The mythic tradition of shape-shifters (or more specifically theriantropes, capable of transforming from human to animal shape) is one that is as old as storytelling itself. Although the werewolf is undoubtedly the best-known human-to-animal shape-changer in popular culture today, when we turn to world mythology we find that transformation legends are attached to almost every kind of animal. The most notorious combine human and animal predations, and even innocuous ones, such as swan-maids or goat-men, can be very dangerous. Animal people are not fluffy critters; in ancient lore those who could assume beast-form were forces to be reckoned with. They could command strange magics, summon hordes of beastly allies, seduce you in the night or simply tear your throat out. Even their human forms were disturbing – often beautiful, always unpredictable. In the present day there is a clear demarcation between humans and animals. Mankind is civilized, living in cities, working behind desks and leading ordered, structured lives. Animals also have a clearly defined place – many are pets or beasts of burden, serving human masters, others are entertainments in zoos or circus sideshows, and some, the majority even these days, exist as they have always done in their natural habitats in what is left of the wild. But these dividing lines, always shifting and transparent, have perpetually been viewed in certain circles as nothing more than that, arbitrary and meaningless, for at his core every man and woman is an animal and every beast is an echo of the human soul. This may not seem so apparent now but perhaps there was once a time in the dim mists of history when the division between man and beast was so blurred that it was non-existent and all beings shifted easily between forms that were both humanoid and animalistic. Even today, the signs of the beast within are everywhere, if you look carefully at your friends and neighbours. Spot that cat-like gleam in your lover’s eye? The bullish tilt of a rival’s head? The feathered shadows cast behind that homeless person in the park? Did you, perhaps, even see them in the mirror that one time?
Each culture features legends of Animal People. You can find spider-women in China, shark-men among Pacific Islanders, werewolves in Nordic mythology and bull-man hybrids in ancient Greece. Whilst skinwalkers range across the animal kingdom, most come from the ‘greater beasts’ – that is, animals that have potent physical, spiritual and symbolic power. Ancient Egyptian myth, for example, features several important deities with human bodies and the heads of birds or beasts. The sun god Ra has the head of a hawk; Horus, the sky god, the head of a falcon; Thoth, god of wisdom, the head of a baboon; Anubis, lord of the afterlife, the head of a jackal; the Great Mother Hathor is part woman and part cow; the pleasure-loving goddess Bastet has the visage of a cat; and, most striking of all, the river god Sobek has the head of a crocodile. Among the hundreds of native tribes spread throughout North America there are numerous mythic traditions in which the Animal People were the first inhabitants of the earth. In some of these stories, the Beast Folk are divine beings shaped much like ordinary animals but possessing magical attributes and the power of human speech. In others, they are shape-shifters who can take on either animal or human form; and in still others the precise nature of what they are is left deliberately obscure. Whatever they are, these creatures are credited by Native Americans with primary acts of world creation (placing the sun in the sky, creating the mountains and rivers) and have been charged by the Creator with the task of teaching human beings how to live a proper life.
In Japan there are a number of animal shape-changers among the yokai, supernatural spirits that range from deadly demons to mischievous tricksters. In the Japanese Shinto tradition Inari is the god of rice, agriculture and foxes and, as well as being able to shift from male to female form, also appears in both fox and human shape. The kitsune fox spirits are under Inari’s protection and can disguise themselves as attractive mortals (of either sex) in order to seduce humans. In most stories kitsune are described as dangerous, and relations with them lead to madness or death, while some kitsune, the zenko (good foxes), are said to be wise, intelligent creatures, often poetic and scholarly by nature. There are also the tanuki, a kind of shape-shifting racoon dog, jolly and comical; the nastier mujina, a devious fellow whose primary animal form is the badger, but who also takes the form of a faceless ghost to terrify mortals; and the bakeneko and inugami, which are, respectively, cat and dog shape-shifters. In Africa there are shape-changing lion and hyena people with many of the same traits as the Japanese kitsune.
In the lore of the British Isles the fairies themselves are often depicted as shape-shifters. Kelpies, for example, are malicious river fairies who shift between human and equine form; piskies delight in disguising themselves as hedgehogs or hares of a strange green hue; pookas turn into big black dogs to play nasty tricks on mortals and selkies are shaped as humans when on dry land and as seals in the water. It has to be said that in fairy tales human shape-shifting is usually involuntary and calamitous, resulting from a curse or some other dark enchantment, and Beastly Brides or Bridegrooms are rarely benign figures. Among the thousands of such tales to be found in cultures all around the world, Beauty and the Beast is probably the one that most of us know best today. This is actually not a folk tale as such, however, as it was written by one Madame de Villeneuve in 18th century France. The original version of the story is over one hundred pages long and is somewhat different from the tale we know now. As the narrative begins, Beauty’s destiny lies entirely in the hands of others, and she can do naught but obey when her father hands her over to the Beast. The Beast is a truly fearsome figure, not a gentle soul disguised by fur; he is a creature lost to the human world that had once been his by birthright. The emphasis of the tale is on the Beast’s slow metamorphosis as he finds his way back to his human nature. It was only in Jean Cocteau’s remarkable film version in 1946 that the fairy tale began to take on a more modern and familiar slant. Here, the Beast literally smoulders with the force of his sexuality, and Beauty’s adventure can be read as a metaphor for her sexual awakening – a motif common to a number of tales of the Animal People.
Regardless of the animal, werebeasts have always appeared dangerous in myth and folklore. There’s something uncanny about those who live so close to the beast. They tend to have sharp senses, startling directness, raw physicality and visceral awareness about the blood, breath and bones of the natural world. Even the word animal (which comes from anima – ‘life’ or ‘breath’) gives a clue that those with a touch of the feral about them are very much more alive than other folk. This perhaps reflects the fact that once upon a time wilderness was threatening to civilization, whereas now it has largely been tamed and cultivated. Accordingly, there has been a distinct change in modern retellings of theriantropic transformation, reflecting our changed relationship to animals and nature. The dangers of the animal world have a nostalgic quality, removed as they are from our daily existence. In a society in which most of us will never encounter true danger from the dark woods, wild beasts are not such a frightening prospect; instead they are exotic, almost appealing – animal magnetism has taken on a whole new meaning! This removal gives the wild a different kind of power; it’s something we long for rather than fear. The skinwalker, the werebeast, and the shape-changer all come from a place we’d almost forgotten in the heart of the woods; the trackless primeval forests of shared human race memories: untouched, unspoilt and limitless. But we should never forget that nature is red in tooth and claw and that there is a predator in the heart of even the most benign of the Animal People. These beings itch beneath their skins and rarely find harmony in the modern world. In cities all over the world it is still said that on nights when the full moon is high and white, you can hear the savage howls of those who walk in the shape of beasts and smell their ferocity on the wind.