Witches, their legendary “familiars,” as they are known, and their eerie ability to disguise themselves as a variety of animals, cannot be overlooked when it comes to the controversies surrounding shapeshifters. Indeed, they are an integral part of the overall phenomenon. Within the practice of witchcraft there exists a creature that few outside of the craft will have any awareness of. It is a strange and often dangerous creature known as a familiar. When witchcraft was said to be rife across England in the 1500s and 1600s, it was widely believed that witches used small animals for a wide variety of reasons – such as spying on those who might do them harm. But, they weren’t animals in the normal sense of the word. They were said to be demonic entities that possessed the ability to alter their forms into multiple kinds of animals. For the witches of the Middle Ages, the preferable forms were black cats, black dogs, hedgehogs, hares, owls, and mice.
There were very good reasons why witches would use ancient rites to invoke the presence of demonic entities that would do their bidding for them. If a witch had a grudge against a particular person, then paying that person a menacing visit themselves would soon blow their cover and reveal them as a practitioner of the black arts – something which would typically result in them being burned alive at the stake, or drowned in a nearby river. So, the cunning witch would dispatch her familiar – a demonic thing in animal form – to act on her behalf. After all, very few people would take much notice of a dog or a cat walking through the pathways of an old English village. Even less would likely give a hare, an owl, or a mouse a second glance. So, as a result, the familiar could approach the home of the targeted person, listen carefully to what was going on in the home of the person – or even place a malevolent hex upon them – and then report back to their controller. In some cases, the demonic things that that the witches called forth from their hellish realms did not take on animal form: they shapeshifted into the forms of people, something which added yet another layer to the complex matter, and nature, of the familiar.
One animal, more than many others, which has long been associated with witchcraft, sorcery, and shapeshifting is the hare, which falls into the same family as the rabbit. They are widespread, with large populations throughout Europe, the United States, Japan, and Africa. And, on top of that, they are a most mysterious animal. When it comes to the matter of shapeshifting and hares, there’s no doubt that one of the most famous cases on record revolves around a woman name Isobel Gowdie. In sharp contrast to the image that most people have of witches – namely, old, wizened hags with hooked noses – Gowdie was a young woman, a housewife from the 12th century Scottish village of Auldearn. So the story went – according to Luke Mastin, in “Famous Witches - Isobel Gowdie (? - 1662),” and Fiona Tinker, in “Isobel Gowdie” - Gowdie had secret and regular late night meetings with the Scottish ruler of the fairies, the Queen of Elphame, as she was known – a supernatural elemental who had the ability to appears as young and beautiful woman and as an old, menacing woman. They were meetings said to have occurred deep underground, far below an ancient hill near Auldearn. They were also meetings which led Gowdie to become exposed to the secrets of shapeshifting.
Unlike so many alleged witches who suffered terribly at the hands of so-called witch-finders – but who, in reality, were often merely sadistic characters who took pleasure in inflicting brutal pain and even death – Gowdie didn’t have to be tortured to convince her to spill the beans about her meetings with the fairies and her shapeshifting activities. She was wide open about her antics of the after dark variety. She even share with her interrogators the specific spell she used to transform herself into a hare. It went 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.” And, when she wished to return to human form, Gowie would mutter: “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.” The history books do not record Gowdie’s fate; however, given the savagery of the widespread witch-hunts that went on throughout England and Scotland at the time, the likelihood is that the outcome was not a positive one. Drowning or burning at the stake were the most probable outcomes for poor Isobel.
Another case reached me in 2013 from “Jennifer,” who lives in Oregon. Jennifer’s encounter occurred in her small hometown – the name of which she prefers to keep out of the story – in the fall of 2011. It was late on a Friday night, and Jennifer had been hanging out with an old girlfriend, who she had not seen for a few months. Laughs and a few drinks were the order of the night. The laughs were, however, destined to come to a sudden, shuddering end. It was not long after midnight that Jennifer left her friend’s apartment. And although the two had not seen each other for several months, they only lived approximately a ten-minute walk from each other – the lack of contact having been due to the fact that her friend had been on a temporary work assignment in Florida. So, given the close proximity to Jennifer’s apartment, she decided to take a walk home - the quiet town hardly being a hotbed of crime or muggings. Only a couple of minutes before she reached her own abode, Jennifer saw what she assumed was a large black dog walking towards her, on the sidewalk. As the creature got closer, Jennifer was horrified to see it was actually a significantly-sized cat. As in the size of a jaguar. Jennifer was about to make a run for cover – but to where, at that time of night, she admitted she had no idea – when the cat suddenly stood upright, changed its appearance and ran across the road, at a phenomenal speed, and vanished into an alley on the other side of the road. Notably, Jennifer said that the cat did not lose its black color as it changed into human form – nor did it lose its cat-like head. It was, according to Jennifer, something that appeared half-human and half-cat. A definitive were-cat.
Within the history of fairy lore, there exists a longstanding tradition of these magical – and sometimes manipulative, dangerous, and even deadly – entities having the ability to shapeshift into a near-dizzying number of forms. We’ll begin with one of the lesser known creatures that falls into the fairy category. Its name is the Selkie, a beast that is most associated with the people and the old folklore of northern Scotland, the Shetland and Orkney Islands, Ireland, and Iceland. It’s fair to say that the Selkie is not too dissimilar to the legendary mermaid, although, as will become apparent, there are significant differences, too.
Like the mermaid – and its male equivalent, the merman – the Selkie is an animal that dwells deep in ocean waters and which has a longstanding connection to the human race. Also like mermaids, the Selkie is said to be a seducer-supreme. Whereas, in times past, mermaids and mermen were perceived as being half-human and half-fish in appearance, they were not shapeshifters, per se. Rather, they were a combination of creatures. The Selkie, however, has the unique ability to take on two specific forms: that of a seal and that of a human – both male and female. Whereas mermaids are limited to living in the oceans, the Selkie exists as a seal in the water and as a human on land. It achieves the latter by discarding its seal skin and taking on human form – that of a beautiful, alluring woman or a handsome, muscular man.
While the Selkie is certainly a manipulative creature – as all fairies are said to be – it is not a malicious one, at least not for the most part. Not only do Selkies have a deep affinity for the human race, they are also attracted to us – physically, emotionally and sexually. A Selkie may live in the seas of our world for an extraordinarily long period of time. Should, however, one of these magical things develop a lusting for, or an attraction to, a human, they will cast off, and carefully hide, their sealskin and take to the land in human guise. A twist on this aspect of the legend maintains that if the person in question can locate the hidden hide, then the Selkie will remain with that same person and the Selkie’s love will last as long as their human companion lives. Even when the Selkie stay on the land with its lover, the time very often comes when the yearning to return to the sea becomes overpowering and, finally, irresistible. Generally speaking, the Selkie – which, in typical fairy style, has an extremely long lifespan – will only do so when its human partner has passed on. When the grieving process is over, the Selkie will then seek out its sealskin that it discarded and hid years earlier, take on its original seal form, and spend the rest of its life traveling the seas.
Finally, on the matter of fairies and shapeshifting, we have the Donas de Fuera of Sicily, which is an island in the Mediterranean Sea and a region of Italy. Very much like the elementals of England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, the Donas de Fuera were small, humanoid entities that had somewhat of a fraught relationship with the local, human population. Although there were both male and female beings, certainly it was the latter who were most visible when it came to interacting with the people of Sicily. While they were described as both beautiful and enchanting, the Donas de Fuera were not to be messed with. They certainly had their friendly and even helpful sides to their characters, but, if and when offended, their wrath ranged from cruel and dangerous to deadly. The Donas de Fuera looked human – for the most part – aside from their strange feet, which were described as being circular or paw-like. The latter description is most apt, since the Donas de Fuera had the ability to turn themselves into cats – of the regular kind and also of a black variety of mountain lion size. Reports of shapeshifting, large black cats can be found within the United Kingdom, too, interestingly.
The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was someone who had a near-lifelong interest in shapeshifters, and particularly so the traditional werewolf – or wolf-man - of France, Germany, and Austria of the Middle Ages. As Baring-Gould dug further into the controversy of man becoming animal and man again, however, he developed a deep passion for the folklore and mythology of Iceland and Scandinavia – and as well as for the many and varied mysterious creatures that dwelled in such countries. Baring-Gould’s publication, The Book of Werewolves, reveals that of particular fascination to him were the Eigi Einhamir, which, basically, means “of more than one skin,” a phrase which Baring-Gould specifically used in his book. There may not be a better way of describing a supernatural shapeshifter. The saga of the Eigi Einhamir dates far back into history; in fact, to the very earliest years of Pagan times when Christianity had still yet to leave its mark on much of Europe.
Chiefly, the story of these enigmatic and dangerous people originates in Norway and Iceland. The Eigi Einhamir were a unique and mysterious band of mighty warriors who dwelled in the frozen wastelands and who could take on the form of just about any living entity that crossed their minds. The animals whose forms they assumed were referred to as the Hamr, while the actual process of bodily transformation was known as Skipta Homum. It wasn’t just a case of physically mutating, however. The Eigi Einhamir not only took on the muscle-power of the creature at issue, whether a bear, a wolf, or a wild cat. Their minds were majorly altered, too, and to the point where the innate savagery and beastly natures of the animals overwhelmed both their human minds and thought processes. The mutation did not occur as it did with the likes of the werewolf, however. On some occasions, the person’s soul would leave their body and invade the mind of the animal, effectively taking it over. For the onlookers, it was a traumatic time, as – with the soul now in a new body – the original body lay rigidly and unmoving and seemingly in a state of death. At least, that is, until the soul returned to its original body. At that point, the person would then suddenly wake up, almost as if they were rising from the grave. As this article shows, it's not just werewolves that shapeshift!