Werewolves are not the only unlikely creatures with a widespread provenance. From the werefoxes and werehares of China to the werecats of tropical Africa, there is a whole menagerie of animals into which certain humans are reputed to change.
In The Way of the Shaman, Professor Michael Harner writes:
The connectedness between humans and the animal world is very basic in shamanism, with the shaman utilizing his knowledge and methods to participate in the power of that world. Through his guardian spirit or power animal, the shaman connects with the power of the animal world, the mammals, birds, fish, and other beings. The shaman has to have a particular guardian in order to do his work, and his guardian helps him in certain special ways.
The choice of spirit was never arbitrary, for it was believed that a link with a particular animal was already there, forged by the nature of the shaman, even though the shaman might not be aware of it. Thus the spirit would often make itself known, in visions or dreams, before the shaman practiced those techniques that called it to him. This calling had many benefits. Says Harner:
A power animal or guardian spirit, as I first learned among the Jivaro, not only increases one's physical energy and ability to resist contagious disease, but also increases one's mental alertness and self-confidence.2
When the shaman entered nonordinary reality in search of the animal, she would often become temporarily possessed by it. This naturally led to the concept of were animals, the belief-which to many tribes was a matter of simple experience-that certain individuals could literally shapeshift and become the animal concerned.
But were animals are only one example of a whole range of curious phenomena that we all know to be impossible, yet have for centuries been supported by countless legends, myths, and even eyewitness accounts.
When Irish author Bram Stoker crafted his legendary vampire Dracula, the character was based on a fifteenth-century Balkan noble named Vlad the Impaler and named after dracul, the Rumanian word for devil. But Stoker did not create the vampire legend, although he added immeasurably to it. There is a mention of blood-drinking ghosts in Homer's Odyssey. In Hebrew mythology, Adam's first wife Lilith is described as a vampiric character, preying on babies. The same theme is taken up in Arab, Celtic, and Roman mythology, all of which contain references to blood-drinking demons of one sort or another. But the vampire legend familiar today derives directly from an outbreak of vrykolka activity throughout the Balkans and Greece in the seventeenth century. According to popular belief and what purported to be widespread eyewitness reports, vrykolkas were resurrected corpses that fed on the blood of the living. In Hungary, the Magyar term for them was vampir, a word that, with only a slight change, carried the legend into the English-speaking world. By 1746, the first scholarly work on the creatures had appeared, written by Dom Augustine Calmet, a French monk.
Bilocation-the appearance of the same person in two different places at once-is another impossibility, but one apparently achieved by several Christian monks and saints. The list of bilocators includes St. Anthony of Padua, St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Severus of Ravenna, and, in modern times, Padre Pio, an Italian monk. Some of the appearances have been well attested. When Pope Clement XIV was on his deathbed, he had a visit from St. Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri, who was seen by several members of the Papal Court at the pope's bedside. But Alphonsus was confined to his cell at the time-a four-days' journey away.
Another ability frequently attributed to saints is levitation. St. Joseph of Cupertino and St. Theresa of Avila were both reputed to do it frequently. One eyewitness swore Theresa remained airborne, eighteen inches off the ground, for about half an hour. The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa went one better: according to contemporary accounts, he was able to walk and even sleep while levitating. In the nineteenth century, the spiritualist medium Daniel Dunglas Home surprised several witnesses by floating out of a third story window and into another. The Italian medium Amedee Zuccarini was photographed levitating with his feet some twenty inches above the nearest support.
In a somewhat similar category is the experience of a British psychologist named Kenneth Bacheldor, who became interested in the widespread reports of table-turning during the Victorian craze for spiritualism. Bacheldor set up groups to investigate, and, after several months of experimentation, developed a system that allowed tables to move by themselves under tightly controlled test conditions. His work culminated with infrared video of a table levitated several inches off the floor with no one touching it.
Levitating tables also featured in an experiment carried out by Dr. George Owens and his wife, Iris, two members of the Canadian Society for Psychical Research, who decided they would try to make an artificial ghost. To this end, they and fellow members of their group created a fictional character named Philip who lived during Cromwellian times (mid-seventeenth century) at a place called Diddington Manor in England. Philip had an affair with a gypsy girl named Magda; his wife found out and denounced Magda as a witch. When she was burned at the stake, Philip committed suicide by throwing himself from the battlements of his ancestral home.
The romantic tale was entirely fictional, except for the detail of Diddington Manor, which actually does exist. The Owens group pinned photos of the manor around the walls of their room and sat regularly in a classical spiritualist sto make contact with the character they had created. After several months, they were rewarded by a paranormal rapping. A code was soon established to allow them to communicate with the entity behind the rapping . . . the entity turned out to be Philip, and gave its history in the terms of the fictional life story already agreed.
But Philip added so many accurate historical details to the account that the sitters began to wonder if they might have accidentally hit on a real person. Research showed they had not, yet Philip exhibited a far greater familiarity with the Cromwellian period than any member of the group. Furthermore, he proved able to levitate tables and once "walked" one up a short flight of steps.
A variation on the Philip experiment was conducted by Dolores and myself in Britain using techniques of ritual evocation to speed up the process. As a result, a member of our group was temporarily possessed by the "spirit" of an entirely fictitious Saxon priestess.
Astral projection is another well-attested impossibility. My first experience of the phenomenon occurred when I rose in the middle of the night to visit the bathroom and discovered I could not open the bedroom door. After a puzzling moment, I discovered my hand had passed through the doorknob and my (physical) body was still lying in bed beside my wife. It took me six attempts to persuade the body to get up. During one of them I strolled through a solid wall.
This (strictly temporary) ability seems almost humdrum when set beside what happened to Benedetto Supino in 1982. A schoolboy at the time, he was reading a comic in a dentist's waiting room when the paper went on fire. Since that time, anything he touches scorches and he has proved capable of setting things alight just by looking at them. Examined by doctors at the Tivoli Medical Center, he was pronounced "entirely normal"-a diagnosis both he and his family might question.
In 1967, another teenager, Anne-Marie Schaberl, exhibited even stranger powers-although at first no one realized they were emanating from her. The trouble started in a lawyer's office in Rosenheim, Germany, when the lighting system became faulty. The lawyer, Sigmund Adam, had a special meter installed that showed unusual electrical surges. In an attempt to solve the problem, he exchanged his strip lighting for ordinary bulbs and had a direct cable installed. When neither worked, he put in his own generator . . . which made no difference either.
Then, while still grappling with the electrical problem, Adam received a gigantic phone bill-far in excess of what was normal. When outgoing calls were monitored, it was discovered that somebody in the building was calling the speaking clock several times a minute, and managing to do so faster than the normal connection time would allow.
In desperation, one of Europe's leading parapsychologists, Professor Hans Bender of Freiburg, was called in. He discovered widespread poltergeist activity associated with Schaberl, who could cause overhead lights to start swinging just by walking down a corridor.
The generation of poltergeist effects is just one of a number of "wild talents," like telepathy and distant viewing, that have been put to the test in recent years and found to be genuine, if sometimes erratic. Nor are these talents confined to humans. The British scientist Rupert Sheldrake decided to investigate the common belief among dog and cat owners that their pets could read their minds. In a televised version of one of his experiments, an owner was taken from her house and driven around for some hours before being told she could return. At the precise second she turned back for home, a synchronized camera showed her dog moving to his spot at the window where he normally waited for her. (If dogs can read minds, cats seem capable of seeing the future. Mrs. B. N. Harris of Harrowgate, England, reported that while living in Tiverton Road, Exeter, during World War II, she watched a steady stream of felines padding out of the city toward Tiverton . . . just ahead of a devastating air raid.)
Sheldrake is the scientist who developed the theory of "morphic resonance"-the idea that once a critical number of people have learned something, it becomes easier for the population as a whole to learn it. Through experiments, he showed that this was true of schoolchildren learning poetry, and noted that simple skills can sometimes become available to an entire animal or bird population without having to be learned at all.
Most of the oddities so far mentioned might be categorized as unusual abilities, but there is a whole other category of phenomena that seem to be of a completely different type.
What, for example, are we to make of the fact that worldwide reports of black helicopter sightings were filed in 1938? The first helicopter flight was made by a Frenchman in 1907, but the machine was capable only of a brief vertical ascent. In 1930, a prototype chopper managed forward as well as vertical movement, but it was not until 1939-a year after the worldwide sightings-that Igor Sikorsky built the first practical machine.
In 1887 and 1888, a manlike creature with wings was reported performing aerial maneuvers over New York and New Jersey. The reports were never taken seriously, yet the creature-or something like it-reappeared in the Ohio River Valley during 1966 and 1967. It was described as winged, gray, man-sized, man-shaped, with red eyes-and was seen by more than a hundred witnesses.
A rain of pink frogs fell on Stroud, in Gloucestershire, England, on October 24, 1987. Naturalist Ian Darling confirmed that the frogs were albinos (the pink color came from the blood flowing beneath their pale skin), but could give no explanation about where they came from. Presumably it was the same place that caused a similar rain of pink frogs on nearby Cirencester two weeks earlier.
Strange rains are far from unusual. Downpours of frogs have been reported from Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Indiana, and Massachusetts-to name just a few locations in the United States. There was a rainfall of herring at Argylshire in Scotland in 1817.
The conventional explanation of this phenomenon is that whirlwinds have scooped up the unfortunate creatures, carried them a distance, then deposited them as rain. If so, the whirlwinds are curiously selective, managing to scoop only frogs from their ponds and carefully segregating herring from the myriad of fish available in the sea. Besides which, the rainfalls have never been confined to amphibians and fish.
There was a fall of large yellow mice on Bergen, Norway, in 1578. A year later it rained lemmings. Burning sulphur fell on Magdenburg, Germany, in 1642. Black eggs pelted down on Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1786. Animal feed fell in Iran in 1828. San Francisco had a rain of beef-yes, beef-in 1851. Cinders have fallen in Illinois; lizards on Sacramento; snakes on Memphis, Tennessee; worms in West Virginia; silver coins in Russia; banknotes in France and Germany; peaches in Louisiana; mud, wood, glass, and pottery in Cuba. Black "snowflakes" as large as table tops fell on the east coast of the Baltic Sea in 1687. They were found to be rafts of black algae and infusoria.
In 117 a.d., four thousand men of Roman Army's Ninth Legion marched northward out of Dunblane, Scotland, and disappeared. There were no dispatches, no reports of any battle, no bodies, or any other sign of a disaster. The men simply vanished.
The British consul in Vienna, Benjamin Bathurst, was examining a team of horses on November 25, 1809, in the German town of Perleberg, when he vanished. His valet and secretary saw him walk around to the other side of the horses, at which point he disappeared. People have been disappearing just as mysteriously ever since, including the Toronto businessman who walked into his office and never came out and several individuals who vanished while people were actually looking at them.
The few case studies quoted represent the barest skimming on the surface of a vast literature of anomalies. Such reports have profound implications. If people can be in two places at once or disappear into thin air, if dogs can read minds and cats can tell the future, if a girl can generate a poltergeist and Romasanta really could change into a wolf, then we need to revise our ideas about the nature of reality.