Shapeshifting is one of the most common abilities that characters in myth and legends may have, and stories of animals transforming into humans, and back (and vice versa) appear all around the world, from the Japanese Kitsune, to the British Selkie. It is even thought that the cave painting of The Sorcerer found in the Trois-Frères cave shows an early version of a shapeshifter or shaman –created in approximately 12,000 BC.
In her anthology of short stories, 'Foxfire, Wolfskin', Sharon Blackie takes inspiration from the different legends of shapeshifting women across Europe, from Croatia to France and the British Isles. In some, the story remains close to the original myth, in others Blackie twists the narrative in order to give the protagonist a more satisfactory ending.
“Say the wolf-woman has lost her skin, but still has a wolf’s bones. Say the wolf-woman has lost her skin, but still has a wolf’s heart. Say the wolf-woman has lost her skin, but still has a wolf’s eyes.”
Based on a Croatian legend, 'Wolfskin' tells the story of a wolf-woman, forced to marry the soldier who stole her skin. The legend goes that the soldier took shelter in an old mill for the night, settling in in the hayloft. Hearing a noise, he peered down, and saw a she-wolf enter and remove her skin, transforming into a beautiful woman.
Similar to the myths of the selkie, the man steals the wolf’s skin and forces her to marry him. Again, like the stories of selkie, the couple’s child discovers the location of the missing skin and informs his mother. The wolf-woman retrieves her skin and becomes the wolf once more – disappearing into the forest.
Blackie’s lyrical adaptation has two significant differences to myth that it is based on. In most legends, when she disappears, the wolf-woman leaves her child behind. In Blackie’s version, the boy becomes a wolf as well, the pup remaining with his mother. Another change is that she gives the wolf-woman an opportunity to get revenge. Rather than vanishing without a word, when the soldier returns home that evening he finds his wife waiting for him – teeth bared.
“I saw the fox first; she was mine from the beginning. A flash of red, like lifeblood, on the white-wintered fringe of the wood. So vivid she was, so tangible. The epitome of all that was wild and free.”
'Foxfire' moves us from Croatia to Scandinavia, with a shapeshifter that draws inspiration from legends of a seductive creature named a Huldra. Because the Huldra (and similar creatures) appear in the myths of multiple countries, there are different adaptations across the different stories. Blackie draws inspiration from legends that describe the Huldra as a beautiful woman, with an animal tail (in this story, a fox) and a rotten, hollow back, like the inside of a twisted tree.
The Huldra of Blackie’s story is also capable of taking the form of a fox, beautiful and wild, and it is in this shape that she first encounters the protagonist of the story. While in many legends, Huldra are wicked seductresses, kidnapping men for marriage, in other legends, the Huldra are kind, and men who are respectful might find themselves blessed with a boon.
The Huldra of Foxfire is therefore dual natured. She seduces the protagonists husband, however at the same time she offers the protagonist an opportunity to heal herself and teaches her how to change her own form to a fox – granting her a temporary reprieve from her unhappy marriage.
“The day was fine, the first time he came to her. The sky so clear and blue that her eyes ached to look at it; so warm and wide that there seemed to be room in it for any dream to grow.”
In legends of a human encountering and falling in love with a shapeshifter there are typically three ways in which the story can end. In one, the magical being becomes human, living a human life and then returning to their natural form when their lover dies. In the second, the human follows the shapeshifter to their home, and transforms to become like them. In the third, the human rejects the creature’s advances and never sees them again, living a normal human life.
Set on the Isle of Skye, Blackie’s 'The Water Horse' tells two possible versions of this story, running in parallel. The narrator is an old woman, unmarried and sharing the rare night with her selkie lover when he is able to transform into a human to visit her.
The story she recounts is that of a young, wild girl who dreams of romantic life, and escaping the harsh island life for a dreamy beau. Instead, she meets an Each-Usige, in the form of an attractive human man. She could have escaped him, but chose to stay, and over the summer fell in love. When he asked her to marry him, she was initially afraid, but then said yes, allowing him to transform her into a member of his species.
Unlike the romantic depiction of Each-Usige in Blackie’s novel, the mythical Each-Usige is thought to be the scariest of several similar water horses. They typically take on the form of a beautiful stallion in order to entice the unwary to ride or touch them. As soon as they do, the victim is glued to the Each-Usige’s skin and can be dragged down into the loch and devoured at the water horse’s leisure. The Each-Usige is also known to go after human women – sometimes in order to make brides of them, other times to devour them.
Unlike these legends, the Each-Usige of 'The Water Horse' was genuine in his admiration, and the girl did willingly become his bride, and transform into one of his kind. Another key difference is in how the girl became his bride – willingly. In myth, the Each-Usige attempts to kidnap its desired bride. In Blackie’s retelling, the Water Horse asks and respects the girl’s answer. It is only when she comes to him willingly, that he takes her as his bride.
“Secrets are secrets for a reason. It’s best to leave them be.”
'The Saturday Diary of the Fairy Mélusine' is the longest titled short story in Blackie’s collection and is, perhaps the most faithful to the myths – recounting one version of the myth of Mélusine. It tells the story of the fairy Mélusine, the daughter of the fairy, Pressyne and the Scottish King, Elinas. Pressyne had only one request – that her husband not spy on her when she bathed, as this was when her true form would be revealed. Learning that their father had betrayed their mother’s trust and spied upon her, Mélusine and her two sisters trapped their father in a mountain. Distraught at what they had done, Pressyne cursed her three daughters.
Mélusine was cursed to have the tail of a serpent (in some versions a fish) on the Saturday of every week. Eventually, like her mother, she fell in love with a human king. Also like her mother, Mélusine requested only that her husband not look in on her when she bathed on Saturdays. Like her father did, Mélusine’s husband broke his promise, and spied upon her true form.
Discovering his betrayal, Mélusine transformed into a dragon, disappearing to never be seen again.
Blackie’s anthology is an interesting and largely accurate portrayal of different shapeshifting legends across Europe. The writing is lyrical and provides snapshots of different magical beings and the ways that their lives might intersect with humans to benefit, or to damage. Check out the rest of the collection, here.
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