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.

Medieval Top 10

1)      Beowulf, Anon.

The oldest known piece of literature in English. Also a great pair of stories, whether Beowulf v. Grendel or Beowulf’s last fight v. the dragon. Bonus feature: It offers some insight into Danish and Saxon upper class life.

2)      Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain-poet

Probably my second or third favorite on this list. Fun piece of Arthurian lore by an obscure poet writing in an obscure dialect. Features Gawain, a head chopping challenge, illusion, deception, attempted seduction, and a bit of questioning the ideals of Camelot.

3)      Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

The classic English response to Boccaccio. Some of the tales are dry and mildly dull, but there are significant fun ones as well—Miller’s and Reeve’s tales. The piece also gives us an interesting insight into late-14th century cultural views about people in various walks of life. Ultimately, unfinished (there were supposed to be over 100 tales) despite some later claims of “lost” Chaucer tales (actually written by the people who “discovered” them).

4)      Yvain: Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

Probably my favorite of Chretien’s Arthurian pieces, in part because of some links to Tolkien. The story features giants, knights, wars, and Arthur’s conquest of Europe. But it also involves a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible . . .

5)      Lais, Marie de France

While all of Marie’s lais are good and interesting, my favorites are “Bisclavret” and “Yonec” for their shape-shifting elements. Nice pieces of 12th century literature, possibly written in London.

6)      The Romance of William of Palerne, Anon.

A 14th century translation of an earlier French work. A fairly popular and fun werewolf tale taking place mostly in Italy with a few scenes in Spain. Although named for William, Alphouns the werewolf tends to take center stage throughout the romance.

7)      “Arthur and Gorlagon”, Anon.

Short werewolf piece in the Arthurian corpus, much more violent than the two previously mentioned above. Basically, Arthur offends Guenevere and goes on a quest to make things up to her. He meets Gorlagon, hears the other king’s story, and goes home (oddly, it’s not quite clear whether Arthur’s quest was successful).

8)      The History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald of Wales

Gerald’s account of Irish life, legends, and culture as recorded during one of the Norman invasions of Ireland. Interestingly, Gerald, like many of the soldiers, was half-Welsh, half-Norman, on the margins of society, invading a place on the margins of Europe. Among the stories is the tale of the Ossory werewolves that presents both history and a theological conundrum for Gerald.

9)      Volsunga Saga, Anon.

Classic epic song of the Volsungs, from the gods’ slaying of a dwarf prince to the theft of Andvari the elf’s gold to Sigurd’s fight with Fafnir to the rise and fall of the Volsungs.

10)  Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Anon.

An excellent account of Mandeville’s travels around the world . . . that is, even for the places in Europe, probably totally fictitious. Even so, it’s a great piece to read, partially because it was considered one of the top travel narratives and travel guides in England for roughly four centuries. That said, from what we can tell, the actual author never left England and had no firsthand knowledge of Europe, much less the rest of the world.