- Shapeshifters: A History by John B. Kachuba
John Kachuba’s Shapeshifter: A History attempts an encyclopedic overview of a huge variety of traditions of shapeshifting from all over the world while also surveying the history of such beings in popular culture, all in about one hundred and eighty pages. Kachuba follows a rough chronology for his first three chapters, exploring the mythic shapeshifters of the ancient Near East and the larger classical world. The remainder of the book takes a thematic approach, devoting individual chapters to the werewolf, the vampire, shapeshifting and gender representation, and shapeshifters in mass culture. This approach allows an enormous number of shapeshifting anecdotes to be included. The author’s very broad definition of shapeshifters, which includes everything from the Transfiguration of Christ to the popular Transformers franchise, makes the somewhat scattershot methodology a necessity. The strengths, and unfortunately some of the weaknesses, of the book emerge from the brevity of the discussion and a certain nonchalance about the political meaning intermingled with all our tales of monsters. [End Page 344]
This book does not seek any kind of scholarly imprimatur, and so should not be judged by those standards. Instead, the author wants to tell a good and intelligible story to a general audience, with the goal of entertaining the reader rather than informing scholarly discourse (though the best books can do both). Unfortunately, Shapeshifters falls short of telling a good story in part because it tries to tell too many stories. Moreover, though self-evidently not out to grind any scholarly axes, the book has the tendency to offer a muddle of questionable interpretations and truisms that may leave many readers feeling they know more than they do about a global phenomenon.
Kachuba’s introduction lays the groundwork for this imprecise approach with a fictionalized rendering of a werewolf transformation, an allusion to Plains Indians camouflaging themselves as bison, a reference to a blog post about dreams and fantasy projections, mentions of Le Mort D’Arthur and of Lot’s wife in the Hebrew Bible, an aside about vampires and cosplayers, and a passage from H. P. Lovecraft concerned with the amorphous, shapeshifting Shoggoth in At the Mountains of Madness (1936). Much of the rest of the book follows a similar course, moving at a break-neck pace from Norse mythology to the Indian subcontinent and on to Celtic Kelpies and Selkies. To Kachuba’s credit, he has gathered extensive material on seemingly every mythology, ritual, and religious system that has something to say about shape-shifting. The chapters are well written, and readers with no background in world religions and ritual will find at least a tale or two that intrigues them. Unfortunately, however, such a generalist approach will inevitably cause misunderstanding, since Kachuba does not devote adequate space to explaining specific histories and contexts.
Shapeshifters is not, therefore, in any sense a history as its subtitle claims. The chapters read like individual encyclopedia entries that consistently make the universal the enemy of the particular. For example, the Indian conception of Naga, sacred serpent people who play a role in a number of South and East Asian folktales and theological reflections, is given as much time and context as the absurdities of David Icke, an English crackpot who insists that an ancient organization called the “Babylonian Brotherhood” has placed shape-shifting lizard people at the highest levels of government (51–52). Kachuba does not exactly credit Ickes but does something almost as problematic: he writes that Icke’s ideas might “seem far-fetched” but accepts his claims “that over 12 million people in 47 countries” believe in the “Babylonian Brotherhood” conspiracy (52). Icke apparently serves as the source for an early assertion in the book that “12 million people worldwide” claim to believe in shapeshifters (15). [End Page 345]
This misuse of sources does real disservice to the general reader who might want to sate the curiosity raised by Kachuba’s anecdotal approach. Much of the book relies on various secondary accounts rather than original...