*I NORMALLY don’t run two guest posts, back to back. However, I’m back on prednisone and trying to finish a novel. the autoimmune was going crazy with the stress of the last week or so. So, cut me a little slack for one day. And enjoy Alma’s great post. – SAH*
From Where came the Were? – Alma Boykin
Shape-shifting individuals, and animals that take on human form, seem to appear in almost every folk-lore around. They have become the mainstay of paranormal fantasy, in the process losing their negative connotation and taking on positive attributes. The idea of humans becoming predators is so common that I don’t think I’ve seen a werewolf costume at Halloween in decades. Why bother? They don’t seem to be mysterious or unusual anymore. And that in itself is an interesting twist on tradition.
Deities of all kinds shift into human or other form, and I’m going to separate out shape-shifting from were-creatures. If you look hard enough, almost every deity over the span of the human story shifts shape, or has a messenger or avatar that can conceal its true nature. I’m going to focus on things and people who are at most individuals with two or three forms—human, part-animal, full animal—and leave deities aside. Since I’m most familiar with European lore, I’m also putting more emphasis there.
No evidence exists to tell us how far back in human history the idea of were-creatures goes. There appears to be, perhaps, a shaman-like figure in the cave at Le Troi Frères, but anthropologists are no longer one-hundred-percent certain that the figure truly represents a human with animal attributes. It is thought that animist and shamanistic practices go very far back indeed, and very likely included the veneration of animal spirits, and the idea that a few trained, or cursed, individuals could be inhabited by those spirits, or take animal form while spirit travelling. From there it is not a great leap to someone not just putting on an animal hide to act as that animal during a dance or other ritual, but also changing shape into that animal, usually a predator or large herbivore. The Olmec in central America may have had werejaguars, if their carvings depict what we think they depict. The idea of humans becoming wolves also goes back a long way. Birds seem to have been were-creatures, but were-small mammals? None thus far, unless pure spirit forms count as weres.
Angry deities changed people into animals on a regular basis in Greek and Celtic lore. Athena and Artemis seem to have been especially prone to turn the arrogant into other things, such as Arachne becoming a spider, or Actaeon who was zapped into a stag and eaten by his own hunting hounds for spying on Artemis as she bathed. The Roman writer Apulias had a character turned into a donkey in The Golden Ass after messing around with witchcraft. He leads a miserable life until the goddess Isis takes pity on him and returns him to human form. In Celtic mythology, the Children of Lir are cursed by their stepmother, turning them into three swans who only return to their human forms at death. A druid cursed Fionn’s wife Sadbh, turning her and their son Oisín into deer. Certain Celtic deities also took on deer shapes, and woe betide someone who didn’t take care when they found a pure white deer or stag, especially if it had red eyes.
Werewolves could be venerated or despised and feared. A number of Central Asian peoples claimed ancestry from wolves, or held wolves in high esteem and assumed that wolves could shift into humans on occasion. The Chinese had weredogs, probably descended indirectly from the steppe tradition of werewolves, and dog-headed peoples appear in a number of Classical and Medieval writings, always a little farther on than the author’s sources had ever traveled. Europeans tended to see werewolves as evil, especially those humans who chose to take on wolf powers. Those unlucky enough to be cursed into being werewolves were to be pitied and freed if possible, but in general werewolves such as the French loup-garou meant nothing but trouble. In the Americas, especially North America, Coyote could become human, and was still a trickster and shape shifter. Louis L’Amour took advantage of this tradition in one of his short stories, where the protagonist uses an old den and a rather surprised coyote to convince the Apache that he is a were-coyote. They leave him alone after that, for good reason. Humans should never, ever cross Coyote.
European fascination with werewolves seems to have peaked in the 1500s-1600s, during a time of great social and environmental stress, and the rise of cheap, sensational printed literature. Everyone wanted to read werewolf tales, and stories about children literally raised by wolves also became popular. The interest faded away for a while, although Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book showed that it wasn’t entirely dead. In Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, the count takes the form of a great wolf at one point. Given the success of Dracula and vampire-based Victorian “penny-dreadfuls,” it is no surprise that werewolves became more common. The Twentieth Century brought on new interest in were-creatures in pop culture, starting with movies like Werewolf of London (1935) and of course The Wolf Man (1941). People began scrounging around for mythology to use in their movies and books. As time passed and people looked around more for material and ideas, other shape-shifters appeared in books, leading eventually to the explosion in the 1980s-90s through today of all sorts of were-creatures, including were-squirrels.
Alas for writers, people have begun to ask questions like “If a dragon takes on human form, and the dragon weighs six hundred pounds, where does the additional mass go?” or “Do you have to be bitten to become a were-[creature]?” This probably explains why most weres are into creatures that are more-or-less human sized to begin with. And let’s face it, most people are going to have a hard time at first taking a were-chipmunk seriously. In general, writers have risen to the occasion, although I rolled my eyes at a scene when serious handwavium was applied and the mass sent to a pocket dimension for later retrieval, as the draconic shape-shifter explained in the text. In other cases, writers turn to pure magic, transmission via disease, genetic manipulation, cursed totems that transform their users into creatures, a ticked off deity who turned people into werewolves, mental problems such as schizophrenia that led to the sufferer willing herself into the form of a werebear, and other things.
The idea of taking on the attributes of a more powerful creature goes back very far into human mythology and memory. In Africa you find stories of were-hyenas, were-leopards, and other predators. Chinese tales describe were-dogs and spirits who take on human form, while Japan has the kitsune and the Ainu shaman who take on bear form. Transformations into deer, bears, wolves, and bison happen in North America, while were-jaguars appear in South America. The modern fascination with shape shifting has deep, deep roots, and will likely continue for quite a while.
Shameless plugs: For more shape-changing, try Sarah’s Shifters series, [the first edition of the first book, with the horrible cover is free. No it’s not horror, and the main character is not a zombie with an udder fetish -SAH] or my (Alma’s) Cat Among Dragons series.