People Who Transform Willingly into Animals - Animals

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

People Who Transform Willingly into Animals

Witches are famed worldwide for the ability to transform into different shapes at will, in popular terminology: shape-shifting. According to story, legend, and myth, this ability is accomplished literally. Whether witches would agree with that assessment is subject to lots of debate. In general, stories about shape-shifting are told by observers, not the witches. Of course, those very same stories frequently describe witches as secretive and evasive, so what can you expect?

According to many witches, channeling the spirit of an animal is what is significant rather than literal transformation. Others would suggest that transformation is real but occurs on a shamanic or dream level.

Whether transformation is literal, soul-journey or something else, real witches consider their magical abilities to be sacred and private and will, thus, rarely brag. How, then, do other people know of these transformations? Easy, legend says: they’ve been witnessed or even experienced. Although countless stories recount tales of transformation, there are basically only a few themes:

Image The story-teller actually witnessed the process of transformation. Thus Lucius Apuleius saw the witch Pamphile change into an owl (a strix or strega).

Image Having witnessed the transformation or otherwise picked up some fragments of magical knowledge, the story-teller attempts to copy the witch and transform, too. Sometimes it works, although usually not too well—as with Lucius Apuleius, who only manages to turn himself into an ass.

Image In the most common theme, an animal, initially understood as a real animal, is somehow injured. Sometimes a human is then found to have an identical injury, betraying her as a witch.

Image Sometimes an injured or killed animal is discovered with something, usually an item of jewelry, that betrays their human identity.

The classic tale of the transforming witch involves Lady Sybil of Bernshaw Tower in Lancashire, a beautiful heiress who loved to walk to Eagle Crag where she would gaze into the wooded gorge below. The power of the woods lured her; she became a witch. Beautiful, brilliant, and independently wealthy, Lady Sybil took to rambling through the ravines of Cliviger Gorge in the form of a white doe. She attracted the attention of a man named Lord William, variously identified as either being of Hapton Tower or Townley Castle. He became obsessed with her and requested her hand in marriage but she refused.

Not taking “no” for an answer, Lord William hired Mother Hellston, local witch, to prepare a spell for him. She advised him to capture the white doe and hold it captive within Hapton Tower. She gave William an enchanted silk cord and loaned him her familiar, a black dog. On May Eve, he captured the doe. At dawn, the doe turned back into Lady Sybil in her human form, under his spell.

The story now takes one of two twists:

Either, Lady Sybil renounces witchcraft and marries Will. Whether this renunciation was sincere or not initially, Lady Sybil eventually returned to her craft. One day, while she’s playing in the form of a white cat at Cliver Mill, the miller accidentally cuts off her paw. (Italics mine; this story is usually told with a very straight face.) However, Lady Sybil’s magical skills are such that she can restore her hand. (See MAGICAL PROFESSIONS: Millers.) Or, in the second version, Lord William forgets to pay Mother Hellston; the spell lasts one month and then it’s broken. Sybil, now married to Will, comes to her senses, discovers herself a married captive, and wants to escape. William holds her prisoner. A servant named Robin is set to watch her. One day Robin sees a white cat slipping from the room. He cuts off its paw, which instantly transforms into Sibyl’s hand, identifiable by its ring. After her hand has been chopped off, Sybil languishes and quickly dies. She’s buried, as per her request, in Cliviger Gorge.

Either way, local legend says that to this day on May Eve, a white doe, a black hound, and a ghostly hunter haunt the gorge.

Image Throughout Africa, witches transform into hyenas, bats, nightjars, and owls.

Image Throughout the British Isles, witches transform into cats and rabbits.

Image In India and Java witches transform into leopards and tigers.

Image Jewish and Mexican witches transform into bats, black cats, and black dogs.

Image In Scandinavia and Finland, witches transform into flies.

Image Baltic, Russian, Siberian, and Swedish witches transform into magpies.

Image Siberian shamans, understood as distinct from witches, transform into bears, eagles, boar, elk, and wolves.

Transformation stories and techniques exist worldwide. In Central America and the Andes, there’s a whole hierarchy to shape-shifting. The animal into which you transform reveals your power and status. The most important and powerful sorcerers transform into eagles, jaguars, quetzal birds or natural forms that are associated with status and royalty such as lightning bolts, whirlwinds or pools of blood. The less powerful are only able to transform into lowerstatus creatures like mice, turkeys, and vultures—although with practice and the acquisition of powers they can move up the transformation ladder.

According to witch-hunt era Christian theology, witches could potentially transform into any form, except that of a lamb or a dove, which were perceived as utterly pure, sacred creatures.

The powerful lwa Ezili Zandor is the matron of the Haitian sorcerers’ secret societies known as The Red Sects. Members travel at night in the form of black cats, black pigs, crocodiles, horses, leopards, owls, and wolves. Witches of the Pueblo Indian nations transform into animals for purposes of travel. It’s the most convenient way to get around: easy, quick and discreet. The most popular forms into which to transform include cats, crows, canines, owls, dogs, wolves, and coyotes. Different animal forms are more prevalent in some pueblos than others.

The methods of transformation vary. According to BaKongo belief, every individual possesses multiple souls. A certain type of soul, sort of an “image soul,” can adopt different appearances. These appearances are known as yunga or shells. The shell is an outward covering and it can be changed as desired. The most powerful witches, sorcerers, seers, and prophets can possess and/or develop multiple yungas.

A Portuguese technique leaves the form you attain somewhat to chance:

1. Go to a crossroads during a Full Moon.

2. Spin repeatedly while howling until you get so dizzy or exhausted you collapse on the ground.

3. You will transform into the shape of the last animal to lie there.

(To avoid transformation into a vole or worm, you may wish to observe the area for several hours—or even days—prior to spell-casting.)

According to the tenets of Taoist magic, all living beings can learn the art of changing forms. It’s easiest for humans, easier for animals and harder still for plants. What’s stopping you from shape-shifting? It’s not lack of magical ability, but laziness and lack of discipline.

Two methods of transformation exist.

1. The ethical method: study various Taoist classics and eventually the ability is gained.

2. Sex magic: the partner who first achieves orgasm gives off energy, which may be acquired by the other partner and used for purposes of transformation. One partner essentially vampirizes the other’s vitality and magical powers. Yes, it’s potentially harmful for the other partner.

According to another Taoist magical belief, extended longevity may earn you the ability to shape-shift. If you can live long enough, the ability may just develop naturally. Of course, there’s a hidden implication in this method: how does one achieve really extended longevity? Answer: alchemy; the acquisition of the philosopher’s stone. If you study alchemy intensely, one of the side-effects may be transformative power.

Other traditions use other methods of transformation:

Image Witches from the Pueblos of the American Southwest jump through twisted yucca fiber hoops. (In various legends, Coyote teaches these transformation skills.)

Image Russian witches transform via similar athletic means. One method is to somersault backwards over copper knives thrust into the ground or into a treestump; to return to human form, somersault back over the knives in the opposite direction, retracing your steps, so to speak. If someone removes the knives, while you’re out roaming, you’re stuck.

Image European witch-hunters believed that transformation was only possible because of a diabolical pact. The witch didn’t really have the power to transform; Satan did it for her, or at least supplied the illusion. Other schools of philosophy understand the ability to shape-shift as a gift from a deity. Frequently the form into which one transforms is one that is sacred to that deity. In essence, by transforming, you become the deity’s sacred animal or messenger. This may or may not be understood literally. Thus Diana’s “dogs” and “wolves,” sons of the bitch goddess, may not have expected to literally transform into canines.

Image That literal transformation wasn’t necessarily expected is indicated by the use of masks and costumes to transform. If you really literally expect to change forms, who needs a mask? Why go to the time, trouble, and expense? Masks, costumes, and rituals assist ritual channeling of the animal; once the spirit of the animal is received, the costume completes the picture.

Image According to the powerful and sophisticated traditional schools of magic in Java, you can transform yourself. Javanese sorcerers most frequently transform into tigers by memorizing entire books of magical chants, which must then be repeated perfectly from memory during ritual. Transformation may also be effected via magical fabrics, in the case of the tiger, a special striped cloth.

Image Transformative energy may be the gift of a spirit. The Vodou lwa Ogou ge Rouge is renowned for bestowing this power, as is the Norse spirit Freya.

Image According to some schools of magical philosophy, no method is necessary. The ability to transform, to change shapes, is hereditary. Certain animal forms run in families, kind of like the old horror film, Cat People.