Shape-shifting

Shape-shifting

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

In many of the records of witchcraft trials during the persecutions, it was not uncommon to find witnesses testifying that the accused witch had changed his or her shape into that of an animal, bird, or even insect. Many of the witches themselves claimed they had made that metamorphosis. The favorite animals were cats and hares, although dogs, mice, and crows were also fairly common. The belief in metamorphosis appears to be universal and is found especially among primitive peoples.

In Northumberland in 1673, Ann Armstrong stated that another witch, Ann Baites, "hath been several times in the shape of a cat and a hare, and in the shape of a greyhound and a bee." Ann Armstrong went on to say that while she stood and sang, the others in the coven "danced in several shapes, first of a hare, then in their own, and then in a cat, sometimes in a mouse, and in several other shapes."

Margaret Murray suggests that there was no actual metamorphosis—that the "change" was purely an act of ritual following the witch's statement as to what she was. Hearing one witch say she was a dog, another witch would decide that she too was a dog and join the first one. The witches believed they really were the animals but, in fact, no physical change occurred. But in 1729, Janet Horne was burned at Dornoch, Ross-shire, for supposedly causing her own daughter's lameness by using her as a horse and having her shoed by the Devil. If she actually tried to shoe her daughter, we must assume that she really did believe she had turned the girl into a horse.

On March 10, 1607, Issobel Grierson was brought to trial in Edinburgh. She was charged on six counts. The first was that she went in the form of her own cat and, together with a great number of other cats, had entered the house of her neighbor, Adam Clark. There the cats made a great deal of noise and caused a lot of trouble, to the point where Adam Clark and his wife were "in such a great fear that they were likely to go mad." Here, of course, it is the accusers who are saying that Isobel Grierson had changed into a cat, not the accused witch herself. Yet Issobel Gowdie, in 1662, claimed at her trial that she and her sister had become cats, hares, crows, and other animals, to the point where they had been chased and bitten by dogs. Issobel said, "When we go in the shape of a hare, we say thrice over: "I sall goe intill ane haire, With sorrow, and sych, and meikle caire, And I sall goe in the Divellis nam, Ay whill I com hom againe." (I will go into a hare, With sorrow and sigh and much care; And I shall go in the Devil's name, A while I come home again.)

Issobel Gowdie continued, "And instantly we start in a hare. And when we should be out of this shape, we will say: "Hare, hare, God send thee care. I am in a hare's likeness just now, But I shall be in a woman's likeness even now."

She gave similar formulae for changing into a cat and a crow and other creatures. Issobel also stated that other witches could be transformed with her by simply stating, "I conjure thee, go with me." She continued, "and presently they become as we are, either cats, hares, crows."

In the classical author Apuleius's The Golden Ass (90 BCE), there is a description of a witch turning herself into a crow. The woman undresses completely, puts two grains of incense into a burning lamp, and, while standing up straight, mutters a few words of magic. She then opens a chest containing various vials and, from one of them, rubs an oily liquid all over her body. Wings and beaks then sprout and,

uttering harsh cries, she flies out of the window. A witness to this tries to do the same thing but gets the wrong vial and turns into an ass.

Shape-shifting was supposedly accomplished by means of a magic ointment,

similar to that used for flying through the air on a broomstick.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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