shape-shifting (metamorphosis) The transformation from one body into another, such as humans into the bodies of animals and birds. A human who transforms into an animal becomes a were-animal. Witches, sorcerers, and other magically empowered persons are said to have shape-shifting power at will. Gods and Demons have shape-shifting ability and can take on human form.

Shape-shifting in Myth, Magic, and Sorcery

Beliefs about shape-shifting are ancient and involve both gods and humans. Myths tell of humans turned into beasts as punishment. The sorceress Circe turned Ulysses’s men into swine, and Jupiter transformed LYCAON into a wolf. The myths recorded by Homer, Virgil, Ovid, Herodotus, Petronius, and other classical writers feature many examples of shape-shifting. One of the best-known classical tales is the Golden Ass by Apuleius, in which the protagonist uses a magic OINTMENT and turns himself into an ass.

Shape-shifting is prominent in Norse, Scandinavian, and Teutonic mythologies. In the Volsunga Saga, Sigmund and Sinfjotli are transformed into wolves when they put on wolf-skins they stole from the king’s sons. Deep in the forest, they come upon a house in which two of the king’s sons are sleeping. The sons are skilled in witchcraft, as evidenced by their wolf-skins hanging above them. According to the story:

Sigmund and Sinfjotli got into the habits, and could not get out of them again, and the nature of the original beasts came over them, and they howled as wolves—they learned both of them to howl. Now they went into the forest, and each took his own course; they made the agreement together that they should try their strength against as many as seven men, but not more, and that he who was ware of strife should utter his wolf’s howl.

Sinfjotli comes upon 11 men in the forest and kills them all. When Sigmund learns this, and that Sinfjotli did not howl for help, he attacks Sinfjotli in a wolfish rage and bites through his throat.

In another tale in the saga, Bjorn, the son of King Hring, is punished by the queen. She strikes him with a wolf-skin glove and curses him to become a “rabid and grim wild bear” that will eat nothing but his father’s sheep. The unfortunate Bjorn is hunted down by the king’s men, who do not know his true identity, and is killed. The queen has him cooked up for a feast.

In folktales, wicked sorcerers and witches turned people into frogs or other creatures, who had to wait for the right person to come along and break the evil spell.

In werewolf lore, shape-shifting may be involuntary, such as at the full Moon, or may be for certain periods of time, such as the LIVONIA Werewolves who spent 12 days every Christmas as wolves. Involuntary shape-shifting can also be the result of a curse made by a sorcerer or witch, or the result of being attacked by a sorcerer vampire or werewolf. (See RUVANUSH; WILLIAM OF PALERNE.)

According to traditions, the ability to shape-shift can be acquired through witchcraft, magical training, or endowment by a master. Magical ointments containing hallucinogens, magical GIRDLES or belts, dancing, drumming, and incantations may be part of the transformation process. As portrayed in myths, the donning of animal skins imparts the powers and characteristics of an animal (see BERSERKIR). In Navajo tradition, witches become Werewolves and were-animals by donning animal skins, which enables them to travel about at night at great speed. (See SKINWALKERS.)

In Nordic and Icelandic lore, certain men were called EIGI EINHAMIR (“not of one skin”) and had the ability to assume a second shape of an animal. The transformation was accompanied by extraordinary powers, and the man took on the behavior of the animal whose shape he assumed.

In cultures where shamanic practices are strong, the ability to shape-shift is accepted as a skill necessary for shamanic tasks, which include journeying to other realms and dealing with spirits. Shamans can take the form of their guardian animal spirits or power animals from whom they derive magical powers.

A sorcerer or witch might shape-shift to a were-animal, such as a werewolf, to do evil and lay waste to enemies by drinking their Blood and tearing them to pieces. Witch were-animals also attack and eat people without provocation, as part of their bestial nature. Widespread superstitions hold that were-animal witches meet in caves at night, where they initiate new members, plan ritual killings-at-adistance, practice necrophilia with the CORPSES of women, and eat their victims.

In parts of Southeast Asia, it is believed that the witchcraft/were-animal spirit resides within a person—often passed down through heredity—and can be transmitted to others through contagion. A person who lives close to a witch can contract the “witch spirit” without the direct action or intent of the witch.

The animal shape taken varies by geography and usually is one common to an area. In parts of Europe where wolves once were common and posed an ongoing danger to farm animals and people, the wolf was the predator of choice of the sorcerer/witch. In Russia, the bear also is common as a were-animal. Elsewhere, were-animals are serpents, leopards, tigers, panthers, jackals, coyotes, owls, foxes, crocodiles, lions, sharks, and other feared creatures. Of all were-animals, the wolf elicits the most universal fear, and is the most dangerous of were-animals.

In Western magic lore, the magician Aleister Crowley was reputed to have the power to shape-shift others. He was supposed to have once turned the poet Victor Neuburg into a camel.

Shape-shifting in Western Witchcraft

During the witch trials of the Inquisition—the peak of which occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries—European Demonologists debated whether shape-shifting could be conferred by the devil and his Demons, or was merely a Demonically inspired illusion. Some Demonologists such as Jean Bodin and Joseph Glanvill accepted shape-shifting, or metamorphosis, as fact. Most others, such as Henri Boguet, NICHOLAS RÉMY, and FRANCESCO MARIA GUAZZO, denounced it as fallacy. They cited the authoritative statements made in the early fifth century by St. Augustine and echoed in the 13th century by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Augustine said that metamorphosis is miraculous and the devil has no miracle-making power; thus metamorphosis is nothing but an illusion created by the devil and Demons. In The City of God, Augustine wrote:

It is very generally believed that by certain witches’ spells and the power of the Devil men may be changed into wolves . . . but they do not lose their human reason and understanding, nor are their minds made the intelligence of a mere beast. Now this must be understood in this way: namely, that the Devil creates no new nature, but that he is able to make something appear to be which in reality is not. For by no spell nor evil power can the mind, nay, not even the body corporeally, be changed into the material limbs and features of any animal . . . but a man is fantastically and by illusion metamorphosed into an animal, albeit he to himself seems to be a quadruped.

In 906 the Canon Episcopi, one of the most important ecclesiastical documents of the Middle Ages, was put forward. When it was made public by Regino of Prum, Abbot of Treves, it was presented as an ancient authority dating back to the fourth century. Whatever its true origins, it was incorporated by Gratian into his Concordance of Discordant Canons around 1140 and became entrenched in the highest canonical law.

The Canon Episcopi upheld the Augustinian view and influenced Demonologists well into the 17th century. Flying through the air and metamorphosing into animals were foolish illusions:

Whoever therefore believes that anything can be made, or that any creature can be changed to better or to worse or be transformed into another species or similtude, except by the Creator himself who made everything and through whom all things were made, is beyond doubt an infidel.

The Malleus Maleficarum, the first leading inquisitor’s guide (1484), conformed to the canon’s position. Such illusions, said the Dominican authors Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, were the result of God punishing some nation for sin. They cited verses from Leviticus 26, “If you do not obey my commandments, I will send the beasts of the field against you, who shall consume you and your flocks,” and Deuteronomy 32, “I will also send the teeth of the beasts upon them.” As to man-eating wolves, Kramer and Sprenger said they were not werewolves but true wolves possessed by Demons. If a person thought himself turned into a wolf, it was the result of a witch’s illusory spell.

Most other witch-hunting guides followed suit. Meanwhile, those who believed in the reality of shape-shifting had to find ways around Augustine and the Canon Episcopi. Some Demonologists, such as Rémy and Guazzo, were inventive in their ways that the devil could create the illusions of shape-shifting while leaving behind physical evidence, such as the sympathetic wounds displayed by werewolves.

In colonial America, the Puritan preacher and witchhunter Increase Mather called the notion of metamorphosis “fabulous.” In An Essay for the Recording of Illustrious Providences (1684), Mather stated:

But it is beyond the power of all the Devils in Hell to cause such a transformation; they can no more do it than they can be Authors of a true Miracle . . . Though I deny not but that the Devil may so impose upon the imagination of Witches so as to make them believe that they are transmuted into Beasts.

Mather recounts a story of a woman who was imprisoned on suspicion of witchcraft, and claimed to be able to transform herself into a wolf. The magistrate promised not to have her executed, in case she would turn into a wolf before him. The witch rubbed her head, neck, and armpits with an ointment and fell into a deep sleep for three hours. She could not be roused by “noises or blows.” When she awakened, she claimed that she had turned into a wolf, gone a few miles away, and killed a sheep and a cow. The magistrate investigated and discovered that a sheep and cow in the location described by the witch had indeed been killed. It was evident that the Devil “did that mischief,” and that the witch had merely experienced the dreams and delusions created by Satan.

Nonetheless, most witchcraft trials depended on testimony involving shape-shifting. Witnesses claimed that accused witches had appeared before them or tormented them in some nonhuman shape. For example, in 1663, Jane Milburne of Newcastle, England, did not invite Dorothy Strangers to her wedding supper. Consequently, Milburne alleged, Strangers transformed herself into a CAT and appeared with several other mysterious cats to plague Milburne.

Witches confessed themselves to shape-shifting, often after being tortured. In 1649 John Palmer of St. Albans, England, confessed that he had metamorphosed into a toad in order to torment a young man with whom he had had a quarrel. As a toad, Palmer waited for the man in a road. The man kicked the toad. Palmer then complained about a sore shin, and bewitched his victim.

Guazzo tells a similar story about a man who angered a barmaid. He refused to pay his full bill, knowing that she had doubled the amount he actually owed. He later came upon a huge and ugly toad, which his travelling companions sliced in the throat with a sword. The barmaid took to her bed with the same wound.

Shape-shifting made it possible to gain easy entry into a household in order to cast an evil spell upon an unsuspecting person, and also to escape pursuit. In 1547 it was reported that a witch brought before inquisitors in Navarre, France, was able to smuggle along her magic ointment. She rubbed herself down and turned into a screen owl, and escaped certain death.

Witches also confessed to shape-shifting in order to travel to their Sabbats. The most common forms were hegoat, wolf, CAT,dog, cow, hare, owl, and BAT,achieved after the application of an ointment that put them into trance.

Isobel Gowdie, a Scottish woman who voluntarily confessed to witchcraft in 1662, said she and her sister witches used incantations to transform themselves into hares, cats, crows, and other animals. Sometimes they were bitten by hunting dogs.

As late as 1664, arguments in favour of actual shapeshifting were still being put forward. The English physician Dr. William Drage contended that spirits do indeed have the power to metamorphose bodies. Eventually, as the witch trials came to an end, such views gave way to the position that Lycanthropy is a pathological condition and not a Demonic or magical one.


Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters – Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley -a leading expert on the paranormal -Copyright © 2005 by Visionary Living, Inc.