I think I could turn and live with animals,
they’re so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty,
Not one is dissatisfied,
not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another,
nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
(“Song of Myself”, Walt Whitman, 1819-1892)
In a nutshell, this is about taking on, or using the characteristics of animals to improve your own being. To focus on and use the positive aspects without necessarily using shamanism or the totemic principles of the Native Americans. Consider the endurance of the phoenix, the pack loyalty of the wolf, the memory of the elephant, the fierceness of the tiger, or the cunning of a raccoon. Firstly we’ll look at what a therianthrope is, before moving onto representations of therianthropes in history and culture from cave paintings through to the historical period, then a brief look at two very different types of therianthropes. The second part will be a look at how to use these in meditation, and creative visualisation.
Lots of big words, so let’s deal with the therianthrope bit first:
A therianthrope is a big word for an animal with human characteristics. The other word for them is an anthropomorphic figures or were (as in werewolf). You might not think that you know so many, or that you’ve never come across them before, but there’s one therianthrope which is universally known as a harbinger of laughter, who raises spirits and holds a special place in many peoples hearts:
So cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse both walk upright and have fingers, and may also wear clothing. Not particularly pagan, or spiritual though!
Let’s go back a bit further than Mickey:
The Sorcerer from The Sanctuary Cave in Les Trois Freres Cave System in France is a famous example of a therianthrope – a bipedal stag or elk in this case, with toes, fingernails and a human face, but with the ears, antlers and tail of a deer.
These are bird therianthropes from Eagles Reach, Australia: admittedly not very clear, or particularly inspiring, however…
The Eagles Reach find, which is located about 160 kilometres northwest of Sydney in the wilderness section of the Wollemi National Park, is regarded as the biggest and most significant discovery in the last 50 years. There are more than 200 well-preserved images at the site, discovered in May 2003. Another significant component of the discovery is the existence of many half-human, half-animal figures. These rare images include creatures with bird-like heads and others that are part kangaroo. A similar kangaroo form has been found at a site near the Hawkesbury River further east from Eagles Reach.
While therianthropes are very special depictions found across Australia, and in several regions overseas, the bird-headed creatures are a very rare find in the Sydney area.
According to Aboriginal religious belief, some of these composite images are of ancestral beings and are present on the rock walls since mythical times. Under this system of belief, human beings did not paint these images but were produced by ancient ancestors settling into the cave walls, while their spirits may have travelled on.
Antelope therianthropes – especially clear in the second figure from the right.
Southern African rock art essentially contains a religious element. San religion, like many others, used ritual practices to generate supernatural powers. The paintings and engravings recorded the experiences of shamans or medicine men and women in an altered state of consciousness (trance). They “became” animals in order to enhance their power as healers or rainmakers, or to control game during a hunt.
On the left is an antelope figure playing a pipe, on the right is a buffalo figure with human feet.
From the caves at Malealea
Tassilli Mountains Shaman: Rock art from the Tassili mountains of Algeria showing a therianthrope with mushrooms in his hands and around his body
This is an ivory carved lion headed figurine from the Stadel at Holer Stein.
This dates to before to the Upper Paleolithic tradition of producing figurines like this in stone, burnt clay, ivory and stone. These mostly come from what is now south western, central and eastern Europe, central Siberia and the Levant.
So, all of the examples thus far are a bit old… The best guess of people today as to why these strange figures are painted or carved, is that the shamans employed something called ‘sympathetic magic’. That by dressing as an animal, as in the case of the shaman at Les Trois Freres, they could affect the outcome of a hunt to become successful, to control the game, to ensure that the game was thanked for it’s survival and participation, and that no hunters got hurt. Of course, the actual rituals, if there were any at all, don’t survive. There are also prehistoric scenes of hunters stalking game, perhaps part of the same visualisation technique – if it’s painted, or enacted, then it will happen.
Like the Tassilli mountain shaman, they may have used plants to enter an altered state for the ritual, but it’s not certain.
Which is all well and good but still a very long time ago: How are therianthropes understood in the historical era?
Almost every culture around the world has some type of shapeshifting myth, and almost every commonly found animal probably has a shapeshifting myth attached to it. Usually, the animal involved in the transformation is most likely indigenous to or prevalent in the area from which the story derives.
Popular shapeshifting creatures in myths and legends are werewolves and vampires (mostly of European, Canadian, and Native American origin), the kitsune or were-foxes of Japan, and the gods and goddesses of numerous mythologies, such as Loki from Norse mythology or Proteus from Greek mythology. It was also common for deities to transform mortals into animals and plants. Therianthropy is the more general term for human-animal shifts, but it is rarely used in that capacity. Other terms for shapeshifters include metamorph, skin-walker, mimic, animal folk, animal people, animen, weres or therianthropes. The prefix ‘were,’ coming from an Old English word meaning ‘man’, is also used to designate shapeshifters. Examples are werewolf,’ ‘weretiger,’ etc. Although shapeshifting to the form of a wolf is specifically known as lycanthropy, it is commonly used to describe any human-animal transformations and the creatures who undergo them.
Also, it is worthy to note that while the popular idea of a shapeshifter is of a human being who turns into something else, there are numerous myths about animals that can transform themselves as well.
Examples of shapeshifting in classical literature include many examples in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Circe’s transforming of Odysseus’ men to pigs in Homer’s The Odyssey, and Apuleius’s becoming a donkey in The Golden Ass.
Aztec and Mayan – South America
Illustration from the Florentine Codex
The foremost were-animal in pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures was the were-jaguar. It was associated with the veneration of the jaguar, with priests and shamans among the various peoples who followed this tradition donning the skins of jaguars to ‘become’ a were-jaguar. Among the Aztecs, an entire class of specialized warriors who dressed in jaguar skins were called ‘jaguar warriors’. Depictions of the jaguar and the were-jaguar are among the most common motifs among the artefacts of the ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.
Archaeologists have found a jar in Guatemala, attributed to the Maya of the Late Classic Era (600-900 AD), which depicts a musical instrument that has been reproduced and played. This instrument is astonishing in at least two respects. First, it is the only stringed instrument known in the Americas prior to the introduction of European musical instruments. Second, when played, it produces a sound virtually identical to a jaguar’s growl. A sample of this sound is available at the Princeton Art Museum website.
Eagle warriors or eagle knights (Classical Nahuatl: cuāuhtli) were a special class of infantry soldier of the Aztec army. Along with the Jaguar warriors, Eagle warriors were the only Aztec warrior society for which access was not restricted to the nobility, but to which even commoners ‘macehuales’ could be admitted for special merit.
Eagle warrior Aztec, ca. 1440–69
African legends describe people who turn into lions or leopards. In the case of leopards, this is often because the creature is really a leopard god or goddess masquerading as human. When these gods mate with humans, offspring can be produced, and these children sometimes grow up to be shapeshifters; those who do not transform may instead have other powers. In reference to werecats who turn into lions, the ability is often associated with royalty. Such a being may have been a king or queen in a former life, or may be destined for leadership in this life. This quality can be seen in the lions of Tsavo, which were reputed to be kings in lion shape, attempting to repel the invading Europeans by stopping their railroad.
The Tsavo maneaters were a pair of maneless lions responsible for the deaths of a number of construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway, from March through December 1898. During the construction period, many Indian railway workers were killed by two maneless male lions, which dragged men from their tents at night and devoured them. The workers built bomas (thorn fences) around their camp to keep the maneaters out; but the maneaters were able to crawl through. Patterson set traps and tried several times to ambush the lions at night from a tree. After repeated unsuccessful endeavours, he finally shot the first lion on 9 December, 1898. Three weeks later, the second beast was found and killed. By that point, the maneaters had supposedly killed 135 workers according to Patterson’s calculations though railway records only recorded 28 deaths. A number of these deaths were unrecorded locals.
Mainland Asian werecats usually become tigers. In India, the weretiger is often a dangerous sorcerer, portrayed as a menace to livestock, who might at any time turn to man-eating. Chinese legends often describe weretigers as the victims of either a heredity curse or a vindictive ghost. Ancient teachings held that every race except the Han Chinese were really animals in disguise, so that there was nothing extraordinary about some of these false humans reverting to their true natures. Alternately, the ghosts of people who had been killed by tigers could become malevolent supernatural beings, devoting all their energy to making sure that tigers killed more humans. Some of these ghosts were responsible for transforming ordinary humans into man-eating weretigers. Also, in Japanese folklore there are creatures called bakeneko that are similar to kitsune (fox spirits) and tanuki (raccoon dogs).
In both Indonesia and Malaysia we meet with another kind of weretiger. The power of transformation is regarded as due to inheritance, to the use of spells, to fasting and will-power, to the use of charms, etc. Save when it is hungry or has just cause for revenge, it is not hostile to man; in fact, it is said to take its animal form only at night and to guard the plantations from wild pigs, exactly as the balams (magicians) of Yucatán were said to guard the maize fields in animal form. Variants of this belief assert that the shapeshifter does not recognize his friends unless they call him by name, or that he goes out as a mendicant and transforms himself to take vengeance on those who refuse him alms. Somewhat similar is the belief of the Khonds; for them the tiger is friendly, and he reserves his wrath for their enemies. A man is said to take the form of a tiger in order to wreak a just vengeance.
Therianthropes in Mythology
There are many variants of therianthropes in mythology, so two examples will now be looked at in a bit more detail.
Kitsune -The spirit or were foxes of Japanese myth
The word kitsune is an old name. Some have suggested that the origins of the word “kitsune” can be ascribed to an onomatopoeia with two sounds in the Japanese language, kitsu, which is the sound of a fox yelp, and ne, a word signifying affectionate feeling.
Others attribute it to an old legend involving a fox-wife.
In this story, the fox takes the shape of a woman and marries a human male, and the two, in the course of spending several happy years together, have several children. She is ultimately revealed as a fox when, terrified by a dog, she returns to her fox shape to hide, in the presence of many witnesses. She prepares to depart her home, but her husband prevails upon her, saying, “Now that we have spent so many years together, and I have had several children by you, I cannot simply forget you. Please come and sleep with me.” The fox agrees, and from then on returns to her husband each night in the shape of a woman, leaving again each morning in the shape of a fox. Therefore, she comes to be called Kitsune — because, in the classical Japanese, “kitsu-ne” means “come and sleep,” while “ki-tsune” means “always comes.”
As well as Japan, Korea (Kumiho), and China (Huli Jing) , the nine-tailed werefox appears in a Vietnamese legend, where it was drowned by a dragon to create a lake, and even made it to Europe where it appears in the Grimm’s fairytale “Mrs. Fox’s Wedding”.
Naga – Serpent beings from Hindu and Buddhist mythology
The nagas are an ancient race of semi divine serpent creatures beings first depicted in ancient Vedic Hindu mythology and oral folklore from at least 5000 B.C. Stories involving the Nagas are omnipresent in Hindu and Buddhist mythology and still very much a part of contemporary cultural traditions in predominantly Hindu (India, Nepal, and the island of Bali) and Buddhist (Sri-Lanka and South-East Asia) regions of Asia
The word Naga comes from the Sanskrit, and nag is still the word for snake, especially the cobra, in most of the languages of India. Female Nagas are called Nagis or Naginis. In the East Indian pantheon it is connected with the Serpent Spirit and the Dragon Spirit. When we come upon the word in Buddhist writings, it is not always clear whether the term refers to a cobra, an elephant (perhaps this usage relates to its snake-like trunk, or the pachyderm’s association with forest-dwelling peoples of north-eastern India called Nagas,) or even a mysterious person of nobility. It is a term used for unseen beings associated with water and fluid energy, and also with persons having powerful animal-like qualities or conversely, an impressive animal with human qualities.
Like humans, Naga’s show wisdom and concern for others but also cowardice and injustice. Naga’s are immortal and potentially dangerous when they have been mistreated. They are susceptible to mankind’s disrespectful actions in relation to the environment. The expression of the Naga’s discontent and agitation can be felt as skin diseases, various calamities and so forth.
Additionally, Naga’s can bestow various types of wealth, assure fertility of crops and the environment as well as decline these blessings. Naga’s also serve as protectors and guardians of treasure—both material riches and spiritual wealth.
A little closer to home and therianthropes still exist:
A hamrammr (from old Icelandic literature) is a werecreature that shifts into the form of the animal it has most recently eaten. Its strength increases with each animal that it consumes.
Ireland and Scotland
The Selkies are seals that take off their skins to become human. Dark-haired Celts may have their origins explained via the Selkies. They are usually helpful creatures who watch over fishermen. Kelpies are a kind of shapeshifting sea horse.
Púca and some other Celtic spirits and Síde (fairies) can change their form at will and typically pose as animals or loved ones. Leprechauns turn into hideous creatures to scare you into releasing them when captured.
Norway and Sweden
The eigi einhamir or “not of one skin” has the ability to change into a wolf by wearing a wolfskin. There is also the ulfheobar (wolfskin), which is usually lumped in with berserker.
Leszi are spirits of Slavic mythology, capable of changing into any creature or plant.
The lubins or lupins (sometimes known as loup garou) look like wolves, but can speak human languages.
Therians in modern day
Therianthropes may describe their nature manifesting in terms of their cognitive processes, their outlook on life, their inner reactions and instincts, their senses, or through their physical body, though claims of actual physical variations from the norm tend to be regarded with scepticism both within and outside the subculture. Detailed descriptions (as with all inner experiences) vary widely, with common descriptions being of a spiritual bond, the soul of an animal within, a belief that they have an atypical or atavistic neurology, or an emotional shading of the personality.
A totem, (also known as an avatar or spirit guide) is any natural or supernatural object, being or animal which has personal symbolic meaning to an individual and to whose phenomena and energy one feels closely associated with during their life. Simply put, a person may feel drawn to a particular species, such as a lion, wolf or dog and either feels that they want to strive towards the positive qualities of that species in their own life, or that they embody them and feel connected to that species through that (or a mixture of the two). A person can use the positive aspects as a guide through which to live life, such as the thick skinnedness, longevity and patience of the tortoise, the loyalty and intelligence of the wolf, the speed and grace of a cheetah, or the ingenuity and dexterity of the octopus. This can show itself as wanting to collect pictures, books or sculptures of the animal and/or being fascinated by it, especially if the person is able to see the animal in the wild or captivity. Having one totem is not exclusive, and a person may have more than one in different aspects of their life. It does not have to be a species which is native to that particular area or country, and in some cases it can be mythological, such as a dragon or griffon.
Although the term is of Native American origin, totemistic beliefs are not limited to Native Americans. Similar totemism-like beliefs have been historically found throughout much of the world, including Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Africa, Australia and the Arctic polar region.
For some tribes, totems can represent larger groups than the individual person, and clans and tribes can have a totem. In kinship and descent, if the atypical ancestor of a clan is non human, it is called a totem. Normally this belief is accompanied by a totem myth.
A few meditations to get you started:
Most of you probably don’t have a totem animal, and some of you might already, so here are a few ways you can bring this into your life and thinking:
Firstly a little relaxation: (allow 10-15 minutes)
Turn your mobile off and settle down somewhere quiet, you can be sat or laying down, either is just fine. Close you eyes and starting with your toes, think of what you’re feeling in them (are they warm, what does the floor feel like underneath?) and relax them. Move up and concentrate on your feet, what are they feeling right now? Once you have registered it, relax the muscles. Move up and concentrate on your ankles and do the same, relaxing all the muscles, and up through your calves, knees, thighs, hips and abdomen. Keep your breathing steady, and quickly check over everything you’ve relaxed so far and check for any tense muscles. Any that are, relax them before moving on.
Move on to your lower back and register what it is feeling right now: concentrate on the texture of the clothing against your skin and the temperature, and consciously relax all the muscles there. Move up to your chest, feel your lungs breathing steadily, and be aware of the texture of clothing against your skin, relax all the muscles in your upper body, paying attention to the shoulders. Concentrate on the rhythm of your heart beating and the sound of your own breathing.
Sense your shoulders and arms, relax them and feel the weight in your arms. Focus on your hands and relax each finger. Concentrate on what each hand is feeling right now and let all the muscles go.
Check over everything from your toes to your shoulders, any muscles that have tightened up since you relaxed then, let them go again. Move up to your shoulders and spine. Recognise their sensations and relax them, sense your neck, feel the cloth against it, and let the tension go.
Feel the muscles in your face, the breath on your nose and mouth and let the tension go, relax all the muscles here and be aware of your own breathing, how it enters your body and what it feels like when it leaves.
Be aware of your body, feel any muscle that has tensed and relax it.
When you are ready to move again, know that you can do so. Start with small movements and be aware of how it feels to move a finger or twitch a toe, stretch small muscles first, then move onto bigger ones, such as flexing a hand, then rolling a shoulder, before you take a deep breath in and out, open your eyes and move fully.
Think that your body is a glove for your spirit, energy, ka, soul, whatever name you have for it, and that your spirit is choosing to reside in your body.
Try the relaxation exercise above first, or use any other technique to relax yourself. Know that if you need to stop any of these for whatever reason, just take a deep breath in and out, and feel yourself grounded in the present place.
If you don’t have one that you’re aware of:
We’ll start with a nice easy one: that of a fox. An urban creature that can live quite happily alongside us in towns and cities, and yet with a little more grace and beauty than we seem to manage.
Picture a path at your feet, leading to open woodland before you, tall beech, birch and oak trees, summer evening breeze, warm sunlight. Take a walk amongst the trees, touch the bark, feel the life that is pulsing through here. Hear the birds singing; listen to the leaves rustling, breathe in the clean air and feel refreshed.
Follow the clear earth path, gently meandering through the trees. When you are ready a fox will come and sit on the path in front of you, tail curled neatly round front paws. See the rich colour of the red fur going into a white tail tip, the four black stockings and whiskers quivering. Smell the quiet musk, see the gracefulness of movement as they stand and walk up to you. The fox smells your hand inquisitively and accepts you by rubbing their muzzle up against your hand. The grace of the fox is yours for your own life, use dignity, grace and beauty together just as the fox does naturally, their gifts are yours already, recognise them and use them with confidence.
When you are ready, thank the fox and walk back up the path, and listen to the trees. Feel the sunlight on your face and walk from the woods.
When you are ready, take a deep breath in and out, feel grounded in the here and now and open your eyes.
It may be that whilst you practice this, another species of animal feels more comfortable to you, or that you find it easier to visualise another species. Try different species until one feels more natural to you over others. This does not exclude you from having more than one animal species to focus on, some people end up with more than one species which feel right at different times.
To focus on the qualities that you are bringing to the fore, simply picture the animal in your mind
If you already have an animal that you feel connected to:
Meditation one: meet your animal – allow 15-20 minutes)
Picture the place where your animal is, in the sky, underground, in the sea, on the grasslands, moors, river, wherever your animal would be. Feel the environment around you, the wind on your face, warmth of water, or temperature of the air. Imagine feeling whatever is under your feet, be it soil, grass, sand, stone or clouds. Be at peace here, a place of sanctuary and security. Come here as often as you need, and be here as often as you want.
Picture your animal close in front of you and imagine it in detail until you can see a really clear picture, is it watching you? Eating? Moving? Sleeping? Hunting? Feeding young? Concentrate on noticing the limbs, eyes, face, and body colouring.
What do you feel when you see it? Peace, wonder, safety, joy?
Think of the positive qualities that it has, understand that you recognise these qualities in your animal because they are also in yourself. Feel the connection you have between you and your animal, know that you are connected and that these qualities are in both of you.
Watch your animal for as long as you need, when you are ready take a deep breathe in and out and make small movements to start with before stretching and opening your eyes.
Meditation two: become your animal (allow 15-20 minutes)
Picture the place where your animal would live, clearly see details of the environment and feel the space round you as yours. This is the space were your spirit is, where you are free to run, breathe and be safe. Imagine your body changing to that of your animal. Start with your toes and work upwards, change and imagine: do you have fur, feathers, tail, shell? Picture limbs changing, head and face becoming, and take enough time as you need to imagine the feelings and sensations in your animal body. The positive qualities that you seek in your totem are yours and always have been. Move in your new form, start slowly and enjoy the feelings which arise from each limb moving in this new way.
Be still and breathe, then begin to move in your space. Do whatever seems natural, swim, fly, bask, run, sleep and know that you are safe here.
When you are ready take a deep breathe in and out, make small movements to start with before stretching and opening your eyes.
Stone Age man’s terrors still stalk modern nightmares
New research on cave art shows that our fear of werewolves goes back 10,000 years, reports Robin McKie
(Observer, Sunday November 25, 2001)
They were created to trigger our most primitive fears – by depicting half-human, half-animal monsters that hunted the living.
But these horrific creatures differed in one crucial way from the warped humanoid beasts that fill the high school corridors of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or the werewolves and blood-sucking monsters that populate horror books. These creatures were painted by Stone Age peoples more than 10,000 years ago and represent some of the world’s oldest art.
The surprising discovery that werewolves are as old as humanity is the handiwork of researchers who have carried out a major analysis of the world’s ancient rock art sites: in Europe, Africa and Australia.
‘We looked at art that goes back to the dawn of humanity and found it had one common feature: animal-human hybrids,’ said Dr Christopher Chippindale, of Cambridge University’s museum of archaeology and anthropology. ‘Werewolves and vampires are as old as art, in other words. These composite beings, from a world between humans and animals, are a common theme from the beginning of painting.’
Chippindale’s research – carried out with Paul Tacon of the Australian Museum in Sydney – involved surveys of rock art painted on cliffs in northern Australia, on ledges in South Africa and inside caverns in France and Spain. These are the world’s principal prehistoric art sites.
Nor are they made up of crude daubs of paint or charcoal. Many were executed with breathtaking flair.
For example, those at the recently discovered Grotte Chauvet near the Ardèche Gorge in France are more than 30,000 years old, but have stunned critics with their grace and style: horses rearing on their hind legs, rhinoceroses charging.
Most archaeologists have examined these paintings for evidence of the creatures that were hunted at that time. Naturally, these varied according to locality.
But Tacon and Chippindale wanted to find common denominators among these creations, despite the fact that they were painted on different continents.
After careful analysis, they found only one: the ‘therianthropes’ – human-animal hybrids. Statues of cat-head humans, for example, were found in Europe, while in Australia the team discovered paintings of feathered humans with birdlike heads and drawings of men with the heads of fruit bats. One of these animal-head beings is depicted attacking a woman, like a poster for early Hollywood horror films.
‘Hybrids were the one ubiquitous theme we discovered,’ Chippindale said. ‘They belong to an imagined world which was powerful, dangerous and – most likely – very frightening.’
These rock art nasties were gazed upon by people in ‘altered states of consciousness’ – individuals who were either drugged or in trances – the Stone Age equivalent of a six-pack and a video nasty.
This idea is influenced by studies of the modern San people of South Africa who often dance themselves into hypnotic trances. The images they later recall are painted on to cave walls as attempts or entry cards to a spirit world. ‘The spirit world is a different and separate place, and you need to learn how to access it,’ added Chippindale. Buffy may be adolescent television, in other words, but she taps a deep creative vein.
Many anthropologists believe ancient art works like those at Chauvet were also created for the same reason.
‘They are among the most potent images mankind has ever created,’ Chippindale said. ‘When you enter these caves today, with electric lights and guides, they are still pretty frightening. Armed with only a guttering candle, the experience would have been utterly terrifying in the Stone Age. You would crouch down a corridor and would then be suddenly confronted by a half-man, half-lion, or something similar.’
And once we had unleashed these scary monsters, we never looked back, from the human-animal hybrid gods of the Egyptians – such as Bast, the cat god; or Anubis, the dog god; or creatures such as minotaurs or satyrs. Later came legends such as the werewolf, and finally specific creations such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, an ‘undead’ human with bat-like features who preyed on the living.
More recently, the most spectacularly successful Hollywood horror films have been those that have focused on creations that have mixed the features of reptiles or insects with those of humans: Alien and Predator being the best examples.
As Chippindale put it, ‘these were well-made films, but they also succeeded because they tapped such an ancient urge.’