A large number of those accused by the Inquisition of being witches were also accused of being werewolves. Surprised? There is a reason: Shapeshifting. It is shocking how common it was that people persecuted for witchcraft by the Church in old Europe were also often accused of being werewolves. Either accusation could get you burned alive, of course. When researching my book Werewolf Magick, this really surprised me. Further digging revealed that the surviving and suppressed ancient Pagan and Animist practices and beliefs embedded in old European folk magic were clearly remnants of pre-Christian sorcery from Norse, Roman, Greek, and Celtic practices. It seems that these Pagan beliefs merged and overlapped and many included shapeshifting craft. To show how entwined were-wolf (human-wolf) shapeshifting and witchcraft practices likely were, here is a quote from the witchcraft trial of Jean Grenieron from 1592 telling of how he entered a coven of werewolf shapeshifters:
"When I was 10 or 11 years old, my neighbor Duthillaire introduced me to the depths of the forest, to the 'Master of the Forest,' a black man, who signed me with a nail and then gave me and him a salve and a wolf skin. From that time I have run about the country as a wolf."—BaringGould, The Book of Werewolves, page 92
Those in the Craft may actually have werewolfery their tradition's lineage! Many accused (and real) witches, in their accounts, offered clues that helped me understand how werewolf magick and shapeshifting was part of my traditional Craft roots. In Medieval Europe, werewolves and witches were often linked together by the Church, and being accused of one often led to being accused of the other, shapeshifting to wolf form being one of the many gifts from the Devil! As I researched and wrote about werewolf magick, I unexpectedly discovered much that threw new light on ancient Craft practices, like using Fetches or familiars, also techniques used by ancient sorcerers like the Norse Seidr with their Flygia (fetches.) I believe that anyone interested in these old traditional Craft practices will find this research, and possibly my book, of great interest. So witches, no matter what, were often accused of being able to "turn into" toads, cats, ravens, rabbits, and wolves with the help of a spell from a demon or from "the horned one" or the "Devil," often called the Lord of the Forest. How far back does this idea of shapeshifting go? Cave paintings show "theriomorphs" (people changing into part animals) and there is one that is clearly a werewolf found in a cave in Portugal that is dated 40,000 years old. Surviving indigenous Shamans describe and craft similar images today. (If you are interested in further informationa bout this, I wrote an article on the Ulchi Shamans I met, did workshops with, and interviewed.)
Animistic and Pagan shapeshifting practices were very common in the ancient world in Norse, Celtic, and classical cultures. Greek historians like Herodatus and Roman historians such as Livy firmly believed in werewolf shapeshifters and claimed to have witnessed such rites. After the fall of the Roman empire, these traditions and practices went underground along with the "old religions" within surviving folk magick traditions and folk festivals that honored magickal powers, often connected with the wolf. Such Pagan shape-shifting rites may have continued in family and clan groups like "covens," which were destroyed by the Church when this heresy was discovered. I spent several years reading witchcraft trial documents, and even with the horrible forced confessions, werewolf shapeshifting appears multiple times; often the accused witches received their initiations and powers from the mysterious "Lord of the Forest," the horned and hoofed image of what the Church called the "Devil," but there were many wild, feral shapeshifting gods who were called "the Lord of the Forest" and who were associated with wolves, like the horned Faunus, the Celtic Herne, and many more.
What was called witchcraft in early Christian Europe was called Satanism by the clergy; and aside from the trial documents, we have many folkloric references to wild "werewolf" gatherings and festivals, often at Midwinter, that even now still continue in rural feral festivals that include horned gods and werewolves.
These sorts of wild, feral festivals and rituals along with the werewolf shapeshifting magic were seen as all part of the great evil that the Church set out to destroy with intense fervor, and their goal was clearly to eradicate all witches, heathens, and shapeshifting "werewolves," all being evildoers doing the Devil's work. By the early Medieval period, the clergy, bishops, and even the Pope wrote fiery sermons about the scourge of werewolfery and Witchcraft and the need to exterminate such evil. Here is an example from a trial in the 1600s of one "werewolf witch:"
"The fate of Peter Stubbe, a German man, was not so fortunate. After flat-out confessing to having made a deal with the devil, in which Stubbe was gifted a belt allowing him to shape-shift for the sake of killing …. he was publicly executed in 1589."—BaringGould, The Book of Werewolves, page 8
Such persecutions resulted in both voluminous records from trials but also essays by clerics full of an amazing amount of references that indicate their belief in the survival of pre-Christian magickal traditions and that contain a surprising amount about werewolves and shapeshifting. Yet some persecuted "werewolf witches" defended their magic as good, not evil! During his trial, a self-admitted sorcerer named Thiess insisted that werewolves were not evil but were working for good against "the devil" as "wolves of god." He testified that he would leave his body in werewolf form and journey to Hell to steal back precious things that the devils of hell had stolen. As "hounds" or "wolves" of god, they defended society by shedding human skin and taking up spirit bodies of wolves for the good of the whole community. They saw themselves as "spiritual wolf warriors" like so many "werewolf warriors’"of the ancient Pagan world were said to do. (From Witches, Werewolves and Faeries, Lecouteaux page 168)
The more common witchcraft trial transcripts are, of course, filled with litanies of crazy sins elicited from poor torture peasents who were then often executed. Reading these, you realize that the populace and inquisitors all deeply believed in the real existence of witches, demons, and werewolf cults. The question for me when researching was this: Did surviving remnants of "shapeshifting" werewolf shapeshifting witches really exist? In retrospect, I do believe there is enough evidence to say yes, and in the mind of the Medieval Church, there were a whole lot of these witch werewolves! Olaus Magnus, a cleric of the Church involved in such trials, wrote:
"On the feast of the Nativity of Christ, at night a multitude of werewolves gather at a certain spot then spread to attack animals and humans, they eat livestock, [and] drink beer in taverns they raid..."—Baring-Gould, The Book of Werewolves, page 53
I love that they all went drinking together, a tradition I assume still continues among witches and werewolves! There are many such accounts like this, but amidst the Satanic panic of the Inquisition, there were also tales that showed a surprising tolerance of werewolves. A nobleman and his servants were travelling in Lithonia (the Baltics) with and had to camp deep in the woods without food. One of the servants then revealed to him that he was a werewolf and could help. He transformed in the woods and returned as a wolf with a sheep in his jaws to feed them all, he then ducked back into the woods and emerged as a man again. One assumes they all ate well and forgave the werewolf for his affliction. What a great friend to have!
The Church declared that werewolfism was real in the 1400s, and up through the 1800s it was not uncommon to see such beliefs still discussed by learned men. The writer Rhanaeus, who in the 1700s studied much older witchcraft trial documents, had some important comments about the werewolf cults that echo comments in the Sagas about Norse shapeshifting sorcerers. One line states:
"They imagine in deep sleep or dream that they injure the cattle and this without leaving their couch."—, The Book of Werewolves, page 60
This type of trance-state and "astral projection" shapeshifting may refer to the etheric "Double,"dFetch or Fylgia, the possible mode of true shapeshifting and I discuss this in depth in Werewolf Magick.
Another important piece of the puzzle in these witchcraft trial documents concerns the actions of the coven leader, the "Dark Man of the Woods" or "The Lord of the Forest," who offered werewolf shifting powers to witches seeking initiation. The interrogators forced those being tortured to agree that this mysterious figure was "The Devil," but that was not a term they originally used. The mysterious and powerful "Lord of the Forest" in these documents often tests the one seeking initiation, marks them with a nail or sharp fingernail, then, after a potent ritual in the deep woods with the coven, this "dark man" gave the new witch a magickal wolf skin or wolf skin belt along with a special "werewolf" salve to rub on the body. Rubbing their bodies with the salve, doing a ritual, and wearing the skin or belt all together turned them into werewolves or wolves and this "Dark Man" then trained the new witches how to master shapeshifting. Even though these tales were recounted during torture, in a number of different times and places, they are numerous and fairly consistant. Here is one example:
In 1521 an Inquisitor named Boin elicited a confession from a "witch-werewolf" in rural France and this story. The "witch" had been in the forest seeking lost sheep when he was approached by a "black horseman" who asked him if he needed help. He told his story of his lost sheep. "The Master" offered to help him and gave him some money. They met in the forest days later at an agreed-upon time and to the man's surprise, his sheep were there! He was in awe and agreed to follow this "Dark Lord." At their next meeting, he renounced Christianity and agreed to "bind himself" to "Moyset," the Master's name. They met again in these woods another day and this time many other witches were present and he joined their ritual. They all danced "a special dance while holding green tapers burning blue flames," then stripped and rubbed the special salve on their bodies and "quickly changed into wolves."—BaringGould, The Book of Werewolves, page 70
Here is one specific part of the story that I believe indicates ancient shamanic shapeshifting practices were involved. The man who transformed into a werewolf noted in testimony that he was "horrified at his four wolf's feet, and the fur which he was covered with," but that he oddly found that could travel with the"speed of wind," something modern shamans say as well about "spirit" or astral travels.
Though this transformation was done with the help of the "Master," oddly he then added that: he couldn't perceive him [the Master] until he returned to human form. Again, this may indicate an awakening from a spirit or astral journey because he would not have been able to see the "Master" while "out of body."
Such werewolf "shapeshifting salves" were likely psychoactive ointments and are often mentioned in trial documents as also being used by witches to "fly to the sabbat" and the ingredients mentioned were often the same. Most of the ingredients in these ointments were powerful psychotropic herbs such as belladonna, henbane, and aconite and would certainly be able to launch any witch into astral journeys, just as similar spirit travel is still induced by shamans today with amanita, psilocybin, and peyote. Shamans with whom I spoke mentioned being exhausted after such "spirit journeys," and this matches a number of accounts of witch-shapeshifters being exhausted for days after such astral adventures. This exhaustion is also noted in the Viking Eddas regarding Norse Eigi Einhamir or "Skin Changers." You likely know of the warrior sorcerer-shapeshifters called "Berserkers," which means Ber (bear) Sark (skin) because such they "put on the bear skin," meaning shapeshifted, before battle. Less known are the dreaded UlfSark—those who shapeshifted into werewolves in battle. Such werewolf-warriors were also well known and honored in many places in the ancient world. The infusion of Norse Paganism and magick throughout Europe likely contributed to the "werewolf magic" of the European witches.
Accused witches were also said to"ride to the sabbat" on the back of wolves or werewolves! Of course, to the priests of the "new religion," such spirits were demons sent by Satan and were sometimes referred as "Fetches" or "Familiars" or, in Northern lands, "Flygia" and were also condemned by the Church, of course.
This has been but a short description of what I feel was a major infusion of Pagan and Animistic rituals and occult practices in the folkloric and "craft" beliefs and magic in a chaotic and transforming Medieval Europe, some of which continues with us today. While our current Craft traditions are most likely not continuations of extant "covens" from this time, I know the book of shadows of the witchcraft tradition I was initiated into contains bits and pieces of lore and spells that clearly are older than much of the rest. Some are Welsh, some are archaic runes, and others are practices used for "visionary" shapeshifting. It is both logical and, at least from what I've found, clear that most all Craft traditions I know of have things lurking somewhere in the shadowy pages of their Books of Shadows! May you have many powerful wild and wolfish full moons and don't forget to howl for our shapeshifting witch ancestors!
Denny Sargent (Seattle, WA) is a writer, artist, and university instructor who has a master's degree in history/intercultural communications. He has been an initiate of a number of esoteric traditions and groups, including ...