The natives of the Carib islands have always been superstitious, but they have good reasons for being so. Danger lurks all around them in their rainforest home in one form or another, and some of these threats aren't of the natural world at all. The Carib people believe in a number of different ghosts, spirits, demons, and strange creatures. One of the deadliest of these spirits is able to shapeshift into animals and take bodily possession of mortal men, inciting them into committing murder. This spirit is known as the Kanaima, a shapeshifter that seeks to kill and wholly consume humans in body and soul.
The Kanaima is primarily associated with the Akawaio, Pemon, Carib, Patamona, and the Macushi tribes, all of whom inhabit the jungles of South America. There seems to be some confusion in the tribal folklore in regards to what the Kanaima (also known as Canaima or Kenaima, as some spell it) actually is, as it may vary from one tribe to another. Some say that it is a shaman who uses dark magic to take on the form of an animal in order to hunt, kill, and feed on people. On the other hand, other people say that the Kanaima is an evil spirit that passes silently through huts at night while the residents are asleep, seeking those whom it may possess. According to legend, however, the Kanaima can also take possession of animals. This causes the animals to become very aggressive and violent towards other animals and people in particular.
In some tribal traditions, there are some people who are so consumed by their need for revenge (usually for a murdered relative) that they willingly invite these evil spirits into their bodies through the use of powerful drugs or magic rituals. Those people literally become Kanaima, seeking out their enemies so that they may kill and devour those who did them wrong. There are others who believe that the Kanaima is a predatory animal possessed by a human's spiritual self, possibly through the magical practice of astral projection. In this case, the animal that is most often sought is the jaguar, a magnificent animal that was worshipped in the olden days by the Olmecs and the Maya for its strength, speed, and its prowess in the hunt. This big, vicious cat usually takes small to large animals as its prey, although humans are sometimes on the list as potential prey as well.
Whatever the case might be, the Kanaima is still a supernatural force to be reckoned with. This evil spirit gives possessed humans the power of shapeshifting, the ability to physically transform into any animal that they desire. The jaguar seems to be the most common choice, although there are also tales of the Kanaima assuming the form of a deadly anaconda as well. In addition, the possessing spirit gives its host unnatural strength, speed, endurance, and a murderous ferocity that only the most depraved serial killers may come close to matching. When the person takes on an animal's form, they also gain the animal's claws, teeth, its strength, and the animal's senses as well. It is also said that the Kanaima's gaze can cause a person to become irrevocably insane. Like other spirits, the Kanaima seems to be able to spread disease and cause bodily problems for its victims (like stomach ailments) as well. In addition to its powers, the Kanaima carries a bottle made from a gourd called a calabash. The gourd may contain poison, although this is uncertain. The creature also carries a magic bow that fires poisoned arrows. Presumably, this weapon assists the monster in bringing down its chosen prey.
The following story tells of an encounter with a Kanaima. Once there was an old man who lurked in the forests as a Kanaima, taking the shape of a tiger (although this may have simply been another term for a jaguar) in order to stalk and kill unwary humans. One day, the old man's son was out hunting with his bow and a quiver of arrows. His arrows were primitive, the points being carved bone bound to a wooden shaft with resin and sinew. It wasn't long before the young hunter encountered the big cat. Raising his bow, he fired an arrow that hit the animal squarely in its lower jaw. The tiger roared in pain and, raising its paw, snapped the wooden shaft and the bone point off. The animal then fled into the forest. The young man picked up what remained of his arrow and went home.
The next day, the old man came out of the forest. He groaned with pain, claiming that his mouth was on fire. Being a good son, the boy offered to take a look. The old man opened his mouth as wide as he could. Seeing something, his son carefully withdrew a piece of broken bone from the inside of his father's cheek. Now suspicious, the younger man retrieved his broken arrow from the day before. The piece of bone fit snugly into the arrow's shaft. At that moment, he knew the truth: his father was a Kanaima, a werebeast. The hunter's heart was heavy with sorrow, and he told his father that he had to take his wife and leave. The young man knew that as long as he stayed in his father's presence, neither he nor his beautiful wife would be safe from the monster within his father. With those words, the young man and his wife took their belongings and sought a home elsewhere to start a family.
The legend told above tells of the connection between the Kanaima and a phenomenon related to shapeshifters and werebeasts, which is known as sympathetic wounding. This belief states that if a shapeshifter is injured or wounded while in the shape of an animal, then that very same wound will appear on the shapeshifter's human body. This identifies the monster to others and enables those people to take action against it. Most often, this leads to death for the werebeast. In this case, the old man got off lucky and was only shunned. However, there are only a few people who can imagine the unbearable pain of being rejected by their loved ones because of their own mistakes.
There are no known methods of warding off or destroying the Kanaima while it isn't possessing a living body. Salt might be able to keep the spirit at bay for a time, although exactly how long that might be can't be said. As for dealing with the Kanaima while it is in possession of a body, one may be able to kill the body with everyday weapons. This could hypothetically release the inhabiting spirit, although it would be free to find another body at that point. However, because life is so precious, an exorcism might be somewhat more appropriate. A Christian exorcism wouldn't be out of the question in this part of the world, although finding a priest who is trained and can conduct the ceremony might be a challenge. Therefore, it might be more convenient to find a native shaman who can use his magic and his knowledge of the natural world to drive the invading spirit out of its host, while at the same time keeping the victim alive.
Although not much is know about the Kanaima and its habits, South American natives still believe in the existence of the creature and are still very much afraid of it. To them, it is death incarnate. Once a victim has been chosen, there is no escape. Even if the victim runs, the Kanaima will hunt them down without mercy. The beast is utterly relentless in its pursuit, and one cannot run or even hide for long. It just goes to show that, no matter how hard a person tries, they cannot outrun death itself.
Hamel, Frank. Werewolves, Bird-Women, Tiger-Men, and Other Human Animals. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1915, 2007.