shake out of my head, and maybe I should stay off the backroads and woods…I’m sorry, I guess I’m just a captive of my upbringing, you know, rational engineer-type father, suburban-life, forced church upbringing! It’s hard to know what to take seriously.

    If you know of any books, I would love the titles. There is always so much to read and learn here!

    Take care and thank you both, Sarah and Scylla.

    • Scylla says:

      The thing is that “Skinwalkers” are bad. If you call yourself a “Skinwalker”, that’s identifying with that badness. People shifting as deer, or rabbits generally wouldn’t call themselves by that name. Some tribal holy-persons did walk in the skins of creatures for the good of the tribe, and yet still held a taboo on the practice.

      Out here one doesn’t even say the term “Skinwalker” to someone tribal or they’re likely to eat their own teeth. Furthermore, most of us won’t say it aloud anyway. It has a taboo on it similar to speaking of the fair folk. They hear when they’re mentioned, and the LAST thing you wanna do is attract their attention.

      In some Native American tribes, owning the skin of a large predator is forbidden because it was indicative of Skinwalking. If you had the skin, you were probably using it. And if you were using it, no good would come of it.