An Introduction to Shapeshifting
Metamorphosis is a strong impetus for growth, it aids us in changing ourselves, our perceptions of the world and our relationship with the world. When we consciously employ positive change in our lives, we can destroy that which no longer serves us, and embrace that which will help us transform in a positive way.
When working with animal teachers and energies, it is possible to consciously employ metamorphosis in the form of shapeshifting. I am not talking about literally or physically changing your form in the way of many movies and fantasy stories, instead I am talking about the act of embracing, emulating or taking into yourself the qualities of an animal in order to experience change and metamorphosis.
Shapeshifting in this sense can be understood as the ability to change and shift the thoughts and perceptions we usually inhabit. As a human we have ways that we perceive the world around us, but with bat inside our body and mind, the way we perceive the world and ourselves changes radically. Through the processes of inviting the animal energy to become a part of us, we shift and change our own understanding.
The act of shapeshifting has been common throughout many animistic cultures for a very long time. In many Indigenous tales, such as The Roe Deer Man (Nauwald, 2004, p. 94), a person could change quite easily between an animal and a human using techniques that involves wearing an animal’s skin or an animal part, or simply using thought and will to change the form. In Japanese folklore, the kitsune or fox spirits were thought to be able to take the form of humans, or alternatively possess humans so that they became more fox-like in nature. In paganism, many gods and goddesses possess the ability to change form, and even those who spend a great deal of time as an animal – such as the Morrighu (who occupies the form of ravens in some depictions), or even the Horned God, Cernunnos, who can appear as a stag, or an antlered man (as seen on the fresco of the Pilier des nautes in Paris).
Those gods, spirits and entities who could change into animals often took on the nature of those animals. Those who were possessed by foxes in Japan were thought to take on ‘fox-like’ qualities, their eyes became more calculating and cunning, they were said to yelp like a fox yelps, they became at times deceptive, and women who were possessed were thought to be more deliberately seductive and graceful (Hearn, 2005 / Nozaki, 1961). For those who believe in lycanthropy or werewolves, it was thought that lycanthropes took on the qualities of wolves, from craving raw meat, to becoming more alert and comfortable in nature and sometimes even taking on the physical appearance of a wolf (Hamel, 1969).
When working magic or ritual, shapeshifting with animal energies involves the invocation of that animal energy into the self. It is not a responsibility to be taken lightly, and one should not attempt it unless they have a comprehensive understanding of grounding techniques. Depending on the animal and the person involved, it can be difficult to fully rid the self of the animal energy, and this can be a problem if the animal energy is quite different to your usual personality and/or you are finding that it is becoming destructive or unhelpful.
1. Knowledge and Expansion – seeing the world through human eyes is wonderful most of the time, but sometimes it helps to literally see the world through a different perspective. Working consciously with animal energies is a way of getting that perspective. Seeing the world through the eyes of spirit wolf, or spirit snail even, can help us to understand the differences and diversity in this world, while also helping us to feel even more interconnected with nature. When taking in the energy of other animals, we expand our own perceptions and knowledge.
2. Reconciliation – shapeshifting can be especially helpful to help us reconcile our differences with animals we do not like or fear. For example, I can invite chimpanzee spirit into my body (an animal I am not a big fan of!) and watch how it changes my personality and actually experience what I don’t like about it. I can literally observe from the inside out and see what in particular about the animal energy is setting off my inner alarms and making me feel resentful or uneasy. Working directly with animal energies we have problems with in this manner can also help us to see what we have in common with that animal, and help us to see what we do not like about ourselves.
3. Communion – engaging with the animal world and with animal spirits through shapeshifting enables us to experience a profound sense of communion; not just with the animal that we invite into ourselves, but also with all of nature. Shapeshifting in this way can be a way of reconnecting with nature and the great spirit/s, and also a way of experiencing ‘life.’ It can be a very positive, life-affirming force, and it can be an extremely joyous and primal experience.
4. Strength in Magic – many animals will, when treated respectfully, lend vast reserves of energy to our rituals and energy work. For example, I have talked to a few people who have invited horse into their body and consequently been able to pull from a vast pool of energy. Likewise, if you need specific types of energy, working with animal energies in this manner can be a good solution. Sometimes we need a strong, aggressive and banishing energy that we may find difficult to invoke without aid; aggressive animals like badger and wolverine can help us get in touch with our own inner, archetypal aggression and use it in a healthy and defensive manner. Likewise if we are doing a love spell or ritual to open ourselves up to the possibility of love, we can consider invoking the spirit of a loving and generous animal into our bodies; like the mourning dove.
5. Journeying – in practical animism, many who journey will change form in the otherworlds in order to travel faster or more quickly to their destination. I become a river dolphin while swimming underwater, and many others take different forms depending on what animals they feel a connection with. While journeying, animal teachers once we have shapeshifted can also help practical animists with many of their tasks. Animal forms are good for hiding, getting places, negotiation with other spirits and of course in the practices of certain forms of magic and ritual. Taking on an animal form can also be a successful way of coaxing soul fragments back into this world, since many people often see that there is an innocence and lack of guile in animals that encourages them to open up and to trust.
Shapeshifting is not without its risks. As mentioned earlier, it is good to have a knowledge of grounding before attempting shapeshifting, because otherwise it can be sometimes quite difficult to come back to a full and safe awareness of the self. Some animal spirits are tricksters, like coyote and fox, and I don’t recommend working with them unless you are experienced with both shapeshifting and tricksters! Other animal spirits might simply not come at all, no matter how hard you try, and some come with such a force that you may feel knocked flat on your feet and forget why you were invoking the spirit in the first place. It’s important to remember respect when working with the animal world, both for the animal kingdom, and for the integrity of the self.
Hamel, F. (1969). Human Animals, Werewolves & Other Transformations. University Books. New York.
Hearn, L. (2005). Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan. Project Gutenberg E-Text Edition.
Lupa. (2006). Fang and Fur, Blood and Bone – a Primal Guide to Animal Magic. Megalithica Books. Stafford.
Nauwald, N. (2004). Flying With Shamans in Fairy Tales and Myths. Binkey Kok Publications. Holland.
Nozaki, K. (1961). Kitsune – Japan’s Fox of Mystery, Romance and Humour. University of Hawai’i Press. Honolulu.