Old Tales of Shapeshifting Witches in Britain and the U.S.
The classic werewolf story isn’t just for the big screen. And the idea of shapeshifting isn’t exclusive to the Werewolf. Every continent has it’s own legends of shapeshifters. If we look back in time and trace the roots of these legends, they all fall back to one idea…shapeshifters were witches in another powerful and terrifying form. Hedge witches today would do good to learn as much as they can about shapeshifting witches of the past.
British Isles: Shapeshifting Witches & Hares
In the British Isles, there’s much lore revolving around witches and animals. For centuries, witches have had “familiars“, which are spirits that often take on animal forms like cats, dogs, goats, birds, toads, rodents, wolves, foxes, insects, and hares. They aided the witch’s magic but also inspired the witch’s shifting rituals. In Scotland, witches often shapeshifted into the hare. The accused Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie admitted openly in court to her shapeshifting abilities: her animal of choice was the hare. Her shifting incantations are as follows:
To take the likeness of 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 shift 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.
Why Shapeshift into a Hare?
Before the church’s rise, people believed in multiple pagan gods, some associated to the hare. Therefore the church associated witches with hares. Eostre, a Germanic goddess of Spring, is linked to the hare. Legend says when a hunter shot the hare, he would go to retrieve his catch and find the hare was actually a woman. Different stories say shapeshifting witches spoke simple words to transform, while other stories claim witches drank powerful potions made from a hare’s bones.
Werewolves: Witches in Wolf Skin?
Werewolves were a prevalent monster in European countries in Medieval times, particularly feared in Germany, Bavaria, Austria, Switzerland, France, and some Northern European countries. Many were accused of being werewolves, which also meant you were a witch. The accusers said these werewolves acquired their powers from a contract with the devil. Today, Hollywood says if you’re bitten by a werewolf, you become a werewolf. It’s interesting how legends change over the centuries.
The Werewolf Witch Trials
These accusations of lycanthropy and witchcraft led to the Werewolf Witch Trials in the Dark Ages. In Estonia, a dozen people were accused, tortured, and forcefully confessed to killing others while in werewolf form. They claimed they had to wear a wolf-skin to become a werewolf. A man dressed in black gave the Estonian Hans the Werewolf his “wolf-skin”. The court saw this “man dressed in black” as the Devil and charged Hans with witchcraft. In Switzerland, the people feared wolves and equated them with maleficium. Some witches shifted into wolves, while other rode on the backs of wolves. Some Swiss witches even shifted into fox-form!
Interestingly, a group of benevolent shapeshifting witches in Northern Italy called the Benandanti claimed God gave them the ability to shapeshift. These men transformed into werewolves and “traveled” to Hell to reclaim precious livestock and crops the Devil had stolen from their people. One wonders if this was all on the astral plane via trance or deep sleep.
Witchcraft, Shamanism Or Hunting Rituals?
Shapeshifting has long been a ritual practice in many forms of shamanism. Villages had a resident shaman or wise person who visited the spirit world in shifted-form to attain knowledge for hunting, healing, or for defensive purposes.
Shapeshifting Hunting Rituals
If we look at ancient cave paintings, we find images of people dressed as animals reflecting primitive practices of ritual shapeshifting. To wear the likeness of an animal aids the person in acquiring knowledge about the animal. If you become the animal, you’ll find the animal. Peoplw donned fur pelts, horns, antlers, bones, feathers, and teeth to “blend in” with the sought-after creature. The ancient Celts wore deer antlers on the hunt. Was the idea of shapeshifting witches a continuation of these primal pagan practices? Scholar Emma Wilby explores these theories at length in her book The Visions of Isobel Gowdie.
Skinwalkers: Shapeshifting Witches in the U.S.
The Navajo tribe warns of the skinwalker – shapeshifting witches who become coyotes to carry our their evil bidding. One girl’s bone-chilling story tells of a skinwalker that came to her front door and climbed onto her roof. It then knocked on the roof and down the walls. Other eyewitnesses tell of skinwalkers running beside their cars or jumping in front to cause accidents. One man claims skinwalkers followed him home then walked around the perimeter of his property playing a strange, haunting instrument.
What are Skinwalkers?
Skinwalkers are dark shapeshifting witches that use their power to frighten, harm, and steal from their victims. Shoot a skinwalker and they return to their original form (similar to the European legends of werewolves and shapeshifting witches). Skinwalker lore is prominent in the South U.S., from the Carolinas west to Arizona. The skinwalkers take the shape of other animals too, including different kinds of birds, bears, etc. And some say even uttering their name is bad luck and draws their attention.
Appalachian Booger Dog
Appalachians tell intriguing stories of shapeshifting witches. Their mountainous witches have the ability to shift form into rabbits and dogs. The “Booger Dog” is a supernatural creature that people see but have never caught. This spectral canine smells terrible and many people believe it’s either a ghost or a shapeshifting witch. Is it possible the shapeshifting witches from Europe made their way to North America and continue their traditions here? Not just possible…highly likely.