14 August 2019


John B. Kachuba. Shapeshifters - A History. Reaktion Books. 2019

All of us are shapeshifters whether we realise it or not. Simply to grow is to change shape, and it is all too human to find that, for whatever reasons, we have grown rather too much for our liking. So it is a common experience to want to change the shape and appearance of our human body for the better, and this is naturally within our power to achieve with sustained effort of will and action over time. 
But there is another kind of shapeshifting altogether that can only be called supernatural by virtue of the purported ability to change shape totally and instantaneously, from human to animal or any other form. Just a brief consideration of the subject reveals many possibilities and aspects, some to do with human psychology and others in the advanced realms of quantum physics and esoteric knowledge.

As this new publication reveals in its title, Shapeshifters - A History, the whole phenomenon can be viewed from a historical perspective. This means taking a wide-ranging survey of ancient mythology, folklore, literature, films, social trends and cases from many different countries and cultures to analyse what is really going on. John B. Kachuba is a seasoned writer and researcher on ghosts and other occult matters, both in fiction and non-fiction. This book is concise yet remarkably comprehensive, covering everything from werewolves and vampires to costume play and masquerades. It is also well-written, equally as entertaining as it is informative for any reader.

I gathered somewhere online that Kachuba teaches Creative Writing at Ohio University. He demonstrates his own creative writing skills in the opening words of the Introduction, where he describes the archetypal transformation of a man into a werewolf: "As night falls, a desperate figure cowers in the forest, terrified and yet excited as he ponders what is about to unfold. The Moon rises full and round over the forest, and he is caught in its ghostly luminescence." The description of a painful transformation, with bones stretching, clothes shredding, nails lengthening into razor-sharp claws and fur sprouting all over the body conveys an impression of what human-to-animal shapeshifting might actually feel like. It would certainly be better to find a forest and not do this at home. Your resultant howls might disturb the neighbours.

Werewolves and vampires often appear as shapeshifters in popular culture, the latter not being so obvious until you remember that they often transform into a bat to journey from the grave to the object of their compulsion. Kachuba reminds us that until the Middle Ages it was not thought to be within the power of mortal men to transform from human to animal and back again. This was reserved for the shaman and his hunting magic. Indigenous cultures, such as those in North America and Siberia, often dressed themselves in the skins of the animals they were hunting, and might use hallucinogenic herbs and magical techniques to enter into the mindset and behaviour of their prey.

Ancient cultures, such as that of Egypt, feature several gods with animal heads and human bodies. They believed that the spirit or energy of the gods could inhabit a statue as well as an animal or a human. Also, "Greek and Roman mythology is rife with stories of fantastical shapeshifting, but, here too, it is the gods who are the perpetrators of such transformations, working them upon the human race." The chief of the Greek gods, Zeus, transformed into all manner of forms to have his wicked way with attractive humans of both genders. His abundant progeny gave rise to his popular moniker 'the father of the gods'.

Ovid's famous poetic work Metamorphoses is quoted for what may be the first known reference to a human becoming a werewolf. The story is drawn from Greek mythology, in which Lycaon, cruel king of Arcadia, serves human flesh to Zeus in order to test him. Jove (the Roman name for Zeus) punishes Lycaon by turning him into a wolf: "...his arms were legs and his robes were shaggy hair. Yet, still he is Lycaon, the same grayness, the same fierce face, the same red eyes, a picture of bestial savagery." Lycanthropy, the clinical condition of being a werewolf, usually of course a psychiatric delusion, is named after him.

It is not only Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures who had shapeshifting gods. The supreme god of the Norse Pantheon, Odin, whose name lives on in English as the day of the week Wednesday, is an eternal shapeshifter. He is said to roam the world in his guise as the Wanderer, a tall one-eyed elderly gentleman wearing a broad hat, "bringing wisdom and knowledge to heroes". There are rumours that he attends Magonia meetings in the guise of chairman, but these cannot be substantiated.

According to Hindu tradition, the god Vishnu incarnates on Earth from time to time in various forms to restore the cosmic order. The last two we know of were Krishna, who appeared as a pleasant young man with a blue complexion, and Gautama Siddhartha, the one known as 'the Buddha'. We are now awaiting his arrival as "Kalki, the 'Destroyer of Filth', who will usher in the end times, arriving on a white horse and bearing a blazing sword". This corresponds with the Book of Revelation vision of Christ returning to Earth to bring peace and justice, not the 'meek and mild Jesus' who turned the other cheek.

Interestingly, the author refers to an ancient Coptic text, nearly 1,300 years old and now held at the Morgan Library in New York, which implies that Jesus was a shapeshifter. Part of the text reads: "Then the Jews said to Judas: How shall we arrest him, for he does not have a single shape but his appearance changes. Sometimes he is ruddy, sometimes he is white, sometimes he is red, sometimes he is wheat coloured, sometimes he is pallid like ascetics, sometimes he is a youth, sometimes he is an old man." The Jews coming to arrest Jesus needed a way to identify him because of his ability to change appearance. This understanding of Judas' kiss is also found in Origen, the second-century theologian.

The question obviously arises at some point: Is shapeshifting an actual transformation or an effect of perception, either mistaken or manipulated in some way? After considering several different cases, Kachuba says: "An internal shapeshifter believes he has fully taken on the consciousness and behaviour of some animal, even though he retains his human form." He then proposes that, by being convinced through the effects of suggestion and ritual, observers may experience a kind of hysteria. After all, it would be difficult in any particular case to prove that a full physical transformation had occurred, as all is dependent on perception. Those of us who have been amazed to see a good stage conjurer apparently transform one thing into another are all the more delighted when we could detect no sign whatever of sleight of hand. This is the effect of real magic and shows the power of the mind, including our own.

'The Power of Transformation' is the chapter where Kachuba really grapples with the deep philosophical and occult questions around shapeshifting. He starts with the gospel account of the Transfiguration, accepted by many Christians as a miracle to show Jesus' divine nature. Three of his closest disciples reported what they witnessed on the mountain top as a transformation from human form to a radiant being of light. They were forbidden to speak of the experience until after his death. What to make of this? If it really was a genuine shapeshifting then it would indicate that he had acquired, or had access to, higher powers. Such demonstrations can serve to strengthen the faith of disciples and catapult them in turn to breakthroughs of physical limitations.

However, such phenomena have been reported from Swamis in India, and other holy men. The one known as Buddha was reported to have transfigured twice, at the time of his enlightenment and at the moment of his death. Anyone with spiritual knowledge knows that humans have other, more subtle bodies beyond the physical, but being able to demonstrate a glorified appearance would not in itself be useful or helpful except in very particular circumstances according to wisdom. Or it might occur spontaneously as a by-product of ecstasy, a word which literally means to stand beside oneself.

This may explain why we don't see much shapeshifting in public. It could be very inconvenient as well as causing a panic in the general population. Kachuba does not shy away from the theory associated with David Icke that some members of royalty and the ruling elite are 'shapeshifting reptiles' who originally came from the star system Alpha Draconis. To his credit, Kachuba does not simply mock Icke or his work but rather asks why an estimated twelve million people believe such a theory. "Perhaps it might be that many people are at a loss to explain the chaos and misrule so evident in the world, and have an easier time believing alien reptilian shapeshifters are behind it all. . ."

Encounters with aliens or UFOs are fraught with such questions as how 'real' they are. A writer by the name of M.J.Banias is cited for his 'Co-Creation Hypothesis', explaining that a contact event with an 'NHI' (non-human intelligence) "is so totally alien that the human brain cannot comprehend the event in an objective way. What occurs instead is a sort of experiential analogue, the human brain generates a working, albeit false, reality to understand the NHI encounter event." We have to get used to the idea that NHIs exist, possibly without any discernible body, before we can have any meaningful communication with them.

In the same chapter is an excellent overview of the findings of Carl Gustav Jung. It is useful to have a list of primary archetypes: the Persona, the Shadow, the Wise Elder, the Divine Child, the Trickster, the Great Mother, and the animus/anima, also called the Shapeshifter. Every human contains both masculine and feminine elements, "but not necessarily always in balance. It is the imbalance of the natures that is representative of shapeshifting." Furthermore, it is not only having options of forms, which can be changed, but also formlessness itself. We are paradoxical in nature, having present form while still existing as a formless spirit.

A good example from modern culture of the power of transformation is the Incredible Hulk, the superhuman green monster that mild-mannered Bruce Banner becomes when he flies into an uncontrollable rage. It is a common feature of superheroes that they gain their awesome powers while in the altered state. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is an example given of the corruption that can happen if one over-indulges the wild side. Nice Dr Jekyll finds himself being overtaken by his psychopathic alter-ego Mr Hyde and it ultimately destroys him.

Naturally for this theme, Kachuba devotes a whole chapter to folklore and fairy tales from around the world', some of which will be familiar. Tales such as 'Beauty and the Beast' or the Brothers Grimm's tale of 'the Frog Prince' are directly about shapeshifting magic and the wisdom to see beyond appearances. The lesson is often that pure love and a good heart can overcome powerful evil. Other chapters look at shapeshifting in modern culture, such as Dr Who on BBC, not only changing form as a man but in the latest version presenting as a woman. Gender-bending is clearly a feature of the current zeitgeist.

Shapeshifting in literature and film is surprisingly prevalent. Bram Stoker's Dracula and Franz Kafka's horror novel Metamorphosis are prime examples among hundreds. J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of novels is another. The classic vampire film Nosferatu opened the floodgates to a great wave of shapeshifting films on the dark side. My favourite sentence in Kachuba's enjoyable book is his description of the famous series of British horror films that we are so familiar with: "Hammer films were instantly recognizable by their bevy of busty beauties and bountiful buckets of blood". That's the way to do it! Shapeshifting may be over the top sometimes, but on the other hand it can be a lot of fun for those that know how to play. – Kevin Murphy

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