Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Shapeshifting in Nigeria

According to African folk beliefs, witchcraft practitioners can transform themselves into animals. This concept is not limited to Africa - many cultures with Shamanic-style spiritual traditions teach that their spirit workers can do the same.

Most scientific investigators have concluded that these transformations are psychological in nature and involve the spirit worker uniting his or her consciousness with the experience of being an animal in order to access certain forms of wisdom and power that reside in the natural world. Modern psychologists have seen cases where mentally ill individuals have believed themselves to be animals, and perhaps this form of mental illness occurs when the mechanism used by Shamans to assume the consciousness of animals goes awry in some way.

All of this sounds plausible to Western ears. But in yet another account of African witchcraft persecution, eyewitnesses claim to have actually seen a witch physically transform from a cat into a human being. Yes, the account is probably made up. This is a hysterical mob we're talking about, after all, that went on to beat this poor woman until she "confessed." I'm envisioning something like the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "Well, she turned me into a newt..." (awkward pause) "...I got better." But could such a physical transformation spell possibly work?

My immediate response as a magician with some education in science would be no. Magick works by shifting probabilities and the odds against being able to do such a thing are astronomical. A cat is much smaller and lighter than a human being. Where did the extra mass go? Did it wink out of existence at the moment of transformation and then back into existence when the woman changed back? If so, there should be a way to harness this ability for the production of cheap, unlimited energy. Once you can make matter move in and out of existence you can do all sorts of interesting things that are normally prevented by the laws of thermodynamics.

Pulling the energy to re-form out of the environment is equally problematic. E=MC^2 means that you need an awful lot of heat to make up the hundred or so pound difference between a slim woman and a cat. Pulling that amount of energy out of the environment would have frozen everyone to death in her immediate vicinity. Nobody looks frozen in the photo, though considering that the mob nearly killed this woman she probably wishes she could have done something of the sort when she "changed."

If this really is the result of a spell, the most likely possibility is some sort of glamour - that is, an illusion. It's much easier to cast a false image into the minds of others than it is to summon matter out of nothing. It's kind of like an invisibility spell. Making your body truly transparent is likely impossible. On the other hand, it's relatively easy to cast a spell that keeps people from noticing you - but don't try to use it to beat a security camera! A camera has no mind and thus can't be fooled without a full-fledged transparency spell.

So what really went on in this case? Aside from another mob attacking a suspected "witch" it's hard to say. Maybe she's a real magician and maybe she's mentally ill, but regardless she seems to be another unfortunate victim of African witch hysteria. "Well, we did do the nose... and the hat. But she is a witch!"

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