[N.B. Please also check out our podcast episode on this phenomenon as well: Episode 82 – Shapeshifting]
One of the talents attributed to witches in a number of cultures is self-transformation. If you’ve plunged more than ankle-deep into witchcraft research, you’ve likely run across famed Scottish witch Isobel Gowdie’s charm, which she reputedly used to transform into a hare, which begins “An I shall go into a hare, with sorrow and sighing in mickle care…” Gowdie was not alone in her belief that through the force of her magic and her will (and perhaps some psychoactive botanical substances or a judicious application of rendered animal fat), she could change her form to that of an animal. Perhaps the most famous example of this power is the werewolf, which sometimes changes of its own volition, but more often is a victim of the shiny moonlight’s powers.
In the New World, plenty of witches also had the power of transformation. This article will look at a few key tales of shapeshifting from New World lore, and ask questions about what the stories could mean for a magically inclined person with an interest in exchanging human form for an animal’s.
Perhaps the best-known and most widespread incarnation of the shapeshifting legend east of the Mississippi is the story of the loup-garou (sometimes also rou-garou, rugaru, or a similar variation). The beast can be found just about anywhere which saw frequent contact with French Colonial influences, such as in Canadian border zones or Louisiana. Often the loup-garou is essentially a werewolf, a human being who can—through magical means often diabolical in nature—become a wolf-like beast. Some versions of the story, recorded by University of Louisiana professor Barry Ancelet, describe the beast as more of a thief than a predator for humans, stealing fishermen’s clams while they sleep. The exact nature of the creature is also indeterminate, since depending on one’s location, it can “range from the rougarou as a headless horseman to a wolf that prowls the forest at night” (Lugibihl). The actual transformation may be permanent (or even ghostly, as some accounts tell of the beast as the remnant of a cruel old man), or may only last for 101 days, after which time the loup-garou transfers its curse to another person through a bite or drinking his or her blood. A person under the curse seems to know whether he or she is suffering from the transformation, and becomes rather wan and unhealthy, but usually remains silent about the condition with others. A major variation on the loup-garou is the bearwalker, about which Richard Dorson recorded several stories in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the mid-20th century. As you can probably guess, the assumption of a bear form (or at least an animal form which resembles a bear more than a wolf) is more common in the lore of the borderlands on the north of the Great Lakes.
In the mid-section of the United States, particularly from the mid-Atlantic down to the upland South and across into the Midwest, the power of transformation is far less canine in nature. While the loup-garou certainly fell into the purview of New World magical lore (albeit lore largely imported from Europe), the tales of transformation one finds in places like Appalachia skew distinctly witchy in flavor. Several stories, including one which we’ve recorded here before called “The Black Cat Murders,” talk about witches transforming into cats in order to visit harm on prospective victims. Patrick Gainer recorded his version of the tale in West Virginia from Mrs. Robert Pettry, whose account included a man with a pet bear that struck off the witch-cat’s paw only to have it transform into a human hand once it was severed. This is a very common feature of witch transformation tales, and often once a witch has been injured in her animal state, she bears the marks of her injury in human form as well (which proves helpful to neighbors in identifying her). One of the remarkable points about these transformations remains that in many cases the witch has a physical human body in one place and a spectral body (with some corporeal aspects, as in the case with the bear above) that can travel around at her behest while remaining deeply linked with her. That trait appears throughout North America (again, with some Old World antecedents, including Africa as well as Europe). A tale from Virginia recorded in The Silver Bullet, by Hubert J. Davis, tells of women who turns into a cat only to have her hand whacked off with a knife. The next day, when the man who did the whacking tries to shake hands with the suspected witch, she refuses because her hand is now missing. Davis also reports a tale of a witch who becomes a cat only to be caught by a lonely mountain man, and transformed back into a woman, she marries him and bears him two children. When he begins drunkenly telling someone how they met, she turns herself and the kids into cats and kittens and they disappear forever through a hole in the wall.
Of course, not all witches turn into cats, and not al were-cats are witches, exactly, either. In Utica, New York, Davis found a tale of a witch who turned herself into a black colt that would appear in neighbors’ fields and graze among their horses. When a man sneakily catches the colt and has it shod at the blacksmith’s (I’d note the importance of iron to this story, by the way), the colt then gets put into a pasture, then disappears. However, a neighbor-woman is seen with bandages on all her hands and feet the next day. New York is also the home of famed witch Aunty Greenleaf, who reportedly would turn herself into a white deer rather than a cat or a horse. She managed to elude hunters constantly until one hunter got the idea to use melted silver for bullets and struck her in her transformed state. She, of course, took ill and died (Schlosser 2005). Another famed shapeshifting creature, however, is not a witch at all, but a Native woman who has been cursed into cat form known as the Wampus Cat (Schlosser 2004). Lest you think that all those who are animagi (to steal a term from Harry Potter) are female, an African American tale speaks of a male witch whose form is that of a boarhog, and who uses his powers of magic and transformation to gain a pretty wife with lots of land. Interestingly, a little boy in the story—often called the “Old Witch Boy”—knows the boarhog witch’s secret and reveals it to the girl’s father, resulting in the death of the hog-witch (Leeming & Page).
Some of the most pervasive and powerful witch-stories of transformation come from the American Southwest. Navajo skinwalker tales abound with narratives about evil witches who could use the pelts of animals to take on different shapes, usually to terrorize outsiders or those they did not like on the reservations. Some accounts claim that the witch who could take on the skin of another creature was the most powerful type of witch, and had mastered what was known as “The Witchery Way.” Such a creature was to be greatly feared, and trade in certain skins and furs was severely limited within Navajo culture. Skinwalkers could be recognized by some of their supernatural abilities, but more especially by their eyes: in animal form, their eyes looked human, and vice versa when in their human form. Nasario Garcia recorded many tales in New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and California from people in the late 20th and early 21st centuries who reported knowing about or having seen witches that had taken on animal forms, just as skinwalkers do. One story related by a a man who recalled the events of the tale from when he was eight years old told of how his father had been driving an oxcart on a dark night with his son (the narrator) and a few farmhands along with him. Suddenly, two sheep appeared alongside the cart, one white and one black, and simply followed them, always matching pace with the cart. Eventually, they simply disappeared. Many others recorded by Garcia spoke of witches taking on owl forms to travel out by night, or occasionally coyote or dog forms, in which case they seemed to want to bite errant travelers (although never in such a way as to cause permanent injury or death, although most who see these creatures report being terrified).
So just what do witches do once they are transformed? In many of the stories, they seem to be up to no good. The tales of witch-cats often speak of numerous murders or unexplained deaths attributed to the shapeshifting sorcerers in the area. In some tales, witches take on cat forms to sneak into the houses of children and steal their breath (which is obviously related to the superstition about cats stealing babies’ breath). In some cases, the witches seem to be up to mischief, as in the case of Aunty Greenleaf, who likes to lead hunters on wild chases and get them lost, or cause their guns to fail. The loup-garous steals food, or worse, passes its curse on to others, sometimes even drinking the blood of another person to accomplish its nefarious task. The near-universal terror of skinwalkers in the Southwest is attributed to their powers to cause sickness and death as witches, although they seldom seem to kill or even severely maim while in animal form (although there are often reports of animal mutilation later connected to them). Richard Dorson records one tale from the Southwest in which shapeshifting witches seem to threaten each other more than the average person. He speaks of a pair of witches who make a bet about which one is faster in horse form. The loser has to stay a horse, which is accomplished by means of a magical halter. The winning witch sells the loser to a man, whose son accidentally removes the halter, and the witch transforms into a fish and swims away in a nearby river, then continues to transform until he’s a coyote. The coyote is tracked and killed by dogs in the end, and notably the witches have done no harm to anyone but themselves.
Why do shapeshifting witches get a bad rap, then? I would like to suggest that the real uneasiness among those who tell the stories is a fear that witches can be anywhere, and anyone, and just about anything. You never know when you might offend a hidden witch, who could be the cat twitching its tail by the fire or a horse in a pasture across the road. A healthy show of respect (even one tinged with fear) makes for a good insurance policy against the witch’s other fearful talents. Of course, being able to take on animal forms also means that the witch knows just how well you treat the lower orders of species, which might also inspire one to act a little better around the flocks and fields, or to pass an extra dog biscuit to the pooch curled up at your feet. Who knows, that might just be all that stands between you and a rather nasty hex, right?
Thanks for reading!
- Davis, Hubert J. 1975. The Silver Bullet, and Other American Witch Stories. Jonathan David Publishers.
- Dorson, Richard. 1964. Buying the Wind: American Regional Folklore. Univ. of Chicago Press.
- Dorson, Richard. 1972. Bloodstoppers & Bearwalkers. Harvard Univ. Press.
- Gainer, Patrick W. 2008. Witches, Ghosts, & Signs. West Virginia Univ. Press.
- Garcia, Nasario. 2007. Brujerias: Stories of Witchcraft & the Supernatural in the American Southwest & Beyond. Texas Tech Univ. Press.
- Leeming, David, and Jake Page. 1999. Myths, Legends, & Folktales of America: An Anthology. Oxford Univ. Press.
- Lugibihl, Steve. 2001. “The Rougarou: A Louisiana Folklore Legend.” The Nichollsworth. 26 April. Louisiana State University.
- “Navajo Skinwalker Legend.” 2015. Navajo Legends Website.
- Pitre, Glen. 1993. Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana. Louisiana State Univ. Press.
- Schlosser, S. E. 2004. Spooky South. Globe Pequot Press.
- Schlosser, S. E. 2005. Spooky New York. Globe Pequot Press.
Wilby, Emma. 2010. The Visions of Isobel Gowdie: Magic, Witchcraft, & Dark Shamanism in Seventeenth-Century Scotland. Sussex Academic Press.