Shape-Shifting – While the ability to change shape or take on the appearance of an animal, plant, or other being seems to many Westerners to be one of the most outlandish claims made by or on behalf of shamans, it may seem entirely ordinary in other cultures. Indeed, Western discourses that interpret shape-shifting as “a change of appearance” may be entirely misunderstanding a point that is basic in some animist cultures. In traditional Ojibwe understandings, for example, transformation and malleability are definitive of personhood: to be a person (human or other-than-human) is to be able to transform oneself. While shamans may learn to change into bears (as in the Midewiwin), the ability to transform is available to all persons willing to learn and utilize the power offered by significant otherthanhuman persons.

More radically, as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro demonstrates, it is a fundamental premise of Amazonian knowledge that all living persons are cultural and look, to themselves and to shamans, the same as humans look to themselves (and to other-than-human shamans). The shapes perceived by members of another species are deceptive and mask the real personhood (and even humanness) of all beings. The remarkable power that Amazonian shamans seek, then, is not shapeshifting so much as perspective-shifting. Seeing as, for instance, a jaguar sees enables a shaman to do what shamans need to do. That they may also “be jaguars” or other predators is a significant part both of the ambiguity of shamans and of the fear that shamans may be sorcerers. The prevalence of shape-shifting in many cultures’ mythologies has been taken to be a possible indicator of shamanism.


Historical Dictionary of Shamanism by Graham Harvey and Robert J. Wallis 2007