Therianthropy is the mythological ability of human beings to metamorphose into animals by means of shapeshifting. It is possible that cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, depict ancient beliefs in the concept. The most well known form of therianthropy is found in stories concerning werewolves.
The term "therianthropy" comes from the Greek theríon [θηρίον], meaning "wild animal" or "beast" (impliedly mammalian); and anthrōpos [ἄνθρωπος], meaning "human being." It was used to refer to animal transformation folklore of Europe as early as 1901. Sometimes the term "zoanthropy" is used instead. Therianthropy was used to describe spiritual beliefs in animal transformation in a 1915 Japanese publication, "A History of the Japanese People from the Earliest Times to the End of the Meiji Era." One source, "The Human Predator," raises the possibility the term may have been used as early as the 16th century in criminal trials of suspected werewolves.
History of therianthropy and theriocephaly
Therianthropy refers to the fantastical, or mythological, ability of some humans to change into animals. Therianthropes are said to change forms via shapeshifting. Therianthropy has long existed in mythology, and seems to be depicted in ancient cave drawings such as The Sorcerer, a pictograph executed at the neolithic cave drawings found in the Pyrénées at the Les Trois Frères, France, archeological site. Theriocephaly refers to beings which simultaneously share human and nonhuman animal traits. For example, the animal-headed humanoid forms of gods depicted in ancient Egyptian religion (such as Ra, Sobek, Anubis), as well as creatures such as centaurs and mermaids, exhibit theriocephaly.
Shapeshifting in folklore, mythology and anthropology, generally refers to the alteration of physical appearance from human to animal. Lycanthropy, the transformation of a human into a wolf (or werewolf), is probably the best known form of therianthropy, followed by cynanthropy (transformation into a dog) and ailuranthropy (transformation into a cat). Werehyenas are present in the stories of several African and Eurasian cultures. Ancient Turkic legends from Asia talk of form changing shamans known as "Kurtadams," which translates to "wolfman". Ancient Greeks wrote of cynanthropy (or kynanthropy; from Kynior, dog), which applied to mythological beings able to alternate between dog form and human form, or who possessed combined dog and human anatomical features.
The term existed by at least 1901, when it was applied to stories from China about humans turning into dogs, dogs becoming people, and sexual relations between humans and canines. Anthropologist David Gordon White called Central Asia the "vortex of cynanthropy" because races of dog-men were habitually placed there by ancient writers. The weredog or cynanthrope is also known in Timor. It is described as a human-canine shapeshifter who is capable of transforming other people into animals against their will.
European folklore feature werecats, who can transform into panthers or domestic cats of an enlarged size. African legends describe people who turn into lions or leopards, while Asian werecats are typically depicted as becoming tigers.
Skin-walkers and naguals
Some Native American and First Nation legends talk about skin-walkers—persons with the supernatural ability to turn into any animal they desire. To do so, however, they first must be wearing a pelt of the specific animal. In the folk religion of Mesoamerica, a Nagual (or Nahual) is a human being who has the power to magically turn themselves into animal forms—most commonly donkeys, turkeys, and dogs—but can also transform into more powerful jaguars and pumas.
Stories of humans descending from animals are found in the oral traditions for many tribal and clan origins. Sometimes the original animals had assumed human form in order to ensure their descendants retained their human shapes; other times the origin story is of a human marrying a normal animal.
North American indigenous traditions mingle the ideas of bear ancestors and ursine shapeshifters, with bears often being able to shed their skins to assume human form, marrying human women in this guise. The offspring may be creatures with combined anatomy, they may be very beautiful children with uncanny strength, or they may be shapeshifters themselves.
P'an Hu is represented in various Chinese legends as a supernatural dog, a dog-headed man, or a canine shapeshifter that married an emperor's daughter and founded at least one race. When he is depicted as a shapeshifter, all of him can become human except for his head. The race(s) descended from P'an Hu were often characterized by Chinese writers as monsters who combined human and dog anatomy.
In Turkic mythology, the wolf is a revered animal. The Turkic legends say the people were descendants of wolves. The legend of Asena is an old Turkic myth that tells of how the Turkic people were created: In Northern China a small Turkic village was raided by Chinese soldiers, but one small baby was left behind. An old she-wolf with a sky-blue mane named Asena found the baby and nursed him, later giving birth to the half wolf, half human cubs who were the ancestors of the Turkic people.
Ethnologist Ivar Lissner theorised that cave paintings of beings with human and non-human animal features were not physical representations of mythical shapeshifters, but were instead attempts to depict shamans in the process of acquiring the mental and spiritual attributes of various beasts. Religious historian Mircea Eliade has observed that beliefs regarding animal identity and transformation into animals are widespread.
In North and Central America, and to some extent in West Africa, Australia and other parts of the world, tribal males acquire 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. The inuit 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 people of Banana area of the Congo are said to change themselves by use of magic potions 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 cultures the change is supposed to be made for the purposes of evil magic and human victims are not prohibited. The Zulu belief is 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 shaman breathes a sort of life into it, which enables it to move and speak. 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 favor. This creature then becomes the shaman'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.
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 (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.
In Melanesia there is a belief in the tamaniu or atai, which is an animal counterpart to a person. It may 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.
Among a sampled set of psychiatric patients, the belief of being part animal, or clinical lycanthropy, is generally associated with severe psychosis, but not always with any specific psychiatric diagnosis or neurological findings. Others regard clinical lycanthropy as a delusion in the sense of the self-identity disorder found in affective and schizophrenic disorders, or as a symptom of other psychiatric disorders.
Some affected individuals assert that they were part animal, generally in a spiritual sense, while others claim they have a psychological or neuro-biological connection—rather than a spiritual one—to their animal. Some self-described therianthropes identify with the Otherkin subculture. These people often use the term "species dysphoria" to describe their feelings of disconnect with their human bodies (as a result of their self-identification).
References in popular culture
Although the werewolf is the best known animal transformation figure in popular western culture, the plots of several novels in the fantasy and mythic fiction fields revolve around other kinds of therianthropic characters. Swim the Moon by Paul Brandon, set in contemporary Australia, explores Scottish selkie legends. The Antelope Wife by Louise Erdrich, set in modern-day Minnesota, draws on Ojibway myths of women who can shift between human and antelope shape. The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson, set in historic Japan, re-tells a kitsune legend in novel form. Coyote Blue by Christopher Moore is a contemporary comic novel about a Native American trickster who can shift between human and coyote forms. Hannah's Garden by Midori Snyder, set in the rural American Midwest, draws on Anglo-Irish legends of shape-changing hares to tell a story about death, family dynamics, and the power of creativity. The Wood Wife by Terri Windling, set in Tucson, Arizona, and most of the novels of Charles de Lint, set in Canada, blend the shape-shifting legends of European folklore, the therianthropic lore of tricksters and shamans, and animal-human hybrid characters drawn from various Native American mythologies. Alice Hoffman draws on the folklore of therianthropy and lycanthropy in her contemporary novel Second Nature, although in this case the protagonist shiftshapes metaphorically rather than literally, having been raised by wolves in the wild.
Notes and references
- De Groot, J.J.M. (1901). The Religious System of China: Volume IV. Leiden: Brill. p. 171.
- Guiley, R.E. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves & Other Monsters. New York: Facts on File. p. 192. ISBN 0-8160-4685-9.
- Brinkley, Frank; Dairoku Kikuchi (1915). A History of the Japanese People from the Earliest Times to the End of the Meiji Era. The Encyclopædia Britannica Co.
- Ramsland, Katherine (2005). The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation. Berkley Hardcover. ISBN 0-425-20765-X.
- Edward Podolsky (1953). Encyclopedia of Aberrations: A Psychiatric Handbook. Philosophical Library.
- "Trois Freres". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2006-12-06.
- Greene, R. (2000). The Magic of Shapeshifting. York Beach, ME: Weiser. p. 229. ISBN 1-57863-171-8.
- De Groot, J.J.M. (1901). The Religious System of China: Volume IV. Leiden: Brill. p. 184.
- Greene, Rosalyn (2000). The Magic of Shapeshifting. Weiser. p. 9.
- Pijoan, T. (1992). White Wolf Woman & Other Native American Transformation Myths. Little Rock: August House. p. 79. ISBN 0-87483-200-4.
- White, D.G. (1991). Myths of the Dog-Man. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 150. ISBN 0-226-89509-2.
- Cultural Life – Literature Turkey Interactive CD-ROM; 2007-08-11.
- T.C. Kultur Bakanligi; Nevruz Celebrations in Turkey and Central Asia; Ministry of Culture, Republic of Turkey; accessed 2007-08-11
- Steiger, B. (1999). The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings. Farmington Hills, MI: Visible Ink. ISBN 1-57859-078-7.
- Eliade, Mircea (1965). Rites and Symbols of Initiation: the mysteries of birth and rebirth. Harper & Row.
- Hamel, F. (1969). Human Animals, Werewolves & Other Transformations. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books. p. 21. ISBN 0-8216-0092-3.
- Keck PE, Pope HG, Hudson JI, McElroy SL, Kulick AR (February 1988). "Lycanthropy: alive and well in the twentieth century". Psychol Med 18 (1): 113–20. doi:10.1017/S003329170000194X. PMID 3363031.
- Garlipp, P; Godecke-Koch T; Dietrich DE; Haltenhof H. (January 2004). "Lycanthropy—psychopathological and psychodynamical aspects". Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavica 109 (1): 19–22. doi:10.1046/j.1600-0447.2003.00243.x. PMID 14674954.
- Cohen, D. (1996). Werewolves. New York: Penguin. p. 104. ISBN 0-525-65207-8.
- Lupa (2007). A Field Guide to Otherkin. Immanion Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-1-905713-07-3.
- "Shapeshifters: Art Inspired by Animal-Human Transformation Myths, The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2003: name
- "The Artist as Shaman: Madness, Shapechanging and Art in Terri Windling's The Wood Wife" by Mary Nicole Sylvester, Mythic Passages, September/October 2003, The Mythic Imagination Institute.