shape-shifting The magical or supernatural ability to transform 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 and acquires the powers of that animal and other supernatural powers as well. Witches, sorcerers, and other magically empowered persons are said to shape-shift at will. Gods and DEMONS have shape-shifting ability and can take on human form. Shape-shifting is accomplished through magical Ritual and perhaps the use of OINTMENTS or potions or the wearing of magical garments or animal pelts. In Navajo tradition, witches become skinwalkers, or were-animals, by donning animal skins, which enables them to travel about at night at great speed. The skill can be taught by a master magician or a sorcerer; for example, shamans use shapeshifting for traveling to the underworld. In WEREWOLF lore shape-shifting may be involuntary, such as at the full Moon or as the result of a Curse. 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. 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 accepted shape-shifting as a literal fact, while others said it was physically impossible and thus was a demonic illusion. 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—not literally but in a magical sense.


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  • Watson, C. W., and Roy Ellen (eds.). Understanding Witchcraft and Sorcery in Southeast Asia. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993.


The Encyclopedia of Magic and Alchemy Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley Copyright © 2006 by Visionary Living, Inc.