Hmm, hmm, where to begin?
What do I even want to say?
I want to talk about shapeshifting, and the fetch-beast, and skins one may put on and wear – a subject about which much is presupposed, and little is certain. A subject which falls firmly under the heading of ‘really woo stuff.’
This can’t be an essay where I sit back satisfied in my chair and expound about something I’m an expert on. I don’t know very much about the art of shapeshifting, but I am relatively certain it’s one of the Things I’m Supposed to Figure Out. So, instead of a meandering run of supposition and theory, I’ll set the scene as if we’re around a campfire, passing a horn of mead or a flask of something stronger and listening to the distant tokka-oonga-dun-tok of a drum circle ripple incessantly into the summer night. I’m just going to share a few stories, so settle in for a while.
(If you’re here, dear readers, I’ll have to assume that you know enough to understand that nowhere will I be talking about bending my physical bones and sinews into the shape of a beast’s. For that, you’ll need to find some tale of supernatural fiction).
Well, then – what can I say…
I : Are There Wolves in this Forest?
This happened a long time ago, sometime in the late 1990’s. I was just getting into “magic” and “pagan stuff” with some other people I knew (though I’d been into ‘magic’ and ‘pagan stuff’ for years, I just didn’t know that’s what it was). We decided to do a ritual on Samhain night in a large wooded park where i had a stone altar set up in an out-of-the-way location. We decided to light some black candles, and cut some red apples in half, and take a bite, and offer the rest to the spirits of the dead by burying them in the earth. Pretty simple (and not too terribly boneheaded for beginners. Huh!)
By ‘we’ I mean there were four of us: myself, a guy who I was dating who fancied himself Asatru, a girl who hung out with the digital artist in our party, and who was a seeker deeply damaged by life’s circumstance. And the digital artist himself, who had Osteogenesis Imperfecta type III, and who we carried into the woods in the same kind of backpack that parents sometimes use to tote children.
We snuck into a large state park after dark on Halloween night, went all the way to my hidden altar and cast a circle as best we knew how, lit our candles and said our words, buried the apples (which we had cut in two with a black handled kitchen knife) by digging with our hands through the thick leaf litter. It all went perfectly; but then we saw a light like a flashlight in the darkness far away, and we were afraid that a park ranger had seen the candle flames and was coming to investigate. I unceremoniously snuffed both the candles out.
The girl, the seeker, started to get up, assuming we were leaving, but something made me say “Wait. Let’s sit here a bit.” and though she was nervous about being in the woods at night, we all sat in the darkness for a few minutes as the night breeze soughed among the bared branches of October’s end.
Then we heard footsteps.
Faint and far off, a rhythmic crunch crunch of something moving through the leaves. Several somethings, advancing slowly and deliberately, from all around us. A few more minutes of crunch crunch crunch moving closer and closer from a far distance, pausing occasionally then resuming, and we were ready to go. My boyfriend asked if I needed the flashlight to guide us out, and I realized I didn’t. It was pitch dark under a clouded sky and I could see as well as if I was in a room dimly lit by a lamp. So I led the others out of the woods, carrying the graphic artist in his carrier on my back, and with the seeker-woman walking beside me.
We didn’t take the circle down, but no one remembered that until the next day.
Dense patches of isolated fog followed us until we reached the last bridge. Trolls, I thought when I looked at them. Trolls from the deep-cut hillside and the stream where my altar stones were gathered. Our energy work had aroused their curiosity, I think, and they had come up out of the deep earth to waft half-seen through the trees along the trail. None of us were silly enough to approach them or try to communicate in any way; they were simply making sure we left their territory without doing anything ill-advised.
We reached the last leg of the hike that would take us to the stream-bridge and back to the parking lot. Suddenly I was overcome by a huge rush of energy. I felt like I was going to fly apart into pieces. I wanted to drop to the ground, to all fours, and run. I wanted to RUN! Run forever through the night woods laughing with my teeth bared.
The seeker woman said to me in a low frightened whisper “are there… wolves in this forest? [Name,] there aren’t any wolves, are there?” and I found I couldn’t answer her. I couldn’t speak. The energy was too much, I was riding it like a wave. If I hadn’t been carrying another person I might have dropped to the ground and clawed at the earth with my hands. It was cresting, cresting! How far would it go, what would happen? I must find out, I must ride this growling ecstasy that was tearing through my skin, until it reached it’s climax (whatever that might be)! Meanwhile she was still nervously asking about wolves. Finally she touched my arm, and at that the energy fled in an instant like lightning grounded to earth. After a few moments I could speak in human tongues again, and I said “no. there aren’t any wolves.”
That was the first and strongest atavistic experience I’ve ever had. I call it atavistic because in processing my experience later I was reminded of Austin Osmand Spare’s writings on atavism and more primitive expressions of the soul. Or – I think he wrote about such things?
I was quite frustrated that I didn’t get to ride it out! I think my companion somehow sensed the energy that had swept over me? Why was she suddenly scared of wolves (in the central Midwest!) at the very moment when I felt I was about to rip off my skin and embody one?
I still occasionally get echoes of that atavistic exaltation, and I think it’s one of the threads I should follow on my path to better understand the things that fall under the umbrella of shapeshifting. I try to recognize it when it happens and follow as best I can, lest the connection fade for good and I be cut off from a source of my own power.