Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part XIII: Man or Beast
Well, I’ve said a lot about vampires – at least for a blog, I mean people write whole books on the subject – so I think it’s time to move on. Standing beside the vampire on the pinnacle of the modern monster popularity chain is the werewolf. These two creatures are often connected in modern folklore, either as hated enemies or master and servant. Some modern works have attempted to unify the two positions (I’m looking at you Underworld), but in my opinion the result is questionable at best. However, what the modern stage has generally missed is that you can’t just talk about werewolves. While the werewolf comes down to us from medieval European folklore, it is a part of a much broader (and older) family of werecreatures that populate ancient myth.
While shapeshifters are incredibly common in mythology both ancient and modern, they compose an incredibly broad category that includes certain fae, monsters like the doppleganger or changling, magicians, gods, demons, werecreatures, and other assorted physically malleable beings. Werecreatures – herein defined as beings that can take two forms, one human and one animal – are a distinct sub-category of shapeshifter that exist worldwide. In Europe we have the eponymous werewolf (or lycanthrope*), however we also see legends of men who could transform themselves into bears coming out of Scandinavia (and Canada). In Africa we see the Bouda, a kind of werehyena. In North America we see some mythology that has Thunderbirds turning into humans, along with the Bear-men of Canada, and a Coyote or Fox man out of Mexico. As we move further south in the Americas we find the Lobisomem, a dolphin that could turn into a small boy, from Brazil. The Chonchon from Chili, which is a woman that can turn into a vulture, and the more general Kanima, or Jaguar-men (also known as Runa-uturungu). Asia also has its share of werecreatures such as the Aswang, a Philippino creature that can take a canine or human form (interestingly, this name can also refer to the Manananggal, a Phillipino vampire). The Kitsune and Tanuki from Japan, Fox-women and Badger-men respectively (it is interesting to note that fox-men are very common throughout Asia), and the Lang Ren, or wolf-human, from China. I am going to include the Selkie in this group as well because, though they are technically Fae (at least to my understanding) they are also bound to human and seal forms.
When we look at the mythology of these creatures we can identify two specific types of werecreature. 1) Humans that turn into animals (usually either through intentional magic or because of a curse) such as the werewolf, the berserker (Norse bear-men), and the Chonchon, and 2) animals that learn to (or naturally can) take on human shape such as the kitsune, tanuki, lobisomem, or selkie. These distinctions generally affect the disposition and intentions of the creatures in the mythology. Animals that learn to take on human shape are generally curious, helpful, and desire human company, while humans that take on animal shape are generally dangerous, destructive, and evil. It is also fairly common for humans to be cursed when they take on animal shape, werewolves being the most obvious and common example of this.
It is also interesting to note that humans that take on animal shape are always given dangerous, predatory forms usually of the, or one of the, apex predator/s in the region. Bears are common in Scandinavia and so we have berserker** as well as ulfhoebar or eigi einhamir (Scandinavian wolf-men). However, in the majority of southern Europe bears are less common and wolves are the apex predator, so we have the French loup garou, the Russian wawkalak, the Greek zyrkoklas, and so on. In Central and South America coyote and jaguar are much more common and so we wind up with werecreatures that emulate them.
The animals turned humans, on the other hand, are generally much less dangerous animals and often not predatory. The fox, while a predator, is not an apex predator, nor are badgers, seals, or dolphins. All of these generally feed on insects or small animals and are not generally dangerous to humans, unless you run a chicken farm or fish hatchery.
I am forced to wonder if this dynamic has something to do with an innate fear of being removed as the apex predator. Animals that are not a threat are welcomed among us, in real life as pets and in mythology as magical friends. However, those animals that compete with us as the apex predator in a region are driven out (see the extermination of predatory species in early American history, we are still trying to reintegrate wolf packs into lands where they were once common) in real life, and they become the punishments, curses, and monsters of our folklore.
*Interestingly enough Lycanthropy is a psychological disorder that, I believe, has been included in the DSM since its inception (although I could not confirm it as I don’t have a copy of the DSM I handy). It is a disorder in which the diseased believes himself to be an animal or to be possessed of animalistic qualities (e.g. the need to hunt, kill, and eat raw meat, etc).
**Berserker is more commonly known as the ‘elite’ fighting force of the Vikings. They were real, and it is commonly believed that they went into battle naked, covered in warpaint, and whipped into a psychological state of rage that bordered on, or crossed over into, insanity. However, the name is in direct reference to the belief that they turned themselves into bears when they went into battle. Ulfhoebar were similar to Berserker, but they were believed to turn themselves into wolves. On the other hand, the mythology surrounding the Eigi einhamir is completely separate from the Berserker.
Among the Neshelim is now available in eBook on Smashwords and Kindle and in print from Amazon.com, I’ll have a link for the print copy coming soon. I am curious what people think of the blub. Does it draw you in? Make you want to read the book? If not, why not?
Among the Neshelim
Understanding. One little word, and yet it means so much. We spend our lives pursuing it in one form or another. We long for it, we seek it, but it is always a rare commodity.
Chin Cao Yu, priest and scholar, has sacrificed all he held dear in its pursuit. Now he undertakes the journey of a lifetime, a journey among the mysterious Neshilim, a people of power unlike any he has seen before. This journey will turn the world he thought he knew upside down and challenge everything his dearly held beliefs. Has he found the ultimate truth or the ultimate lie? And what will he do with it when he learns?
Posted on July 30, 2011, in Fantasy, Monsters, Myth, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged aswang, berserker, bouda, chonchon, eigi einhamir, henge, kanima, kitsune, lang ren, lobisomem, loup garou, lycanthropy, mythology, runa-uturungu, selkie, tanuki, thunderbird, ulfhoebar, Underworld, wawkalak, Werecreature, Werewolf, zyrkoklas. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.