History of Shape-shifting Legends and Folklore

half man half wolf. also known as the Aswang

Shape shifting, or the act of one species taking on the full or partial form of another for a period of time, has its place in many legends throughout history. Cave drawings discovered in Ariege, France have images of half animal/half human creatures, giving way to the knowledge that these types of legends go back even farther than once thought.  Where did these legends come from?  Indeed why was it believed that either by will or involuntarily, a person could change forms?  With all that we know now of the physical impossibility of such a thing, why do people still believe there are those who may walk normally among the human race that have the ability to take on animal like characteristics?

The legends of shape-shifting are varied as far as the type of animal a person becomes.  In rare cases, the belief for some is so strong that it actually gave birth to a diagnosable condition for those who think they can transform into a half human-half animal creature.  It was said to generally accompany such mental illnesses as schizophrenia and manic depression and included symptoms of what was described as full blown psychosis.   Hallucinations, and changes in gait and facial expressions were noted.  Ironically, though the condition has the reputation of being associated with the belief in werewolves (half human/half wolf), the actual documented cases had a larger variety of animals mentioned.

Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius.
Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf, engraving by Hendrik Goltzius.













There are some who hold the belief that ‘lycanthropy’ is science’s way of explaining what can not be–and that is the connection between the human beings and others in the animal species.  Let’s look at some of the history and how far back these legends go.  While none of it is proof of anything definitive, it shows a deep belief that there were many sides to a human’s spirit, and part of that included animals.  Each legend varies as far as what causes a person to be able to shape-shift and some say not all are willing.  Whether it is looked at as a gift or a curse it is certainly interesting how long the legends have been around.

Theriacephaly, or a human having an animal head goes back to many of the ancient mythologies such as Anubis in the Egyptian legends who was said to have the head of a jackal.  There are even Eastern Orthodox references to Saint Christopher having the head of a dog and of course many in modern Wicca pay homage to the Horned God.  From all of these stories comes the definitive message that man and animal are deeply connected.

Cultures and legends of shape shifting

Norse legend speaks of the 'berserkers'
Norse legend speaks of the 'berserkers'

Norse legend speaks of the ” (yes this is where the word came from), who were warriors that came to battle allegedly dressed in the skin of a bear.  These men would work themselves up into a furious rage leading to fighting in a frenzy until the battle was over.  While these were not shape-shifters in the classical sense, they were a representation of the man/animal connection.  It was said that when they entered battle without any suits of armor other than the animal skins, fighting with the strength of a wild bear.

In the pre-Columbian Americas in the areas that now make up Mexico and Costa Rica there were the legends of the Nagual.  These were said to be people who could actually transform into a  dog or hyena, but could also come in the forms of more powerful animals.  These powers were considered magical and anyone who had the ability to shift into an animal was considered highly favored by the gods and were usually the religious leaders of the village.

Skin-walkers are a large part of the folklore of the nations indigenous to what is now the United States.  In these legends, the person could turn into an animal at will, but only if they were wearing a pelt of the animal at the time.  In the Navajo nation, the yee naaldlooshii  has the literal translation of “one who walks on all fours”.  The belief is based in Navajo ancient magic and it is thought that many of them had evil intent.  As a matter of fact, in some Navajo cultures it is believed that when one of these people who some would call ‘witches’ attained a level of evil known as clizyati, which often resulted in the murder of one of their family members.  Skin-walkers are regarded as those who achieved such a high level of priesthood or religious belief that it literally drove them insane–believed to be doomed to walking the earth filled with hate and revenge.

Hindu folklore includes the tale of the Ichchadhari Nag.  This one takes a

Anubis the body of a man and the head of a dog

different turn from the usual human-to-animal transformation and instead describes a snake that can appear in any desired form, often that of a human.  Legend says that this creature holds an extremely valuable jewel that if anyone attempted to steal it they would be felled by a poisonous bite.  The musical instrument of the snake charmer known as the Been or the pungi can be used to control the Ichchadhari Nag.  This creature has gone on to be a popular character in comics and fiction.

There are other legends of shape-shifting that simply involve humans taking on a more monstrous or exaggerated form.  In Japanese mythology, the Rokurokubi are creatures that have fully human forms by day but at night can transform their necks and upper body to gigantic proportions.  This form is thought to be evil in nature even if the human form is basically good.  It was said some were not even aware of their nightly walks.

Modern Beliefs About Shape Shifting

The modern religion of Wicca stems from many of the pagan beliefs of ancient times. The religion itself is relatively new but the basic concepts and beliefs have been around thousands of years before the birth of Christ.   The practices of shape-shifting are recognized in varying types, some of which have more to do with a state of consciousness than actual physical transformations.  In consciousness shape-shifting, the idea that two or more people focusing on the same outcome can in effect cause it to happen.  Another type of shape shifting, known as integration, (or channeling) is when someone believes they can focus on an object, another person, or animal and become one with it’s soul.  None of this is proven of course, but it shows the modern turn this belief has taken.  The transformation from human into animal is not lost completely in modern practices, however it is more symbolism than a tangible experience.

deathbed of a witch slash shape shifter.

Of course popular fiction stories have kept the werewolf alive for many decades.  Lon Chaney’s “Wolf Man” and the Twilight series character of Jacob have brought a sad romanticism to what most would say is a fearsome creature.  In the Hollywood version of the shape-shifting werewolf adds an element of wistfulness in the character.  They usually do not desire to change into a wolf as it is usually part of either a curse or familial descent taking away their choices.  In these stories, any harm that is done is unintentional, however the lack of control when they are in animal form is emphasized.

Is there any truth to the legends?  Other than the interesting ancient cave art and the many legends and myths carried by word of mouth, there is no definitive proof.  It is however an interesting reflection on humankind as a whole and the relationship with animals.  Both man and beast can be either predator or prey and their connection defies any that exist in the animal ‘food chain’.  Whether the legends are simply representations of a human/animal bond or actual re-telling of events is a matter of belief without proof to back it up.  It is however a fascinating look into another mystery that goes back to ancient times and has somehow managed to remain a topic of interest.

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Written by Angela Sangster, Copyright 2012 BestOfAllTopics.com

The Werewolf Handbook: An Essential Guide to Werewolves and, More Importantly, How to Avoid Them

The Werewolf Handbook: An Essential Guide to Werewolves and, More Importantly, How to Avoid Them

Werewolves are more popular than ever–thanks largely to recent film hits–and this highly entertaining new title tells readers everything they’ve ever wanted to know about those terrifying preternatural members of the canis lupus family. Newcomers to werewolf lore will be surprised to learn that there are many different werewolf varieties.

Alphas are the leaders, and Betas are unwilling but deadly members of a werewolf pack. But there are also Benandanti, holy men who change into wolves in order to do battle with witches . . . and Loup-garoux, werewolves who can change from man to wolf even during daylight hours. The more ordinary werewolves achieve their terrible transformations from man to beast only by the light of the Moon.

Author Robert Curran also notes that Christopher, the mysterious saint venerated in the Roman Catholic Church, has many werewolf characteristics. In addition, this book tells readers where werewolves live, describes their telltale traits, such as hairy palms, advises on how to avoid becoming a werewolf, and gives tips on what werewolf victims should do when they are attacked. More than 100 moody and atmospheric color illustrations accompany this intensely readable text.

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3 thoughts on “History of Shape-shifting Legends and Folklore”

  1. Plz I want to know more about dis I want to be a alpha like teen wolf but this is not a movie this is real life people should know about this of warnings and I bet u the goverment are behind keepin it secret

  2. To ‘I wanna be a wolf’ that sounds more like a conspiracy theory than anything, the government I am sure, hide some things, yes no one is fully honest especially the government or congress, but that is besides the point. If the government were really hiding this there would, forgive my lack of faith for the government, be a leak by now.

  3. To Strange: Maybe it was leaked but no one would believe it. There are too much fake videos/pictures out there that it’s hard to know what’s real and what’s not.

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