Creatures of the Night: Shapeshifters
Last week I talked about a few common ghost stories from around the world. Today I’m going to focus on shapeshifting.
There are many different kinds of shapeshifting in lore. Some, like Lycanthropy, were often used as a metaphor for mental or physical illnesses, though the myth surrounding werewolves has grown into some entertaining fiction. Others were based in religious magic, shamanism, druidic beliefs, and superstition. Shapeshifting is a popular attribute of deities and demi-gods, often used to spy on, interact with, or test humans without revealing their true nature. This is most notably used in Greek, Celtic, and Norse lore.
In Navajo culture, an evil witch called a Skin-Walker takes on the form of various animals, such as coyotes, black birds, or other animals associated with ill omens to cause trouble for others. The exact method and lore around Skin-Walkers is not talked about with non-Navajo, so very little is known. The Mayan have a similar type of witch.
Other sorcerers, witches, and magic-users who use spells and witchcraft to change shape include Mai-Coh, Limikkin, Brujos, Naguals, the Qori Ismaris of Somali legend, Kalku, and the Boudas from Ethiopia.
Forcing others to shapeshift is also a common spell of witches, sorcerers, and magicians. Circe transformed Odysseus' crew into swine when they landed on her island. Folk tales frequently feature a character turned into donkeys, swans, deer, or birds by antagonists or angry gods. In Celtic lore, Tam Lin is famously turned into a number of animals by the Queen of the Fairies until he is ultimately rescued. Greek myths are resplendent with forced shapechangings to escape the unwanted attentions of Zeus, avoid assassination, or as punishment for some slight.
Beings with Shapeshifting Abilities
The German Doppelganger, Irish Fetch, Norse Vardoger, and Egyptian Ka are described as spirits or even physical beings which take on the shape of a living person with such accuracy even close family cannot tell the difference. These “doubles” were often seen as bad omens, though in fiction the concept has been expanded to depict a supernatural species that mimics a person so as to blend in.
Changelings were faeries in various European lore who took on the form of human babies and left in place of a human’s natural child. Modern scholars attribute these myths as a way to explain infant mortality before the progress of medical science. Within the myths, babies were kidnapped and replaced with changelings to be raised among the fae as a way of bolstering their numbers, to be servants, or as revenge against the human family. Sometimes, elderly and dying fae replaced babies to be coddled and fed in their dying days. As is the case in many methods of determining supernatural creatures, the tricks used to prove a child was indeed a changeling often resulted in the baby’s death. These methods include burning with hot iron, forcing them to ingest poison, drowning, or inflicting continuous abuse in the belief the real fairy parents would take the changeling back to save it.
There are also a number of animals or creatures with the ability to change into humans, such as Selkies, Nagas, Kitsune, Nhang, Yuxa, and the Lobisomem of Brazil.
The lore of lycanthropes, or werewolves, their abilities, weaknesses, and origins are as unique as the cultures they come from. They need an article all to themselves to really do them justice. Most popular in European cultures, types of werewolves include Maras, Varulfs, vrykolakas, volkolac, and many other names for “wolf-skin”. Generally, one became a werewolf from a curse or magical punishment, but the transformation could also be triggered by certain sins, crimes, or simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They encapsulated primordial fears of flesh-eating beasts, night-prowling creatures, cannibalism, and violent brutality. Some tales were used to explain medical conditions, such as that of Peter Stump (AKA the Werewolf of Bedburg), Gilles Garnier, and the Beast of Gevaudan.
While the most popular, wolves were by no means the only animal used in shifter-lore. Werecats can be found across the globe, such as the African Nunda, Indian and Chinese weretigers, and the werejaguars of the Aztecs and Kanaima of Brazil.
Icelandic Hamrammr, Scandinavian Berskerker (bear-skin), and wererats popularized by urban legends and the Dungeons & Dragons game, as well as many other animals, round out the therianthropic menagerie.
The mythology behind these legends and creatures is fascinating, and their fictional uses infinite. There is just something so compelling about human-animal creatures, the warring of base instinct against rational thought, the id versus ego and superego. The struggle of humanity and morality is foiled perfectly against the more simplified and uncomplicated motivations of wild animals. It helps us answer the question “what does it mean to be human?”
I encourage you to research some of these myths on your own, be inspired by them, and maybe create a therianthrope of your own.
Until next time,