In my perusal of all the things that go bump in the night, I ran across this Phantoms and Monsters blog the other day. Lon Strickler, the proprietor of the blog, does a great job of keeping people up to date on the latest events in the paranormal and I am always finding items of interest there. One of the advantages to reading P&M is that Mr. Strickler has been in business for some time and people seem to be constantly sending him stories of varying sorts. This post is a collection of terrifying narrations from people who have encountered something that they believed was a skinwalker.
I do not like the term “black” or “dark” magician since this has racist overtones and because moral choices are seldom as clear cut as black and white. Some cultures refer to these practitioners as sorcerers or witches but those terms have variant meanings and do not always refer to the magic user who does not have the evolution of the human race as a goal. I’ve already named magic users with a more positive slant as mages so I will call those who are of a less positive bent conjurors.
Conjurors appear in the folklore of every race that I have ever read about and none is more debased than the yee naaldlooshii, the Dine’ (Navajo) skinwalker. This “witch” is so feared amongst the Dine’ that those persons found to be skinwalkers are considered to have forfeited their humanity and may be killed on sight. There is a host of beliefs constellated around the skinwalker that make cultural anthropologists certain that this conjuror is simply a myth created by the Dine’ to explain some of the terrible hardships that these desert people face. The anthropologists can continue to believe this, ensconced in their ivory towers, but the average traditional Dine’ understands that the yee naaldlooshii is all too real.
In order to become a skinwalker, one must be initiated by breaking one of the Dine’ cultural taboos, most commonly the killing of a blood relative with strong hints of cannibalism. Once this initiation, accomplished with the assistance of those who are already skinwalkers, is undergone, the individual becomes capable of shifting to a variety of animal forms, of moving at terrific speed and of placing curses on those that have slighted the skinwalker in any way amongst a variety of other attributed abilities including the ability to imitate any voice or animal sound. The yee naaldlooshii is anathema in a tribal culture because he, or rarely she, looks only to themselves and has become a skinwalker for their own advantage.
If one reads the stories from the Phantoms and Monsters blog referenced above, one begins to get a strong feeling for the deep dread engendered amongst the Dine’ by these conjurors. Interestingly, although it is true that some skinwalkers were killed as a result of their depredations, one never saw full scale “witch hunts” on the reservation. Rather, the Dine’ person who believed that he or she had encountered the yee naaldlooshii would seek out the services of a healer who could prescribe the right ceremony to cleanse and counter any possible difficulty that might be derive from the encounter. In my view, this is a much more enlightened approach than that taken by the terror ridden Europeans of the Middle Ages.
From a magical perspective, I have no trouble at all believing the stories of the Dine’ about their native conjuror. One has only to look at the stories of the berserkir and ulfhednar in Norse culture to see similar themes with a European flavor. These warriors, like the skinwalker, were said to take on the traits and/or appearance of their “totem” animal (bear and wolf, respectively), to be able to move with the speed and strength of that animal and to be virtually invulnerable in battle as the result of the magical protection afforded by the animal skin that they wore. While the yee naaldlooshii is not specifically a warrior, I can draw some parallels from my research into the werewolf traditions of Europe.
Shape shifting is one of those magical traits that pops up in a huge number of cultural contexts. While the yee naaldlooshii is feared for the ability to curse, a commonality amongst practitioners of the self-centered magical arts, it is most feared because of the ability to change forms. While most mages do not take seriously the idea of a human literally changing to an animal (although I reserve the right to think it could happen given a great enough magical energy source), there are a couple of ways in which a human being might appear to take on the form of an animal and both involve etheric projection.
In the first method, the shape shifter sinks into a deep trance and actually extrudes a carefully crafted animal form. We find a classic example of this in the Norse Saga of Hrolf Krake “where Bödvar Bjarki, in the shape of a huge bear, fights desperately with the enemy, which has surrounded the hall of his king, whilst his human body lies drunkenly beside the embers within” (Sabine Baring Gould, The Book of Werewolves). Note please that the bear thus extruded did tremendous damage to the enemy forces until some idiot wakened Bjarki to come and fight. The bear promptly disappeared and the battle was subsequently lost so this was not a case of some ethereal appearance on the battle field but of a very solid and deadly manifestation wreaking havoc in the enemy lines.
The second way that a human might be considered to change shape works in a similar manner, only, rather than sinking into deep trance, the practitioner remains conscious, extrudes the animal form and actually settles it in a shell around him or her. One can easily see how some poor peasant, coming upon a person working this magic, might believe that he is seeing an actual transformation from human to animal. Interestingly, too, both of these types of shape shifting often seem to be dependent on a clear link between the human and “their” animal. Most often this link takes the form of the animal’s skin and again, with the proper skill, the form extruded as shell can be quite physically present.
Stories of shape shifters are not the sole province of the Dine’. Many indigenous people of North America have similar beliefs about their medicine people or those that oppose them. It is quite possible that the yee naaldlooshii and other shape shifting magical practitioners could be the cause of some of the “interesting” sightings that we see logged in the annals of high strangeness.