Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

Therianthropy is the shifting of:

theríon = wild beast

into anthrōpos i.e human

For many fantasy fiction authors, therianthropy means raging werewolves, murderous human/beast hybrids (similar to Mr Hyde as shown above) or magical shape-shifting creatures, malformed humanoids, or transformations from frog into prince.

But the voluntary change from human to beast has been an exciting & enticing means of escape, exploration, and liberation for humans since the earliest stone age societies. Plus, it’s a great way for a fantasy author to connect to amazing otherworlds without having to enter phantasmagorical or fanciful rabbit-holes of delusion. In fact, therianthropy can (and is) performed by most of us (if not all… I’ll explain this in a moment) — and it’s a natural part of our shared human experience. So what precisely is it?

The word, at least in ancient Greek terms, meant to become a human beast or, interchangeably, to become a beastly human. But the word also implied a metamorphic transformation (i.e. a morphing) from one “state” to another. 

The earliest known depiction of a Siberian shaman, by the Dutch Nicolaes Witsen, 17th century

The earliest example of human transformation into bestial form comes to us from a cave painting created at least 13,000 years ago in a cave in south-western France (the Three Brothers). This special cave contains several engravings of human beasts, but perhaps the most famous is the so-called “Dancing Sorcerer” — which is a portrayal of a half-man + half-deer (it might be a bison or an antelope, the jury is still out). When you examine this ancient engraving (see below) it will remind you of what a neo-pagan shaman might do in tribal ceremonies: because we know that a shaman will adopt and dramatise the “guise” of a wild creature to commune with the spirit world, to communicate with demons, angels or deities, to treat disease, to go on a vision-seeking quest, or to undertake some other form of divination (predicting the future.)

Dancing Sorcerer

You will have seen, for example, images of a tribal “witch doctor” dressed in furs (and perhaps with a head adorned with antlers or wings) and this type of shaman is frequently enlisted by those tribes that hunt & follow a particular animal species (some tribes rely upon just one animal for their food, tools, clothing, etc. for example the Sámi people rely on reindeer, and the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains once relied upon bison.) If the tribe’s beast became scarce… there was a belief that “releasing” the souls of dead animals would also free the herds of living and breathing they might be hunted again. And that is why the shaman was generally seen “dressed up” as the favourite game animal of the tribe (bison, antelope or deer). More disturbing, though, the shaman might “dress up as” (and therefore take-on the aggressive role) of a fierce alpha predator (perhaps a wolf, a leopard, or a lion) — to claim supremacy over the hunted game (or, sometimes, conquest over a rival tribe.)

eagle head

In some cultures there’s a belief that “invisible stories” can only be seen when a person assumes an animal body. The shamans who see these invisible stories are frequently called “skin walkers” — they are the people with a supernatural ability to turn into any animal they wish, as long as they first use the skin of the chosen animal, worn in most cases over human skin. This is a perspective that will interest you as a writer of fantasy fiction and is an idea that shapes modern ideas around animal cos-play.

“If it were necessary to counter a dangerous dominant spirit, the shaman could take the form of a wolf or jaguar…”

Some animals, even in their earthly & physical forms, are seen as enlightened spirits: and this is especially true in the eagle’s case, and also the snake, the jaguar, the wolf, the cat, and the rat. So, for example, if a tribe asks their shaman to see beyond a mountain range and into a remote valley, the shaman might “take the shape” of an eagle (usually in an ecstatic trance, and frequently after taking a shed-load of mood-enhancing psychoactive substances and putting on a head-dress of feathers) so he’d be able to “fly” into the valley to see the hidden things for himself, and report back to the tribe. If it was necessary to infiltrate a small place, perhaps a warehouse or a grain barn owned by an enemy tribe, the shaman could take the form of a rat to climb into holes and search for treasure in confined spaces. If it were necessary to counter a dangerous dominant spirit, the shaman could take the form of a wolf or a jaguar to “fight” an invisible threat, because such animals are fearless even in the face of terrible danger. As a snake, the shaman could move between dimensions (because a snake swims in water, climbs trees, lives in the utter darkness of caves, wriggles across fire, and moves smoothly through deadly swamps, etc.) As a cat, a shaman might be able pass beyond the boundaries of unseen dimensions (because cats are believed to pass through walls) and “view” intangibles that are too subtle for the human eye.

Often, the shapeshifting experience will occur at a festival (or a special ceremonial time of the year) and will be attended by fasting followed by feasting, vigils followed by parties, rapturous dancing, ceremonial singing, and (often) plenty of mayhem and crazy antics. It will involve the entire tribe and the tribe will witness the shapeshift as the magic “happens.” It is an important shared event because it strengthens and fosters faith in the shaman’s powers, and intensifies & enhances tribal traditions and doctrines.

Think abut using this type of ritualistic temporary therianthropy in your next fantasy tale, and please let me know if you’ve used a shaman in your project. Tweet me @neilmach


A few words about Otherkin and the roots of furry fandom

Some ancient cultures believe there is an animal counterpart to every human person. We often say things like: “don’t be such a greedy pig” or “he’s such a stubborn ass” or “she can be a real bitch” — so the concept is not as far-fetched as you might imagine. While an experienced shaman will acquire the spiritual attributes of various beasts (through ceremonies, dances, trances, and the use of psychoactive substances) — there is a suggestion that everyone (yes, everyone) might be able harness and “tap into” their animal counterpart. We find stories of humans descending from animals in many oral traditions (they often form an important part of tribal and clan histories) and even “modern” societies are distinguished (perhaps caricatured, though not always in a flattering way) by animal counterparts i.e. the bulldog represents the British, the bear represents the Russians, and so on ) — so it might be possible for each of us to transform into the animal of our clan. For example, indigenous North American traditions suggest that some tribes might have bears as ancestors (so tribe members would “tap into” their bear) and in Turkic mythology, some tribes claim wolf ancestry (so tribe members would “tap into” their wolf.) 

Wolf/Man Man/Wolf

The otherkin are these same types of people: they are a subculture that identifies as not wholly human because they access their animal inner-selves. Some otherkin believe their beast-identity is derived from reincarnation, while others claim direct ancestry (such as the Turkic peoples that I just mentioned), while others simply claim a metaphorical connection (hidden similarities) or enjoy the role-playing aspect of “becoming” their chosen animal because they feel a special affinity with it (for some, the sense of confinement and restraint when bound inside an animal entity is an exciting turn-on.)

If you ever compared yourself to the traits of your astrological zodiac sign (a lion, a ram, a crab, etc.) or you thought your Chinese Lunar Animal perfectly describes you (a tiger, a rabbit, a dragon etc) you will have (unknowingly) placed yourself in this group because you invoked an anthropomorphic avatar that you connected or sympathised with. Though, I ought to add that some Otherkin folk self-identify with entirely mythical creatures such as angels, demons, elves, fairies, extra-terrestrials, and even cartoon characters. 

Some members of Otherkin communities claim to shapeshift mentally and/or astrally into their chosen beast, and this suggests they experience a “sense of alternate being” whilst shifted into their chosen form: even though they haven’t actually changed physicality (they might wear a mask or a very simple costume, perhaps stick-on ears, for example).

This light role-playing version of the Otherkin phenomena is known as furry fandom. Catgirls and catboys are the most prolific identities in the furry fandom subculture, although we’ve seen bunny girls too (they are becoming promoted after an long absence) and foxfolk, dogfolk and wolf-folk are quite common sights on social networks.

This is yet another perspective on therianthropy (shapeshifting) that you might want to explore further in your fantasy writing. Let me know if you have any tips, advice, or suggestions…

Words: @neilmach 2021 ©

Agree? Disagree? Ideas or comments? Tweet me @neilmach

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: