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Home > Archives > Volume 17, No 5 (2019) > Article

DOI: 10.14704/nq.2019.17.5.2258

Becoming Animals: Neurobiology of Shamanic Shapeshifting

Arthur Saniotis


Since prehistory, shapeshifting has been a feature of several shamanic societies. Shapeshifting refers to a physical transformation of a shaman into an animal; and second, a shaman or other person behaving like a specific animal. This phenomenon has informed several mythological traditions. Prehistoric and extant shapeshifting provides a platform for understanding transformative elements of shamanism and how it is constituted. During shapeshifting the shaman’s body mediates between the visible and invisible worlds, his/her psyche negotiates between psychic realms. Shapeshifting in its pictorial and performative genre is a kind of atavistic retrieval, deriving from ancient levels of the unconscious. As a type of altered state of consciousness, shapeshifting synchronises regions of the frontal cortex with the limbic system. Moreover, the performative elements of shapeshifting integrate a cascade of neurobevioural processes for modulating a specific mood via spontaneous actions. This analysis will provide an overview of shapeshifting of its historical and cultural manifestations, and how it is constituted in various shamanic traditions. In the last section I will discuss neurobiological antecedents of shapeshifting.


altered states of consciousness, therionthropes, psyche, animal other, mimicry, embodiment, synchronisation, neurohormonal regulation

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