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In mythology, folklore and speculative fiction, shapeshifting, or metamorphosis is the ability of an entity to physically transform into another being or form. This is usually achieved through an inherent faculty of a mythological creature, divine intervention, or the use of magic spells or talismans.
The idea of shapeshifting has been present since antiquity and may be common in all cultures. It is present in the oldest forms of totemism and shamanism, as well as the oldest extant literature and epic poems, including works such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, where the shapeshifting is usually induced by the act of a deity. The idea persisted through the Middle Ages, where the agency causing shapeshifting is usually a sorcerer or witch, and into the modern period. It remains a common trope in modern fantasy, children's literature, and works of popular culture.
The most common form of shapeshifting myths is that of therianthropy, which is the transformation of a human being into an animal or conversely, of an animal into human form. Legends allow for transformations into plants and objects, and the assumption of another human countenance (e.g. fair to ugly).
- 1 Themes in shapeshifting
- 1.1 Between the sexes
- 1.2 Punitive changes
- 1.3 Transformation chase
- 1.4 Powers
- 1.5 Bildungsroman
- 1.6 Needed items
- 1.7 Inner conflict
- 1.8 Deception
- 1.9 Usurpation
- 1.10 Ill-advised wishes
- 1.11 Monstrous bride/bridegroom
- 1.12 Death
- 2 Folklore and mythology
- 3 Modern Fiction
- 4 See also
- 5 Notes
- 6 Further reading
- 7 External links
Themes in shapeshifting
Shapeshifting may be used as a plot device, such as when Puss in Boots in the fairy tales tricks the ogre into becoming a mouse to be eaten. Also, Jared disposes of the ogre in The Spiderwick Chronicles by convincing him to become a swallow. Shapeshifting may also include symbolic significance, like the Beast's transformation in Beauty and the Beast indicates Belle's ability to accept him despite his appearance.
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In literature, the involuntary or voluntary nature of the shapeshifting can be a theme. Circe transforms intruders to her island into swine, whereas Ged, in A Wizard of Earthsea, becomes a hawk to escape an evil wizard's stronghold. When a form is taken on involuntarily, the thematic effect can be one of confinement and restraint; the person is bound to the new form. In extreme cases, such as petrifaction, the character is entirely disabled. On the other hand, voluntary shapeshifting can be a means of escape and liberation. Even when the form is not undertaken to resemble a literal escape, the abilities specific to the form allow the character to act in a manner that was previously impossible.
Examples of this are in fairy tales. A prince who is forced into a bear's shape (as in East of the Sun and West of the Moon) is a prisoner, but a princess who takes on a bear's shape voluntarily to flee a situation (as in The She-Bear) escapes with her new shape.
In modern fantasy, the extent to which the change of shape alters the mind can be important. Poul Anderson, in Operation Chaos, has the werewolf observe that taking on wolf-form can simplify his thoughts. A similar effect is noted in Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series. This can be more intricate in other writers' works. In the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling made it so that a wizard who became a rat obtained a rat's brain (although the Animagus talent bypasses this problem). In the Earthsea books, Ursula K. Le Guin depicts an animal form as slowly transforming the wizard's mind, so that the dolphin, bear or other creature forgets it was human, making it impossible to change back. This makes an example for a voluntary shapeshifting becoming an imprisoning metamorphosis. Beyond this, the uses of shapeshifting, transformation, and metamorphosis in fiction are as protean as the forms the characters take on. Some are rare, such as Italo Calvino's "The Canary Prince" is a Rapunzel variant in which shapeshifting is used to gain access to the tower.
Between the sexes
Gender-shifting may be merely used as means of disguise. Appearing as a woman allows a man to enter situations from which men are forbidden, and vice versa. In Greek mythology, Zeus disguised himself as Artemis in order to get close enough to Callisto; so that she could not escape when he attempted to rape her. More innocently, Vertumnus could not woo Pomona in his own shape. Taking the form of an old woman, Vertumnus, was able to gain access to her orchard and persuade her to marry him.
The young Tiresias was walking through a forest when he found two snakes in the act of love. He poked them with a stick and was instantly changed into a woman. He lived in this female form for many years, and even married and had children. Years later, Tiresias came across the same snakes doing the same thing. Again she poked them with a stick, and turned back into a man. Later in his life, he was asked by Zeus which of the two sexes enjoys sex more. Tiresias, speaking from experience, replied that it is woman, and Hera blinded him for telling her husband of the greatest secret of women. Zeus, unable to undo what his wife had done, gave the now blind Tiresias the gift of foresight. Other versions say that it was Zeus who was angered by Tiresias for saying that men did not get the most out of sex and that it was Hera who gave Tiresias the gift of foresight to comfort him. Others say that it was actually Athena who blinded Tiresias for seeing her nude, then gave him foresight as compensation after learning it had been an accident.
In Norse mythology, however, both Odin and Loki taunt each other with having taken the form of females in the Lokasenna. The ultimate proof of this was that they had given birth and had nursed their offspring. It is unknown what myths, if any, lie behind the charges against Odin, but myths documented in the 13th century have Loki taking the form of a mare to bear Odin's steed which was the fastest horse ever to exist, and a she-wolf to bear Fenrir.
L. Frank Baum concluded The Marvelous Land of Oz with the revelation that Princess Ozma, sought by the protagonists, had been turned into a boy as a baby, and that Tip (who had been searching for her) is that boy. He agrees to the reverse transformation, but Glinda the Good disapproves of shapeshifting magic, so it is done by the evil witch Mombi.
Rumiko Takahashi's manga Ranma ½, along with several characters that transform into animals, also features two that transform from male to female. One is the title character, Ranma Saotome, and another is a powerful antagonist, Herb, from late in the series. While some have drawn the conclusion that this constitutes a parody of Japanese gender roles,[page needed] Takahashi herself has replied that it was a "simple, fun idea," that she "doesn't think in terms of societal agendas," and "thought humans turning into animals might also be fun and märchenhaft." In Hiroshi Aro's Futaba-kun Change, the sex transformation is inherited and everyone in the main character's family changes sexes, either at will or when they're excited, after they become sexually mature.
In many cases, imposed forms are punitive in nature. This may be a just punishment, the nature of the transformation matching the crime for which it occurs; in other cases, the form is unjustly imposed by an angry and powerful person. In fairy tales, such transformations are usually temporary, but they commonly appear as the resolution of myths (as in many of the Metamorphoses) or produce origin myths.
In Greek mythology, shapeshifting is often a punishment from the gods to humans who crossed them.
- Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf (hence Lycanthropy) as a punishment for killing his children, in some versions of the myth.
- Athena transformed Arachne into a spider for challenging her as a weaver and/or weaving a tapestry that insulted the gods.
- Artemis transformed Actaeon into a stag for spying on her bathing, and he was later devoured by his own hunting dogs.
- Io was a priestess of Hera in Argos, a nymph who was raped by Zeus, who changed her into a heifer to escape detection. Her mistress Hera set ever-watchful Argus Panoptes to guard her, but Hermes was sent to distract the guardian and slay him. Heifer Io was loosed to roam the world, stung by a maddening gadfly sent by Hera, and wandered to Egypt, thus placing her descendant Belus in Egypt; his sons Cadmus and Danaus would thus "return" to mainland Greece.
- Circe transformed all intruders to her island into various beasts, including wild pigs. In Nathaniel Hawthorne's Tanglewood Tales, "she changes every human being into the brute, beast, or fowl whom he happens most to resemble." There have been numerous episodes in which the sorceress with her potions changed men and women into wild animals. She is also said to have transformed the nymph Scylla into a multi-headed sea monster, out of jealousy over the merman Glaucus.
- In ancient Greece there was the incident of the dog's theft of gold, guardian of a temple of Zeus is located in Crete. In this myth, the architect of the theft was actually Pandareus, who gave the boy with the commitment that it hid the divine eyes. Hermes came with the clear intent to recover the sacred animal, but Tantalus swore falsely. The huge dog was Rhea, a female Titan, transformed by the god Hephaestus.
In Norse mythology, Svipdagr angered Odin, who turned him into a dragon. Despite his monstrous appearance, his lover, the goddess Freyja, refused to leave his side. When the warrior Hadding found and slew Svipdag, Freyja cursed him to be tormented by a tempest and shunned like the plague wherever he went.
- In the Finnish tale The Magic Bird, three young sorceresses attempt to murder a man who keeps reviving. His revenge is to turn them into three black mares and have them harnessed to heavy loads until he is satisfied.
- In the tale of the Laidley Wyrm, an English legend from Northumbria around the thirteenth century, Margaret of Bamburgh is transformed into a dragon by a witch. Her brother eventually restores her to human form with a kiss. By doing so, the curse rebounds on the witch, who is then transformed into a frog.
- In Child ballad 35, "Allison Gross", the title witch turns a man into a wyrm for refusing to be her lover. This is a motif found in many legends and folktales.
- In the German tale The Frog's Bridegroom by Gustav Jungbauer, the third of three sons of a farmer, Hansl, is forced to marry a frog, which eventually turns out to be a beautiful woman transformed by a spell.
- In some variants of the fairy tales, both The Frog Prince or more commonly The Frog Princess and Beast, of Beauty and the Beast, are transformed as a form of punishment for some transgression. Both are restored to their true forms after earning a human's love despite their appearance.
- In the most famous Lithuanian folk tale Eglė the Queen of Serpents, Eglė irreversibly transforms her children and herself into trees as a punishment for betrayal while her husband is able to reversibly morph into a serpent at will.
- In the Indian fable The Dog Bride from Folklore of the Santal Parganas by Cecil Henry Bompas, a buffalo herder falls in love with a dog that has the power to turn into a woman when she bathes.
- In East of the Sun and West of the Moon, the hero is transformed into a bear by his wicked stepmother, who wishes to force him to marry her daughter.
- In the forests of France, a creature half orc and half-god, Le Maître de Forêt, is famous for having the power to change humans into animals.
- Some giants abduct humans to reduce them to slavery. In the famous Irish legend of Prince Diarmuid, the giant of the forest of black beech holds captive three women. For a given to maintain its appearance, but the other two, turned for fun in a dog and a horse.
- In The Marmot Queen by Italo Calvino, a Spanish queen is turned into a rodent by the Morgan le Fay.
- In The Mare of the Necromancer, a Turin Italian tale by Guido Gozzano, the Princess of Corelandia is turned into a horse by the baron necromancer for refusing to marry him. Only the love and intelligence of Candido save the princess from the spell.
- The Deer in The Wood, an Neapolitan tale written by Giambattista Basile, describes the transformation of Princess Desiderata into a doe. Envious and jealous of a fairy who saw his unrequited love, because of the beauty of the noble lady, she decided to take revenge on changing her into a deer. Here, too, will always be the prince to save his beloved princess from the evil spell.
- From a Croatian book of tales, Sixty Folk-Tales from Exclusively Slavonic Sources by A. H. Wratislaw, the fable entitled "The she-wolf" tells of a huge she-wolf with a habit of turning into a woman from time to time by taking off her skin. One day a man witnesses the transformation, steals her pelt and marries her.
- In George MacDonald's The Princess and Curdie, Curdie is informed that many human beings, by their acts, are slowly turning into beasts. Curdie is given the power to detect the transformation before it is visible, and is assisted by beasts that had been transformed and are working their way back to humanity.
- In C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace Scrubb transforms into a dragon, and the war-monger Rabadash into a donkey. Eustace's transformation is not strictly a punishment – the change simply reveals the truth of his selfishness. It is reversed after he repents and his moral nature changes. Rabadash is allowed to reverse his transformation, providing he does so in a public place, so that his former followers will know that he had been a donkey. He is warned that, if he ever leaves his capital city again, he will become a donkey permanently, and this prevents him leading further military campaigns.
- Also in The Chronicles of Narnia the Dufflepuds are dwarfs who have been transformed into monopods as a punishment. However, it ultimately transpires that they are happier with their new form.
- In the film Erotic Ghost Story, the plot is about three Kitsunes who, in their human forms, meet a young man who they fall in love with but he turns out to be a demon, intent on trapping them in their fox forms.
- IT, the titular monster from Stephen King's novel, is a shapeshifter, its main form is Pennywise the Clown. Shapeshifting is the central theme of this novel.
- In the novel I, Coriander by Sally Gardner, Prince Tycho is transformed into a fox after refusing to marry Undwin, Queen Rosmore's daughter.
- The terms "Proteus" and "Vombis" also were used in a James Blish short story, "A Hero's Life" about a race of alien beings who could change shape at will, but were not as malevolent as The Thing written about by John W. Campbell. The Thing is a shapeshifting alien life form that can assume the memories of any creature it absorbs.
- The TV series Supernatural features shapeshifters as monsters which the Winchester brothers encounter several times in the series' run. These shifters literally shed their skins to assume new identities, although the original Alpha Shapeshifter can change appearance far more quickly, and can take on the memories of the person they assume the appearance of, although they are vulnerable to silver weapons.
- In the book The Arkadians by Lloyd Alexander, the poet Fronto is changed into a donkey because he drinks from a magic pool that only the prophets are allowed to drink from.
In many fairy tales and ballads, as in Child Ballad #44, The Two Magicians or Farmer Weathersky, a magical chase occurs where the pursued endlessly takes on forms in an effort to shake off the pursuer, and the pursuer answers with other shapeshifting, as, a dove is answered with a hawk, and a hare with a greyhound. The pursued may finally succeed in escape or the pursuer in capturing. This appears in legends around the world. One is "The Story of Calicoin", the story of a powerful witch called Ceridwen who wished to make her son Avagddu a powerful potion that would make him a wizard. She ordered her servant-boy Gwion to brew it for a year and one day, but on the last day he accidentally spilled three drops on his finger. When he put his finger in his mouth to cool it, he swallowed these drops and instantly became a wizard. Ceridwen found out and began to chase Gwion. Gwion first changed into a hare, and Ceridwen changed into a greyhound. The boy became a fish, and the woman an otter. He turned into a dove, she turned into a hawk. Finally Gwion transformed into a tiny grain of wheat, hiding with many other grains on a barn floor. Ceridwen transformed into a black hen and pecked up all the grains, including Gwion.
In Dapplegrim, this was set as a challenge; if the youth found the transformed princess twice, and hid from her twice, they would marry. The Grimm Brothers fairy tales Foundling-Bird contains this as the bulk of the plot. In Greek mythology, Zeus frequently transformed himself and his love to escape Hera's wrath, or that of the women's fathers, but generally in a simplified form, with only one transformation.
In the Italian Campania Fables collection of Pentamerone by Gianbattista Basile, tells of a Neapolitan princess to escape from her father, who had imprisoned, she becomes in a huge she-bear. The magic happens due to a potion given to her by an old witch. The girl, once gone, can get her human aspect.
In other variants, the pursued may transform various objects into obstacles, as in the fairy tale "The Master Maid", where the Master Maid transforms a wooden comb into a forest, a lump of salt into a mountain, and a flask of water into a sea. In these tales, the pursued normally escapes after overcoming three obstacles. This obstacle chase is literally found worldwide, in many variants in every region.
In fairy tales of the Aarne-Thompson type 313A, the girl helps the hero flee, one such chase is an integral part of the tale. It can be either a transformation chase (as in The Grateful Prince, King Kojata, Foundling-Bird, Jean, the Soldier, and Eulalie, the Devil's Daughter, or The Two Kings' Children) or an obstacle chase (as in The Battle of the Birds, The White Dove, or The Master Maid).
In a similar effect, a captive may shapeshift in order to break a hold on him. Proteus and Nereus's shapeshifting was to prevent heroes such as Menelaus and Heracles from forcing information from them. Tam Lin, once seized by Janet, was transformed in her arms by the faeries to keep Janet from taking him, but as he had advised her, she did not let go, and so freed him. The motif of capturing a person by holding him through many transformations is found in folktales throughout Europe, and Patricia A. McKillip references it in her Riddle-Master trilogy: a shapeshifting Earthmaster finally wins its freedom by startling the man holding it.
Another variant was used by T. H. White in The Sword in the Stone, where Merlin and Madam Mim fought a wizards' duel, in which the duelists would endlessly transform until one was in a form that could destroy the other.
One motif is a shape change in order to obtain abilities in the new form. Berserkers were held to change into wolves and bears in order to fight more effectively. In many cultures, evil magicians could transform into animal shapes and thus skulk about.
In many fairy tales, the hero's talking animal helper proves to be a shapeshifted human being, able to help him in its animal form. In one variation, featured in The Three Enchanted Princes and The Death of Koschei the Deathless, the hero's three sisters have been married to animals. These prove to be shapeshifted men, who aid their brother-in-law in a variant of tale types.
In Greek mythology, the Titan Metis, the first wife of Zeus and the mother of the goddess Athena, was believed to be able to change her appearance into anything she wanted. In one story, she was so proud, that her husband, Zeus, tricked her into changing into a fly. He then swallowed her because he feared that he and Metis would have a son that would be more powerful than Zeus himself. Metis, however, was already pregnant. She stayed alive inside his head and built armor for her daughter. The banging of her metalworking made Zeus have a headache, so Hephaestus clove his head with an axe. Athena sprang from her father's head, fully grown, and in battle armor.
In an early Mayan text, the Shapeshifter, or Mestaclocan, has the ability to change his appearance and to manipulate the minds of animals. In one tale, the Mestaclocan finds a dying eagle. Changing into the form of an eagle, he convinces the dying bird that it is, in fact, not dying. As the story goes they both soar into the heavens, and lived together for eternity.
This use, though rare in older fiction, is perhaps the most common in modern fiction. Several superheroes and supervillains — such as Beast Boy, Chameleon Boy/Chameleon, Morph, Ben Tennyson, Mystique, Clayface and the Hulk — have it a power or characteristic. The Harry Potter series contains both Animagi who can change to a single animal form and Metamorphmagi who can alter their appearance. The Twilight Saga also features shapeshifters that can transform into wolves and have inhuman strength, speed, body temperature and aging process. Several episodes of the television shows: True Blood and Supernatural featured shapeshifters. Both the Earthmasters and their opponents in The Riddle-Master of Hed trilogy make extensive use of their shapeshifting abilities for the powers of their new forms.
A young character may learn of his shapeshifting abilities, and exploring them becomes part of a Bildungsroman. Mavin Manyshaped and her son Peter in Sheri S. Tepper's True Game novels are both shifters, being a subspecies of humans having this power, and in both, the learning of their abilities is a large portion of their growing up.
For a very different effect, T. H. White had Merlin transform Arthur into various animals in The Sword in the Stone, as an educational experience. Although the lessons are very different, the Bildungsroman element is in common.
Some shapeshifters are able to change form only if they have some item, usually an article of clothing. Most of these are innocuous creatures – even if they are werewolves. In Bisclavret by Marie de France, a werewolf cannot regain human form without his clothing, but in wolf form does no harm to anyone.
The most common use of this motif, however, is in tales where a man steals the article and forces the shapeshifter, trapped in human form, to become his bride. This lasts until she discovers where he has hidden the article, and she can flee. Selkies feature in these tales. Others include swan maidens and the Japanese tennin.
Various forms of fairytale fantasy have taken up these creatures and incorporated them into modern day works. Jane Yolen took up the notion of selkie in Greyling and transformed it into a foundling tale.
In the sci-fi television series Fringe, human/machine hybrids utilize a device which consist of a control box attached to two sets of wires with three prongs on the ends. The prongs are inserted on the roof of victim's and shapeshifter's mouth and when switched on, the shapeshifter will be able to acquire the shape and form of the victim. In Season 4, the advance class of shapeshifters no longer require an external device; instead, they can acquire the shape and form of the victim through a device attached on the wrist.
The power to externally transform can symbolize an internal savagery; a central theme in many strands of werewolf mythology, and the inversion of the "liberation" theme, as in Dr Jekyll's transformation into Mr. Hyde.
In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-1000 took the form of John Connor's foster mom to gather information regarding his whereabouts, and later as his biological mother to gain his trust. "The Trickster" in Supernatural changes form often to trick the main protagonists, Sam and Dean Winchester, into hunting down something else. "The Trickster" like most shape shifters is unable to mimic what he copies to perfection and leaves clues to point towards it being him.
Some transformations are performed to remove the victim from his place, so that the transformer can usurp it. Bisclaveret's wife steals his clothing and traps him in wolf form because she has a lover. A witch, in The Wonderful Birch, changed a mother into a sheep to take her place, and had the mother slaughtered; when her stepdaughter married the king, the witch transformed her into a reindeer so as to put her daughter in the queen's place. In the Korean Transformation of the Kumiho, a kumiho, a fox with magical powers, transformed itself into an image of the bride, only being detected when her clothing is removed. In Brother and Sister, when two children flee their cruel stepmother, she enchants the streams along the way to transform them. While the brother refrains from the first two, which threaten to turn them into tigers and wolves, he is too thirsty at the third, which turns him into a deer. The Six Swans are transformed into swans by their stepmother, as are the Children of Lir in Irish mythology. In The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh, Princess Margaret is transformed into a dragon by her stepmother; her motive sprung, like Snow White's stepmother's, from the comparison of their beauty.
Modern fiction also includes this motif: Mary Stewart's A Walk in Wolf Wood revolves about revealing that one man is an imposter, taking the form of a man who is living as a wolf in the woods, and Patricia A. McKillip has her shapeshifters, in the Riddle-master trilogy, use their forms to take the place of others. The Harry Potter series included both a usurpation by a shapeshifter, and considerable precautions being taken by wizards and witches to attempt to identify such shapeshifters as they arose. In science fiction, Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell included a shapeshifting alien that devoured and replaced terrestrial life (realized on screen in the 1982's The Thing, but not in its first film adaption).
While Doppelgängers in folklore were a kind of portent that resembled a person, with no shapeshifting required, in modern fiction and roleplaying games, they are usually depicted as shapeshifters out to usurp someone's place.
This motif can also be used in a similar manner to the Monstrous Bride/Bridegroom theme. A character who falls in love with an usurper (given a justifiable motive for the replacement) can discover the unimportance of appearances beside character. In the Legion of Super-Heroes comics, Colossal Boy fell in love with a shapeshifter who had been duped into taking the form of a woman he had been attracted to. The revelation of this made him realize that he had fallen in love with the shapeshifter herself and not with the woman he had thought her to be. Similarly, the Human Torch fell in love with a Skrull imposter.
Many fairy-tale characters have expressed inadvised wishes to have any child at all, even one that has another form, and had such children born to them. At the end of the fairy tale, normally after marriage, such children metamorphose into human form.
Hans My Hedgehog was born when his father wished for a child, even a hedgehog. Even stranger forms are possible: Giambattista Basile included in his Pentamerone the tale of a girl born as a sprig of myrtle, and Italo Calvino, in his Italian Folktales, a girl born as an apple.
Sometimes, the parent who wishes for a child is told how to gain one, but does not obey the directions perfectly, resulting in the transformed birth. In Prince Lindworm, the woman eats two onions, but does not peel one, resulting in her first child being a lindworm. In Tatterhood, a woman magically produces two flowers, but disobeys the directions to eat only the beautiful one, resulting her having a beautiful and sweet daughter, but only after a disgusting and hideous one.
Less commonly, ill-advised wishes can transform a person after birth. The Seven Ravens are transformed when their father thinks his sons are playing instead of fetching water to christen their newborn and sickly sister, and curses them. In Puddocky, when three princes start to quarrel over the beautiful heroine, a witch curses her because of the noise.
Such wished-for children may become monstrous brides or bridegrooms. These tales have often been interpreted as symbolically representing arranged marriages; the bride's (in particular) revulsion to marrying a stranger being symbolized by his bestial form.
These tales form, broadly, three subclasses. The heroine must fall in love with the transformed groom. Beauty and the Beast falls under this. This has been interpreted as a young woman's coming-of-age, in which she changes from being repulsed by sexual activity and regarding a husband therefore bestial, to a mature woman who can marry.
The hero or heroine must marry, as promised, and the monstrous form is removed by the wedding. Sir Gawain thus transformed the Loathly lady; although he was told that this was half-way, she could at his choice be beautiful by day and hideous by night, or vice versa, he told her that he would choose what she preferred, which broke the spell entirely. In Tatterhood, Tatterhood is transformed by her asking her bridegroom why he didn't ask her why she rode a goat, why she carried a spoon, and why she was so ugly, and when he asked her, denying it and therefore transforming her goat into a horse, her spoon into a fan, and herself into a beauty. Puddocky is transformed when her prince, after she had helped him with two other tasks, tells him that his father has sent him for a bride. A similar effect is found in Child ballad 34, Kemp Owyne, where the hero can transform a dragon back into a maiden by kissing her three times.
Sometimes the bridegroom removes his animal skin for the wedding night, whereupon it can be burned. Hans My Hedgehog, The Donkey and The Pig King fall under this grouping. At an extreme, in Prince Lindworm, the bride who avoids being eaten by the lindworm bridegroom arrives at her wedding wearing every gown she owns, and she tells the bridegroom she will remove one of hers if he removes one of his; only when her last gown comes off has he removed his last skin, and become a white shape that she can form into a man.
In other tales, such as The Brown Bear of Norway, The Golden Crab, The Enchanted Snake and some variants of The Frog Princess, burning the skin is a catastrophe, putting the transformed bride or bridegroom in danger; this is an example of the third grouping.
In the third grouping, the hero or heroine must obey a prohibition; the bride must spend a period of time not seeing the transformed groom in human shape (as in East of the Sun and West of the Moon), or the bridegroom must not burn the animals skins. In these tales, the prohibition is broken, invariably, resulting in a separation and a search by one spouse for the other.
Ghosts sometimes appear in animal form. In The Famous Flower of Serving-Men, the heroine's murdered husband appears to the king as a white dove, lamenting her fate over his own grave. In The White and the Black Bride and The Three Little Men in the Wood, the murdered – drowned – true bride reappears as a white duck. In The Rose Tree and The Juniper Tree, the murdered children become birds who avenge their own deaths. There are African folk tales of murder victims avenging themselves in the form of crocodiles that can shapeshift into human form.
In some fairy tales, the character can reveal himself in every new form, and so a usurper repeatedly kills the victim in every new form, as in Beauty and Pock Face, A String of Pearls Twined with Golden Flowers, and The Boys with the Golden Stars. This eventually leads to a form in which the character (or characters) can reveal the truth to someone able to stop the villain.
Similarly, the transformation back may be acts that would be fatal. In The Wounded Lion, the prescription for turning the lion back into a prince was to kill him, chop him to pieces, burn the pieces, and throw the ash into water. Less drastic but no less apparently fatal, the fox in The Golden Bird, the foals in The Seven Foals, and the cats in Lord Peter and The White Cat tell the heroes of those stories to cut off their heads; this restores them to human shape. In the Greek tale of Scylla, Scylla's father Nisus turns into an eagle after death and drowns her daughter for betraying her father.
Folklore and mythology
Popular shapeshifting creatures in folklore are werewolves and vampires (mostly of European, Canadian, and Native American/early American origin), the Huli jing of East Asia (including the Japanese kitsune), and the gods, goddesses, and demons of numerous mythologies, such as the Norse Loki or the Greek Proteus. It was also common for deities to transform mortals into animals and plants.
Although shapeshifting to the form of a wolf is specifically known as lycanthropy, and such creatures who undergo such change are called lycanthropes, those terms have also been used to describe any human-animal transformations and the creatures who undergo them. Therianthropy is the more general term for human-animal shifts, but it is rarely used in that capacity.
Other terms for shapeshifters include metamorph, skin-walker, mimic, and therianthrope. The prefix "were-," coming from the Old English word for "man" (masculine rather than generic), is also used to designate shapeshifters; despite its root, it is used to indicate female shapeshifters as well.
Almost every culture around the world has some type of transformation myth, and almost every commonly found animal (and some not-so-common ones) probably has a shapeshifting myth attached to them. Usually, the animal involved in the transformation is indigenous to or prevalent in the area from which the story derives. While the popular idea of a shapeshifter is of a human being who turns into something else, there are numerous stories about animals that can transform themselves as well.
Shapeshifting, transformations and metamorphoses serve a wide variety of purposes in classical mythology.
Examples of shapeshifting in classical literature include many examples in Ovid's Metamorphoses, Circe's transforming of Odysseus' men to pigs in Homer's The Odyssey, and Apuleius's Lucius becoming a donkey in The Golden Ass.
Proteus among the gods was particularly noted for his shapeshifting; both Menelaus and Aristaeus seized him to win information from him, and succeeded only because they held on during his manifold shape changes. Nereus told Heracles where to find the Apples of the Hesperides for the same reason.
While the Greek gods could use transformation punitively – as for Arachne, turned to a spider for her pride in her weaving, and Medusa, turned to a monster for having sexual intercourse with Poseidon in Athena's temple – even more frequently, the tales using it are of amorous adventure. Zeus repeatedly transformed himself to approach mortals (particularly women), as a means of gaining access:
- Danaë as a shower of gold
- Europa as a bull
- Leda as a swan
- Ganymede, his male lover as an eagle
- Alcmene as her husband Amphitryon
- Hera as a cuckoo
- Leto as a quail
- Maia as a gopher
- Semele as a mortal shepherd
- Io, as a cloud and Hera turned her into a heifer.
In other tales, the woman appealed to other gods to protect her from rape, and was transformed (Daphne into laurel, Cornix into a crow). Unlike Zeus and other god's shapeshifting, these women were permanently metamorphosed.
In one tale, Demeter transformed herself into a mare to escape Poseidon, but Poseidon counter-transformed himself into a stallion to pursue her, and succeeded in the rape. In another, Nemesis (Goddess of retribution) transformed into a goose to escape Zeus' advances, but he turned into a swan and proceeded with the rape. She later bore the egg in which Helen of Troy was found.
Humans were also transformed, for many reasons.
The seer Tiresias once saw two snakes mating and struck the female with his staff; this transformed him into a woman, and he lived as such for many years. At the end, he saw the snakes again, and this time was careful to hit the male, which restored him to male form.
As a final reward from the gods for their hospitality, Baucis and Philemon were transformed, at their deaths, into a pair of trees.
After Tereus raped Philomela and cut out her tongue to silence her, she wove her story into a tapestry for her sister, Tereus's wife Procne, and the sisters murdered his son and fed him to his father. When he discovered this, he tried to kill them, but the gods changed them all into birds.
Sometimes metamorphoses transformed objects into humans. In the myths of both Jason and Cadmus, one task set to the hero was to sow dragon's teeth; on being sown, they would metamorphose into belligerent warriors, and both heroes had to throw a rock to trick them into fighting each other to survive. Deucalion and Pyrrha repopulated the world after a flood by throwing stones behind them; they were transformed into people. Cadmus is also often known to have transformed into a dragon or serpent towards the end of his life.
British and Irish
Fairies, witches, and wizards were all noted for their shapeshifting ability. Not all fairies could shapeshift, and some were limited to changing their size, as with the spriggans, and others to a few forms and other fairies might have only the appearance of shapeshifting, through their power, called "glamour," to create illusions. But others, such as the Hedley Kow, could change to many forms, and both human and supernatural wizards were capable of both such changes, and inflicting them on others.
Witches could turn into hares and in that form steal milk and butter.
Llwyd ap Cil Coed transformed his wife and attendants into mice to attack a crop in revenge; when his wife is captured, he turned himself into three clergymen in succession to try to pay a ransom.
Gilfaethwy committed rape with help from his brother Gwydion. Both were transformed into animals, for one year each. Gwydion was transformed into a stag, sow and wolf, and Gilfaethwy into a hind, boar and she-wolf. Each year, they had a child. Math turned the three young animals into boys.
Gwion, having accidentally taken some of wisdom potion that Ceridwen was brewing for her son, fled her through a succession of changes that she answered with changes of her own, ending with his being eaten, a grain of corn, by her as a hen. She became pregnant, and he was reborn in a new form, as Taliesin.
Scottish mythology features shapeshifters, which allows the various creatures to trick, deceive, hunt, and kill humans. Tales abound about the selkie, a seal that can remove its skin to make contact with humans for only a short amount of time before it must return to the sea. Or water spirits such as the each uisge, which inhabit lochs and waterways in Scotland, which appears as a horse or a young man. Such stories surrounding these creatures are usually romantic tragedies. Clan MacColdrum of Uist foundation myths include of a union between the founder of the clan and a shapeshifting seal woman selkie. Other tales include kelpies who emerge from lochs and rivers to ensnare and kill unweary travellers in the disguise of a horse or woman. While other tales include Tam Lin, a man captured by the Queen of the Fairies who is changed into all manner of beasts if rescued. He was finally turned into a burning coal and thrown him into a well, whereupon he reappeared in his human form. The motif of capturing a person by holding him through all forms of transformation is a common thread in folktales.
Irish mythology also features shapeshifting. Perhaps the best known myth is that of Aoife who turned her stepchildren, the Children of Lir, into swans to be rid of them. Likewise in the Wooing of Etain Fuamnach jealously turns Étaín into a butterfly.
The Púca is a Celtic faery, and also a deft shapeshifter. He can transform into many different, terrifying forms.
The most dramatic example of shapeshifting in Irish myth is that of Tuan mac Cairill, the only survivor of Partholón's settlement of Ireland. In his centuries long life he became successively a stag, a wild boar, a hawk and finally a salmon prior to being eaten and (as in the Wooing of Étaín) reborn as a human.
Both Odin and Loki are shapeshifters in Norse mythology. Both take on female forms, and Loki in the form of a mare that bore Sleipnir. The Lokasenna depicts the two of them taunting each other with it, as having been women through and through, having borne children (Any myths that depict Odin in female form have been lost, but the Lokasenna does contain references to many myths that are known to be believed).
In the Hyndluljóð, the goddess Freya transformed her protégé Óttar into a boar to conceal him. She also possessed a cloak of falcon feathers that allowed her to transform into a falcon, which Loki borrowed on occasion.
The Merchant's Sons is a Finnish story of two brothers, one of whom tries to win the hand of the tsar's wicked daughter. The girl does not like her suitor and endeavors to have him killed, but he turns her into a beautiful mare which he and his brother ride. In the end he turns her back into a girl and marries her.
The Volsunga saga contains many shapeshifting characters. Siggeir's mother changed into a wolf to help torture his defeated brothers-in-law with slow and ignominious deaths. When one, Sigmund, survived, he and his nephew and son Sinfjötli killed men wearing wolfskins; when they donned the skins themselves, they were cursed to become werewolves.
The dwarf Andvari is described as being able to magically turn into a pike. Alberich, his counterpart in Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, using the Tarnhelm, takes on many forms, including a giant serpent and a toad, in a failed attempt to impress or intimidate Loki and Odin/Wotan.
Fafnir was originally a dwarf, a giant or even a human, depending on the exact myth, but in all variants he transformed into a dragon—a symbol of greed—while guarding his ill-gotten hoard. His brother, Ótr, enjoys spending time as an otter, which leads to his accidental slaying by Loki.
In Scandinavia, there existed, for example, the famous race of she-werewolves known with a name of Maras. If a female at midnight stretches between four sticks the membrane which envelopes the foal when it is brought forth, and creeps through it, naked, she will bear children without pain; but all the boys will be shamans, and all the girls Maras. Women who took on the appearance of the night looking for huge monster half human and half wolf. The transformation was slow and subjects suffered from screaming, hair and nails grow, the woman's face stretched into that of a hungry wolf meat and leaving room for animal instinct. In fact, the Maras were almost all women from peasant and plebeian classes.
In literature Slavic mythology, werewolves and other human-to-animal shapeshifters, exist in their variations. But in the Slavic world is full of tales about human transformations. For example, in Poland, in the parish church of Schwarzenstein, hang two horse-shoes: the legacy of an interesting tale. In the village of Eichmedian, a mile from Rastenburg, there lived a woman who was a tavern-keeper. A greedy woman, she charged double to honest rate for board and lodging. Late one evening, a group of guests accused her of cheating them. Defending herself, she swore an oath before them, saying:
If my business is not just,
Then ride my back the Devil must!
To her horror and the amazement of all present, the room suddenly darkened and the Devil suddenly appeared before her. He gestured, and unable to resist, she knelt on all fours. She felt herself growing and changing, and the Devil mounted her back as she tossed her head and made whinnying sounds. In seconds she stood before the dumbstruck guests as a bay mare, and the Devil gave a great laugh and rode her out of the building and out of the village.
At headlong speed he rode her to the town of Schwarzenstein, and to a blacksmith's shop there, arriving in the small hours of the morning. He roused the blacksmith and demanded that his steed be shod at once. The blacksmith, yawning, complained of the late hour and that his forge was shut down and cold. But the Devil insisted and promised gold if it were done swiftly, and so the blacksmith agreed. He lit his furnace, and had the Devil work the bellows. The blacksmith had not long begun his work however when the mare began to speak, evidently having worked out how to form human words with her equine lips. "Don't you know me?" she begged. "It is I, the tavern-keeper of Eichmedian!"
The blacksmith was horrified and nothing could persuade him to continue with the shoeing. The Devil raged but there was nothing he could do, and as a cock heralded the arrival of dawn, the spell was broken. The Devil vanished and the tavern-keeper returned to her human form. Repenting of her greedy ways, she had the two horse-shoes which the smith had already fashioned nailed up in the church as a warning to other cheats.
In Armenian mythology, shapeshifters include the Nhang, a serpent-like river monster than can transform itself into a woman or seal, and will drown humans and then drink their blood; or the beneficial Shahapet, a guardian spirit that can appear either as a man or a snake.
Ancient Indian mythology tells of Nāga, snakes that can sometimes assume human form. Scriptures describe shapeshifting Rakshasa (demons) assuming animal forms to deceive humans. The Ramayana also includes the Vanara, a group of ape-like humanoids who possessed supernatural powers and could change their shapes.
Another example of human transformation in this country exist particularly in southern of India; a famous popular tale is told of a kindly Brahmin who had a good mother, but his wife and mother-in-law were jealous and mean, mistreating her and treating her like a slave. The poor woman was too elderly and feeble to defend herself.
The unfortunate mother fled one night to the shrine of the village goddess and prayed to her. The goddess answered and gave her a magic mango. Returning to her home, she partook of the fruit, and felt her skin grow firm and youthful once more. She rose from her elderly stoop as her body grew strong and young again. Now she could defend herself and no longer had to endure the humiliation at the hands of her son's wife.
The Brahmin's wife was furious, and sent her own mother to the same shrine with a fabricated tale of woe. The goddess, of course, wasn't fooled, but gave her a fruit all the same. Returning to the house, the mother-in-law eagerly bit into the fruit. At first, as strength flowed into her body, she was delighted and thought all was well, but then grey-brown fur began to sprout from her body, and her hands and feet transformed into an ass's hooves. Falling to all fours, she tried to complain, but only a donkey's bray emerged, as she was wholly changed into an ass.
This tale is why in India today, if a person declines steadily in social standing or achievement, there is a proverb, "Little by little, the mother-in-law became an ass."
The urban legend of what is known in Punjabi as ਛਲੇਢਾ is well documented in local lore.
Philippine mythology includes aswang, a vampire-like monster capable of transforming itself into either a large black dog or a black boar in order to stalk humans at night. The folklore also mentions other beings such as kapre, tikbalang, and engkanto, which change their appearances to woo beautiful maidens. Also, talismans (called "anting-anting" or "birtud" in the local dialect), can give their owners the ability to shapeshift. In one tale, Chonguita the Monkey Wife, a woman is turned into a monkey, only becoming human again if she can marry a handsome man.
Chinese, Japanese, and Korean folklore and mythology all tell of animals able to assume human shape. Though they have other traits in common – such animals are often old, they grow additional tails along with their abilities, and they frequently still have some animal traits to betray them – there are distinctions between the folklore in the various countries.
Chinese mythology contains many tales of animal shapeshifters, capable of taking on human form. The most common such shapeshifter is the huli jing, a fox spirit which usually appears as a beautiful young woman; most are dangerous, but some feature as the heroines of love stories.
Madame White Snake is one such legend; a snake falls in love with a man, and the story recounts the trials that she and her husband faced.
In Japanese folklore ōbake are a type of yōkai with the ability to shapeshift. The fox, or kitsune is among the most commonly-known, but other such creatures include the bakeneko, the mujina and the tanuki.
Korean mythology also contains a fox with the ability to shapeshift. Unlike its Chinese and Japanese counterparts, the kumiho is always malevolent. Usually its form is of a beautiful young woman; one tale recounts a man, a would-be seducer, revealed as a kumiho. She has nine tails and as she desires to be a full human, she uses her beauty to seduce men and eat their hearts (or in some cases livers where the belief is that 100 livers would turn her into a real human).
- In J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth novels, Sauron, the main antagonist of The Lord of the Rings is a shapeshifter. Initially he can appear in any number of beautiful forms to deceive the gullible; and thus he makes the Rings of Power with the service of the Elves who are deceived by his appearance. In the First Age of the Sun (detailed in the Silmarillion) he could take on numerable forms; during his battle with Huan, the wolfhound, he takes on no less than five forms, including a gigantic werewolf, but succumbs and flees in the form of a vampire. When the island of Númenor is destroyed, Sauron loses his shapeshifting powers and is stuck in his dark hideous form and thus his enemies are no longer deceived. Aside from Sauron, many other Maiar in Middle-earth can shapeshift. The Valar shapeshift depending on their moods.
- In The Hobbit, the prequel to The Lord of the Rings, the character Beorn is normally a large human, but can shapeshift into a large bear.
Though written in the modern era, Tolkien's uses of the theme are strongly based on folktales and mythology.
- Resizing (fiction)
- Self reconfigurable
- Soul eater (folklore)
- The Thing (1982 film)
- Amorphous creature
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