Transformations into Animals

The belief that human beings can change themselves, or be changed, into animals carries with it the corollary that wounds received by a person when in the semblance of an animal will remain on the body after the return to human shape. This belief seems to be connected with the worship of animal-gods or sacred animals, the worshipper being changed into an animal by being invested with the skin of the creature, by the utterance of magical words, by the making of magical gestures, the wearing of a magical object, or the performance of magical ceremonies. The witches of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries appear to have carried on the tradition of the pre-Christian cults; and the stories of their transformations, when viewed in the light of the ancient examples, are capable of the same explanation. Much confusion, however, has been caused by the religious and so-called scientific

[1. Pitcairn notes: 'Issobell, as usual, appears to have been stopped short here by her interrogators, when she touched on such matters'. i.e., the fairies.

explanations of the contemporary commentators, as well as by the unfortunate belief of modern writers in the capacity of women for hysteria. At both periods pseudo-science has prevented the unbiassed examination of the material.

There are no records extant of the animals held sacred by the early inhabitants of Great Britain, but it is remarkable that the range of the witches' transformations was very limited; cats and hares were the usual animals, occasionally but rarely dogs, mice, crows, rooks, and bees. In France, where the solemn sacrifice of a goat at the Sabbath points to that animal being sacred, it is not surprising to find both men and women witches appearing as goats and sheep. Unless there were some definite meaning underlying the change of shape, there would be no reason to prevent the witches from transforming themselves into animals of any species. It would seem then that the witches, like the adorers of animal gods in earlier times, attempted to become one with their god or sacred animal by taking on his form; the change being induced by the same means and being as real to the witch as to Sigmund the Volsung[1] or the worshipper of Lycaean Zeus.[2]

In the earlier cults the worshipper, on becoming an animal, changed his outward shape to the eye of faith alone, though his actions and probably his voice proclaimed the transformation. The nearest approach to an outward change was by covering the body with the skin of the animal, or by wearing a part of the skin or a mask. The witches themselves admitted that they were masked and veiled, and the evidence of other witnesses goes to prove the same. Boguet suggests that the disguise was used to hide their identity, which was possibly the case at times, but it seems more probable, judging by the evidence, that the masking and veiling were for ritual purposes.

[1. Volsung Saga, Bks. I, II; Wm. Morris, Collected Works, xii, pp. 32, 77.

2. Pausanias, viii, 2, 3, 6, ed. Frazer. Cp. also the animal names applied to priests and priestesses, e. g. the King-bees of Ephesus; the Bee-priestesses of Demeter, of Delphi, of Proserpine, and of the Great Mother; the Doves of Dodona; the Bears in the sacred dance of Artemis; the Bulls at the feast of Poseidon at Ephesus; the Wolves at the Lupercalia, &c.]

In Lorraine in 1589 a male witness stated that 'indem wird er eine Höle, welche sie nennen die Morelianische Klippe, gewahr, darinnen sechs Weiber mit Larven umb ein Tisch, voll guldernen und silbernen Geschieren herumb tanzten.' Bernhardt's Nicolaea said that she had seen in an open field 'mitten am hellen Tage, einen Tantz von Männern und Weibern, und weil dieselben auff eine besondere Weise und hinterücks tantzten, kam es ihr frembd für, stunde derhalben still, und sahe mit allein Fleiss zu da ward sic gewahr, das etliche in dem Reyhen waren so Geiss und Kuhfuss hatten'.[1] At North Berwick in 1590 seven score witches 'danced endlong the Kirk yard. John Fian, missellit [muffled, masked] led the ring.'[2] The witches whom Boguet examined in 1598 confessed to using masks: 'Les Sorciers dansent doz cötre doz, pour ne pas estre recogneus; pour la mesme raison its se masquent encor' auiourd'huy pour la plus part Ils se masquent pour le iour d'huy, selon que Clauda Paget l'a confessé, & auec elle plusieurs autres Estienne Poicheux rapportoit que partie des femmes, qu'elle auoit veuës au Sabbat, estaient voilées. Et pour cela aussi les Lombards par leurs loix les appellent Mascas.'[3] In 1609 de Lancre points out that in the Basses-Pyrénées there were two grades of witches: 'Il y en a de deux sortes. Aucu{n}s sont voilez pour doner opinion aux pauures que ce sont des Princes & grâds seigneurs. Les autres sont decouuerts & tout ouuerteme{n}t dâcent, & ceux cy ne sont si prés du maistre, si fauoris ne si employez.'[4] In 1613 Barbe, the wife of jean-Remy Colin de Moyemont, said that 'elle a veu dancer les assistans en nombre de sept à huict personnes, partie desquelles elle ne cognoissoit ad cause des masques hideux qu'elles auoient de noire.'[5]

Josine Deblicq in Hainault (1616) was asked, 'Que savez vous de la troisième danse? R. Elle eut lieu an Rond-Chêneau, sur le chemin de Nivelles, près d'unc fontaine. Il y avait bien 21 ou 22 femmes, toutes masquées, chacune avec son amoureux accoutré d'un déguisement bleu, jaune ou noir.'[6] In 1652 a French witch 'dist qu'elles dansoient les dots l'une à

l'autre et qu'au milieux it y auoit vne feme masquée tenant vne chandelle'.[1]

It will be seen from the above that the witches were often disguised at the dance, a fact strongly suggesting that the masking was entirely ritual. As the witch trials in Great Britain seldom mention, much less describe, the dance, it follows that the greater number of the cases of masks are found in France, though a few occur in Scotland, still fewer in England.

The transformation by means of an animal's skin or head is mentioned in the Liber Poenitentialis of Theodore in 668 (see p. 21). It continued among the witches, and in 1598 in the Lyons district 'il y a encor des Demons, qui assistent a ces danses en forme de boucs, on de moutons. Antoine Tornier dit, que lors qu'elle dansoit, vn mouton noir la tenoit par la main auec ses pieds bien haireux, c'est a dire rudes & reuesches'.[2]

In many cases it is very certain that the transformation was ritual and not actual; that is to say the witches did not attempt to change their actual forms but called themselves cats, hares, or other animals. In the Aberdeen trials of 1596-7 the accused are stated to have 'come to the Fish Cross of this burgh, under the conduct of Sathan, ye all danced about the Fish Cross and about the Meal market a long space'. Here there is no suggestion of any change of form, yet in the accusation against Bessie Thom, who was tried for the same offence, the dittay states that there, accompanied with thy devilish companions and faction, transformed in other likeness, some in hares, some in cats, and some in other similitudes, ye all danced about the Fish Cross'.[3] In 1617 in Guernsey Marie Becquet said that 'every time that she went to the Sabbath, the Devil came to her, and it seemed as though he transformed her into a female dog'.[4] Again at Alloa in 1658, Margret Duchall, describing the murder of Cowdan's bairns, said 'after they war turned all in the liknes of cattis, they went in ouer jean Lindsayis zaird Dyk and went to Coudans hous, whair scho declared, that the Dewitt being with

3. Spalding Club Misc., i, pp. 97, 114-15, 165; Bessie Thom, p. 167. Spelling modernized.

tham went up the stair first with margret tailzeor Besse Paton and elspit blak'. On the other hand, Jonet Blak and Kathren Renny, who were also present and described the same scene, said nothing about the cat-form, though they particularize the clothes of the other witches. Jonet Blak said, 'the diwell, margret tailzeor with ane long rok, and kathren renny with the short rok and the bony las with the blak pok all went up the stair togidder'; while Kathren Renny said that 'ther was ane bony las with ane blak pok, who went befor ower jean Lindsayis zaird dyk and Margret tailzeor with hir'.[1] The evidence of Marie Lamont (1662) suggests the same idea of a ritual, though not an actual, change; 'shee confessed, that shee, Kettie Scot, and Margrat Holm, cam to Allan Orr's house in the likenesse of kats, and followed his wif into the chalmer'; and on another occasion 'the devil turned them in likeness of kats, by shaking his hands above their heads'.[2] In Northumberland (1673) the same fact appears to underlie the evidence. Ann Armstrong declared that at a witch meeting Ann Baites 'hath been severall times in the shape of a catt and a hare, and in the shape of a greyhound and a bee, letting the divell see how many shapes she could turn herself into. They [the witches] stood all upon a bare spott of ground, and bid this informer sing whilst they danced in severall shapes, first of a haire, then in their owne, and then in a catt, sometimes in a mouse, and in severall other shapes. She see all the said persons beforemencioned danceing, some in the likenesse of haires, some in the likenesse of catts, others in the likenesse of bees, and some in their owne likenesse.'[3]

The method of making the ritual change by means of magical words is recorded in the Auldearne trials, where Isobel Gowdie, whose evidence was purely voluntary, gives the actual words both for the change into an animal and for the reversion into human form. To become a hare:

'I sall goe intill ane haire, With sorrow, and sych, and meikle caire, And I sall goe in the Divellis nam, Ay whill I coin hom againe.'

To become a cat or a crow the same verse was used with an alteration of the second line so as to force a rhyme; instead of 'meikle caire', the words were 'a blak shot' for a cat, and 'a blak thraw' for a crow or craw. To revert again to the human form the words were:

Hare, hare, God send thee care.

I am in an hare's likeness just now,

But I shall be in a woman's likeness even now', with the same variation of 'a black shot' or 'a black thraw' for a cat or a crow. The Auldearne witches were also able to turn one another into animals:

'If we, in the shape of an cat, an crow, an hare, or any other likeness, &c., go to any of our neighbours houses, being Witches, we will say, I (or we) conjure thee Go with us (or me). And presently they become as we are, either cats, hares, crows, &c., and go with us whither we would. When one of us or more are in the shape of cats, and meet with any others our neighbours, we will say, Devil speed thee, Go thou with me. And immediately they will turn in the shape of a cat, and go with us.'[1]

The very simplicity of the method shows that the transformation was ritual; the witch announced to her fellow that she herself was an animal, a fact which the second witch would not have known otherwise; the second witch at once became a similar animal and went with the first to perform the ritual acts which were to follow. The witches were in their own estimation and in the belief of all their comrades, to whom they communicated the fact, actually animals, though to the uninitiated eye their natural forms remained unchanged. This is probably the explanation of Marie d'Aspilcouette's evidence, which de Lancre records in 1609:

'Elle a veu aussi les sorcieres insignes se changer en plusieurs sortes de bestes, pour faire peur a ceux qu'elles rencontroient: Mais celles qui se transformoyent ainsi, disoyent qu'elles n'estoyent veritablement transformees, mais seulement qu'elles sembloyent l'estre & neantmoins pendant qu'elles sont ainsi en apparences bestes, elles ne parlent du tout point'.[2]

[1. Pitcairn, iii, pp. 607, 608, 611. Spelling modernized.

The best example of transformation by means of a magical object placed on the person is from Northumberland (1673), where Ann Armstrong stated that 'Anne Forster come with a bridle, and bridled her and ridd upon her crosse-leggd, till they come to [the] rest of her companions. And when she light of her back, pulld the bridle of this informer's head, now in the likenesse of a horse; but, when the bridle was taken of, she stood up in her owne shape. . . . This informant was ridden upon by an inchanted bridle by Michael Aynsly and Margaret his wife, Which inchanted bridle, when they tooke it of from her head, she stood upp in her owne proper person. . . . Jane Baites of Corbridge come in the forme of a gray catt with a bridle hanging on her foote, and bridled her, and rid upon her in the name of the devill.'[1] This is again a clear account of the witch herself and her companions believing in the change of form caused by the magical object in exactly the same way that the shamans believe in their own transformation by similar means.

The Devil had naturally the same power as the witches, but in a greater degree. The evidence of Marie Lamont quoted above shows that he transformed them into animals by a gesture only. It seems possible that this was also the case with Isobel Shyrie at Forfar (1661), who was called 'Horse' and 'the Devil's horse'. The name seems to have given rise to the idea that 'she was shod like a mare or a horse'; she was in fact the officer or messenger who brought her companions to the meetings. She was never seen in the form of a horse, her transformation being probably effected by the Devil, in order that she might 'carry' the witches to and from the meetings; Agnes Spark said that Isobel 'carried her away to Littlemiln, [and] carried her back again to her own house'.'

There is also another method of transformation, which is the simplest. The witches themselves, like their contemporaries, often believed that the actual animals, which they saw, were human beings in animal form. Jeannette de Belloc, aged twenty-four, in the Basses-Pyrénées (1609), described the

2. Kinloch, p. 129. Spelling modernized.]

Sabbath as 'vne foire celebre de toutes sortes de choses, en laquelle aucuns se promene{n}t en leur propre forme, & d'autres sont transformez ne scayt pourquoy, en animaux. Elle n'a iamais veu aucune d'elles se trâsformer en beste en sa presence, mais seulement certaines bestes courir par le sabbat.'[1] Helen Guthrie of Forfar (1661) states the case with even greater simplicity: 'The last summer except one, shee did sie John Tailzeour somtymes in the shape of a todde, and somtymes in the shape of a swyn, and that the said Johne Tailzeour in these shapes went wp and doune among William Millne, miller at Hetherstakes, his cornes for the destructioune of the same, because the said William hade taken the mylne ouer his head; and that the diuell cam to her and pointed out Johne Tailzeour in the forsaid shapes unto her, and told her that that wes Johne Tailzeour.'[1]

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