Shapeshifting is an easy enough trick on your smartphone. Take a photo of a friend and turn her into a smiling baboon. But when Merlin says, ‘I shapeshifted into a fox,’ he means something different. So, let’s unpack what’s behind his claim.
Merlin’s training to shapeshift began when he turned six. His mother, Ingraine’s status as an Arch Druid easily got him enrolled in one of the toughest schools in the world. He learned the easy stuff first.
Then each year, for nearly a decade, his memory was trained until he could recite, without error, a six-hour saga. Merlin's muscles were stretched and taught stillness; his breath slowed until it was barely perceptible; his appetite tamed by fourteen days of fasting, and his thirst for water limited to survival rations. Merlin's sight was sharpened by scanning remote landscapes and his nose trained to recognise animals and plants he could not see up to a mile distant from him. He learned to still his mind through occupying it with fast calculations of square roots.
But to shapeshift was something else again. About 4,000 years ago in the cave systems of South Wales, vision huts were built by Druids to allow them to shapeshift. When modern archaeologist in 2015 discovered one hidden on the remote island of Westray in the Orkneys off the coast of Scotland, they rightly called it a ‘sauna’ because that is the nearest building we have today to Merlin’s vision hut. Archaeologists claimed that ‘the building may have been a sweat house (with a water tank for creating steam) for healing and cleansing, or even a place where women could give birth.’ But they also wrote that the building was hidden and remote suggesting possible ritual purposes.
How did Merlin use his vision hut? Although he was always alone inside the stone hut in the shape of a beehive, his apprentice would help him collect wood and stoke the fire to boil the water in the tank to create the steam.
Before entering the hut, Merlin sourced minute amounts of the poison belladonna, and two other naturally occurring hallucinogenic drugs. Then before commencing his meditation, he would strip off his clothes and ingest the drugs by placing them under his tongue. In a trance, his first call would be to the governing spirit of whatever animal Merlin was going to shapeshift into, in this case, the head deva of foxes. He requested her permission to assume the form of a fox to acquire a baby fox cub. Once she approved, she visited the vixen to compliment her on the honour about to be bestowed on her for the excellent breeding of her offspring and that Merlin, as a fox, would visit her shortly to select one of her cubs.
Merlin would then imagine a male fox in detail, project this image to stand in front of him, then move his consciousness into the vision he had created.
In the foxes’ den, Merlin, the fox, asked the vixen for one of her male cubs and left with him in his mouth.
Returning quickly to the hut, Merlin resumed his normal human shape. Either Ingraine or Merlin would nurse Dolossus (Latin for fox) in a sling around their chest until he was old enough to be trained. He would never be domesticated, but he would be house trained.
In A Darker Magic, This Way Comes, Merlin uses Dolossus to carry messages to other foxes, to spy on his enemies and to track missing persons. His fox can cross the abyss, receive and action any commands he receives telepathically from Merlin. And if Merlin needs to be a fox, he can shapeshift into Dolossus and experience his perspective.
People have asked me why Merlin didn’t use a dog rather than a fox. Merlin says that the fox is a native animal, it is an elegant and stealthy creature of the night, and as a shrewd hunter he can feed himself. Dolossus is not his pet. He is his ‘familiar,’ a working animal, who chooses to work with magic alongside Merlin and he is free to return to the wild if he chooses. Sometimes when I watch a Border Collie sheepdog at work, I can see the remnants of the Druidic training in the dog’s reactions to the slightest command or gesture of his master and know that their teachings are still alive in modern Britain.