Transitions. The word conjures images of changes that are or are hoped to be smooth and orderly –childhood to maturity, day to night and night to day, the four seasons. Some transitions are sudden, some are irreversible, some are cyclical or reversible – think about the freezing of water and the melting of ice. If we’re unprepared, we can be deeply unsettled by the changing of physical forms or the crossing of boundaries that are too abrupt, or that seem to flout logical rules.
We don’t pretend to be psychoanalytical experts at Critical Muslim – not publicly anyway – but there is therefore something intriguing about humankind’s fascination with shapeshifters, especially the mythical variety. We mean creatures that can undergo drastic transitions that defy normal explanation. So not just, say, the changing of colours displayed by chameleons.
Supernatural shapeshifters are not merely the stuff of spooky stories or playful pranks. Tales of shapeshifters often contain clues about the ways that social anxieties or political upheavals are expressed during certain moments in time. And who is to say they’re simply objects of superstition? Many of them have endured alongside the advancement of scientific knowledge and reason – some have simply transitioned into new manifestations in the aftermath of particular social transformations.
Take the vampire which, according to cultural historian Christopher Frayling, is ‘as old as the world’. From a contemporary perspective, we might associate vampires largely with Eastern Europe or the Balkans, where they emerged amidst epidemics that struck in the eighteenth century. But vampirism and accounts of vampire-like shapeshifters were present long before this and could be found even in Mongolia and Nepal. Most famously, however, modern conceptions of the vampire have been shaped by Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
It is widely known that the character of Count Dracula was loosely based upon the fifteenth century Romanian ruler, Vlad III, or Vlad the Impaler. Stoker transformed this national hero into a supernatural villain due not so much to meticulous historical research than to his own recurring dreams. Whilst the transition of Dracula from medieval ruler to bloodthirsty vampire has not-so-subtle Orientalist and even anti-Semitic connotations, what is more interesting is the rest of Stoker’s social context. The man was fascinated by the products of the nineteenth century’s technological transition – typewriters, phonographs, blood transfusions, Kodak cameras, weaponry.
Somewhere in the middle of all of this, Stoker managed to create a character that inverted a core Christian ritual – the Eucharist – and beliefs about Jesus Christ. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus says, ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.’ Bram Stoker’s Dracula drinks human blood, and lots of it. But then instead of being raised in eternal life, he remains eternally undead. And the way to repel him is through the ritual of a proper Eucharist.
We won’t wander into theorising about the themes of race, gender, sexuality, colonialism, disease and the myriad analytical directions pursued by academics interested in Dracula. Instead, we’ll use this vignette as a transition into our list of ten examples of shapeshifting and their social significance.
1. Jesus Christ
What the devil? No, we’re not calling Jesus Christ a shapeshifter. But the transition of Christianity from persecuted sect into an imperial religion in the fourth century was marked by an explosive theological dispute about the exact nature of Jesus’s divine status.
To cut a long story short, Arius (c. 250–336) believed that Jesus the Son proceeded from God the Father, but was not Eternal – Father and Son were not of the same essence. In other words, Jesus was the Son of God but was not fully divine. Athanasius (c. 293–373), on the other hand, held that Jesus’s divine nature was identical to that of the Father – Father and Son have the same substance, and therefore Jesus Christ is God. This disagreement, known as the Arian controversy, bitterly divided early Christians and almost destabilised the Roman Empire. In the end, the Athanasian position was adopted through subsequent councils, and Arianism was condemned as heresy.
The evolution of this controversy laid the groundwork for the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. This is the change by which the substance (though not the appearance) of the bread and wine in the Eucharist becomes Christ’s real presence – that is, his body and blood. Now that’s a transition. But let’s not get started on how this compares with consubstantiation – we’ve reached the end of our theological tether.
Although the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon were milestones in the history of Christology, they could not fully resolve the disputes about the divine nature of Jesus Christ. The key contested terms were homoousios (‘of the same substance’ or ‘of the same essence’) and homoiousios (‘of like essence’). Their close resemblance prompted the British historian and writer Thomas Carlyle to surmise that Christendom was split by strife over a diphthong.
2. Apes in the Quran
The Qur’an contains brief and intriguing references to an instance of shapeshifting, albeit as divine punishment, which has itself transmogrified into a modern anti-Semitic motif. According to verse 65 of the second chapter, Al-Baqarah (The Cow), ‘You are already aware of those of you who broke the Sabbath. We said to them, “Be disgraced apes!”’ This episode is elaborated at slightly greater length in the seventh chapter, Al-A’raf (The Heights), in verses 163-166.
These passages might be referring to the accounts in the Hebrew Scriptures in which the Israelites whinge repeatedly to Moses about not having a variety of foods to eat after escaping Pharaoh’s Egypt. God replies, fine, ‘for a whole month’ you will get meat ‘until it comes out of your nostrils and becomes loathsome to you—because you have rejected the Lord who is among you, and have wailed before him, saying, “Why did we ever leave Egypt?”’ (Numbers 11: 20).
In the Book of Numbers, this is followed by an exchange in which Moses questions God’s ability to provide enough meat to satisfy the complaining Israelites for an entire month. Moses asks: ‘Are there enough flocks and herds to slaughter for them? Are there enough fish in the sea to catch for them?’ To which God responds by bringing the Israelites ‘quails from the sea’ which they gather, day and night. But, ‘while the meat was still between their teeth, before it was consumed, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the people, and the Lord struck the people with a very great plague’ (Numbers 11: 33).
The Qur’an recounts this story in abridged form, with some key terms experiencing a metamorphosis: the Biblical references to ‘Israelites’ being brought ‘quails from the sea’ become the ‘People of the Book’ (often glossed as ‘the Jews’ by many modern Muslim preachers) being given fish. The nature of their sin also changes. In Numbers, the Israelites are punished for being ungrateful and greedy, while the Qur’an introduces an additional idea that they are also punished for breaking the Sabbath. And, whilst the Israelites are cursed by a ‘great plague’ in Numbers, the Qur’an tells us that they were turned into apes.
While many a fiery Muslim preacher in contemporary times has therefore denounced Jews as apes (and pigs), there was historically more ambivalence about the kind of shapeshifting that occurred and the reasons for it. As Muhammad Asad explains:
As for the substance of God’s decree, ‘Be as apes despicable’, the famous tabi‘i Mujahid explains it thus: ‘[Only] their hearts were transformed, that is, they were not [really] transformed into apes: this is but a metaphor (mathal) coined by God with regard to them, similar to the metaphor of ‘the ass carrying the books’ [62:5]’…. It should be borne in mind that the expression ‘like an ape’ is often used in classical Arabic to describe a person who is unable to restrain his gross appetites or passions.
In Critical Muslim 43: Ignorance, Alireza Doostdar recalled an episode in which his research assistant, Mehdi, encountered a jinn in Tehran. The story is creepy enough, but for the purposes of this list, Doostdar’s description of jinn is what we’re interested in:
These are invisible, intelligent beings whose intentions and actions are opaque to us, and yet whose doings sometimes intersect with the world of humans in ways that tend to produce anxiety, discomfort, and terror. Jinn are said to displace or steal valuables, cause nightmares, and sometimes possess their victims and drive them to madness. But on rare occasions they may initiate friendly contact with humans and even offer their service.
This description accords with widespread Muslim understandings of jinn as capricious beings which, according to the Qur’an, can be malevolent as well as pious. For example, in 72:1, we are told that the Prophet Muhammad knew of ‘a group of jinn [that] listened to the Quran, and said to their fellow jinn: Indeed, we have heard a wondrous recitation’.
Jinn are not always invisible. According to Brother Abdur Rahman, a ‘spiritual practitioner and healer’ with ‘35+ years experience’, some ‘can fly and move at great speeds’ and ‘can change their appearance to almost anything they choose’. But often, people who encounter jinn do not even know that what they have encountered are jinn. And so, ‘even if a jinn decides to take the form of an animal and come into our physical world, it…involves a very well-activated third eye and strong spiritual sense to see the jinn…’.
Doostdar instead suggests that we think of jinn:
…not as unknowable beings but as a name for unknowability itself, or in other words, the terrifying encounter with a world that has withdrawn from sense. In this way, jinn are not so much presences as absences…. Jinn are the name that some people give to those occasions when the world slinks away from familiar sense.
Where Doostdar’s analysis of jinn leads us into the realm of ineffability, the pontianak in the pantheon of Malay monsters is anything but abstract. The pontianak is a female vampire obsessed with childbirth and the blood from labour. She often appears young and beautiful in order to attract male victims. In this guise, she haunts deserted stretches of motorways and quiet spots, usually in the dead of night, asking passing male motorists for a lift. Occasionally, she might appear to be carrying a baby – which usually turns out to be a gravestone. One tell-tale sign she gives off is the scent of fragrant frangipani. Woe betide the man who does not pay attention to these details and still gives her a lift. If he is lucky enough to escape, he will usually fall ill with fever for several days afterwards.
Blokes who are not so lucky will see her transform into an old, hideous being who will then feed on their intestines and blood, and perhaps castrate them, too. The pontianak also eats babies, preferably ripped out fresh from a mother’s womb.
Yet this monstrous shapeshifter does not actually symbolise patriarchal fears about female empowerment.
Are you kidding us? Of course the pontianak is all about gendered anxieties! Just look at what is needed to subdue her. If you drive an iron nail into a hole at the back of her neck, she will become docile and obedient and might even marry and have children. She will die a normal death and can be buried according to the usual rites. But if the nail is ever removed….
5. Beauty and the Beast
Much digital ink has been spilt over whether Beauty and the Beast – specifically, the 2017 Hollywood film version starring Emma Watson – can be considered feminist. To summarise – Watson said yes, every other Guardian columnist said no. Yet their arguments centred quite strangely on whether the invention of the washing machine by Belle, i.e., Beauty, qualified as feminist. Again, yes for Watson, no for the Guardian columnists. Much more disturbing is the moral of the story – that if you are kidnapped by a monster and forced to marry him, all you need to do is love him (and all the housework) and he will change.
6. Shakespeare in the Bush
A classic introductory text in social anthropology – cultural anthropology for you Americans – is Laura Bohannan’s delightful ‘Shakespeare in the Bush’. The article starts with a sort of literary wager. Before setting off to do ethnographic fieldwork in West Africa, Bohannan, an American, is told by an English friend that Americans struggle with Shakespeare because he is just too quintessentially English. One can therefore ‘easily misinterpret the universal by misunderstanding the particular’.
What follows is such a gem that we’ve actually referred to it already in Critical Muslim 20: PostWest. In his introduction, Shanon Shah wrote:
Bohannan was stunned and things continued going downhill. The Tiv quibbled about almost every element of the story. They were especially stumped by ‘ghost’ as a concept. Surely Bohannan meant that what Hamlet saw was an omen sent by a witch? No, Bohannan explained, it was a ghost – ‘someone who is dead but who walks around and can talk, and people can hear him and see him but not touch him’.
The Tiv objected. ‘One can touch zombies.’
Bohannan tried again. ‘A “ghost” is the dead man’s shadow.’
Again the Tiv objected. ‘Dead man cast no shadows.’
‘They do in my country,’ Bohannan snapped. Despite their incredulous smirks the Tiv villagers begged Bohannan to continue.
So a ghost is a ghost and a zombie is a zombie, and never the twain shall meet. Some shapeshifters are just not meant to transition across cultural boundaries.
Or are they? In Bohannan’s telling of the story, the Tiv elders seem to be tricksters who have distorted the meaning of a Shakespearean tragedy beyond all recognition. But perhaps the reason why this text remains so popular is that, to make a larger point about cultural bias, Bohannan expertly opened with this variation of a comedy of errors, a very Shakespearean device. Sometimes the slyest shapeshifters are the ones that deceptively stay the same.
There’s a difference between being a shapeshifter and being a trickster, another archetype that can be found in many cultures. Tricksters are masters of disguise who achieve their goals through wit and cunning rather than strength and aggression. They might use magic and are sometimes morally suspect, but they are almost always loveable rogues. They’re also usually men – Norse mythology has Loki, the Greeks have Hermes, the Chinese have the Monkey King, West Africans have Anansi and for Native Americans, there’s Coyote. In Muslim contexts, the enormously popular Maqamat of Al-Hariri (the twelfth century Arab poet and linguist), showcased the exploits of Abu Zayd, a wanderer and con artist who survived by his wiles and eloquence. The ninth century poet, Abu Nuwas, also became a fixture in numerous collections and oral traditions as a trickster-like libertine.
On the surface, it might seem that tricksters just want to have fun. But it can be argued that they serve as role models for the downtrodden or the marginalised. Tricksters, after all, very often undermine authority or break rigid social rules and regulations. They provide models for latent social reformers. Yet at the same time, trickster figures also foil the hero in pursuit of a noble goal. They might distract the hero and lead him – and it’s usually a male hero – astray, steal a crucial object, or pretend to be the hero’s friend whilst secretly undermining him.
Sometimes shapeshifting is in the eye of the beholder. In the 1950s, just after the end of the Second World War, people who reported encounters with aliens often described them as angelic, blond-haired, blue-eyed creatures. This is actually a discernible type in ufology – the Nordic alien. They were largely benign, sent to warn us Earthlings about the dangers of nuclear warfare and to exalt the virtues of spiritual growth.
In the 1960s, contactees started describing different aliens – sinister, grey-skinned, diminutive humanoids with large heads. These aliens abducted humans and performed disturbing experiments on them. Think Roswell and The X-Files rather than E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Grey aliens have since inspired conspiracy theorists who believe they represent a government cover-up, or that they are a product of mind-control experiments.
This narrative shift between encounters with Nordic aliens and Greys roughly corresponds with the transition from altruistic post-War reconstruction ideals in the West to the more troubling developments in the Cold War. There have, however, been memorable attempts to reconcile the two archetypes, for example, in the quirky 1976 rock ballad ‘Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft’ by Klaatu, remade by the Carpenters in 1977.
Our whole discussion about Grey and Nordic aliens could be complete rubbish, though. According to British conspiracy theorist David Icke, it is the tall, blood-drinking, shape-shifting reptilian humanoids from the Alpha Draconis star system that are out to destroy humanity. Many of us have not met them because they are hiding in underground bases. According to Icke, most of the world’s ancient and modern leaders are related to these reptilians, including the Frankish Merovingian dynasty, the Rothschilds, the Bush family and the British Royal family.
Variations of this reptilian conspiracy are part and parcel of a disturbing trend of violence. On Christmas Day in 2020, Anthony Quinn Warner, who referred to a conspiracy of lizard people taking over the planet, detonated a bomb in Nashville that damaged 41 buildings and injured three people. In August 2021, Matthew Taylor Coleman, a Californian surfing school owner, stabbed his two-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter to death with a spearfishing gun because he believed that his wife had passed her ‘serpent DNA’ to them and that they ‘were going to grow into monsters’.
10. The Exorcist
The Exorcist – the 1971 novel by William Peter Blatty and its 1973 film adaptation – is not a story of shapeshifting. It is, rather, a story of demonic possession of an adolescent girl and its religious, specifically Roman Catholic, antidote. But it is the cultural transition that the book and film marked that makes it a fitting item to close our list.
In contemporary Western culture, the possession archetype draws heavily from the New Testament – possession is virtually absent from the Hebrew Scriptures. And given the infamous inquisitions that marked Western Christendom from the Middle Ages to the sixteenth century, you would be forgiven for thinking this was the period when possession was rife. But the ‘Golden Age’ of demonic possession was actually during the two centuries after the Protestant Reformation. And in the modern US, exorcism was previously rare – Catholics were ashamed by it and Protestants thought it was superstitious Catholic heresy.
The Exorcist changed everything. The surge in popularity of exorcisms it augured was followed by the Catholic Church’s increasing assertiveness within American public life – and the Church began embracing exorcism openly. There are now courses at the Vatican to train more exorcists, who are needed more urgently to combat newer demonic cultural trends such as yoga and Harry Potter.
Meanwhile, Evangelicals and Pentecostals still could not quite label their activities ‘exorcism’, which they continued to regard as a Catholic heresy. But they soon had their own post-Exorcist flourishing of ‘deliverance ministries’. This brand of spiritual warfare swiftly spread throughout Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean.
Whatever it is called, the prevalence of exorcism is not correlated with a culture’s level of scientific advancement, or alleged lack of it. It is, rather, more of an indicator of religious, social, and political upheaval. The most prominent cases of exorcism are almost always political. Accounts of successful exorcisms are usually about identifying the correct religious belief or authoritative religious institution or figure, or they aim to target a rival religion or controversial group or practice as demonic.
But then this raises a chicken-and-egg question: Is it a world in transition that influences exorcism, or is it exorcism that shifts our experience of the world?