The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Animals Who Transform Willingly Into People
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Shape-shifting is a hall of mirrors; one mustn’t always assume that the human form is the original form. Some cultures believe that some animals have the intelligence, desire, and magical skill to assume our form to accomplish various purposes.
In Russian magic, it’s believed that animals may be transformed witches, wizards or spirits. Spirits usually take the form of black dogs or cats while magical practitioners are white or gray.
Shape-shifting is a common theme in Japanese folklore but the typical scenario of witch transforming into animal is reversed. In Japan, animals, most typically cats, foxes, snakes, and tanuki (known as Japanese badgers), transform into human form. Transformation by snakes usually involves some sort of romantic motivation. Tanuki are mischievous and greedy but rarely malevolent. Sacred clowns, their Shape-shifting may even stem from spiritual intent: their favored form is as a Buddhist priest. The tanuki stands up on his hind legs and distends his scrotum so as to become a drum, in order to make people laugh.
Cat spirits frequently possess malevolent intent; in their transformed state as humans they may be understood as witches in the worst sense of the word. In the standard form of the Japanese legend, a malevolent cat spirit eats an old woman, usually the village blacksmith’s mother, and then assumes her shape in order to harm travelers. These cats disguised as women typically lead packs (covens) of wolves. Because she looks exactly like Grandma, the cat gets away with evil deeds for a while but is eventually exposed by the telltale clue that she is a disguised animal: she always eats alone. (This is because she must eat like an animal with her face directly in the bowl and not as a human, sitting up with utensils.)
Foxes are far more complex: their motivation might be mischief, magic or malevolent soulstealing. To complicate matters, transformative foxes may or may not be real foxes. Spirit foxes may be able to clothe themselves in various bodies, vulpine and/or human. Foxes may also engage in amorous adventures but it tends to be for vampiric purposes, as a method of alchemical sex magic.
Malice or revenge are typical motivations for fox spirits; and it can be for something as simple as startling it when it’s asleep or stepping on its tail, escalating to killing a cub or a mate. (In this, fox spirits are very similar to djinn, which also take the form of animals, typically dogs or cats, which must not be harmed, frightened or molested lest the hidden djinn retaliate.) Other motivating factors may be greed, lust or desire. They may want sex or food, especially treats they’re not likely to get in fox form.
According to Taoist belief, any fox that attains fifty years of age can shape-shift into a standard human. If the fox can make it to a hundred, he’ll be a skilled sorcerer, too. There are various beliefs regarding abilities earned through longevity. An alternative view is that foxes and wolves that survive eighty years can transform into humans. If these animals can achieve one thousand years, they’ll be divine. (And how does a fox or anyone live to be a thousand years old? Through alchemy.) Older people are likewise able to develop the ability to shape-shift.
A classic example from Japan: a samurai walking home one night spots a fox and shoots an arrow at it. The fox is wounded but doesn’t fall. It keeps going. The samurai follows it but is unable to catch up. Even wounded, this fox is too fast. He keeps following and eventually the samurai discovers that the fox has led him home. Suddenly, the fox transforms into a man and sets the samurai’s house on fire. Before the dazed and confused samurai can react, the fox transforms back into its original shape and escapes into the forest.