In North and Central America, and to some extent in West Africa, Australia and other parts of the world, every male acquires at puberty a tutelary spirit; in some Native American tribes the youth kills the animal of which he dreams in his initiation fast; its claw, skin or feathers are put into a little bag and become his “medicine” and must be carefully retained, for a “medicine” once lost can never be replaced.
In West Africa this relation is said to be entered into by means of the blood bond, and it is so close that the death of the animal causes the man to die and vice versa. Elsewhere the possession of a tutelary spirit in animal form is the privilege of the magician. In Alaska the candidate for magical powers has to leave the abodes of men; the chief of the gods sends an otter to meet him, which he kills by saying “O” four times; he then cuts out its tongue and thereby secures the powers which he seeks.
The Malays believe that the office of pawang (priest) is only hereditary if the soul of the dead priest, in the form of a tiger, passes into the body of his son. While the familiar is often regarded as the alternative form of the magician, the nagual or bush-soul is commonly regarded as wholly distinct from the human being.
Transitional beliefs, however, are found, especially in Africa, in which the power of transformation is attributed to the whole of the population of certain areas. The people of Banana are said to change themselves by magical means, composed of human embryos and other ingredients, but in their leopard form they may do no harm to mankind under pain of retaining forever the beast shape. In other cases the change is supposed to be made for the purposes of evil magic and human victims are not prohibited.
A further link is supplied by the Zulu belief that the magician’s familiar is really a transformed human being; when he finds a dead body on which he can work his spells without fear of discovery, the wizard breathes a sort of life into it, which enables it to move and speak, it being thought that some dead wizard has taken possession of it. He then burns a hole in the head and through the aperture extracts the tongue. Further spells have the effect of changing the revivified body into the form of some animal, hyena, owl or wild cat, the latter being most in favour. This creature then becomes the wizard’s servant and obeys him in all things; its chief use is, however, to inflict sickness and death upon persons who are disliked by its master.
In Melanesia there is a belief in the tamaniu or atai which is an animal counterpart to a person. It can be an eel, a shark, a lizard, or some other creature. This creature is corporeal, can understand human speech, and shares the same soul as its master, leading to legends which have many characteristics typical of shapeshifter tales, such as any death or injury affecting both forms at once.
The West Africans believe that a man can have as many as four souls, one of which lives in animal form out in the bush, and is then called his bush-soul. If this animal soul is trapped or shot, the man himself dies. Nor will a native kill his bush-soul, for this would surely be the cause of his own end. Bush-souls are often regarded as an hereditary possession, generally passing from father to son and from mother to daughter.
In Iceland, for instance, it is believed that various members of a family have a kind of animal double csilledfylgja, in the shape of a dog or bird.