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Shapeshifting and Familiars

The following is an excerpt from my new book Witchcraft in Illinois: A Cultural History. Part Two explores beliefs about witchcraft, including a witch’s powers and abilities, which were surprisingly specific. Order it today on Amazon.com or Barnesandnoble.com

Shapeshifting was a common theme in witch tales. Storytellers claimed witches could transform into any number of animals, including deer, rabbits, cats, pigs, and horses. Others claimed that witches transformed their victims into animals.

Witches who transformed men into horses while they slept and rode them to the Sabbath caused their victims to experience physical and mental exhaustion. Others changed children into animals in order to take revenge against their parents.

A common story, repeated many times and in many locations, involved a game animal that was particularly difficult to hunt. The hunter (usually described as a skilled marksman) found his best efforts frustrated until he loaded his musket or rifle with a silver bullet.

Finally wounding the animal, the hunter pursued his quarry only to discover a neighbor crippled in the same location where he shot his prey. However, silver bullets did not need to cause the wound. Any injury to the magical animal caused an identical injury on the witch, revealing his or her identity.

Charles Neely, Sr. related the following story to his son, folklorist Charles Neely, who explained that the story circulated the Alcorn Creek neighborhood of Pope County, Illinois. Pope County is located at the southeastern tip of the state, just north of the junction of the Ohio and Tennessee rivers.

“Uncle Wesley Holt, who was an old settler and part Indian, saw a deer galloping around the field. Being an expert marksman with the old cap and ball rifle, Uncle Wesley decided to have some venison. He shot at the deer and it galloped away. For several days it galloped around the field. Uncle Wesley shot at it several times but failed to kill it. He knew that his marksmanship was good, so he decided that there was something uncanny about the deer.”

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