Therianthropy refers to the metamorphosis of humans into other animals.[1] Therianthropes are said to change forms via shapeshifting. Therianthropes have long existed in mythology, appearing in ancient cave drawings[2] such as the Sorcerer at Les Trois Frères.

Horus is an ancient Egyptian deity. Many Egyptian deities were portrayed as theriocephalous (with a human body and an animal head).


Etymology and use

The term therianthropy comes from the Greek theríon, θηρίον, meaning "wild animal" or "beast" (impliedly mammalian), and anthrōpos, άνθρωπος, meaning "human being". It was used to refer to animal transformation folklore of Asia and Europe as early as 1901.[3] Sometimes, "zoanthropy" is used instead of "therianthropy".[4]

Therianthropy was also used to describe spiritual belief in animal transformation in 1915[5] and one source[6] raises the possibility the term may have been used in the 16th century in criminal trials of suspected werewolves.

Shape-shifting in folklore and religion

Shapeshifting refers to the alteration of physical appearance, in this case, from human to animal. Lycanthropy, the transformation into a wolf, is the best known form of therianthropy, followed by cynanthropy, or transformation into a dog, and ailuranthropy, or transformation into a cat.[7] Werehyenas are present in the stories of several African and Eurasian cultures, while wererats are rare in historical legends, but have become common in modern fiction.

Lycanthropy (werewolves)

In folklore, mythology and anthropology, the most commonly known form of therianthropy is lycanthropy. The werewolf is generally held as a European character, although its lore spread through the world in later times. Ancient Turkic legends from Asia talk of shapeshifting shamans known as "Kurtadams" which translates directly to "wolfman." The idea of being descendants from wolves has been a part of Turkic shamanist beliefs. Shape-shifters, similar to werewolves, are common in tales from all over the world. Although the definition specifically describes a metamorphic change from human to canine form (as with a werewolf), the term is often used to refer to any human to nonhuman animal transformation.

Cynanthropy (weredogs)

The Greeks also spoke of cynanthropy (Kynior, dog). Cynanthropy, sometimes spelled kynanthropy, is applied to shapeshifters who alternate between dog form and human form, or to beings that do not shapeshift but possess combined dog and human anatomical features (Hamel, 76). It is also used for real persons suffering from the delusion that they are dogs (Ashley, 37). After lycanthropy, cynanthropy is the best known term for a specific variety of therianthropy.

The term existed by at least 1901, when it was applied to myths from China about humans turning into dogs, dogs becoming people, and sexual relations between humans and canines .[8]

Anthropologist David Gordon White called Central Asia the "vortex of cynanthropy" because races of dog-men were habitually placed there by ancient writers. Hindu mythology puts races of "Dog Cookers" to the far north of India, the Chinese placed the "Dog Jung" and other human/canine barbarians to the extreme west, and European legends frequently put the dog men called Cynocephali in unmapped regions to the east. Some of these races were described as humans with dog heads, others as canine shapeshifters (White, 114-15).

The weredog or cynanthrope is also known in Timor. It is described as a human/canine shapeshifter who is also capable of transforming other people into animals against their wills. These transformations are usually into prey animals such as goats, so that the cynanthrope can devour them without discovery of the crime (Rose, 390).

Ailuranthropy (werecats)

European folklore usually depicts werecats who transform into domestic cats, sometimes of an enlarged size,[9] or panthers. African legends describe people who turn into lions or leopards, while Asian werecats are typically depicted as becoming tigers. The transformation of each individual animal feline form possesses its own version of the "were" title, for instance werelions, wereleopards, werejaguars, werecheetah, and werepanthers. The general classification of werecat typically applies to all, excluding circumstances between werecats, whom identify each species by the appropriate specific title. Werecats have been represented as typically living in prides regardless of sub-classification.

Skin-walkers and naguals

Some Native American legends talk about skin-walkers, persons with the supernatural ability to turn into any animal they desire, though, to be able to transform, they first must be wearing a pelt of the animal. In the folk religion of neighboring Mesoamerica, a Nagual or Nahual is a human being who has the power to magically turn themselves into an animal form, most commonly donkey, turkey and dogs,[10] but also other and more powerful animals such as the jaguar and puma.


Therianthropy can also refer to artistic descriptions of characters that simultaneously share human and nonhuman animal traits, for example the animal-headed humanoid forms of gods depicted in Egyptian mythology (such as Ra, Sobek, Anubis, and others) as well as creatures like centaurs and mermaids.


Among a sampled set of psychiatric patients, the belief of being part animal, or clinical lycanthropy, was generally associated with severe psychosis, but not always with any specific psychiatric diagnosis or neurological findings.[11] 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.[12]


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.[13] Religious historian Mircea Eliade has observed that beliefs regarding animal identity and transformation into animals are widespread.[14]

Transmigration of souls

Therianthropy is often confused with transmigration; but the essential feature of the were-animal is that it is the alternative form or the double of a living human being, while the soul-animal is the vehicle, temporary or permanent, of the spirit of a dead human being. Nevertheless, instances in legend of humans reincarnated as wolves are often classed with lycanthropy, as well as these instances being labeled werewolves in local folklore.

There is no line of demarcation, and this makes it probable that lycanthropy is connected with nagualism and the belief in familiar spirits, rather than with metempsychosis, as E. B. Tylor argued, or with totemism, as suggested by J. F. M'Lennan. Thus, these origins for lycanthropy mingle a belief in reincarnation, a belief in the sharing of souls between living humans and beasts and a belief in human ghosts appearing as non-human animals after death. A characteristic of metempsychosis is a blurring of the boundaries between the intangible and the corporeal, so that souls are often conceived of as solid, visible forms that need to eat and can do physical harm.[15]

Animal ancestors

Stories of humans descending from animals are common explanations for tribal and clan origins. Sometimes the animals assumed human forms in order to ensure their descendants retained their human shapes; other times the origin story is of a human marrying a normal animal. This also comes from the many Egyptian Gods, like Anubis and Horus.

North American indigenous traditions particularly mingle the idea 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 might be very beautiful children with uncanny strength, or they could be shapeshifters themselves.[16]

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.[17]

In Altaic mythology of the Turkic and Mongolian peoples, the wolf is a revered animal. The shamanic Turkic peoples even believed they were descendants of wolves in Turkic legends. 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.[18][19]

Animal spirits

In North and Central America, and to some extent in West Africa, Australia and other parts of the world, every male acquires 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. In Alaska the 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 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 or 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. The people of Banana are said to change themselves by magical means, 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 cases the change is supposed to be made for the purposes of evil magic and human victims are not prohibited.

A further link is supplied by the Zulu belief 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 wizard breathes a sort of life into it, which enables it to move and speak, it being thought that some dead wizard has taken possession of it. He then burns a hole in the head and through the aperture extracts the tongue. 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 favour. This creature then becomes the wizard'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.

In Melanesia there is a belief in the tamaniu or atai which is an animal counterpart to a person. It can 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.[20]

References in popular culture


A Practical Guide to Monsters, a Dungeons and Dragons themed book published under Wizards of the Coast's juvenile publishing imprint Mirrorstone Books, makes reference on page 33 to D&D's use of the term lycanthrope to refer to many different types of humanoid/animal shapeshifters. The text goes on to state that "A better term for this group would be 'therianthrope,' from the root therios (animal)."[21]

Although the were-wolf 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.[22][23] In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Beorn was a man who could assume the appearance of a great black bear.

Self Identification

The first widely-known internet use of the term developed among the Usenet group alt.horror.werewolves (ca. 1992).[24] Some Usenet users began publicly asserting that they were part animal, generally in a spiritual sense.[25] Such people initially called themselves lycanthropes or weres, but because lycan specifically refers to wolves the term therianthrope became more widely used. From these foundations, a subculture of individuals identifying as therianthropes has developed.[26] Some self-described therianthropes also consider themselves members of the Otherkin subculture.[27] Many therianthropes also claim they have a psychological connection, rather than a spiritual one to their animal. Some therianthropes use the term species dysphoria to describe their feelings of disconnect with their human bodies as a result of their identification.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ Edward Podolsky (1953). Encyclopedia of Aberrations: A Psychiatric Handbook. Philosophical Library. 
  2. ^ "Trois Freres". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2006-12-06. 
  3. ^ De Groot, J.J.M. (1901). The Religious System of China: Volume IV. Leiden: Brill. p. 171. 
  4. ^ Guiley, R.E. (2005). The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves & Other Monsters. New York: Facts on File. p. 192. ISBN 0-8160-4685-9. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ Ramsland, Katherine (2005). The Human Predator: A Historical Chronicle of Serial Murder and Forensic Investigation. Berkley Hardcover. ISBN 042520765X. 
  7. ^ Greene, R. (2000). The Magic of Shapeshifting. York Beach, ME: Weiser. p. 229. ISBN 1-57863-171-8. 
  8. ^ De Groot, J.J.M. (1901). The Religious System of China: Volume IV. Leiden: Brill. p. 184. 
  9. ^ Greene, Rosalyn (2000). The Magic of Shapeshifting. Weiser. p. 9. 
  10. ^ Nutini & Roberts p. 43.
  11. ^ 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. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ Steiger, B. (1999). The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings. Farmington Hills, MI: Visible Ink. ISBN 1-57859-078-7. 
  14. ^ Eliade, Mircea (1965). Rites and Symbols of Initiation: the mysteries of birth and rebirth. Harper & Row. 
  15. ^ Hamel, F. (1969). Human Animals, Werewolves & Other Transformations. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books. p. 15. ISBN 0-8216-0092-3. 
  16. ^ Pijoan, T. (1992). White Wolf Woman & Other Native American Transformation Myths. Little Rock: August House. p. 79. ISBN 0-87483-200-4. 
  17. ^ White, D.G. (1991). Myths of the Dog-Man. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. p. 150. ISBN 0-226-89509-2. 
  18. ^ Cultural Life – Literature Turkey Interactive CD-ROM. Retrieved on 2007-08-11.
  19. ^ T.C. Kultur Bakanligi. Nevruz Celebrations in Turkey and Central Asia. Ministry of Culture, Republic of Turkey. Retrieved on 2007-08-11
  20. ^ Hamel, F. (1969). Human Animals, Werewolves & Other Transformations. New Hyde Park, NY: University Books. p. 21. ISBN 0-8216-0092-3. 
  21. ^ Hess, Nina (2007). A Practical Guide to Monsters. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, Inc.. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-7869-4809-3. 
  22. ^ "Shapeshifters: Art Inspired by Animal-Human Transformation Myths, The Journal of Mythic Arts, 2003:
  23. ^ "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.
  24. ^ Chantal Bourgault Du Coudray (2006). The Curse of the Werewolf: Fantasy, Horror and the Beast Within. I. B. Tauris. ISBN 1845111583. 
  25. ^ Cohen, D. (1996). Werewolves. New York: Penguin. p. 104. ISBN 0-525-65207-8. 
  26. ^ Greene, Rosalyn (2000). The Magic of Shapeshifting. Weiser. p. 239. ISBN 1578631718. 
  27. ^ Lupa (2007). A Field Guide to Otherkin. Immanion Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-1-905713-07-3. 

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