Shapeshifting Witches: Legends From Europe and North America
Shapeshifters Throughout History
We have all watched a movie that featured at least one growling, drooling werewolf. These creatures are now found on television and in books. We hear about kids who actually believe they are werewolves, and we shake our heads in disbelief and confusion. But this notion of werewolves is not just a story for the books or big screen. It is not just a story to fascinate and frighten us. It is a story that has dominated almost every culture at some point in time throughout history. And the idea of shapeshifting isn't merely exclusive to the popular Werewolf.
Legends of shapeshifters can be found on every continent, namely throughout Europe and North America. If we look back in time and try to trace the roots of these legends, we can see that they all fall back to one idea...that shapeshifters are actually witches in another more powerful and terrifying form.
British Isles: Witches and Hares
If we travel across the Atlantic Ocean and find ourselves in the British Isles, we would discover much legend and lore surrounding witches and animals. It has long been thought that witches had "familiars", which were essentially spirits that often took the form of an animal of some kind. Often these familiars were cats, dogs, birds of various kinds, toads, and hares (among others). These familiars were thought to aid the witch in her magical workings, and it was also believed that witches were granted power by these spirits in order to take the form of their familiar.
In Scotland, it was said that witches had the ability to shapeshift into the form of a hare. One "witch" in the 1600s by the name of Isobel Gowdie admitted openly in court to this shapeshifting ability. She said that she was able to shift into a hare and join other witches. Isobel Gowdie gave the exact incantation for her shapeshifting rites:
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 into original form:
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 Roman Empire and Christianity's rise in Europe, the people believed in various gods, some of which were associated with the hare. It is possible that witches were associated with hares because of old pagan beliefs and traditions that thrived even after Christianity's rise. One of those gods was a Germanic goddess known as Eostre.
Legend says that when a hunter would shoot a hare, he would go to retrieve his catch and find that the hare had transformed into a woman's dead body.
Some would say that witches used mere words to enable their shapeshifting transformations to take place, while others say that they would make and drink powerful unguents or potions made from bones of a hare.
Werewolves: Witches in Wolf Skin?
Werewolves were believed to be a prevalent species in European countries in the Medieval times. They were particularly popular in Germany, Bavaria, Austria, France, and a few North European countries. Just as their witch counterparts in the British Isles, most of the werewolves' accusers claimed that werewolves were witches or black magicians that received their power from the Devil. Some believed that werewolves were cursed or afflicted by the bite of another werewolf, but all of it came back to the idea that these werewolves were shapeshifting witches.
The accusations of these supposed shapeshifting wolf-witches were put on the frontline during the Dark Ages up through the Early Modern period in cases known as the werewolf witch trials. In Estonia, more than dozen men and women were accused of killing people while in their werewolf form and they admitted to these charges (under torture, keep in mind). These Estonians claimed they had to put on the skin of a wolf in order to become the werewolf. They were also considered witches for these actions.
Other werewolves were tried during the Witch Trials, one in particular by the name of Hans the Werewolf who said he had gotten his wolf skin and powers from a man dressed in black (presumably Satan by the Courts). Because it was believed Hans was in cahoots with the Devil, he was also charged as a witch.
Interestingly, there have been other accounts in the Middle Ages of men accused of witchcraft and werewolf-ism that claimed their ability to shapeshift was given to them by God. They said that they would transform into a werewolf and go into Hell to acquire any stolen livestock or plant harvest that the Devil and his "witches" had stolen. So...are they the Hounds of Hell or the Hounds of God?
Witchcraft, Shamanism, and/or Hunting Rituals?
Before we move onto North American legends of shapeshifters, let us look at the fact that shapeshifting has long been a belief and ritual practice in multiple cultures' forms of shamanism. Before the days of Christianity, many villages had a resident shaman that they would see to bless them, cure them, and help them in all manners of health, business, and spirituality. The shaman was sort of a combination between a doctor, priest, and counselor.
If we look at various cave paintings and ancient texts, we often see a picture of a person dressed as an animal of some kind (or they are wearing a head-piece of an animal). Much of the time this is the local shaman in his or her ritual form of shapeshifting. They believed they should wear the likeness of the animal that they were trying to pull power and knowledge from.
Also, ancient cultures would put on animal skins and headdresses in order to "blend in" with the animal that they were hunting. The ancient Celts would wear the headdress of a deer before going on the hunt. Native Americans would put on headdresses of various animals that they hunted.
The question is, was the idea of witches shapeshifting into animals to harm people twisted and mutated from the actual practice of shamans or hunters from ancient pagan times? It might have been merely another way for the strong to weed out the week...for the new religion to rid the land from the threat of the old ways.
Skinwalkers of the Southern United States
North America has its own legends of diabolical shapeshifting witches, except these beings have a specific name. They are the skinwalkers. This legend actually stems from various Native American tribes' experiences and folklore, including that of the Navajo tribe. The Navajo tribe has what some call the "best" eyewitness accounts on record, including stories of skinwalkers who take the form of snarling, red-eyed coyotes that stalk entire families.
One Native girl's bone-chilling story tells of a night when a skinwalker came to her front door and then climbed onto her roof. The skinwalker knocked on the roof and all over her home's walls in an effort to scare her and her siblings out of the house. Other eyewitness accounts are of people who see skinwalkers running beside their cars at high speeds, or jumping out in front of their cars and causing car accidents. One man even claimed that the skinwalkers followed him to his home and played unidentifiable instruments as they walked around the perimeter of his property.
Legend says that these shapeshifters are black magicians or dark witches that use their power to frighten, harm, and steal from people they do not like (usually only other Native Americans but sometimes they choose non-natives). Legend also says that when a skinwalker is shot, they will turn back into their original human form (very similar to the legends of werewolves and hare-witches in Europe).
The lore of the skinwalkers can usually be found in the Southern parts of the United States, from the Carolinas all the way out to Arizona. The skinwalkers are also said to take the shape of other animals (besides the coyote), including different kinds of birds, bears, etc.
Booger Dogs and Witchy Rabbits
Other stories of shapeshifters can be discovered if one is to delve deep into the folklore of the Appalachian Mountains in the U.S.
Witches were believed to have the ability to shift into the form of rabbits and dogs, according to various old-timers in the Appalachians. One particularly spooky story in the Appalachians is that of the "Booger Dog", which was a paranormal creature that looked like a dog but could never quite be caught by anyone pursuing it. It had a foul smell to it, and many people believed it was either a ghost or a shapeshifter of some kind.
Rabbits have been shot on hunts, and the hunters would tell stories of the rabbits turning back into women's bodies. The shot woman would then run away, wounded, to die out of sight.
Is it possible that the shapeshifting witches from Europe made their way to North America and continue their traditions on this continent? Or is it possible that shamans can turn to the dark side and use their shapeshifting rituals to physically convert into something else entirely? Or is all of this just a part of our warped imaginations, manifesting from years of fear and speculation of the paranormal and the misunderstood?
One Area Where Skinwalkers Have Been Sighted
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© 2014 Nicole Canfield