Shape shifting is one of my areas of interest and one of the under explored areas in the occult, in my opinion. If I had the time for ritual and experimentation, I would write my own book but, in the mean time, here is a little primer for those readers interested in the topic.
First of all, let us set aside the topic that always comes up when the issue of shape shifting arises: is it possible for an individual to physically assume another form. While I am loathe to say that anything is impossible, the power outlay for a transformation of this sort would be enormous, in my opinion, and would require the interference of a major Power or tapping into an energy source of almost unlimited potential such as a major ley line. So, while I will not say that physical transformation is completely impossible, I think that power issues as well as the practicalities of returning to the original form make it practically impossible.
Nevertheless, there is very clear lore, throughout the world, indicating the idea of people turning into animals and animals turning into people. How do we explain these stories? Why is this such a wide spread belief? As I have indicated, one could write a book on this subject but here are some brief thoughts:
1) The Faery and other beings of the Otherworld. The beings of the Otherworld, particularly the Faery, are known for their ability to shift shape. Some of the shape shifting legends clearly derive from encounters between humans and Otherworld entities over the course of history. The Irish legend of the Selkie comes to mind – a seal that removes its skin and becomes a lovely woman or handsome man.
2) Astral Experiences. Some of the legends of shape shifting may actually derive from dreams and/or out of body experiences. One of the easiest ways to experience another form is to learn astral projection or one of the various forms of shamanic soul travel and then decide, once you are “out”, to move in the body of an animal. This may take significant practice on the part of the dreamer or out of body traveller or it may happen spontaneously according to events in the dream/journey. In either event, in cultures where the dream time is taken seriously and such movement from one form to another is common in dreams and out of body experiences, these episodes would be shared with others and settle into the legend and myth of the tribe or clan.
3) Glamour. Magicians, throughout time, have been known for the power to cloud human minds and make them see things that are not there. Star Wars fans will recall the famous “these are not the droids you are looking for scene”; Obi-Wan Kenobi could just as easily have made those storm troopers think that they saw the droids walking off in the distance and caused them to speed off in pursuit. Likewise, a strong telepath, using magical enhancement of his or her ability, might cause other humans to think they were seeing a human turning to an animal or part animal. Reasons for doing this might range from mischief to distraction so that the mage could escape a dangerous situation. Obviously, as Obi-Wan noted, these tricks work best on the weak minded.
4) Mental Shifting. Some people have such a strong affinity with an animal that they actually seem to be able to take on aspects of the mind of that animal. We see some connection to the idea of glamour here since people in the presence of this type of “shifter” will often report perceiving changes in the shifter’s appearance. I theorize that the person’s identification with their animal is so strong that they give off strong telepathic/magical energy that actually alters people’s perception.
5) Etheric Shape Shifting. There are a number of levels to the human energetic body. The level that is closest to the physical is called, in many esoteric traditions, the etheric. Think of the etheric level as the template on which the physical hangs, sort of an energetic lattice work that allows the physical to have and maintain a certain form. Magicians through the ages have been able to work with the etheric level by learning to project the etheric body, change its shape and even shape the etheric and use it as an overlay to their physical form. Interestingly, the etheric can even be “hardened” so that it looks and appears solid. Thus, the Northern legends of warriors who fought in semi-animal form and inflicted terrible damage with both their weapons and their claws/teeth.
6) Possession. In Voudou, the faithful are sometimes possessed by their Met Tet, the Lwa “of their head”, the ‘god’ that walks most closely with them and is their patron. I see no reason why an individual with a distinct shamanic bent who worked with animal spirits on a regular basis might not actually allow the spirit of a totem or power animal to possess them. Again, given the powerful energies involved, one wonders what the perception of an outsider witnessing such an act might be. We know that those possessed by the Lwa certainly change aspect and are capable of performing actions that an ordinary humans could not.
So, the next time you read a story about a skinwalker speeding across the Arizona desert or hear of a report of a werewolf trolling a forest in England, don’t be so quick to dismiss.