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.


Tradition vs “Tradition”: Werewolves (& Other Shifters, Really)

Thinking about history, I think about traditional figures, particularly shapeshifters since I’ve spent a long time studying them. When I think about traditional figures, I like werewolves especially because there’s a divide between what most modern audiences consider to be traditional and what actually is traditional. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to the latter as traditional and the former as “traditional”.

The modern “traditional” is really a new phenomenon that is largely built out of Hollywood, rather than the traditional figures of folklore, legend, myth, and literature. For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on cases of supposed actual change, not psychology (Sigmund Freud, Henri Boguet, James I of England, Simon Goulart).

According to the “traditional”, werewolves have a number of interesting traits. Most of these traits would be unrecognizable to pre-modern audiences. For instance, “traditional” werewolves take a wolfman shape, sometimes in addition to a wolf shape. “Traditional” werewolves are forced to change at the full moon (a theory posited by Gervase of Tilbury in the medievla era and dismissed by his peers, a theory that was never posited again until the 18th century), possibly coming about due to theories about ties between the moon and madness. “Traditional” werewolves are regenerative and vulnerable to silver (likely tied to the moon change, also a relative cheap precious metal). Finally, “traditional” werewolves transmit their condition through biting victims (or sometimes transfer of other bodily fluids), an idea that doesn’t appear before germ theory.

On the other hand, the traditional werewolves of the ancient through early modern eras were rather different. They only had human and animal shapes, no hybrid form. They did not regenerate (nor share injuries between forms, a concept that developed in 18th c. literature). All traditional werewolves changed for one of four reasons: curse, genetics, ritual, or an item. The most well known curses are in Gerald of Wales, Ovid, and William of Palerne. Marie de France seems to work with genetics. Petronias’ werewolf and Demarchus of Acadia were ritual based. Item based change, with an attendant deal with the devil, was most commonly use in the early modern/Renaissance era. Werewolves of the eras could be cured, typically by being struck three times by certain objects (with the spread of Christianity). They were a mix of monstrous (classical and early modern) and sympathetic (classical and medieval). Virtually all traditional werewolves were male (only one female comes to mind, in Gerald of Wales), from Lycaeus to Alphouns, Bisclavret to Gorlagon.

The “traditional” has become considered traditional due, I think, to saturation. Most modern audiences know the werewolves of movies and modern horror novels (and urban fantasy of the last decade). Few know the older stories, especially the early modern, medieval, and classical.

Are the “traditional” in any way worse than the traditional? No. But, as some authors rediscover the older sources, I’ve seen readers scream that the figures “aren’t right” because they don’t have the “traditional” attributes. I think this is another area where some awareness of history and awareness of just how young some of our “traditional” things really are is helpful.

Werewolf Story

Last night I read “The Rabbi Who was Turned into a Werewolf” from The Mayse Book (1602).  There are a lot of parallels to Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” and William of Palerne.  More Marie than the other, but there are still a few echoes.  It is also a lot more mysogynistic than its predecessors.

That said, I find it rather interesting.  What I find most interesting is that it is an early modern sympathetic werewolf tale and story-genre fiction.  The early-17th century accounts are all “monstrous werewolf” or “lycanthropy as mental illness” in form, as are their 16th century predecessors.  So, based on that alone, I find this sympathetic story stands out.  The genre is also an interesting thing.  Every discussion of werewolves after the 14th century, at least based on my research (dissertation and book), is a treatise, court document, broadsheet, memoir, or play (in fact, I can only think of one play).  This story, hearkening back to both the subject matter and form of the 12th and 14th centuries, seems to be a throw back.

In fact, I wonder how much it predates The Mayse Book.  Based on its components, I suspect it is probably a 13th or 14th century story, although it could be older, that managed to survive long enough in popularity within Europe’s Jewish community to be transcribed into the 17th century book.

My Book

My Book

Now that there’s an official release date, my publisher would probably like it if I shamelessly self-promote the book.  🙂

Due out 30 June 2013.

Just FYI, it discusses the werewolves of Jack Williamson, Terry Pratchett (Discworld), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), Charles de Lint (Newford, Wolfmoon), and Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood), with a miscellaneous chapter for a few others in relation to each other and Classical, medieval, and early modern werewolves.

(Sorry for all the edits to this, I’m still figuring out WordPress.)