Another set of Top Ten Shapeshifters (Part 1)

It’s taken me a while to respond to Kaja and Sam’s excellent lists of their top ten shapeshifters (here and here). Here are the first five of my own favourites (not in order of importance).

1. Circe, in Homer, Odyssey and James Joyce, Ulysses

In Greek myth, there are hundreds of transformations, from god to human, human to beast or plant, beast to human, all marvellous. The Roman poet Ovid, who Sam and Kaja both pay tribute to, strung many of these tales into his Metamorphoses This long poem is itself a tribute to transfiguration in its very form, eliding from one myth to the next fluidly. It is here, for example, that we find the gruesome story of Lycaon, one of the first literary werewolves of Western literature.

But I want to take my first shapeshifting example from another ancient Greek source—the Circe episode in Homer’s Odyssey:

They found Circe’s house of polished stone, in a clearing in the forest glades. Round it wolves and mountain lions prowled, bewitched by Circe with her magic drugs. Instead of rushing to attack my men, they rose on their hind legs and wagged their tails. Like dogs fawning round their master, back from a feast, bringing them the titbits they enjoy, the wolves and sharp-clawed lions fawned round my men, while they seeing these dread creatures were gripped by fear. They stood there at the gate of the goddess with lovely tresses, and they could hear Circe’s sweet voice singing inside, as she went to and fro in front of a vast divine tapestry, weaving the finely-made, lovely, shining work of the goddesses.

[. . .]

At that, they shouted, and called to her, and Circe came to open the shining doors, and invite them to enter: and so they innocently followed her inside. Eurylochus alone, suspecting it was a trap, stayed behind. She ushered the rest in, and seated them on stools and chairs, and mixed them a brew of yellow honey and Pramnian wine, with cheese and barley meal. But she mixed in wicked drugs, as well, so they might wholly forget their native land. When they had drunk the brew she gave them, she touched them with her wand, and herded them into the pigsties.  Now they had the shape and bristly hide, the features and voice of pigs, but their minds were unaltered from before. There they wept in their pens, and Circe gave them acorns, beech mast, and cornel fruit to eat, such as pigs feed on as they churn the mud.

Homer, Odyssey, x

And then, in a brilliantly hallucinatory piece of literary shapeshifting, James Joyce in his Ulysses transforms those metamorphoses into a scene of humans cavorting in bestial fashion in a Dublin brothel, with Circe cast as a madam

2. The sea-brides in Margo Lanagan, The Brides of Rollrock Island

I’ve always liked mermaids, so I was tempted to include Hans Andersen’s eponymous Little Mermaid, but Sam and Kaja have already picked her; instead, I’ve chosen this wonderful YA novel I read recently, which takes as its source of shapeshifters the Celtic selkies: Margo Lanagan’s The Brides of Rollrock Island, reviewed here by Marcus Sedgwick. Beautiful women are conjured up for lonely men from seals by an embittered  witch on a lonely Scottish island. But they still belong to the sea, and their marriages to the men are full of sadness despite their passive complaisance in their role. It’s a very powerful novel, lyrically written, and a subtle exploration of gender and the relationship between human and nature that doesn’t slip glibly into familiar positions, but is open-ended and questioning.

3. Proteus, Tam Lin, Taliesin, and others.


This is a perennial theme throughout myth and folklore, and it fascinates me. In this sequence of metamorphoses, pursued and pursuer magically change from form to form in rapid succession, each shape of the hunter chosen appropriately to suit the new shape of the prey. I’m sure folklorists have a taxonomic label for this motif but I don’t know what it is.

‘We waited the whole morning and made the best of it, watching the seals come up in hundreds to bask upon the sea shore, till at noon the old man of the sea came up too, and when he had found his fat seals he went over them and counted them. We were among the first he counted, and he never suspected any guile, but laid himself down to sleep as soon as he had done counting. Then we rushed upon him with a shout and seized him; on which he began at once with his old tricks, and changed himself first into a lion with a great mane; then all of a sudden he became a dragon, a leopard, a wild boar; the next moment he was running water, and then again directly he was a tree, but we stuck to him and never lost hold, till at last the cunning old creature became distressed, and said, “Which of the gods was it, Son of Atreus, that hatched this plot with you for snaring me and seizing me against my will? What do you want?”’

Homer, Odyssey, iv


And here’s the theme again in the Welsh myth of Taliesin:

Long labored Ceridwen, roaming far to find the rare and exotic herbs she required, and so it chanced that she fell asleep on the last day of the spell. The boy Gwion was stirring the brew when three drops flew out onto his thumb, and they were scalding hot, so that he thrust it into his mouth to stop the burning. Instantly, he had the wisdom and inspiration of ages, and the first thing that occurred to him was that Ceridwen would be very angry.

He ran away from the house of Ceridwen, but all too soon he heard the fury of her pursuit. Using his new magical powers, he turned himself into a hare. She turned into a greyhound bitch, and gained ever more on him. He came to a river, and quick as thinking became a fish. She became an otter. He leapt from the water, and in the middle of his leap became a bird of the air. The witch Ceridwen became a hawk. In desperation, he looked down and saw a pile of wheat. He dived, landed, and as it scattered he turned into a single grain. Then she landed and became a hen, and pecked at the grain until she had swallowed Gwion.

Soon after, Ceridwen found herself with child, though she had lain with no man. When she realized that the baby was Gwion, she resolved to kill it, and Morfran wanted her to also, in revenge for his not becoming a bard. In due course, the babe was born, and Morfran would have slaughtered him on the spot, but the mother said no, because it was the most beautiful child ever seen. But she took him and, sewing him in a bag, set him adrift on the ocean.

‘While I was held prisoner, sweet inspiration educated me
and laws were imparted to me in a speech which had no words;
but I had to flee from the angry, terrible hag
whose outcry was terrifying.

‘Since then I have fled in the shape of a crow,
since then I have fled as a speedy frog,
since then I have fled with rage in my chains,
– a roe-buck in a dense thicket.

‘I have fled in the shape of a raven of prophetic speech,
in the shape of a satirizing fox,
in the shape of a sure swift,
in the shape of a squirrel vainly hiding.

‘I have fled in the shape of a red deer,
in the shape of iron in a fierce fire,
in the shape of a sword sowing death and disaster,
in the shape of a bull, relentlessly struggling.

‘I have fled in the shape of a bristly boar in a ravine,
in the shape of a grain of wheat.
I have been taken by the talons of a bird of prey
which increased until it took the size of a foal.

‘Floating like a boat in its waters,
I was thrown into a dark bag,
and on an endless sea, I was set adrift.


And, finally, the Border ballad, ‘Tam Lin’, where the Faerie Queen’s jealousy forces the knight she has kidnapped to transform in the hope that this will deter his human lover:

Tam Lin

‘They’ll turn me in your arms, lady,
Into an esk and adder,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
I am your bairn’s father.

‘They’ll turn me to a bear sae grim,
And then a lion bold,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
And ye shall love your child.

‘Again they’ll turn me in your arms
To a red het gand of airn,
But hold me fast, and fear me not,
I’ll do you nae harm.

‘And last they’ll turn me in your arms
Into the burning gleed,
Then throw me into well water,
O throw me in with speed.

‘And then I’ll be your ain true-love,
I’ll turn a naked knight,
Then cover me wi your green mantle,
And hide me out o sight.’

‘Tam Lin’

4. Gregor Samsa, in Kafka, ‘Metamorphosis’ (1915).

Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself inexplicably shapeshifted into a disgusting insectile creature. Friends and family gradually turn away from him until he is forgotten. It’s completely arbitrary; he hasn’t infringed some divine code or aroused the jealousy of the gods. Samsa becomes a symbol of the degraded human and the callous indifference that people can perform towards the other.

5. Lila Zacharov, in Holly Black, White Cat

[Warning: slight plot spoilers]

White Cat is the first book in the Curse Workers trilogy by Holly Black, who I would rate as the best writer of YA paranormal romance there is. In a world where a minority can perform magic, but where it is outlawed, the curse workers become a criminal underclass, though the most powerful lead Mafia-like syndicates. The curse workers have a range of talents; the rarest and possibly most unsettling is that of transformation. There is a powerfully tear-jerking romance plot in this novel of intrigue, deceit, and cunning, involving the young protagonist Cassell and the marvellously tough-spirited Lila. I won’t tell you who is transformed into what but the title does have a clue (and it alludes to Madame D’Aulnoy’s fairy tale of the same name; another of the genre transformations that are so bound up with these fictions of shifting forms).



About William the Bloody

Cat lover. 18C scholar on the dialogue and novel. Co-convenor OGOM Project
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2 Responses to Another set of Top Ten Shapeshifters (Part 1)

  1. Another striking and thought-provoking list. I love the fey in Julia Kagawa’s ‘Iron King’ so she might top Holly Black on the P.R. front for me. Your analysis of Kafka and the lack of empathy Samsa suffers is very interesting with regard to our contemporary sympathy for the ‘other’. I am not sure whether he is an ‘other’ (very obviously othered by his family) or an ‘Other’ (representing true alterity). Mark Currie on ‘Difference’ is crucial here. I would have chosen him too if I could claim he had a bigger impact on me than he did. I am fascinated by insects as you know and have written on entomology so I should have chosen this man/beetle myself. Have you read Richard Marsh’s ‘The Beetle’? It out sold Dracula when it came out and is another outbreak narrative but also anticipates Egyptomania in the 1930s. Anyway I digress…great list I am looking forward to part two. It would be nice to get some other comments on these from visitors to the site. Sam

  2. Oh and I forgot to add there is an entire radio programme dedicated to the question what kind of insect does Samsa turn into? Follow the link below:

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