“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.”
Part II will be published tomorrow.
Visit Scott’s website: http://inexplicata.blogspot.ca/