The first thing to know about shapeshifting is that everybody does it, all the time.
The second thing to know about shapeshifting is that it doesn’t refer to a physical transformation, but to a change of your inner shape. Shapeshifting isn’t an obscure skill limited to esoterically trained shamans living on isolated mountaintops. The real difference between what everyone does and the act of magical shapeshifting is intent. Hold that thought for a moment, let it stir in the back of your mind.
As social animals, humans all respond to unconscious, unwritten cues about how to act in certain situations, and adapt our behaviour accordingly. We know that how we act on a bar crawl with our friends is very different to how we act at work or how we act at a barbecue with the in-laws. We have the different roles of parent, employee, friend, lover – and when we settle into these roles, we take on a part of our Self that suits that role best.
We change our inner shape.
This is not an abnormal skill for humans, it is a very natural one. It is learned quickly but unconsciously by most people as they grow, and we talk about it in terms of behaviour. For some people, it is only the behaviour that changes while their inner shape rebels at feeling like a square block shoved through a round hole. Or it goes the other way, where a person takes on too much of a particular shape (for example, the work persona) and their life gets out of balance as a result.
When we talk about shapeshifting in a magical sense, we mean conscious, deliberate, intentional transformation. It can start with these simple shifts that everybody does, but that is only the beginning.
There are many different ways to learn how to do this intentionally. But what’s the purpose? Why do shamans and others who practice intentional spiritual shapeshifting do so?
Experiential learning is the basis of almost any magical practice, and none more so than shapeshifting. To become something and experience something directly is to know it. As John Matthews puts it, becoming something allows us to identify with it and know it in a way that simple study and observation could never provide. Or in other words, by changing ones perception, one changes themself.
We can identify traits that we need to strengthen within ourself and deliberately draw on them, experience them and become familiar with how they feel. This helps to integrate the change of self.
Or perhaps it goes the other way, and there are aspects of ourself we are uncomfortable with. We might have a block in our lives or struggle with a repeating pattern or set of circumstances. By changing our perception, and changing the shape we wear to interact with our universe, we can change how we respond and act.
For shamans and those who journey into Otherworld, shapeshifting is very important. Walking between worlds requires a great deal of agility and flexibility. Among other things, it can help you navigate your way about and negotiate with the natives!
In stories, we see gods and heroes shapeshifting all the time. For these beings who live between worlds, their agility in shapeshifting both gets them into and out of some very interesting situations. It can also be a way of limiting their godhood to make it easier to approach mortals – this is something we see many, many, many times from Zeus!
Given that shapeshifting is a learning tool that challenges our perceptions of ourself and the world, it’s no surprise to find that it’s a trademark of tricksters. At their core, tricksters are teachers; they exaggerate the ordinary to the point of ridiculous to help us see how limiting it really is. Tricksters change their shape as fluidly as they breathe, challenging us to break the limitations on a narrow viewpoint.
There are almost as many ways to consciously change shape as there are shapes to change into.
Drumming, dancing, meditation and other forms of ‘riding the horse’ into a trance state are all aspects of the same basic methodology: to change shape one must first let go of the physical one you currently exist in. Masks are a great way of shape changing as you literally look through someone else’s eyes.
The method is simply a case of selecting one tool from the toolkit that best helps you get there.
For the skilled shapeshifter, life is about fluidity over structure. When one perspective no longer serves, abandon it and find another. When the lion’s courage becomes obstinacy and locks you down, it’s time to try the mouse’s view.
Or as the tricksters would suggest, stand on your head and see the world upside down. It’s all about a new way of looking at things in the end!