In the Shadow of the Shapeshifters
By Scott Corrales © 2015
“Myths are, in fact...neither primitive nor untrue,” writes the Rev. Stephen Furrer. “They are, rather, a kind of poetry that helps us make sense of the world and our place in it.” A charming thought if we are dealing with the myths that give us undines and fairies, sylphs and other creatures of a benign or positive disposition. Most of our myths, however, are cast in a different mold: giant hairy creatures, sea and lake serpents, and more disturbing: humans who become monsters, whether as the result of a curse, as was often seen in Greek legends, or warriors of the Norse tradition turning into bears and other powerful creatures.
The oldest and most popular of these transformations is without a doubt lycanthropy, the state in which a human turns into a wolf by art or chance. Entire library shelves can be filled with testimonies, means of execution, and remedies for such a condition, as well as endless means by which to identify a human under such an animal guise. While generally assumed to be a Nordic tradition, lycanthropy was greatly feared among the Romans and their Mediterranean neighbors, who dubbed such individuals versipellis
--literally, "skin-changers"--out of the belief that they wore their hairy wolf skins on the inside of the body, changing themselves inside out to go on their nocturnal forays. Titus Petronius Arbiter, author of the Satyricon, mentions in this book a character who turns into a wolf as soon as he removes his clothing. As in all shapeshifting legends, the character receives a knife wound while in wolf-shape, that translates into a similar wound upon his body when reverting to human form. The very term "lycanthropy" can be traced to the Greek cult of Zeus Lycaeus, whose worshippers wore wolf-masks during their rituals.
While European cultures lived in fear of these amazing transformations, the Eastern cultures were equally frightened by metamorphoses into other animal shapes. Werefoxes and werevixens play a prominent role in Chinese and Japanese legends with the common motif of a fox taking on the guise of a human female in order to marry a human. Upon her death, all that remains is the carcass of a fox. India is rife with tales of raksashas
and tiger-men, just as Africa teems with were-leopards, were-hyenas and other man-beasts.
On the other side of the world, at the bottom of the Americas, the Selk’nam culture of Tierra del Fuego had a very elaborate form of magical thought. Tribal sorcerers were responsible for an initiation ceremony that included men dressed in costumes resembling the Shoort
– underworld entities able of appearing in their midst as animals. Researchers who were able to witness the “hain”, name given to this sacred tradition, also noted that participants assumed clearly animal behavior, to the extent that “it becomes difficult to recognize a shred of humanity in them.” So deep was this possession or identification with the channeled animal force that the human could remain in this state for an unspecified period of time.
Northern Argentina also had its share of these beliefs. The Jaguar Lords of the valley of Ambato in Catamarca dominated their region for several centuries, following a belief centered on Uturunco, the great jaguar, a manifestation of the sun-god Punchao. Consumption of hallucinogens enabled them to achieve heightened states of awareness that enabled communion with the divine feline. Centuries later, is not uncommon to find rural beliefs in this part of the country which hold that witch doctors can readily assume the form of a power animal. An unexpected howl in the night might lead some to whisper among themselves: “salió de perro”
– he went out as a dog – and the veracity of such a metamorphosis is unquestioned.
Argentinean researcher Christian Quintero had the following to say to me in an exchange of letters: “We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that these beliefs represent some sort of cultural backwardness, as our parameters cannot be used to measure their social reality. A few years ago – in the early 1990 – a sociologist from the University of Berlin decided to conduct a study on the life of the mariscadores
of Iberá in the province of Corrientes. For this purpose, she spent a number of months with one of these families in the middle of the coastal wetlands. This woman, extremely learned and with considerable scientific background, claimed having witnessed a man transforming into a “lobizón”. Despite the mockery of her colleagues, she never retracted her statement. The question, however, is whether this woman actually see the transformation, or was she influenced by the savage and mysterious landscape to the point where her perception of reality was altered? Or should we perhaps consider the possibility that the proper environment can generate the necessary conditions to bring about an alternate reality, which is otherwise inaccessible to us?”
Algonquin legend traces this uncanny skill to the days "when animals and men were one"; the Inuit of the Arctic Circle retell the legend of the bachelor who returned to his hut only to find a woman tending the fire, and marrying her, only to learn that she is a shapeshifter; one of Mexico's most powerful legends from pre-Conquest times, that of La Llorona, "The Weeping One", a spectral figure that emits banshee-like wails in the night, is held to have been a woman endowed with the power of nagualismo who devoured her two children while in a bestial state, doomed to mourn her loss forever.
The study of shapeshifting has been relegated to anthropologists and sociologists, who explain the phenomenon away as memories of tribal totemic rituals, archetypal fears, the use of hallucinogens in cultic activity, and autosuggestion. These explanations, while convincing and, in some cases, even satisfying, do not take into account cases which have occurred in recent history.
Egyptian author Rollo Ahmed, whose The Black Art
was among the very first modern books on the subject of black magic, mentions that his wife, during a visit to German village in her childhood, was warned by local girls about a young washerwoman who was suspected of being a werewolf. When bringing laundry back to the house, the washerwoman tried to ingratiate herself with the children, who were repelled by "her glassy eyes, cruel mouth, and abnormally long fingernails, in spite of her profession."
The author adds that the community appeared to shun her instinctively. In 1930, a farmer from the French village of Bourg-la-Reine, known as a sorcerer to his frightened neighbors, was widely accused of taking on the shape of a wolf at night. After his death, a search of his farmhouse revealed all the paraphernalia associated with black magic. In the mid-1940's a Navaho Indian reservation was alarmed by rumors of a werewolf attacking herds of sheep, despoiling graves, and killing and eating women.
Also in the 1940's, a woman in Havana, Cuba who suspected her husband of marital infidelity on account of his secretive behavior followed him in secret to a desolate point far beyond the city limits. To her surprise and horror, the man took a running leap forward and changed into a four-legged, panther-like creature before disappearing into the tall tropical grasses. She later discovered that her husband was a high priest in a secret magic sect.
Haiti's secret black magic societies allegedly carry shapeshifting one step further by having the ability to change their hapless victims into animals, preferably beasts on the way to the slaughterhouse. It is often said among the operators of these places that many human beings have been slain under such conditions. A slaughterhouse in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince allegedly took precautions by administering injections to all cattle. Allegedly, one such "changed" beast cried out: "Now I am here, I remember my children!"
Can it be that shapeshifters are not human at all, but rather another form of intelligent life capable of imitating not only humans, but animals as well? This theory of "mimics", proposed by renowned UFO and Fortean researcher John A. Keel, postulated that just as there are creatures in nature that mimic other species of animals, there may be creatures that mimic human life. This theory could be extended to account for bizarre sightings in which the witness or witnesses are uncertain if what they have seen is an animal or a human being.
Maryland-based researcher Mark Opsasnick has collected a number of such sightings which span the history of that state from the 1900's onward. The bulk of these sightings center around "half man/half..." creatures, whose other half has been described as feline, ape-like, goat-like, and in some cases utterly beyond description. Could these be considered cases of "imperfect" shapeshifting? More to the point, could the ease of travel exhibited by big hairy monsters and other creatures, who move unnoticed through the highly populated areas in which sightings often occur, be a result of their shapeshifting into an unremarkable form, human or otherwise? Author Brad Steiger points out a case in which a shocked witness looked out of his patio door to see an enormous vulpine figure drinking out of his swimming pool, with the remains of a pair of pants around one of its legs. Items of clothing were reported by witnesses in three distinct cases from different parts of the country involving Bigfoot-like creatures: checkered jackets and frayed trousers, many sizes too small for the dimensions of the beings involved. Are we dealing with humans who, like TV's The Incredible Hulk, are caught in mid-metamorphosis with shirts and pants that won't stretch? This jocose notion aside, it must be observed that Bigfoot and his kin are not the only ones who have been spotted in human haberdashery. In 1972, a Californian hiking around mysterious Mt. Shasta claimed to have seen a "reptile man" wearing a shirt and trousers making its way up the slopes.
Another interesting possibility arises in this discussion: could the animal shapes reported as naguales
, skinwalkers or other metamorphs be "tulpas" - images created by a concentration of thought, having limited volition but enough to be sent on tasks by its creator? Alexandra David Neel, the indefatigable 19th century traveler, made western audiences aware of the Tibetan "tulpas" and how Himalayan monks brought them into being. These creations often assume the shape of their creators, being the easiest image to manifest. More complex creations can even be touched and their movements heard by others.
Neel attempted to create her own "tulpa" and discovered what many adepts have found: once brought into being, they are hard to undo, unless certain "programming elements" - for want of a better word - have been created for the copy's reabsorption into the original.
A South American mystic created a fierce, gigantic dog-tulpa to help him with his duties on a remote farm. The creature was terrible to any intruder, but loyal to its creator, and would appear from sundown to sunrise. The imaginary hound had other plans: it denied the farm's foreman access to the site, and the tulpa's creator had to send it away to a barn, where the imaginary hound chased flesh-and-blood dogs away in terror. Soon it began to disobey, trapping farm workers in their barracks, its glistening fangs leaving no doubt as to its intentions. The mystic decided to undo his creations before returning to Brazil, but was in for a further, more physical shock: he had not taken into consideration the amount of energy he would be reabsorbing into his body, and the shock was akin to a blast of electricity. While he emerged otherwise unscathed, he admitted to experiencing slight convulsions for many days after the event.
A story appeared in the November 2, 2013 edition of Mexico's El Universal de Veracruz
suggesting that popular belief in naguales remains as strong as ever. Don Gilberto (no surname given), a grave digger at the Panteón Jardín Cemetery in Veracruz, had a chilling experience while performing maintenance chores at a plot known as "the accursed tomb", where he allegedly saw a nagual. A large yellow cat, he said, appeared a few feet away from the tomb, making strange noises and glaring at him with glowing eyes. Fearful of an attack, the laborer tried to chase it away, pursuing it into the treeline. "When a feline sees you in the wild, it takes off running, but when I saw that thing, I chased it. I was in hot pursuit when it disappeared before my eyes."
Odds are the four-legged visitor to the Panteón Jardín was a wise old feral cat, but Gilberto and his co-workers were adamant. "It was a strong animal. My friend believes it wasn't a cat, but a nagual