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. Here we answer the question, what is a shapeshifter? And dive into some of the most terrifying, true tales of shapeshifting witches and sorcerers from European tradition.
When the question what is a shapeshifter is asked, most people reply with “a werewolf”. And, while that answer is correct, the truth is much more complex. By Oxford Dictionary’s definition, a shapeshifter is “a person or being with the ability to change forms at will”. This isn’t exclusive to werewolves. The concept of shapeshifting spans cultures and continents and dates back to ancient times, and likely before. We see potential shapeshifters painted on cave walls dating tens of thousands of years ago. Men wearing antlers and humans with the tales of fish. We even see a rise in anthropomorphic gods in ancient times, in which the people saw certain deities as being animal-like OR with the ability to shift forms at will.
So, to answer the question, a shapeshifter is a person or spiritual entity with the supernatural ability to change shape into many different forms. That could be into an animal, monster, element, inanimate object or even another human form. A few shapeshifters from the pages of history include: werewolves (obviously), gods and goddesses, fairies and elementals, the Djinn, demons, witches, shamans and sorcerers. In this particular blog post, we will focus on stories of shapeshifting witches, werewolves, and fairies.
Another question that’s asked often is “are shapeshifters real”? The answer to this is also complex. It truly depends on what you believe. If you believe in the spiritual world and that there are things that science has yet to explain, then you might also believe shapeshifters are real. If you ask me, I’m not sold on the idea that people can change actual physical form at will, but I do believe certain individuals can shapeshift in astral (spiritual) form. And I believe spirits have this ability more readily than we do.
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:
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.
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.
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.
One of the most interesting stories from WB Yeats’ Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, tells a story of a priest who was walking home on a corpse road (also called a fairy road or ley line) late at night. He’s minding his own business and suddenly hears another pair of shoes coming around the bend. He decides to hide, because most people know you’re not supposed to be out at night and he assumes it’s someone up to no good. And he was right…
As he watched the person come around the corner, he realized the individual didn’t have a head or a body but just a pair of legs. A pair of disembodied, see-through legs was walking down the street in the middle of the night…and as the pair of legs walked by, the priest noticed they were dripping something white from the pores. The priest was terrified but after the legs left, he looked at the substance that had been leaking from them. It was milk! The priest determined it was a witch, in shapeshifted spiritual form, who was out at night stealing milk from her neighbors. So it seems shapeshifters don’t just turn into logical things…but take the form of anything that may disguise their true countenance.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fairies and elementals are known shapeshifters. I believe because they are liminal, spiritual beings they are able to change form at will. If you have no corporeal body containing your spirit, you can likely shift at any given moment. Very easily. Anyway, European and worldwide lore for that matter are full of stories of fairies shapeshifting into other forms. Into that of animals, inanimate objects, humans, and even expanding or decreasing in size.
Kobolds, a dwarf-like being in Germanic lore, tend to attach themselves to an estate or property. They’re considered one of the household fairy variety and are known to aid the family with undone chores and tasks around the home. They’re also known to be shapeshifters, particularly when trying to go home with an unsuspecting person. There are stories of kobolds disguising themselves as rocks, branches, and other manner of inanimate objects. Only to “hitch a ride” with an individual and then take up residence in their home. I suspect kobolds are able to shift into any manner of things.
The nixie is another shapeshifter of the faery or elemental type. Except she’s no household fairy and doesn’t like to help you with your chores. Instead, she shapeshifts into the form of a beautiful young woman in order to seduce and lure her unsuspecting victim. She’s also known to shapeshift into horse form, which makes her a cousin (at the least) of the Celtic water horse called the Kelpie. Of whom also is a known shapeshifter.
Vikings. Valhalla. Thor and Odin. I’ll bet you are at least partially familiar with these …August 30, 2023