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shape-changing


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A frequent belief about witches was that they would turn into animals. As Gervase of Tilbury wrote (c.1211), ‘Women have been seen and wounded in the shape of cats by persons who were secretly on the watch, and … next day the women have shown wounds or loss of limbs.’ At witch trials, such anecdotes were sometimes proffered in evidence, for instance at Taunton in 1663; Edward Fairfax wrote in his Daemonologia (1622) that ‘The changing of witches into hares, cats and the like shapes is so common, as late testimonies and confessions approve unto us, that none but the stupidly incredulous can wrong the credit of the reporters or doubt of the certainty.’

All over rural England in the 19th century, folklorists recorded a semi-humorous story of a hunted hare which always escaped and disappeared near the cottage of a reputed witch; if the hunters entered, they would find her at home, but panting. Eventually, a dog managed to bite the hare's rump, and when next seen the woman had a wounded leg. Versions of this tale were still current in Sussex in the 1930s (Simpson, 1973: 69–70), while in Warwickshire at the same period there were stories of women wounded while in the form of cats (Palmer, 1976: 86–7); both types were believed and told in Somerset in the 1960s (Folklore 74 (1963), 323–4).

Shape-changing is also characteristic of certain fairies; see BOGGART, GUYTRASH, PUCK, etc.


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