Understanding Shamanic Shape-shifting in a Logical World
Merging Intellect with Intuition to Solve Problems, and make wise decisions
Q. I was recently reading a book by Carlos Castaneda on shamanism and shapeshifting. How can anyone believe that shapeshifting can even exist? It seems so irrational and unscientific. I know that you train Transmodern shamans at your Academy. Can you explain this shapeshifting stuff to me?
A. In mythology, folklore, speculative fiction, and in certain aboriginal shamanic traditions shapeshifting is the ability of a being or creature to transform its physical form or shape. This is usually achieved through an inherent ability of a mythological creature, divine intervention or the use of magic. The idea of shapeshifting is present in the oldest forms of totemism and shamanism, as well as the oldest extant literature and epic poems, including works such as the Epic of Gilgameshand the Iliad, where the shapeshifting is usually induced by the act of a deity.
The idea persisted through the Middle Ages, where the agency causing shapeshifting is usually a sorcerer or witch, and into the modern period. It remains a common trope in modern fantasy, children’s literature and works of popular culture. The most common form of shapeshifting myths is that of therianthropy, which is the transformation of a human being into an animal (i.e. werewolves or vampires) or conversely, of an animal into human form. Legends allow for transformations into plants and objects and the assumption of another human countenance (e.g. fair to ugly).
While the popular idea of a shapeshifter is of a human being who turns into something else, there are numerous stories about animals, and plants that can transform themselves as well. These ideas exist in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and in various traditions to this day.
When I lived in the Philippine jungles in the earl 2000’s I came across travelers from shamanic communities from the Islands up north who spoke of the Aswang, a vampire-like monster capable of transforming into a bat, a large black dog, a black cat, a black boar or some other form in order to stalk humans at night. The folklore also mentions other beings such as the Kapre, the Tikbalang and the Engkanto, which change their appearances to woo beautiful maidens. The also spoke about talismans (called “anting-anting” or “birtud” in the local dialect), that could give can their owners the ability to shapeshift. In one tale, Chonguita the Monkey Wife, a woman is turned into a monkey, only becoming human again if she can marry a handsome man. When one is steeped in a particular cultural reality, their experience and what they claim to have seen, heard, and felt can be a shock to a person from a completely different cultural reality.
Obviously in our scientific age, the very concept of shapeshifting is irrational and cannot exist because to shapeshift denies the very laws of physics. However, much shamanic activity takes place in lucid dreams, and other altered states of consciousness – internal places where the laws of physic do not apply. In addition, many Transmodern shamans have highly developed influencing skills and can convince common people with a certain type of faith or cognitive bias that they have experienced a shapeshifting event. Many great intellectual thinkers, scientists, and mathematicians are also people of faith. In their faith they accept as real and true, mythological tales about Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Krishna or some other personage. The tales associated with these personages are no more illogical than the idea that a shaman can shapeshift, and yet these thinkers will accept a story of Jesus on the Cross and the resurrection, or Moses coming down Mount Sinai, but ridicule shapeshifting as irrational.
I can tell you at I have had many experiences in waking states in my life that violate the laws of mechanical physics, yet these things did happen and there was a witness nearby to say that they had the same experience. Am I delusional? Psychotic?
These experiences are what they are and I will not attempt to explain them in logical terms.
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Lewis Harrison is a practical philosopher, mentor, and peak performance coach.
He teaches workshops and seminars on Eastern Wisdom, Zen and Taoist Thought, Applied Game Theory, and Personal Growth and is the senior guide at Lewis Harrison’s Transmodern Shaman Academy
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