The Magic of Shapeshifting
Weiser Books, 2000
This is going to be a looong review. Where do I start with this book? I have a complicated relationship with it; I first bought it in 2002, back when I was in a “belief” stage of my belief-doubt-belief cycle about being a therianthrope. I didn’t have much exposure to the therian-specific community, though I’d had off and on contact with the Otherkin community through which I met a number of therians. Since then, I’ve read it several more times, and I’ve finally, five years later, gotten around to reviewing it. I’ll admit that each time I’ve read it my opinion of it has gone down, largely because each time I have a better understanding of therianthropy, both from my own perspective and from the therian community at large. Same thing goes for magic, which plays an integral role in The Magic of Shapeshifting.
One of my biggest complaints is that the author (or three authors, writing under one name, according to one rumor) accepts historical accounts of lycanthropy as completely, literally true. This is what she bases a lot of her proof that “shifters: (including physical shifters) have existed for millenia, well known to the populace but only recently suppressed. She relies particularly on questionable sources such as Montague Summers, and she takes no critical eye to any of her material, which irritates me to no end.
She also bases most of her magic on a mixture of spiritism/Theosophy and a smattering of Asian concepts of energy work, and assumes that the subjective biases of these systems are universal. Her approach is rather dogmatic, as if there’s only one way to skin a werewolf. And she doesn’t cite any sources for the practical aspects of her work, which is a shame as it could have been strengthened by showing that other people have gotten similar results, though not necessarily using the techniques she utilizes for the same end. While she uses footnote citations for historical information, I was left wondering where she got her inspirations for the more hands-on material, and what sources she learned to acquire the building blocks for her magical work.
I think what I dislike the most, though, about this work are all the huge assumptions and broad stereotypes she applies to therianthropes in general, many of which are inaccurate, and none of which are backed up with anything other than anecdotal information from other, often unidentified, people that we’re supposed to expect are telling the truth. Given the gullibility of the author in accepting whatever Mr. Summers wrote without question, I have to wonder how much critical consideration went into whatever her informants told her, or if she ever questioned her own experiences to any degree. While belief in yourself is healthy, never questioning yourself isn’t–if she did ever look at the possibility that not everything in this book was literally true, she doesn’t show any evidence of having done so.
Some of the inaccuracies are blindingly obvious when viewed by anyone with more than a passing involvement in the therian community. This includes her assertion that most therians go through a “phase” as a fox shifter before “maturing” into another species; that all therians have totem animals that are the same species as their therioside; the claim that a number of terms she throws around are “commonly” used in the therian community (what she calls the “shifter community”, but it’s the same thing), when in actuality I’ve never heard most of them anywhere except from her book; that therians have an aversion to turquoise; and her overemphasis on the existence of organized therian “packs”. In fact, there’s a lot of information just on the community itself that could seriously mislead readers who aren’t familiar with the actual community.
Additionally, she seems to have some weird ideas about physical animals. Some of it is strange esoteric biases, such as the idea that black animals attract evil spirits, or that the color of an animal’s fur or eyes determines its magical prowess and even personality. Last I checked, this didn’t hold true for humans, and I haven’t found in my decade-plus experience with animal magic that it does for nonhuman animals, either. She also has some blatant biological mistakes in there, such as the “fact” that foxes have retractable claws (they don’t).
Her information on shifting isn’t universally bad; I found her descriptions of some of the features of mental shifting to be accurate to my own experience. And there are some exercises in there that could actually be useful for gaining control of one’s ability to shift, or to improve one’s relationship with the part of the self that is the therioside. Her methods for raising levels of “shifting energy” are simple psychological triggers that can be used by anyone in a ritual setting to help achieve the proper altered state of consciousness for invocation (of another entity or a part of the self)–not that this is bad, just that it’s nothing new (but again it can be quite useful).
What this book really comes across as is someone in the furry community who has a serious grudge against the therian community. My reason for believing this is that she holds up the furry community as the best place for a “shifter” to go find other “shifters”, while her very scant opinions on the (online) therian community is that it’s full of cultists and other unsavory people. (There’s nothing wrong with furries, of course, but even many members of that community will quickly tell you that “furry” and “therian” are not the same thing, though there are some furs who are also therians–but they’re a minority.) Additionally, some of her biases, such as the proliferation of fox therians who turn into other types of therian later on actually more closely mirrors furries, in which there are a LOT of fox fursonas (though it’s common for people to create new fursonas as they get more involved in the community). She also emphasizes costuming (fursuits) in the book quite a bit as an aid for getting in touch with the animal, and even gives a diagram for the leg extensions used in quadsuits, or quadrepedal fursuits.
In short, this reads like a furry who has a personal vendetta against the therian community. Granted, not everybody gets along with everybody else in the community–but welcome to life. There’s nothing that says a therian can’t be a part of the furry fandom, but when a book on therianthropy (which it pretty obviously is despite the use of the word “shifter”) quite conspicuously eliminates almost any reference to the therian community except for a couple of sharp-toothed remarks, this strongly suggests personal rather than professional issues.
That being said, my wrapup of the book is this: If you read it, keep a shaker of salt very handy (you may need to refill it a couple of times). There are some magical/psychological techniques that some therianthropes may find useful for becoming more comfortable with shifting and gaining better internal balance. However, the bulk of the book is essentially drek. My suggestion would be to hit up some online therian sites and do your research there; the Werelibrary, the Marsh, and Absurdism are good starting places.
One pawprint out of five.
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