The Hidden Matrix: Myth and the Human Mind

By Neil Philip

One of our foremost interpreters of myth argues that it is essential to all culture: the factory reset of human consciousness

Monday, 24 February 2020

Animals that become human, humans that become animals

We are used to thinking of humans and other animals as two mutually exclusive categories. The idea that the human-animal barrier can be breached, and that one category of being can transform into the other, survives only in the idea of the werewolf, and the idea of the werewolf is a literary and filmic device rather than a living belief.

         Yet in many mythologies, especially those of peoples who are primarily hunter-gatherers, the notion of an early race of beings who live in the flux of creation and who are able to manifest both as human and as animal is central to the lived belief of the modern humans who came after them.

         In 1923 the ethnologist Knud Rasmussen, leader of the Fifth Thule Expedition 1921-24, spent seven months among the Netsilingmiut in the Canadian Arctic, collecting material for his book The Netsilik Eskimos: Social Life and Spiritual Culture. Much of that time was spent in the snow hut of Nâlungiaq and her husband Inũtuk. Once they knew each other very well, Nâlungiaq felt comfortable enough with Rasmussen to speak openly and freely about her beliefs. She was not a shaman, and had never had visions; she described herself as “just an ordinary woman.” She claimed no special knowledge, but instead that what she telling him “is something that is known to every child.”[i]

         In the very first times, she told him, both people and animals lived on the earth, but there was no difference between them. A person could become an animal and an animal could become a human beings: “sometimes they were people and other times animals, and there was no difference.”[ii]

Stories of such therianthropic first beings, with their raw powers of transformation and creation, are crucially important to the mythology and the worldview of cultures ranging from the Americas to Africa and to Australia. Their activities in the creation-time shape the world and establish its laws. As Nâlungiaq put it, “That was the time that magic words were made.”[iii]

         In California, for instance, Istet Woiche’s Achumawi “history of the universe” covers 160 pages. Human beings only enter the story on page 159. Most of the book is taken up with the doings of the First People, who are half-human, half-animal. It is only after a world flood that almost all the First People turn into animals, and the Real People emerge. The Karok call this time before the coming of humans Pikavahairak.

         After the creation is stabilized, the First People typically turn into animals, birds, rocks, landmarks, or disembodied spirits. But generally they remain a source of sacred power, to be called on, and perhaps mimicked or embodied in rituals and dances.

         People with animal characteristics depicted in both Ice Age cave paintings and cave paintings of the San in southern Africa are thought to represent shamans whose identification with prey animals is so acute they undergo a process of psychic or even actual transformation. Such extreme sensitivity of the hunter for the hunted manifests itself among the San as “Bushmen’s letters” or “tappings”[iv], sympathetic responses that link hunter to prey through shared sensation:


We have a sensation in our feet, as we feel the rustling of the feet of the springbok with which the springbok come, making the bushes rustle. We feel in this manner, we have the sensation in our heads, when we are about to chop the springbok’s horns. We have a sensation in our face, on account of the blackness of the stripes of the springbok. We feel a sensation in our eyes, on account of the black marks on the eyes of the springbok.[v]


This oh-so-subtle attunement is described by Neil Bennum as “a kind of transformation.”[vi]

         A similar process of transformation among the Siberian Yukhaghirs is witnessed by Rane Willerslev at the start of his profound study Soul Hunters:


Watching Old Spiridon rocking his body back and forth, I was puzzled whether the figure I saw before me was man or elk. The elk-hide coat worn with its hair outward, the headgear with its characteristic protruding ears, and the skis covered with an elk’s smooth leg skins, so as to sound like the animal when moving in snow, made him an elk; yet the lower part of his face below the hat, with its human eyes, nose, and mouth, along with the loaded rifle in his hands, made him a man. Thus it was not that Spiridon had stopped being human. Rather, he had a liminal quality: he was not an elk, and yet he was also not notan elk. He was occupying a strange place in between human and nonhuman identities.[vii]


Willerslev eloquently describes a world in which “humans and animals can move in and out of different species’ perspectives by temporarily taking on each other’s bodies.”[viii]Tales told by a Tundra Yukaghir man, Innocent Karyakin, to Waldemar Bogoras in 1895 feature a shaman who turns into a fox, and a human boy who is born to a reindeer, demonstrating that this species-mutability has been a longterm feature of Yukaghir thought.[ix]

         It is sometimes hard in myths to tell whether beings given the names of particular animals are supposed to have the form of those animals or human form. The name of Ture, the trickster of the Zande of the Sudan, means Spider, just like the name of the Asante trickster Ananse. E. E. Evans-Pritchard tried to ascertain whether storytellers actually envisaged Ture as a spider, and was told that “the character has the name Ture because he was so clever, like the spider which can make a web out of itself. Also, in the stories he is invariably given the human personal pronoun koand never the animal pronoun u.”[x]The other animal characters in the Ture stories, however, though they speak and act like people, are definitely thought of as animals, though “in the telling of the tale, in the situation of the drama, they are both.”[xi]

         Writing about the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) in the 1920s, the anthropologist T. F. McIlwraith noted a marked difference in their attitude to animals. “They regard them as possessing human mentality, and even the ability to assume human form if they so desire. In fact, they believe that animals merely appear to them in the shape of beasts, but can change to human, or other form and behave accordingly  whenever they wished to do so.”[xii]Only shamans could lift the veil between the human and animal worlds, and perceive the animals as they really were, living quasi-human lives in their own homes.


[i]Rasmussen 1931: 207

[ii]Rasmussen 1931: 208

[iii]Rasmussen 1931: 208

[iv]See Guenther 2020: I:227-233

[v]//Kabbo quoted in Bleek and Lloyd 1911: 335

[vi]Bennum 2004: 358

[vii]Willerslev 2007: 1

[viii]Willerselv 2007: 2

[ix]Bogoras 1918: 20-25

[x]Evans-Pritchard 1967: 23

[xi]Evans-Pritchard 1967: 25

[xii]McIlwraith 1992: vol 1: 70

[With apologies for leaving such a long time between between updates; work is now proceeding well after a period when caring duties made it almost impossible to get anything done]

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Michael Smith
 Michael Smith says:

Great update Neil. I can't wait for this book to arrive; really looking forward to it - on a whole host of levels. The rigour is impressive indeed - and the scope.

Michael Smith

posted 24th February 2020

Neil Philip
 Neil Philip says:

Thanks so much, Michael. I’m so glad you enjoyed this update. Progress on the book was fine but slowed dramatically over the last year, which has been personally just awful - draining and exhausting. Getting back on track now, and the research is always so exciting. I’ve got loads more to say.

posted 24th February 2020

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