Power Animals

When Words Were Magick

In the very earliest of times,
When both people and animals lived on the earth,
A person could become an animal if he wanted to
And an animal could become a human being.
Sometimes they were people
And sometimes animals
And there was no difference.
All spoke the same language.
That was a time when words were like magic.
The human mind had mysterious powers.
A word spoken by chance
Might have strange consequences.
It would suddenly become alive
And what people said wanted to happen
Could happen ~
All you had to do was say it
Nobody could explain this:
That’s the way it was.

~An Old Eskimo story found at Feathers and Bones

Jaguar Vengence

From the book Werwolves, by Elliott O’Donnell, first published in 1912, we have this account:

A Dutch trader, of the name of Van Hielen, was visiting for purely business purposes an Indian settlement in a very remote part of the colony. Roaming about the village one evening, he came to a hut standing alone on the outskirts of one of those dense forests that are so characteristic of Arawak.

Van Hielen paused, and was marvelling how anyone could choose to live in so outlandish and lonely a spot, when a shrill scream, followed by a series of violent guttural ejaculations, came from the interior of the building, and the next moment a little boy – some seven or eight years of age – rushed out of the house, pursued by a prodigiously fat woman, who whacked him soundly across the shoulders with a knotted club and then halted for want of breath.

Van Hielen, who was well versed in the native language, politely asked her what the boy had done to deserve so severe a chastisement.

“Done!” the woman replied, opening her beady little eyes to their full extent; “why, he’s not done anything – that’s why I beat him – he’s incorrigibly idle. He and his sister spend all their time amid the trees yonder conversing with the bad spirits. They learned that trick from Guska, with the evil eye. She has bewitched them. She was shot to death with arrows in the market-place last year, and my only regret is that she wasn’t put out of the way ten years sooner. Ah! there’s that wicked girl Yarakna – she’s been hiding from me all the day. I must punish her, too!”

And before Van Hielen could speak the indignant parent waddled off – with surprising swiftness for one of her vast proportions – and reappeared dragging by the wrist an elfish-looking girl of about ten. She gave the urchin one blow, and was about to give her another, when Van Hielen, whose heart was particularly tender where children were concerned, interfered, and by dint of bribery persuaded her to desist. She retired indoors, and Van Hielen found himself alone with the child.

“May the spirit of the woods for ever be your friend!” the maiden said. “But for you my poor back would have been beaten to a tonka bean. My brother and I have suffered enough at the hands of the old woman – we’ll suffer no more.”

“What will you do then?” Van Hielen asked, shocked at the revengeful expression that marred the otherwise pretty features of the child. “Remember, she is your mother, and has every right to expect you to be obedient and industrious.”

“She is not our mother!” the girl answered. “Our mother is the spirit of the woods. We work for her – not for this old woman, and in return she tells us tales and amuses us.”

“You work for her!” Van Hielen said in amazement. “What do you mean?”

The child smiled – the ignorance of the white man tickled her. “We gather aloes for medicine for her sick children; the core of the lechugilla for their food, yucca leaves for plumes for their heads, and scarlet panicles of the Fouquiera splendens for their clothes. My brother and I will go to her to-night when the old woman is sleeping. Where? Ah! we do not tell anyone that. Do we see her? The spirit of the woods, you mean? Yes, we see her, but it is not every one who can see her–only those who have sight like ours. But I must go now–my brother is calling me.”

Van Hielen could hear nothing; though he did not doubt, from the child’s behaviour, that she had been called. She ran merrily away, and he watched her black head disappear in the thick undergrowth facing him. Van Hielen’s curiosity was roused. What the child had said impressed him deeply; and against his saner judgment he resolved to secrete himself near the hut and watch.

After it had been dusk some time, and all sounds had ceased, he saw the two children emerge from the hut, and, tiptoeing softly towards the trees, fall on their hands and knees and crawl along a tiny, deviating path. Hardly knowing what he was doing, but impelled by a force he could not resist, Van Hielen followed them.

It was a delicious night–at that time of year every night in Arawak is delicious–and Van Hielen, who was very simple in his love of nature, imbibed delight through every pore in his body. As he trod gently along, pushing first this branch and then that out of the way, and stooping down to half his height to creep under a formidable bramble, countless voices from animal land fell on his ears.

From a glimmering patch of water, away on his left, came the trump of a bull-frog and the wail of the whip-poor-will; a monkey chattered, a parrot screeched, whilst a shrill cry of terror, accompanied by a savage growl, plainly told of the surprise and slaughter of some defenseless animal by one of the many big beasts of prey that made every tree their lurking place.

On any other occasion Van Hielen would have thought twice before embarking on such an expedition;  but that night he seemed to be labouring under some charm which had lulled to sleep all sense of insecurity. It was true he was armed, but of what avail is a rifle against the unexpected spring of a jaguar or leopard–from a bough some ten or twenty feet directly over one’s head–or the sudden lunge of a boa constrictor!

At first, the path wound its way through a dense chapparal consisting of the various shrubs and plants rarely to be met with in other parts of Arawak, namely, acacias, aloes, lechuguillas, and the Fouquiera splendens. But after a short time this kind of vegetation was succeeded by something far more imposing – by dense masses of trees, many of them at the least one hundred and fifty feet in height: the mora, which from a distance appears like a hillock clothed with the brightest vegetation; the ayucari, or red cedar; and the cuamara, laden with tonka beans. So thick was their foliage overhead that one by one Van Hielen watched the stars disappear; and the path ahead of him darkened till it was as much as he could do to grope along.

Still he was not afraid. The thought of that elfish little maiden with the luminous eyes crawling along in front of him inspired him with extraordinary confidence and he plunged on, anxious only to catch another glimpse of her and see the play out. Once his progress was interrupted by something hot and leathery, that pushed him nearly off his feet and puffed rudely in his face.

It was on the tip of his tongue to give vent to his ruffled feelings in forcible language, but the knowledge that this would assuredly warn the children of his proximity kept him quiet, and he contented himself with striking a vigorous blow. There was a loud snort, a crashing and breaking of brushwood, and the thing, whatever it was, rushed away.

Another time he stumbled over a snake which was gliding from one side of the path to the other. The creature hissed, and Van Hielen, giving himself up for lost, jumped for all he was worth. As luck would have it the snake missed, and Van Hielen, escaping with nothing more serious than a few scratches and a bump or two, was able to continue his course.

After long gropings the path at length came to an end, the trees cleared, and Van Hielen saw before him a pool, radiantly illuminated by the moon, and in the very centre – an immense Victoria Regia water-lily.

Though accustomed to the fine species of this plant in Guiana – which is the home of the Victoria Regia – Van Hielen was doubtful if he had ever before beheld such a magnificent specimen. The silvery moonlight, falling on its white and pink petals, threw into relief all the exquisite delicacy of their composition, and gave to them a glow which could only have been rivalled in Elysium.

Indeed, the whole scene, enhanced by the glamour of the hour and the sweet scent of plants and flowers, was so reminiscent of fairyland that Van Hielen – enraptured beyond description – stood and gazed in open-mouthed ecstasy.

Then his eyes fell on the children and he noiselessly slipped back under cover of a tree.

Hand in hand the boy and girl advanced to the water’s edge, and kneeling, commenced to recite some strange incantation, which Van Hielen tried in vain to interpret. Sometimes their voices reached a high, plaintive key; sometimes they sank to a low murmur, strangely musical, and strangely suggestive of the babbling of brook water over stones and pebbles.

When they had finished their incantation, they got up, and running to some bushes, returned in a few seconds with their arms full of flowers, which they threw with great dexterity on to the leaves of the giant lily. With their faces still turned to the water they remained standing, side by side, whilst a silence–deep and impressive, and shared, so it appeared to Van Hielen, by all nature–fell upon them.

A cold current of air, rising apparently from the pool, blew across the opening, and sweeping past Van Hielen, set all the leaves in motion. It rustled on till its echoes gradually ceased, and all was still again. It now seemed to Van Hielen that the character of everything around underwent a subtle change; and the feeling that every object around him was indulging in a hearty laugh at his expense intensified with every breath he drew.

For the first time Van Hielen was afraid. He could not define the cause of his fear–but that only made his fear the more acute. He was frightened of the wind and darkness, and of something more than the wind and darkness–something concealed in–something cloaked by the wind and darkness. Even the atmosphere had altered–it, too, was making game of him. It distorted his vision. The things he saw around him were no longer stationary–they moved. They twirled and twisted themselves into all sorts of grotesque and fanciful attitudes; grew large, then small; nearer and then more distant.

The plot of ground in front of which the children knelt played all manner of pranks – pranks Van Hielen did not at all like. It moved round and round – faster and faster, until it eventually became a whirlpool; which suddenly reversed and assumed the appearance of a pyramid revolving on its apex. Quicker and quicker it spun round–closer and closer it drew; until, without warning, it suddenly stopped and disappeared; whilst its place was taken by an oddly shaped bulge in the ground, which, swaying backward and forward, increased and increased in stature, till it attained the height of some seven or eight feet.

Van Hielen could not compare this with anything he had ever seen. It was monstrous but shapeless – a mere mass of irregular lumps, a dull leadish white, and vibrating horribly in the moonlight. He thought of the children; but where they had stood he saw only two greenish-yellow spheres that, twirling round and round, suddenly approached him.

As he started back to escape them, all was again changed. The lumpy figure had vanished, the atmosphere cleared, and everything was absolutely normal. There were now, however, solid grounds for fear. Advancing on him with flashing eyes and scintillating teeth were two vividly marked jaguars–a male and female. Van Hielen, usually calm and collected in the face of danger, on this occasion lost his presence of mind: his gun dropped from his hands, his knees quivered, and, helpless and inert, he reeled against the tree under which he had been standing.

The jaguars – which seemed to be unusually savage even for jaguars – prepared to spring, and Van Hielen, certain his hour had come, was about to close his eyes and resign himself to his fate, when the female brute, although the bigger and more formidable, hesitated – thrust its dark, handsomely spotted head almost in its victim’s face, and then, lashing its companion sharply with its tail, swerved aside and was off like a dart.

It took Van Hielen some minutes to realize his escape, and then, more in a dream than awake, he mechanically shouldered his rifle and slowly followed in the beasts’ wake.

An hour’s walking brought him to the end of the forest. The dawn was breaking, and the track leading to the settlement was just beginning to exhibit the mellowing influence of the first rays of the sun. There was an exhilarating freshness in the air that made Van Hielen keenly sensitive to the ambitious demands of a newly awakened stomach.

Opposite him was the hut of the old woman, the entrance somewhat clumsily blocked with a makeshift door. As Van Hielen looked at it curiously, wondering if the woman was in the habit of barricading it in this fashion on account of her proximity to the forest, sounds greeted him from within.

Stepping lightly up to the hut, Van Hielen listened attentively. Some big animal – a hound most probably – was gnawing a bone – crunch, crunch, crunch!

Van Hielen moved away, but hadn’t gone very far before an indefinable something made him turn back. That crunching, was it a dog or was it …?

His heart turned sick within him at the bare thought. Again he listened at the threshold, and again he heard the sounds – gnaw, gnaw, gnaw – crunch, crunch, crunch! He rapped at first gently, and then loudly, ever so loudly.

The gnawing at once stopped, but no one answered him. Then he called – once, twice, thrice: there was no reply. Assured now there was something amiss, he gripped his rifle, and putting his shoulder to the door, burst it open. A flood of daylight rushed in, and he saw before him on the floor the mutilated and half-eaten remains of a woman, and – did his eyes deceive him or did he see? Crouching in a corner all ready to spring, two magnificent jaguars. Van Hielen raised his rifle, but – in less than a second – it fell from his grasp.

Towards him, from the same spot – their small mouths and slender hands smeared with blood – ran Yarakna and her brother.

An Account Of A Weretiger

From the book Werwolves, by Elliott O’Donnell, first published in 1912, we have this account from an eye witness to a Weretiger transformation somewhere in the Jungles of India:

“Anxious to see if there was anything of truth in the alleged materialization of the tiger totem to those supplicating it, I went one evening to a spot in the jungle–some two or three miles from the village–where I had been informed the manifestations took place.

As the jungle was universally held to be haunted I met no one; and in spite of my dread of the snakes, big cats, wild boars, scorpions, and other poisonous vermin with which the place was swarming, arrived without mishap at the place that had been so carefully described to me–a circular clearing of about twenty feet in diameter, surrounded on all sides by rank grass of a prodigious height, trolsee shrubs, kulpa and tamarind-trees. Quickly concealing myself, I waited the coming of the would-be tiger-man.

“He was hardly more than a boy – slim and almost feminine – and came gallivanting along the narrow path through the brushwood, like some careless, high-spirited, brown-skinned hoyden.

“The moment he reached the edge of the mystic circle, however, his behaviour changed; the light of laughter died from his eyes, his lips straightened, his limbs stiffened, and his whole demeanour became one of respect and humility.

“Advancing with bare head and feet some three or so feet into the clearing, he knelt down, and, touching the ground three times in succession with his forehead, looked up at a giant kulpa-tree opposite him, chanting as he did so some weird and monotonous refrain, the meaning of which was unintelligible to me.

Up to then it had been light–the sky, like all Indian skies at that season, one blaze of moonbeams and stars; but now it gradually grew dark. An unnatural, awe-inspiring shade seemed to swoop down from the far distant mountains and to hush into breathless silence everything it touched. Not a bird sang, not an insect ticked, not a leaf stirred. One might have said all nature slept, had it not been for an uncomfortable sensation that the silence was but the silence of intense expectation–merely the prelude to some unpleasant revelation that was to follow.

At this juncture my feelings were certainly novel–entirely different from any I had hitherto experienced.

” I had not believed in the supernatural, and had had absolutely no apprehensions of coming across anything of a ghostly character – all my fears had been of malicious natives and tigers; they now, however, changed, and I was confronted with a dread of what I could not understand and could not analyse – of something that suggested an appearance, alarming on account of its very vagueness.

“The pulsations of my heart became irregular, I grew faint and sick, and painfully susceptible to a sensation of excessive coldness, which instinct told me was quite independent of any actual change in the atmosphere.

“I made several attempts to remove my gaze from the kulpa-tree, which intuition told me would be the spot where the something, whatever it was, that was going to happen would manifest itself. My eyes, however, refused to obey, and I was obliged to keep them steadily fixed on this spot, which grew more and more gloomy.

All of a sudden the silence was broken, and a cry, half human and half animal, but horribly ominous, sounding at first faint and distant, speedily grew louder and louder. Soon I heard footsteps, the footsteps of something running towards us and covering the ground with huge, light strides.

Nearer and nearer it came, till, with a sudden spring, it burst into view–the giant reeds and trolsees were dashed aside, and I saw standing in front of the kulpa-tree a vertical column of crimson light of perhaps seven feet in height and one or so in width.

A column–only a column, though the suggestion conveyed to me by the column was nasty–nasty with a nastiness that baffles description. I looked at the native, and the expression in his eyes and mouth assured me he saw more–a very great deal more.

For some seconds he only gasped; then, by degrees, the rolling of his eyes and twitching of his lips ceased. He stretched out a hand and made some sign on the ground. Then he produced a string of beads, and after placing it over the scratchings he had made on the soil, jerked out some strange incantation in a voice that thickened and quivered with terror.

I then saw a stream of red light steal from the base of the column and dart like forked lightning to the beads, which instantly shone a luminous red. The native now picked them up, and, putting them round his neck, clapped the palms of his hands vigorously together, uttering as he did so a succession of shrill cries, that gradually became more and more animal in tone, and finally ended in a roar that converted every particle of blood in my veins into ice.

The crimson colour now abruptly vanished–whither it went I know not–the shade that had been veiling the jungle was dissipated, and in the burst of brilliant moonlight that succeeded I saw, peering up at me, from the spot where the native had lain, the yellow, glittering, malevolent eyes, not of a man, but a tiger–a tiger thirsting for human blood.

The shock was so great that for a second or two I was paralysed, and could only stare back at the thing in fascinated helplessness. Then a big bird close at hand screeched, and some small quadruped flew past me terrified; and with these awakenings of nature all my faculties revived, and I simply jumped on my feet and–fled!

“Some fifty yards ahead of me, and showing their tops well above the moon-kissed reeds and bushes, were two trees–a tamarind and a kulpa briksha. God knows why I decided on the latter! Probably through a mere fluke, for I hadn’t the remotest idea which of the trees offered the best facilities to a poor climber. My mind once made up, there was no time to alter.

The wer-tiger was already terribly close behind. I could gauge its distance by the patter of its feet–apparently the metamorphosis had only been in part–and by the steadily intensifying purr, purr; so unmistakably interpretative of the brute’s utter satisfaction in its power to overtake me, as well as at the prospect of so good a meal.

I was just thirteen stone, seemingly a most unlucky number even in weight! Had the tiger wanted, I am sure he could have caught me at once, but I fancy it wished to play with me a little first–to let me think I was going to escape, and then, when it had got all the amusement possible out of me, just to give a little sprint and haul me over. Perhaps it was my anger at such undignified treatment of the human race that gave a kind of sting to my running, for I certainly got over the ground at twice the speed I had ever done before, or ever thought myself capable of doing.

At times my limbs were on the verge of mutiny, but I forced them onward, and though my lungs seemed bursting, I never paused. At last a clearing was reached and the kulpa-tree stood fully revealed. I glanced at once at the trunk. The lowest branch of any size was some eight feet from the ground. . . . Could I reach it?

Summoning up all my efforts for this final, and in all probability fatal, rush, I hurled myself forward. There was a low exultant roar, a soft, almost feminine purr, and a long hairy paw, with black, gleaming claws shot past my cheek. I gave a great gasp of anguish, and with all the pent-up force of despair clutched at the branch overhead. My finger-tips just curled over it; I tightened them, but, at the most, it was a very feeble, puny grasp, and totally insufficient to enable me to swing my body out of reach of the tiger.

I immediately gave myself up as lost, and was endeavouring to reconcile myself to the idea of being slowly chewed alive, when an extraordinary thing happened. The wer-tiger gave a low growl of terror and, bounding away, was speedily lost in the jungle. Fearing it might return, I waited for some time in the tree, and then, as there were no signs of it, descended, and very cautiously made my way back to the village.

“That night an entire family, father, mother, son, and daughter, were murdered, and their mutilated and half-eaten bodies were discovered on the floor of their hut in the morning. Evidence pointed to their having been killed by a tiger; and as they had been the sworn enemies of the young man whose metamorphosis I had witnessed, it was not difficult to guess at the identity of their destroyer.

“I related my adventure to one of the chief people, and he informed me he knew that particular kulpa-tree well. ‘You undoubtedly owe your salvation to having touched it,’ he said. ‘The original kulpa, which now stands in the first heaven, is said to have been one of the fourteen remarkable things turned up by the churning of the ocean by the gods and demons; and the name of Ram and his consort Seeter are written on the silvery trunks of all its earthly descendants. If once you touch any portion of a kulpa briksha tree, you are quite safe from any animal–that is why the wer-tiger snarled and ran away! But take my advice, sahib, and leave the village.’

“I did so, and on the way to my home in the hills visited the tree. There, sure enough, plainly visible on the silvery surface in the twilight, was the name of the incarnation of Vishnu, written in Sanskrit characters, and apparently by some supernatural hand; that is to say, there was a softness in the impression, as if the finger of some supernatural being had traced the characters.

I did not want any further proofs–I had had enough; and taking good care to see my gun was loaded, I hurried off. Nor have I ever ventured into that neighbourhood since.”

The Magnificent Bull

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My bull is white like the silver fish in the river,
White like the shimmering crane bird on the river bank,
White like fresh milk!
His roar is like the thunder to the Turkish cannon on the steep shore.

My bull is dark like the raincloud in the storm.
He is like summer and winter.
Half of him is dark like the storm cloud
Half of him is light like sunshine.
His back shines like the morning star.
His brow is red like the beak of the hornbill.
His forehead is like a flag, calling the people from a distance.

He resembles the rainbow.
I will water him at the river,
With my spear I shall drive my enemies.
Let them water their herds at the well;
The river belongs to me and my bull.
Drink, my bull, from the river;
I am here to guard you with my spear.

– Traditional Dinka Tribe, Africa

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