In many of the records of witchcraft trials during the persecutions, it was common to find witnesses testifying that the accused witch had changed his or her shape into that of an animal, bird, or even insect. Many of the witches themselves claimed they had made that metamorphosis. The favorite animals were cats and hares, although dogs, crows and mice were also fairly common. The belief in metamorphosis seems to be universal and is found particularly among primitive peoples.
In Northumberland in 1673, Ann Armstrong stated that another witch, Ann Baites, “hath been several times in the shape of a cat and a hare, and in the shape of a greyhound and a bee.” Ann Armstrong continued to say that while she stood and sang, the others in the coven “danced in several shapes, first of a hare, then in their own, and then in a cat, sometimes in a mouse, and in several other shapes.”
Margaret Murray states that there was no actual metamorphosis-that the “change” was merely an act of ritual following the witch’s statement as to what she was. Hearing one witch say she was a dog, another witch would decide that she too was a dog and join the first one. The witches believed they truly were the animals but, in reality, no physical change occurred. But in 1729, Janet Horne was burnt at Dornoch, Ross-shire, for allegedly causing her own daughter’s debility by using her as a horse and having her shoed by the Devil. If she actually did try to shoe her daughter, one can assume that she really believed she had turned the girl into a horse.
On March 10, 1607, Issobel Grierson was put on trial in Edinburgh. She was charged with six counts. The first count was that she shifted into the form of her own cat and, together with a horde of other cats, had entered the house of her neighbor, Adam Clark. There the cats made a lot of noise and caused a great deal of trouble, to the point where Adam Clark and his wife were “in such a great fear that they were likely to go mad.” Obviously here, it is the accusers who are saying that Issobel Grierson had changed into a cat, not Issobel herself. Yet Issobel Gowdie, in 1662, claimed at her trial that she and her sister had become cats, hares, crows, and other animals, to the point where they had been chased and bitten by dogs. Issobel said, “When we go in the shape of a hare, we say thrice over:
“I sall goe intill ane haire,
With sorrow, and sych, and meikle caire,
And I sall goe in the Divellis nam,
Ay whill I com hom againe.”
(I will go into a hare,
With sorrow and sigh and much care;
And I shall go in the Devil’s name,
A while I come home again.)
Issobel Gowdie continued, “And instantly we start in a hare. And when we should be out of this shape, we will say:
“Hare, hare, God send thee care.
I am in a hare’s likeness just now,
But I shall be in a woman’s likeness even now.”
She gave similar formulae for changing into a cat and a crow along with other creatures. Isobel also declared that other witches could be transformed with her by merely stating, “I conjure thee, go with me.” She continued, “and presently they become as we are, either cats, hares, crows.”
In the classical author Apuleius’s The Golden Ass (90 BCE), there is an account of a witch turning herself into a crow. The woman removes all of her clothing, places two grains of incense into a burning lamp, and while standing up straight, utters a few magic words. She then opens a chest containing an assortment of vials and, from one of them, rubs an oily liquid all over her body. She then sprouts wings and beaks and screams madly as she flies out the window. A witness to this event then attempts to do the same thing but takes the wrong vial and transforms into an ass.
By all accounts, shape-shifting was achieved via magic ointment, similar to that used for flying through the air on a broomstick.
Baroja, Julio Caro: The World of Witches. 1968.
Murray, Margaret Alice: The Witch Cult in Western Europe. 1921.
Robbins, Rossell Hope: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft and Demonology. 1959.