Monday, June 12, 2023

The Transforming Witch: A Comprehensive Guide to Shapeshifting in Witchcraft

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Shapeshifting has long captivated the human imagination, holding a prominent place in the realms of witchcraft and the occult. In fact, the myth of the shapeshifting witch can be found in folklore around the world and across multiple cultures, from the British Isles to the Americas to Asia and Africa, where witches were reported to turn into rabbits, cats, deer, mice, owls, ravens, and wolves. Shapeshifting is an intriguing practice that involves altering one's physical form, or at least one's perception, and is often associated with mystical abilities and spiritual connections. In today's article, we delve into the depths of shapeshifting in witchcraft, exploring its historical roots, role in hedge riding and other contemporary applications, and how modern witches can engage in this transformative practice, including spells and rituals to help you transform! This is a hell of a long post, so buckle up witch!

What is Shapeshifting?

Shapeshifting, in the context of witchcraft, refers to the belief and practice of altering one's form or perception through magic and ritual and can take place in the Otherworld or on our current astral plane depending on the needs of the witch. It encompasses the idea of undergoing a physical or metaphorical transformation, allowing witches to embody different beings, animals, or even objects. Often times this occurs when the witch wears the body of an animal, such as a skin or mask, but it can also happen through ritual trance work. As much as many of us wish to physically transform into an animal, we know literal transformation is not possible, but it can certainly happen on an energetic or spirit level. This can occur in one of two ways: the witch's spirit transforms into the spirit of an animal or the witch's spirit 'rides' a living animal or external spirit on the physical plane or in the Otherworld. In either case, both are considered shapeshifting and can be used for the same purposes.

The History of Shapeshifting

Throughout history, shapeshifting has been a recurring theme in witchcraft and occult practices. Mythologists from different cultures are replete with tales of witches, sorcerers, and enchantresses who possess the ability to shift their shape at will. In folklore, we encounter stories of witches taking the form of animals, such as the witch's fetch or the lycanthropic legends of the werewolves. These myths and folklore are so widespread and prevalent that it's hard to cover them all, but I'll do my best to sum them up here.

Starting with prehistoric records, we have possibly the earliest record of shapeshifting found in the Cave of Trois-Frères in southern modern-day France. Among the drawings is one named "The Sorcerer," which looks to be a mix between a human and a deer in mid-transformation. While the image is debated, many scholars believe the image is a reference to a belief in the ritual of transformation.

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The Sorcerer, drawing of the cave art, Cave of the Trois-Frères, France.

Later, in Ancient Rome and Greece, we see a number of classical writers reference shapeshifting, sometimes by choice and other times as a punishment. In the Odyssey, Circe punishes Odysseus and his men by turning them into swine while in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Jupiter punishes Lycaon by turning him into a wolf (lycanthropy anyone?). However, not all transformations were punishments. In The Golden Ass by Apuleius, Lucius uses a magical ointment to accidentally turn into an ass while attempting to transform into a bird. This is likely a precursor to later flying ointments, used by witches during astral flight and hedge riding. Among the gods, Zeus is known to shapeshift into countless different creatures and even turn others into animals as both punishment and for fun. Other gods and goddesses are noted as doing the same, such as Demeter transforming Ascalabus into a lizard for mocking her sorrow and King Lyncus into a lynx for attempted murder. Medusa is turned into a gorgon for having sexual intercourse, whether consensual or not, in Athena's temple. The list is honestly endless. Other times, women were transformed to escape being raped, such as Daphne being turned into a laurel, Corone into a crow, or even Demeter into a mare. These transformations were aided by the powers of the gods, whether invoked or not, suggesting that one could not change without magical or divine intervention.

Across the way in Scandinavia, the Nordic Völsunga saga also includes multiple tales of shapeshifting, sometimes by choice and sometimes due to a curse. In the tale of Sigmund and Sinfjötli, both are able to turn into wolves using wolf skins stolen from the sons of the king who were believed to be skilled in witchcraft. Unfortunately, after donning the skins, they are unable to transform back, becoming werewolves themselves. In yet another tale, Björn, the son of King Hring, is punished by the queen who strikes him with a wolf skin glove and curses him to become a rabid, wild animal who can eat only his father's sheep. He is later hunted down and killed by the king's men and the queen has his remains cooked and eaten during a feast. The idea of wearing an animal skin also appears in the Vælundar kviða where young maidens are said to wear the skins of swans to fly. There are also references in the Faroëse song of Finnur hin friði, where Finn turns into a werewolf after being cursed and in the second Kviða of Helga Hundingsbana a curse is said to turn people into wolves. Of course, Odin too, much like Zues, is mentioned on multiple occasions as turning into a bird, beast, fish, or woman, as well as Loki, for various purposes. 

Apart from references in songs and literature, there is also the eigi einhamir in Nordic and Icelandic folklore. The eigi einhamir, which means 'not one skin', were men who could take on the bodies of another and assume the nature of that body, usually a beast. They are only recognizable by their eyes, which cannot be changed despite the rest of their form shifting. How this shapeshifting occurred varied. Sometimes the skin of the animal was worn, other times the spirit left the body behind to inhabit or transform into a second form. It could also occur through incantations or charms, much like the charms found in Celtic countries.

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German woodcut of werewolf from 1722

Much like the rest of Europe and the world, the British Isles have a host of shapeshifting myths and legends, as well as well-documented spells for shapeshifting. These tales mirror those found in Greaco-Roman and Scandinavian folklore and include such tales as the selkie wearing seal skin, kelpies disguised as horses or women, or the puca who can transform into multiple terrifying forms. There are also countless tales of people being transformed as a punishment, including Aoife who turned her stepchildren into swans to get rid of them, or Blodeuwedd who was transformed into an owl after betraying her husband. 

Apart from these tales we also have references to spells used for shapeshifting. Fīth-fāth (pronounced 'fee-fuh') is a Celtic shapeshifting spell, which is believed to render the user invisible to mortal eyes or transform them completely. Fīth-fāth has many different potential translations, including "shapeshifter," "effigy," and "words of magic," all referencing its use as a charm. Traditionally, it's believed these charms were spoken aloud with invocations for protection. It was often used by hunters, warriors, travelers, and smugglers wishing to render themselves unrecognizable to others, thus being used to make them 'invisible.' However, one translation of fīth-fāth is "the deer's aspect" leading some to believe the charms were first used by hunters to make them invisible or transform them into deer. The Carmina Gadelica references the latter in the story of Ossian who comes across a beautiful deer while hunting. This deer turns out to be his mother who says, "Do not hurt me, Ossian. I am thy mother under the 'fīth-fāth,' in the form of a hind abroad and in the form of a woman at home." This same text offers a shapeshifting spell, seen below, to render the user invisible or turn men into horses, bulls, and stags, and women into cats, hares, and hinds.
FATH fith (English Translation)
Will I make on thee,
By Mary of the augury,
By Bride of the corslet,
From sheep, from ram,
From goat, from buck,
From fox, from wolf,
From sow, from boar,
From dog, from cat,
From hipped-bear,
From wilderness-dog,
From watchful 'scan,'
From cow, from horse,
From bull, from heifer,
From daughter, from son,
From the birds of the air,
From the creeping things of the earth,
From the fishes of the sea,
From the imps of the storm.
More famous incantations come from Isobel Gowdie during the 17th-century witch trials. During her confessions, Gowdie named two charms: one for transforming into a hare and one for transforming back into a woman.
To transform into a hare:
    I shall go into a hare
    With sorrow and sych and meickle care;
    And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
    Ay while I come home again.

To transform back:
    Hare, hare, God send thee care.
    I am in a hare’s likeness now,
    But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.
Other witches reported similar shapeshifting incantations as seen below.
To transform into a cat:
    I shall go into a cat,
    With sorrow and sych and a black shat;
    And I shall go in the Devil's name,
    Ay while I come home again.

To transform into a crow:
    I shall go into a craw,
    With sorrow and sych and a blak thraw,
    And I shall go in the Devil's name,
    Ay while I come home again.
By the 13th century, it was wildly believed witches could turn into animals at will. Witches were believed to turn into hares, toads, dogs, cats, and other animals to steal milk from their neighbors, curse livestock, and otherwise create mischief and mayhem. In many cases, the harm done to the animal form caused similar wounds to the human. In 1649, John Palmer of St. Albans, England confessed to transforming into a toad in order to torment his neighbor. The neighbor reportedly kicked the toad and Palmer complained about sore shins afterward. Guazzo tells a similar story about a man encountering a toad after refusing to pay his tab at a local bar. The man believed the barmaid had overcharged him and thus left without paying. His traveling companions sliced the toad's throat and the barmaid was stricken with the same wound. Similar stories appear in American folklore, including Aunty Greenleaf who was said to take on the form of a white doe to torment her neighbors' livestock. When the doe was shot with three silver bullets, Aunty Greenleaf was said to later die with three silver bullets lodged in her spine.  

Of course, shapeshifting myths and folklore don't end there. We also have the Navajo skinwalkers, the American loup-garouKorean kumiho, Japanese yōkai, the kitsune, Tatar's Yuxa, and the Mexican La Lechuza. As much as I would love to dive into every single region's shapeshifting myths and folklore, it's simply too much. I invite you to read up on the myths of your ancestors and the region where you now reside. There is a plethora of shapeshifting lore out there, you just have to go looking for it.

Modern Uses of Shapeshifting

In contemporary witchcraft, shapeshifting has taken on metaphorical and symbolic significance. Modern witches utilize shapeshifting as a tool for personal growth, empowerment, and self-discovery. Through the exploration of different archetypes and primal instincts, witches seek to deepen their understanding of themselves and their connection to the natural world, develop a relationship with an animal guide or totem, and even gain new perspectives on a problem. Shapeshifting becomes a means to tap into hidden aspects of the psyche and embrace transformative experiences. This can take many forms, including calling upon different animal spirits during spell work, meditating on different animal aspects, working with animal spirits, journaling, ritual dance, etc.

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Reproduction of a woodcut from Ulrich Molitor's 'De Lamiis' (1489) showing 3 animal-headed witches flying on a forked stick (or stang). Shows how witches sometimes 'shape-shift' into animal forms when flying.

Shapeshifting also shares a deep connection with shamanic journeying and hedge riding, a practice in which the witch traverses the different realms of the Otherworld for spiritual insight and healing. Within hedge riding and other shamanic traditions, shapeshifting serves as a means to enter other dimensions, communicate with animal spirits, and tap into their wisdom and attributes. By assuming the form of a particular animal, the shaman can embody its qualities, accessing unique perspectives and guidance on their journey. An animal form is also often taken as a form of protection during otherworldly travel, as animal spirits are often able to traverse undetected, acting as a form of invisibility, much like the Celtic fīth-fāth incantations. An animal form also allows the witch to travel more quickly and, in some cases, access areas previously unreachable, such as high mountain tops, deep within the ocean or lake, or even burrowing underground or into tight spaces.

To summarize, modern witches often incorporate shapeshifting to
  • explore different archetypes and primal instincts
  • deepen one's understanding of self
  • connect with the natural world
  • develop a deeper relationship with an animal guide or totem
  • gain new perspectives on a problem
  • traverse the Otherworld quickly
  • protect against prying eyes or make one invisible during otherworldly travel
  • gain animal wisdom and guidance
  • access previously unreachable places
  • access certain qualities associated with an animal

How to Shapeshift

Modern witches engage in shapeshifting through various techniques and practices. Visualization exercises play a significant role, where witches create vivid mental images of their desired form or archetype, often coupled with ritual work such as wearing animal skin, dancing, drumming, or incantations. Through meditation, you can enter a state of deep focus and receptivity, allowing yourself to embody the essence and qualities of the chosen form. Energy work, such as harnessing personal energy or working with elemental forces, can serve as a catalyst for the transformation, although most witches find it easier to use a mask or skin or use an ointment to prompt the change. Needless to say, there are multiple approaches to shapeshifting and you need to experiment to find which method works best for you. Below are several ways you can engage in shapeshifting from both folklore and modern witchcraft.

1. Incantations and Charms

This is probably one of the most commonly cited historical ways to shapeshift with the incantations from Isobel Gowdie and her fellow witches being cited most often found in the History of Shapeshifting section above. These incantations can be modernized and adapted to turn you into any animal you desire. Since most modern witches do not incorporate God or the Devil in their craft, you can change these titles to whatever deities you do believe in, such as Lord, Lady, Horned God, Hekate, etc. Pagan musician Damh (pronounced "Dave") the Bard does an excellent job of this in his song Fith Fath Song where he says,

I shall go as a wren in spring
With sorrow and sighing on silent wing
And I shall go in our Lady’s name
Aye, ‘til I come home again

Then we shall follow as falcons grey
And hunt thee cruelly for our prey
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again

Then I shall go as a mouse in May
Through fields by night and in cellars by day
And I shall go in our Lady's name
Aye ‘til I come home again

Then we shall follow as black tom cats
And hunt thee through the fields and the vats
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again

Then I shall go as an autumn hare
With sorrow and sighing and mickle care
And I shall go in our Lady's name
Aye till I come home again

Then we shall follow as swift greyhounds
And dog thy steps with leaps and bounds
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again

Then I shall go as a winter trout
With sorrow and sighing and mickle doubt
And I shall go in our Lady's name
Aye till I come home again

Then we shall follow as otters swift
And bind thee fast so thou canst shift
And we shall go in our Horned God's name
Aye to fetch thee home again.
Of course, writing your own incantations works just as well, if not better, than using others' work.

2. Wearing Animal Skins or Masks

Apart from incantations, many witches engage in shapeshifting by animal skins or masks to encourage a transformation. This is often coupled with ritual dancing and drumming until an altered state of consciousness is reached. In her books Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone and Skin Spirits: Animal Parts in Spiritual and Magical Practice, Lupa dives deep into the practice. Lupa more often transforms into a wolf by wearing wolf skin and dancing around a fire. During the dance, she allows the animal's spirit, the spirit within the pelt, to take over her body leading to her total transformation. Wearing an animal mask also can prompt such changes.

In Call of the Horned Piper, Nigel Jackson describes a similar ritual to that of Lupa's. In order to shapeshift, the initiate would undergo a symbolic death by undressing and crossing a lake or other body of water. Upon arriving on the other side, they would don a wolf skin or belt and enter into an altered state of consciousness to "be projected forth in the form of a wolf." This same practice can be replicated with any animal skin or mask using a cold shower as the bridge to "death" should you not have access to a river or lake and privacy.

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Witsen's Shaman, late 17th century. The earliest depiction of a Siberian shaman.

Of course, not everyone has access to animal skins and some skins and body parts are illegal to own. Remember to always check with your local laws to figure out what you can and cannot own. While animal skins are often cost-prohibitive for many, owning other body parts can be just as effective, such as teeth, feet, skulls, and other bones or fur/feather pieces. Turn these remains into talismans by creating jewelry, charm bags, belts, or other ritual garbs that can be worn during your shapeshifting rituals. Some reports suggest using salves made from the fat of the animal also works, but I have not tried this method. If you can't access actual remains, I encourage you to make your very own animal mask. There are multiple ways to do this, but as you create your mask, be sure to ask for the animal's aid and infuse their essence into the mask.

3. Trance, Meditation, and Visualization

Reaching an altered state of consciousness coupled with one or both of the aforementioned methods is the key to actual transformation. Reaching an altered state of consciousness can be done in a variety of ways, including ritual dancing, drumming, humming, consuming psychoactive plants, or using ointments. You can read more about these different methods in my posts on hedge riding or try my hedge riding tea. Unlike with hedge riding, however, the goal of reaching this trance state is to shapeshift. With that intention firmly in your mind, you can visualize yourself shifting into your animal form, your consciousness slowly becoming that of an animal. You may find walking/crawling on all fours, growling, hissing, or otherwise behaving like the animal aids in this transformation. Become the animal you wish to transform into.

If you are looking to shapeshift while hedge riding, visualizing the shift, reciting an incantation, and donning your animal garb within the Otherworld will also work. I routinely shapeshift into a fox while traversing the Otherworld using a combination of these methods. Unlike on our plane, you don't need to shift your consciousness again, as that has already occurred. While you don't necessarily need anything physical to do this during hedge riding, having real animal remains or a mask on your person prior to hedge riding will greatly aid you in your work on the astral plane.

There are a couple of rituals that combine these three methods into one, including The Red Meadow's Lycanthropic RitualDenny Sargent's shapeshifting ritual (which is outlined more completely in his book Werewolf Magic), and Yasmine Galenorn's Mirror Spell for Shape-Shifting found in her book Totem Magic: Dance of the Shape-Shifter on pages 119-121.

When you are first starting out, start small, shapeshifting for very short periods of time. Experiment with a variety of methods, combing them into a ritual that works for you. However, as with all things magical, shapeshifting can be dangerous.

Shapeshifting Safety

As mentioned in the History of Shapeshifting, there are dangers to shifting into an animal form. This includes not being able to return to your body because you have forgotten you are human, forgetting which realm you belong to, journeying too far, being captured, injured, or killed while within the Otherworld or while riding a 'live' animal. There are many tales of witches traversing the world as an animal and being injured only for the same wound to appear on the witch's human form. These injuries often resulted in the death of the witch, so you should be mindful of these hazards while shapeshifting. So what can you do to protect yourself?

  1. Set clear and firm boundaries and time limits for travel. Setting an alarm or using a musical cue can help pull you back from your trance.

  2. Have a spotter that can help rouse you should you not come back when originally planned. This is especially important if you are just starting out. If you don't have someone that can spot you, send a really loud, obnoxious alarm to alert you when it's time to return.

  3. Have a safe word or incantation that when spoken pulls your spirit back into your body. You can use Isobel Gowdie's charm, write your own, or pick a safe word/phrase important to you.

  4. Use a red witch's thread tied around your finger or arm to anchor your spirit to your physical body. If you get lost, follow the thread back to your body.

  5. Carry or wear protective charms that will prevent your spirit from being stolen or harmed while in the Otherworld. Your familiar or even household pet can also act as a protector of your body, sitting on or near you during shapeshifting to ensure nothing else tries to inhabit your body.

  6. When you are finished shapeshifting, make sure you are completely grounded in your human body by grounding and centering and enjoying some food and drink.
You can find more useful tips in my post, Hedge Riding Safety Tips if you are using shapeshifting in the Otherworld. Many of the same tips are useful during shapeshifting.

Shapeshifting in witchcraft remains an enigmatic and alluring practice, intertwining myth, history, and contemporary spirituality. It offers a gateway to explore the depths of our own selves, connect with the primal forces of nature, and embark on transformative journeys of self-discovery. Whether through the exploration of archetypes, communion with animal spirits, or embracing the hidden aspects of our being, shapeshifting provides a mystical transformation that resonates with the essence of witchcraft. With a few precautions and plenty of practice, I hope you'll find shapeshifting to be a profoundly magical experience. Until next time!

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