Mechanics of Shapeshifting

The mechanics of shapeshifting have been covered almost from the first recorded appearances of shapeshifting figures.  That is, if we define the mechanics as “how does one change into an animal”.  In fact, this definition of mechanics was a rather major concern for the medieval and early modern sources.  The early modern authors were particularly concerned with the “how to” question, as represented by a couple examples:

  • Peeter Stubbe—A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of One Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer (1590)
  • Henri Bouget—Discours des Sorciers (1602)
  • Jean Grenier—his trial for werewolfism (1603)
  • Thomas Blount—Glossographia: or a Dictionary, Interpreting all Such Hard Words of Whatsoever Language, Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue; With  Etymologies, Definitions, and Historical Observations on the Same (1661)

There were many possible methods of transformation discussed by the sources from ancient Greece through the 17th century.  For the purposes of conserving space, I’ll limit this post to the five most common elements or methods in no particular order.


Removal of Clothing

Many stories of werewolves, in particular, require that the person remove their clothing to change form.  This is a symbolic removal of the trappings of civilization and humanity in order to embrace and become the beast.  Clothing is also, historically, an important indicator of social status, so the soldiers and noblemen of classical and medieval literature removing the symbols of their status is also important.  The shedding of clothing may, or may not, be connected to other elements, such as unguents and demonic instruction.

  • Petronius—Satyricon (1st century CE)
  • Marie de France—“Bisclavret” (late-12th century; though the condition seems to be genetic)
  • Jean Grenier—Trial record (1603)



Often, particularly in classical and demonological sources, the potential werewolf must coat themselves in an unguent of some sort.  In the demonological sources (14th to 18th centuries), the recipe for this unguent is often taught by a demon or devil in return for service.

  • Virgil—Eclogue VIII (1st century CE)
  • Jean Grenier—Trial record (1603)



A favorite throughout history is shapeshifting as a curse.  This stretches back as least as far as ancient Rome, in the written record; at least as far as ancient Greece in the oral tradition.  The source of the curse varies from the pagan gods to agents of the Judeo-Christian God to witches (or simply ambitious noblewomen) in some of the more misogynistic texts.  In sources with divine origin of the curse, the curse seems to be permanent.  In those in which human agency causes the curse, it is reversible.

  • Ovid—Metamorphoses (8 CE; Jupiter curses Lycaeon)
  • —“Arthur and Gorlagon” (12th century; Gorlagon’s wife curses him)
  • Gerald of Wales—The History and Topography of Ireland (1188 CE; St. Patrick curses the people of Ossory)
  • Romance of William of Palerne (c. 1200; Alphouns’s stepmother curses him)


Bathing in a Special Lake

In some, particularly old, stories, the ability to change forms is the result of bathing in a particular lake.  Something in the ritual, which echoes prehistoric rites, allows the bather to change shapes.  It can, in some cases, be that the ritual awakens a latent genetic talent.

  • Pausanias—The Description of Greece (2nd century CE; Demarchus, the Olympic boxer)
  • Augustine—City of God (426 CE; discussion of the Arcadians)


Donning a Wolfskin

A few stories, more in the oral tradition than the written, indicate that wearing a specially prepared wolfskin (or other animal skin) is necessary for the transformation.  This is often connected with other methods.  For instance, in the case of Jean Grenier (1603), supposedly a devil taught Jean how to prepare a wolfskin with a special salve, coat himself in another substance, and wear the wolfskin to turn into a wolf.


Fantasy: Origin of the Genre and Tropes

In thinking about the fantasy genre and history, my mind circled around a few topics.  One that it kept coming back to was the origins of the genre and its tropes.  There are many scholars and others who have argued that the origins of the fantasy genre are the ancient Greek epics, perhaps even the Mesopotamian epics like Gilgamesh.  I tend to disagree on that point, in large part because the ancient epics, and the myths, were all religious in nature.  That is to say, they were considered to be part of the religious canon of their respective cultures.

I would argue that the modern fantasy genre begins with the medieval romances and epics/sagas.  These tales possess all the elements of modern fantasy, display most of the tropes, and concern many of the character types involved in the genre.

But, wait, you say . . . the romances and sagas involved God and gods.  Weren’t they religious?

Yes and no.

Although they often incorporated religious elements, whether the devotion to the Abrahamic God in the Arthurian tales or the presence of Norse deities in the northern sagas, they were not considered part of their respective cultures’ religious canon (or cultural origin stories, for that matter).

Both genres were inherently linked to history and shaping society.  The sagas and epics reinforced societal norms through tales of punishment for violations.  They also set and reflected social ideals.  Most focused on tribal warfare, whether mortal or divine.  For their part, the romances and lais focused on royal courts and proper behavior.  They were, arguably, written in an attempt to pacify the wild warriors of the early-12th century French court (and spread throughout Europe).  It is believed that the romances, and lais, may have originated in the court of Marie of France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  At the very least, she was a major patron of romance writers.

I’ve chosen three examples to look at a bit more closely, and will address them in chronological order.



(10th century; trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton, 2002)

Throughout the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, we see many elements of modern fantasy.  We have the (semi-)wandering hero, who is also a prince.  We have a monster threatening civilization, in fact we have a pair of them.  In the first two thirds, the Grendel section, we have magic swords—“a sword in her armor, an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants” (1558-9) that could slay Grendel’s mother.  In the less well known final third, we have dragons and barrows—“Then an old harrower of the dark / happened to find the hoard open, / the burning one who hunts out barrows, / the slick-skinned dragon” (2270-3).  Many of the elements found in Beowulf’s story continue to appear throughout Tolkien’s work and that of his contemporaries.


Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

(c. 1170; trans. Burton Raffel, Yale UP, 1987).

Chretien’s romance, written for Marie of France, is chock full of modern fantasy tropes, many of which also happen to be tropes of the medieval romance.  The questing knight, attempts to restore honor, fights with monstrous beasts, and sacrifice appear throughout the romance.  Chretien discusses giants, different from the Norse, as herdsmen and monsters.  He writes, “And I saw, / Sitting on a tree stump, a lowborn / Creature, black as a Moor, / Huge, and hideously ugly” (287-90).  Later, in order to complete his quest of honor, Yvain needs to infiltrate a castle.  He meets a woman who “gave him the little ring / And told him it had such power / That, just as bark hid the wood / Of a tree, and no one could see it, / So this ring would conceal anyone / Who wore it, as long as the stone / Sat in his palm” (1025-32).  In short, she loans him an invisibility ring, possibly the earliest appearance of one that I can recall.


The Story of the Volsungs

(13th century; trans. Douglas Killings & David Widger, Project Gutenberg, 2013)

The Volsunga Saga is one of the most well-known of the Norse sagas.  It appears throughout our culture and tales, from Richard Wagner through Rick Riordan.  But, the original features the dragon hoard as one of its primary elements, including the dragon.  “Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went” (Ch. 18).  It also includes both dwarves and elves, although the Volsunga Saga tends to conflate the two.  Some versions consider Andvari an elf, others a dwarf.  As Killings and Widger translate, “there was a dwarf called Andvari, who ever abode in that force, which was called Andvari’s force, in the likeness of a pike, and got meat for himself, for many fish there were in the force; now Otter, my brother, was ever wont to enter into the force, and bring fish aland, and lay them one by one on the bank” (Ch. 14).

Biology of Shapeshifting

The question of biology and shapeshifting is, as one might expect, largely a modern concern.  More specifically, it tends to be a greater concern for urban fantasy and paranormal romances than for more “traditional” fantasy as the former two genres bring in more modern scientific views and foundations.  Some, of course, dodge the question entirely, such as Jack Williamson, in Darker Than You Think (1948), who used lycanthropy as psychic projection—though it is unclear whether the body remains behind, is transformed, or something else, especially as the story progresses.

That said, the earliest exploration of the biology of shapeshifting that I’m aware of was produced by G. Havers in 1664.  Havers published an English translation of A General Collection of Discourses of the Virtuosi of France, Upon Questions of all Sorts of Philosophy, and Other Natural Knowledge, Made in the Assembly of the Beaux Esprits at Paris, by the Most Ingenious Persons of that Nation (hell of a title).  The “virtuosi of France”, according to Havers, argued, “[f]or otherwise, how should the Sorcerer reduce his Body into so small a volumn as the form of a Rat, Mouse, Toad, and other such Animal into which it sometimes is turn’d” (204).  In other words, in the mid-17th century, they were arguing from a position that employed the law of conservation of mass (before said law had been codified).

Among others, Philip Jose Farmer built on this question in his short story “Wolf, Iron, and Moth” (The Ultimate Werewolf, ed. Byron Priess, 1991).  He writes, “Only the moon saw his hair and skin melt until he looked like a mass of jelly that had been formed into the figure of a man [. . .] The furious metabolic fires in that jelly had already devoured some of the fat that Varglik had accumulated so swiftly” (59).  Nina Kiriki Hoffman does something similar in her story “Unleashed” (The Ultimate Werewolf, ed. Byron Priess, 1991), “Change gripped her breasts, flattening them against her chest, her body shifting to absorb and redistribute tissue” (76).  Obviously, both authors are concerned with the mass and tissue changes involved in changing from a human to wolf shape, and vice versa.

Farmer’s story also touches on the scientific question of energy requirements and use to change.  He writes, “The furious metabolic fires in that jelly had already devoured some of the fat” (59).  Charlaine Harris also plays with this briefly in her Southern Vampire series.  Other approaches have included a strong urge to eat after changing shape, particularly repeatedly in a short span of time, as food and fat reserves are burned to fuel the transformation.

Some authors go a few steps further in linking biology and shapeshifting.  For example, Ilona Andrews states that, at least for Lyc-V (Lycos virus) shifters, there are only mammalian shifters (Magic Bleeds).  The implication is that because humans are mammals, they can only transform into mammals.  Some exceptions are included later, but appear to be either a) non-human species (lamassu) or b) incredibly ancient or mis-identified (an apparent were-croc, which might not actually be a were/lyc-V case).  Others have used this as well, including the webcomic Peter is the Wolf (it’s title a play on Peeter Stubbe, the infamous German werewolf, and “Peter and the Wolf”).

The last element that comes to mind for shapeshifting and biology is the actual reshaping of the body.  Many authors choose to gloss over the change (ex. Pratchett) or gloss over it for some shifters (ex. Rowling for animagi).  But, a few use the change for dramatic or horror effect.  Charlaine Harris, for instance, writes, “It was a sort of gloppy sound.  Sticky.  Like stirring a stiff spoon through some thick liquid that had hard things in it, maybe peanuts or toffee bits.  Or bone chips” (Dead to the World, Ace, 2011, p. 158).  The painful bone reorientation is the key element here.  Likewise, J.K. Rowling describes, in broad strokes, a similarly painful change as Remus Lupin is chained to Ron Weasley and Peter Pettigrew, emerging from under the Whomping Willow.  The change is described as being highly painful previously as well, when Lupin describes his childhood transformations.  These painful shifts are in contrast to the instant, silent, and painless transformations undertaken by the animagi.  I suspect the difference is that in Rowling’s world lycanthropy is essentially a disease (although she switches back and forth between talking about it as an illness or a species), while animagi use a transfiguration spell.

Fantasy and Historical Realism

Oddly enough, the question of historical realism seems to crop up with a degree of regularity in the fantasy genre.  I’m not entirely certain why (as I’ll explain below), but suspect it has to do with the Eurocentric medieval roots of the genre.  That said, the entire genre has a sliding scale from utterly non-realistic to hyper-realistic that cover the classics (Tolkien, Moorcock, Leiber, Howard, Moore, Bradley) to more modern names (G.R.R. Martin, Rothfuss, Jemisin).  But, even the medieval roots—ex. Chrétien’s Yvain and Lancelot, Gawain & the Green Knight, Beroul’s Tristan, William of Palerne, Marie de France’s “Yonec” and “Bisclavret”—weren’t exactly realistic beyond a certain point.

More often than not, it seems that claims or cries of “historical accuracy” are used to justify rampant sexism or racism in a work.  This appears to be more of a fan thing than an author thing in most cases, though there are exceptions (as shown by some of the so-called Sad/Rabid Puppies).  But, most of these appeals to “historical accuracy” are based on outdated or outright false history.

All said, I’m not entirely certain that “historical accuracy” has a place in the fantasy genre as a whole, at least in most sub-genres.  It is certainly important in historical fantasy (although differences in history can be explained away as the influence of magic), some urban fantasy, and, of course, alternate histories.  But, in epic fantasy, sword & sorcery, and other secondary world fantasies . . . no, Earth’s history has no bearing on the secondary world.  “Historical accuracy” in the case of a secondary world fantasy should never refer to Earth’s history (even if the world is based, however loosely, on Earth), but rather to the secondary world’s history, much of which the reader does not know (exception: Middle-Earth, thanks to the posthumously published Silmarillion, but even that is not a complete history).

Although speaking of the RPG industry in general and D&D in particular, I think Forgotten Realms guru Ed Greenwood put this best for the entire fantasy genre: “But D&D has half-orc, and half-dragons, and half-elves, and has magic items that specifically change gender, right there in the rules.  Surely if you can handle the basic notion of cross-SPECIES sex, having a full variety of gender roles should be something that doesn’t blow your mind” (Facebook post, 5 April 2016).

Eurocentrism in Fantasy

Anyone who’s been following the fantasy genre and authorship has probably noticed that Eurocentrism has become a major issue in the industry over the last decade, especially. There have always been a few non-Caucasian authors and non-Eurocentric works out there in the fantasy and fantasy adjacent genres (ex. Octavia Butler’s Patternist series seems appropriate), but they’ve been token-ish in many respects. And, of course, the industry has been very Caucasian heavy and very male heavy for most of its existence.

Thinking about the issue and my own writing, I understand the reluctance of Caucasian authors to address non-European themes and settings. Both can be tricky to pull off, particularly in uncertain hands. A few have, I think, managed it, such as Max Gladstone and Robert Jackson Bennett, but far too many others have fumbled in the attempt. The balance between trying to write from an unfamiliar perspective, trying to understand another perspective, versus accidental stereotyping can be a problematic one. That said, I think the unfamiliar perspective is something that the fantasy genre does fairly well, after all none of us are sorcery wielding masters of magic schools or dragon riding elven knights, in certain contexts. Add that the line between appreciation of another culture and appropriation of that culture can be a thin one and the option to write fantasy from a different real world cultural, ethnic, or racial perspective can become daunting at best.

For instance, Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson) was once asked if he would ever do a Hindu themed series like he’s done Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Norse. He responded, initially, with, “A sarcastic white guy writing about that? What could possibly go wrong?”

In his follow up, Riordan took what I think is exactly the correct route to fix the issue of Eurocentrism in the genre. He used his fame and position with his publisher to encourage Disney-Hyperion to bring in more non-Caucasian authors and create more resources to help non-Caucasian writers through the publishing stage. The result is Rick Riordan Presents, created in early 2017, that will be publishing three non-Eurocentric works of mythology based urban fantasy and sci-fi later this year (Hindu, Mayan, and Korean).

Content Questions

With the last of the Codex material posted, I now need to generate content again.  🙂

There is a project I’m working on, but as it’s handwritten (my preferred for fiction), it’s not exactly postable.

So, I’ll open this up to the hive mind.  Are there any questions or is there anything you’d like to see my take on covering:
– Writing (fiction or non-)
– Fantasy (written or film)
– Sci-Fi (written or film)
– Worldbuilding
– Education (post-secondary)
– History (pre-17th century)
– Gaming (Tabletop RPGs; I’m a bit behind, but still follow such things)

– Shapeshifters

– Magic (historical or genre)
– Anything else interesting

Codex: Appendices D & E (2017)

(Last Codex post)

Appendix D—Witch Aspects

As with all things witch related, despite “improved relations”, Kemp’s information is rather minimal and not especially helpful.  The Apostates Sawyer and Webster, who have spent decades closely associating with witches, are much more helpful here.

The moon witches are those who associate their powers with, obviously, the moon.  Like the moon, they can change themselves in various ways, using spirit and evocation spells probably.  They are also the most skilled healers amongst witches.  Of all the aspects of witch society, moon witches are the closest to the Changers, usually having excellent relations with the beast-men.  They bring a certain adaptability to a coven.

The nature witches associate their powers with the energy of the natural world.  They are the ones most likely to invoke the spirits of animals and the gods of nature, such as Pan, Freyr, or Demeter.  They are also the most likely to master nature witchcraft, to control beasts and weatherworking.  It is said that they ground a coven and help bring it in line with the desires and power of the world.

Seers are often the leaders of witch society and covens.  They are the oracles, diviners, and lorekeepers of the witches.  Most seers appear to specialize in invocation and evocation to fuel their drive for knowledge, and the future.  Some, though, Webster says, devote themselves to charms to better get people to volunteer information and the lead by control.

Spirit witches balance nature witches in a coven, connecting the group to the realms beyond Earth.  They specialize in invocation ad spirit witchcraft.  Thus, they serve as mediums, contacting the beyond and tying a coven to the spirit realm.  Because of their control of spirits, these witches also appear to be excellent trackers and hunters.  They, Sawyer claims, often trace offenders and enemies of the witches, providing locations to the sun witches, who are then unleashed.

The sun witches are those who associate their powers with, obviously, the sun.  They are the guardians and warriors of the witches, much like many of the most ancient sun gods.  They train in mundane means of combat enhanced with charms and invocations, spirits bound to weapons and other such tools to improve their abilities and skills.  Sawyer mentions that some even say the sun witches allow powerful spirits to temporarily possess them, to enhance their physical attributes and skills.  Sun witches add a balance of protection and aggression to a coven.



Appendix E—Witchcraft Classes

Kemp is correct when he briefly defines the five classes of witchcraft.  However, as with all things beyond sorcery, his information is incomplete, through ignorance.  Thus, it is not entirely helpful.  Sawyer and Webster, Apostates, are more useful here.

As Kemp notes, charms affect the mind.  Witches use charms to sense and manipulate the emotions of others.  But, the spells can also be used to influence the mind of a subject, to suggest a course of action or even allow complete control of the subject.  Charms can result in a form of illusion, invisibility after a fashion, and even alter the memories of a subject.  In all, it is a much more powerful branch of magic than the Arcanum Council would like to admit to its rank and file.

Evocation is, indeed, the direct control of magical energy.  But, what does that mean?  For a witch, that means the ability to create wards and other protections.  It also means blessings and curses, healing, and limited harming.  It can involve fertility, and barrenness.  Most of its offensive capability, unlike sorcery, is indirect or requires touching the subject, thus limiting its combat potential significantly.

Conversely, invocations involve calling upon spirit entities to handle the magical energy.  These spells  involve the witch calling and negotiating with a spirit, or a god, to acquire the desired effect.  The spirit, thus, acts upon the witch’s behalf.  Most such spells appear to involve altering the luck of the subject, protecting or hiding the witch, tracking people, guarding places, or discovering information.  Rarely, if ever, do they have an appreciable direct physical effect, due to the difficulty of spirits manifesting or directly affecting our realm of existence.

The study of natural forces allows the witch to control and affect beasts of all sorts.  This appears to serve as a specialized sort of charm.  These witches can also alter and control plants.  They can enhance or retard growth, cause plants and trees to move and walk, even heal plants and speak with them to gain information and insights.  With sufficient skill, a witch can move through the densest forest without leaving a trace.  This class of witchcraft also allows the witch to alter the weather within a given radius from his or her position.

Spirit witchcraft is entirely focused on affecting and controlling spirits directly.  Its most basic elements involve being able to see and speak to spirits.  The art graduated to calling, summoning spirits, harming them and healing them, forcing their compliance, even allowing them to possess a living vessel.  Witches say they can even bind a spirit to an object or place for a set length of time or for eternity.  These last two appear to be done solely to contain powerful, evil, spirits.