Think ‘The Little Mermaid’ and Shamanism have nothing in common? Think again. Jump on board as we explore the transformational technique linking the two
Have you ever wondered how wonderful it might be to sprout wings and soar through the sky like an eagle, or run with the grace and speed of the cheetah? According to legend, and many spiritual gurus from all corners of the globe, it is possible. Those in the know call it shapeshifting: the ability to transform, either physically or mentally, into another creature. It might sound like the plot from a supernatural movie, but this exercise has been around since the beginning of time. In fact, the idea that humans can, through deep meditation, change the energy of their aura to see, think and become the animal of their choice, or to simply take on board its movements and strengths, is a common one.
Early folk stories, which often evolved into fairy tales, alluded to humans transforming into animals and vice versa. Think Beauty and the Beast or the Frog Prince and all of those early myths about mermaids and selkies who shed their skin to assume human form. Our ancestors wanted to make sense of the world, they could see and appreciate the variety of creatures that shared the Earth and they loved to learn more about them. Shapeshifting was a way of making that connection and of conquering any fears they had of the unknown. By becoming an animal, they were able to shift their perception and see the world differently, and most did this through story. Some, though, are believed to have had the ability to transform their spirit and take on physical attributes, even supposedly transforming into a creature.
Where it began
It’s difficult to pinpoint the origin of shapeshifting to one particular mythology; it exists everywhere, from tales of Zeus turning into a bull or a swan, to the mercurial Norse god Loki, who, according to legend, could turn into a woman, a horse and even a giant! There are even pre-historic cave drawings which seem to suggest a belief in this kind of magical transformation. Within ancient tribes spanning the world, it was common to have a wise man or woman who possessed the ability to transform themselves through ritual and dance. This person was deeply respected and called upon to protect their people. What’s more, their connection with the spirit world meant they could engage with animals and take on some of their characteristics. In some cases they would dress up, wearing skin and feathers, or donning horns as headdresses, to help make the transition smoother.
All that said, shapeshifting isn’t a practice resigned to the depths of history, today there are still those who transform, whether on a deeply spiritual level through ritual and meditation, or by taking on physical attributes of the creature and literally shifting in body. In West Africa, a secret society called The Leopard Men was recently uncovered. Their practices included wearing leopard skins to help them ‘turn’ into the animal, taking on board its skills and strengths.
It seems we’re mesmerised by the idea of shapeshifting, but why? Some scholars of folklore believe it’s because of its strong links with death and rebirth. For example, in Celtic myth, Gwion transforms into a number of animals in a bid to escape the sorceress Ceridwen, but is eventually swallowed as a grain of wheat. He is then reborn as the bard Taliesin. In this tale, shapeshifting was necessary for his survival and for him to find a new state of awareness. Back to the modern day, shamans and healers often go into a trance-like state when working with clients, in order to search other realms for lost parts of a person’s spirit. While doing this, some may take on a different form, metamorphosing on a spiritual level into their animal totem. This helps them move into a new state of awareness, just as Gwion changed and was born again as Taliesin. The transformation can be hard to see with the naked eye, unless you have heightened psychic abilities, but those who can tune into the higher self have reported seeing physical transformations, too. Whether it’s merely the make-up of enthralling mythology or a tool for deepening your spirituality, the notion that we all have the ability to embody the characteristics of another being certainly tickles our spiritual taste buds. Glean inspiration from this technique and open up to the power animal inside you. Fuel yourself with the fierce energy of a proud lioness, uncover the wisdom of the owl, and heighten your spiritual awareness by engaging with your inner hawk. Whatever animal you connect with, use their energy to free your fears and let your spirit soar!
Try it for yourself!
Transform your energy and shift your spirit with this simple meditation
Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Let your body relax and notice a warmth in the centre of your chest, around the heart. Feel that warmth spreading throughout your body. Picture your aura extending outwards. You might notice a tingling sensation as you do this.
Now imagine falling backwards inside your body, until you literally drop out of your physical form. See yourself floating in the air as a being of light. If it feels comfortable, you might want to imagine your body assuming another form. Embrace the sensations as your spirit transforms. Continue to breathe and acknowledge any emotions or thoughts that arise.
When you’re ready, see yourself morphing back into your spirit form, and returning to your body. Focus on the feeling in your chest again and open your eyes.
Shifting around the world
The idea of transformation from one being to another is of universal fascination because as individuals we are forever evolving and reinventing ourselves. Most cultures have some sort of shapeshifting myth that they work with, whether based on a well-known legend like the werewolf or something more obscure. Speaking of which, here are some less common, but equally intriguing, shifters to look out for.
The leshy come from Slavic mythology. They’re mischievous woodland spirits who can shapeshift into any form. Sometimes appearing as plants or shrubs, wild animals or men, these lords of the forest can shrink to the size of blades of grass or grow as tall as trees. They are said to have beards made out of vines, pale skin, large green eyes and horns, and generally appear in human form. Leshy are believed to enjoy leading humans astray. However, legends state that if you want to protect yourself from them, you should turn your clothes inside out and wear your shoes on opposite feet.
These fox fairies originate from Japan and usually appear as beautiful young women. However, they maintain some aspect of the fox after their transformation. This means that they can appear otherworldly with light fur on their skin, whiskers and enchanting fox-shaped eyes. Incredibly powerful, the kitsune are thought to be able to control storms and shoot bolts of lightning.
In Brazil, if you see a strange-looking character with an oversized head, wearing a hat, it could be an encantado. These shifters usually appear as dolphins or sea snakes but they like to take human form at night. When they transform, aspects of the sea creatures stay with them, meaning they have protruding foreheads – hence the hats which are used as disguises. These supposedly have the power to control the mind and drive mortals loco, too.
Half man, half beast, the wendigo is a savage creature who has the power to slip into human form. Most commonly appearing in the legends of the Algonquian people, who believed that if you ate human flesh, you were in danger of becoming this beast. Associated with greed, these creatures were often portrayed as skeletal, with decomposing flesh… Spooky!