Like Erika Buenaflor’s other books, readers can expect a hybrid of academic reading and the experiential knowledge of a curandera. This time she takes that approach to look at the practice of people shapeshifting into animals in the mesoamerican cultural context. I suspect that Buenaflor’s published books are an evolution of her earlier academic writing. The style and level of scholarship can be similar to reading a thesis, especially when discussing research into ancient archeological sites and codices. I believe what she presents is as accurate as what we can know about the ancient beliefs on shapeshifting. The second section with the animal directory is easier reading and may appeal to a wider audience.

Buenaflor states that she was trained in curanderismo by people with connections to the Yucatec Maya and Nahua traditions from southern Mexico. As such she chose animals who feature in this region. The book is organized into two parts. The first section is a guide to connecting with animal spirits and more advanced practices for shapeshifting into an animal for healing or spiritual work. The second is an alphabetical directory to 76 animals with important cultural, symbolic and spiritual meaning in Mesoamerica.

Shapeshifting is described as happening on a variety of levels: the etheric, astral, joining, bilocation and physical shapeshifting. If you’re a little lost reading this, know that she explains what these levels mean and truthfully I don’t know that it is necessary to be able to describe all of these levels to be able to actually practice. Different cultures and regions do things in their own way and may have entirely different ways to describe it.

The author states that she aimed to open up the discussion of mesoamerican shapeshifting to go beyond physical shapeshifting. Historical records tend to focus on the folk beliefs and descriptions of people becoming animals. She doesn’t expressly say this but spiritual healing practices and curanderismo often involve journey work with spirit animals/allies and whether that is taking place on an etheric, astral, or other level that doesn’t involve physical transformation, it is still part of the shapeshifting tradition. She doesn’t exclude the possibility of physical shapeshifting but she doesn’t claim that she or her mentors do so. I’m not sure why she doesn’t directly say that this fascination with the concept of physical shapeshifting and the documentation from colonial times has come at the expense of meaningful conversation about common methods of shapeshifting in shamanic practices but this is what I read between the lines.

Each animal in the directory is associated with a non-ordinary realm, the Upperworld, Middleworld or Underworld, the spiritual and shapeshifting medicine and symbolic meanings.  Short myths about the animals help put them into their cultural context. The spiritual meanings of the animals seemed to be the author’s reflections on the reasons these animals may present themselves. Both vertebrate and invertebrate animals are featured. In addition to the fairly standard guided meditation to find your animal ally, the book presents breathing exercises and mudras to facilitate entering a trance state. I tried about half of them and found them relaxing.

The inexperienced will be able to start their relationship with animal allies, gain a sense of the historical context, and understand the uses of shapeshifting in the practice of curanderismo. People who have established a practice of shamanic journeying and have a strong interest in the Mesoamerican origins, will find this to be an excellent resource.

~review by Larissa Carlson

Author: Erika Buenaflor
Bear & Company, 2021
Pp. 202, $18.00