Shape Shifting

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SHAPE SHIFTING can be defined as the alteration in form or substance of any animate object. There seems no limit to the kinds of objects susceptible to such alteration. Examples abound of the shape shifting of plants, animals, humans, and gods. Shape shifting can be caused either by the object changed or by an external force; it can occur for good or for ill and for reasons simple or profound.

Shape shifting is found in essentially every religion and mythological tradition. By no means is it a phenomenon restricted to unsophisticated cultures remote in history and geography from the dominant civilizations. An enduring fascination with shape shifting is easily detected in modern popular culture as well as in the major religions: Comic-book and cartoon characters such as Superman and Spiderman are typical shape-shifters, and shape shifting is certainly an element in the deepest spiritual insights of Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism as these religions are currently practiced.

Because of the rich variety of contexts and levels of subtlety in which it is found, it is impossible to assign shape shifting a universal meaning. Zeus's appearance as a swan and Christ's transfiguration are both instances of shape shifting, but they have quite distinct meanings and importance. It is possible, however, in a survey of the phenomenon in its manifold occurrence, to distinguish between types of shape shifting and to find within those types a common meaning and function.

The most frequent type of shape shifting involves strategic deception. Strategic shapeshifters change themselves for reasons of aggression, seduction, or trickery. A second class of shapeshifters are those who use the device for escape from another's aggression or seduction. A third type has the simple function of punishment, and a fourth rewards or compensates the changed object, usually by immortalization. A frequent but often subtle kind of shape shifting seeks liberation from bondage or punishment. A somewhat murkier, though widely found, type may best be described as instances of borderline or confused identity, where one mode of existence is so much like another that the two are repeatedly exchanged. Finally, by far the most profound variety of shape shifting is that which has revelation as its design.

Strategic Deception

Stealth is so essential an ingredient in any conflict that it is in the interest of all contestants to be something or somewhere else than their opponents expect them to be. Kuloscap, for example, the major god of the Micmac Indians of the Maritime Provinces of Canada, overcomes a series of enemies by clever ruses and rapid shape shifting. His power to change himself includes the power to change others, for he will occasionally grant immortality, in the form of a tree or stone, to those who request it. The Maruts, bellicose deities in the service of the Hindu god Indra, can enter undetected into the presence of their enemies by such means as changing themselves into apparently helpless infants. Perhaps the most prodigious of all the shapeshifters of this type is another Hindu god, Viu, who assumes a great number of incarnations, or avataras, in his battle against evil. The best known of the avataras of Viu are Rāma and Ka, each of whom is remembered for epic struggles involving shape shifting.

Seduction is probably as usual a reason for shape shifting as is aggression, and it certainly takes more colorful and ingenious forms. At its most basic level seductive shape shifting consists in taking the appearance of another's beloved. Thus the magician Merlin gives Uther Pendragon the form of the duke Gorlois, that he may satisfy his sexual longing for Gorlois's wife. The fruit of this union based on deception is Arthur, king of Britain. So too Zeus, the foremost of the Greeks' Olympian deities, appears to Alcmena in the form of her beloved Amphitryon. But Zeus is usually more inventive, coming to his unsuspecting lovers as a satyr, a shower of gold, a white bull, a swan, and once even as the goddess Artemis. Seductive shape shifting can sometimes be reversed, as commonly happens in Arthurian legend, for example, where the seducer appears as an irresistible young woman but is in fact an agent of evil or death in disguise.

Trickery is the theme of an enormous body of folk tale and myth. Tricksters, displaying remarkably similar characteristics, can be found in a diversity of cultures. They typically take the form of animals but can also be such borderline beings as dwarfs, elves, imps, and trolls. Not always, but frequently, tricksters carry out their mischief through shape shifting. A trickster may, for example, present himself as a person of supernatural powers in order to win a bride or change himself into a snake to steal meat hidden in a skull. A common feature of trickster stories is that these deceptions either are exposed or they backfire on the trickster. The false bridegroom is revealed as a malevolent fox, the trickster finds that his own head has grown onto the snake's body he has assumed, making it impossible for him to draw it out of the skull. Tricksters very often suffer, and even die, for their blundering misdeeds, but they nonetheless return miraculously for more adventure, changing from death back into lifethe ultimate feat of the shapeshifter.

The line between trickery and evil is often fuzzy. Satan, for example, has a great supply of tricks, many of which involve shape shifting, but he is certainly no mere trickster. Similarly, the great mischief-maker of Norse mythology, Loki, capable of assuming such diverse forms as bird, flea, milkmaid, or fish, sometimes seems to be the originator of evil itself and not just another divine trickster.


If stealth is valuable to the aggressor, it is no less valuable to the intended victim. The Greek goddess Daphne is changed into a laurel tree to elude the amorous advances of Apollo. Zeus transforms Io into a heifer to protect her from the wrath of Hera. But such shape shifting is filled with risk. The Celtic god Cian transforms himself into a boar to escape his pursuing enemies. They in turn become greyhounds, hunt down their quarry, and kill him. When Demeter, in the shape of a mare, flees Poseidon, he accomplishes the seduction by taking the shape of a stallion.


Shape shifting has such obvious utility for pursuit and flight that examples of it have little inherent intellectual or religious weight. When it takes the form of punishment it becomes considerably more nuanced. There are, to be sure, numerous simple instances of direct retribution. Thus, Lot's wife is transformed into a pillar of salt for violating the command not to look back at Sodom; in Roman mythology Picus pays for his rejection of Circe's sexual advances when she transforms him into a woodpecker.

In its more refined form shape shifting as punishment emerges in a number of traditions as the transmigration, or reincarnation, of souls. In Hinduism, where the concept is most thoroughly developed, the reincarnated soul has a new shape determined by the quality of its spiritual life in previous existences. There is no end to this serial shape shifting until the soul is able to cleanse itself of all attachment to the changeable. In other words, the soul will be punished by shape shifting until it has no shape left whatsoever. This idea persists in Buddhism, though with much less emphasis. Plato gives the idea considerable authority in the West. In the Phaedo, for instance, he has Socrates argue that souls will go through an indefinite number of rebirths but with appropriate transformations. Those who are gluttons in this existence will be asses in the next; the unjust and tyrannical will become wolves and hawks; and those who practice the civil and social virtues will be bees or ants, if they are not changed "back again into the form of man." Elsewhere Plato suggests that humans have fallen into this earthly shape from one more desirable.


For every tale of punishment by shape shifting there is one of liberation. The princess of one of the tales of the brothers Grimm must weave six shirts out of flower petals and keep silence for six years in order to break the witch's spell that has changed her six brothers into swans. Cinderella must be found by the prince, the café waitress by the movie producer, each thus to be freed from her humiliating bondage.

The shape shifting of liberation, since it must always come from without, grants unusual, often unknown or hidden, powers to the changers. Pygmalion, a Greek sculptor of great skill, innocently shapes a statue, then finds he has fallen in love with it; Aphrodite secretly brings the statue to life as the woman Galatea. Just as innocently a child in another Grimm tale takes a frog to dinner and then to bed, acts of affection that transform him back into the prince he really is.

There is often the assumption in this kind of shape shifting that the change from one state to another is the liberation of a being from its false to its true nature. The water-jar boy of the Indian tale not only springs into human form; he leads his mother into a secret well where she is joined with the supernatural beings who are her true family. The Christian thinker Boethius, tortured to death by the Ostrogoth ruler of Rome Theodoric in 524 ce, wrote that Philosophy, in the shape of a woman, entered his cell to console him with the message that he suffered from his punishment only because "you have forgotten what you are." As long as he could remember that he was in truth pure soul he would be freed from the torment suffered by his earthly shape. The idea that humans are liberated from a false existence to a true one is widely found in mystical literature. Islamic mystics, for example, declare that it is their desire "to be who I am before I was."

A highly sophisticated and extreme form of liberation by shape shifting is found in classical Daoism. For the ancient Daoists the spiritual goal was not a transformation from one kind of being into another, but continuous transformation. All that is, they taught, is in the process of change. Therefore, the path (or dao) of the liberated person does not have a goal; it is a path of endless change. Zhuangzu, a Daoist philosopher who lived several centuries before the common era, wrote that the liberated person "rides on the flow of heaven and earth and the transformation of the six elements and wanders in the infinite" (Zhuangzsu, trans. Jane English and Giafu Feng, New York, 1974, p. 9). In other words, the liberated person is an eternal shapeshifter, possessing no shape that is truly his or her own.


A relatively small number of shapeshifting tales and beliefs fall into the category of immortalization. At the simplest level are the stories in Greek mythology of Hyacinth, a lover of Apollo who was changed into a lily; of Narcissus, a lover of his own image who also became a flower; and of Echo, a lover of Narcissus, who was cruelly immortalized in the disembodied form of a voice that could never speak for itself.

It has been a common belief in many cultures that gods and heroes have taken permanent places in the night sky. This belief enters into Plato's philosophical speculation, in the Timaeus, that the stars are the souls of those liberated from their earthly shapes. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body also shares in the general character of immortalization by shape shifting. "Lo, I tell you a mystery," Paul wrote; "we shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed." It is a change in which "this mortal nature must put on immortality" (1 Cor. 15:5153). This more philosophical, or theological, understanding of shape shifting, it should be noted, is the precise opposite of that of the Daoists, in which all possibility of immortality is rejected.

Borderline and Confused Identities

There is a large class of shapeshifters who seem to be existing in two realms at the same time, who seem to be both human and animal, or both deity and natural phenomenon.

The best example of this kind of shape shifting in Greek mythology is Dionysos, a god of multiple origins and traits. There is only one continuous characteristic of Dionysos through all his often contradictory manifestations: He is always closely associated with natural process. His usual dwelling place is in the wild, physically and psychically far from civilized human existence. The natural order from which he is inseparable usually causes social disorder. He is widely known as the god of wine and revelry. Even his birth has a strange ambiguity about it: He was born twice, once prematurely of the goddess Semele, and once from the thigh of Zeus. This double birth may account for the fact that he can sometimes be found in female form. He can assume a great number of shapes, as though the line between his divinity and natural process has no restraining effect. Dionysos is as closely associated with death as he is with life. He was raised in the forest by the satyr Silenus, who was fond of saying that the only happiness in life is to die and leave it as soon as possible. Dionysos dies by being pulled apart by women in an ecstatic ritual and is thus also known by the name Zagreus, the Torn. Once dead, however, he comes back to life, a symbol of the natural process itself, which requires death for the regeneration of life.

Other Greek deities, notably Artemis, Poseidon, and Demeter, have identities bound up with nature, though none so closely as Dionysos, whose origins are, in any case, more Middle Eastern than Greek. The ancient religions of Mesopotamia and Egypt included the worship of a great many gods who changed their shapes in a manner imitative of nature. Ishtar, the Assyro-Babylonian goddess of love and voluptuousness, performs an annual ceremonial killing of her lover Tammuz, "lord of the wood of life," who vanishes into the earth like the threshed and planted grain, only to rise again in the spring into the arms of Ishtar, who then repeats the process. This particular kind of agricultural shape shifting has distant but unmistakable echoes in many other mythological and religious traditions. Note the parallels in the story of Christ: Scourged and crowned in a mock ceremony, he is executed and buried at the time of a spring festival, shortly to rise in the midst of women as a new food for the life of the community.

There are instances of the elusive sort of shape shifting that seem at once to be both divine and natural. Equally elusive is the shape shifting caused by the intimate identity of the human with the animal. Popular Chinese legend commonly has the trickster fox posing as a respected citizen, often without anyone ever seeing his fox form. In Europe werewolf legends are found everywhere. Indeed, until the eighteenth century it was widely believed that some human beings could periodically pass into the form of a wolf; the belief even encouraged a quasi-scientific study of such creatures, thought to be afflicted with a form of insanity called lycanthropy (from the Greek words for "wolf" and "human").


Finally, there is the shape shifting that appears to have as its principal function the awakening or enlightening of observers to an otherwise unnoticed reality.

Þórr (Thor), the hero-god of Norse mythology, was once admitted with his companions to a magical castle where they had to prove themselves by such feats as racing with a giant who seemed to reach the finish line as soon as he started, lifting a cat whose single paw Thor could not raise from the floor, and wrestling with an old woman of frail appearance but astounding strength. When they had lost these contests it was explained to them that they had been competing with thought, the world serpent, and time, as though these were realities about which the heroes needed instruction.

The Greek god Proteus offers an interesting variation on this theme. Because he possessed the gift of prophecy, Proteus was often asked to reveal what the future held for a person. As though to impress his suppliants with the anguish that comes from such revelations, he would change himself into monstrous forms meant to terrify them. To those who refused to be intimidated he offered the requested knowledge.

Revelatory shape shifting does more than simply occur in Christianity; it is its central affirmation. The doctrine of the incarnation is properly to be understood as the revealing self-transformation of God. "In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory," the Gospel of John begins. Only once, however, does one find in the Gospels an event in which something of Jesus' divine form is revealed. Jesus took several of his disciples up a mountain "and was transfigured before them." His face shone as the sun and his raiment was of a brilliant light. The disciples fell on their faces in fear and reverence.

A remarkably similar event can be found in one of the best-known works of Hindu literature, the Bhagavadgītā. This text is the account of a conversation between the famed warrior Arjuna and the god Ka, who was in the form of Arjuna's chariot driver. Near the end of this discourse Arjuna begged Ka to show himself in his true divine form. When Ka did so his face shone with the light of a thousand suns, and Arjuna "beheld the universe, in all its multitudinous diversity, lodged as one being within the God of gods." Like the disciples of Jesus, he was both terrified and worshipful before this transformation.

In referring to Jesus and Ka as shapeshifters it may seem that their spiritual importance has been trivialized, that they have been placed in the company of tricksters and seducers. On the contrary, these self-transforming powers of Jesus and Ka show how immensely varied the phenomenon of shape shifting is. What the many shapeshifters have in common is only an external resemblance. When one looks into the inner meaning of each instance of shape shifting and try to understand it in its context, similarities rapidly disappear. Shape shifting is a universal phenomenon to which no universal meaning can be applied. To cite an event as an example of it is not, therefore, to state its meaning, but to encourage inquiry into its meaning.

See Also

Monsters; Therianthropism; Tricksters.


Because there is no major work on shape shifting as such, the most useful texts for further study are the introductory and classificatory volumes on world mythology. Without question, the most comprehensive classification of mythological themes is Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk Literature, 6 vols. (Bloomington, Ind., 19551958). The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Myth (London, 1973) is a broad and accessible summary of mythological narratives. Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, 2 vols. (19491950; reprint, New York, 1972), provides brief but useful introductions to the basic terms and categories of mythological study. Joseph Campbell's The Masks of God, 4 vols. (New York, 19591968), deftly combines an introduction to the world's mythological literature with the author's interpretations of its major themes. The most useful compendium of Greek mythology for the general reader is Robert Graves's The Greek Myths, 2 vols. (Harmondsworth, 1955). For a bibliography of works on the myth and folktale traditions of other cultures see World Folktales, edited by Atelia Clarkson and Gilbert B. Cross (New York, 1980).

New Sources

Barkan, Leonard. Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism. New Haven, 1986.

Forbes Irving, P.M.C. Metamorphosis in Greek Myths. Oxford, 1990.

Jackson, Michael. "The Man Who Could Turn into an Elephant: Shape-Shifting Among the Kuranko of Sierra Leone." In Personhood and Agency: The Experience of Self and Other in African Cultures, edited by Michael Jackson and Ivan Karp, pp. 59-78. Uppsala, 1990.

Kennett, Frances. "Sor Juana and the Guadelupe." Feminist Theology: The Journal of the Britain & Ireland School of Feminist Theology 11/3 (2003): 307-325.

Smith, W. L. "Changing Bodies: The Mechanics of the Metamorphic Curse." Acta Orientalia 56 (1995): 125-143.

Steiger, Brad. Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings. Detroit, 1999.

Traini, Renato. "La métamorphose des êtres humains en brutes d'après quelques textes arabes." (The metamorphosis of human beings into monsters according to some Arab texts). In Miscellanea Arabica et Islamica, edited by Uitgeverij Peeters, pp. 90134. Louvain, 1993.

James P. Carse (1987)

Revised Bibliography