Somewhere along the way, back when I was young (and this would be long, long ago, when the dinosaurs…well, you know), I became an anthropology major. Mind you, I started off as a linguistics major, which made sense, since my family has long been one of language. But I ended up an anthropology major, because anthropology, I discovered, was a really cool way of learning about everything! Why is this relevant? Because I took folklore classes, and now, decades and decades after doing so, I’m finally getting to use ‘em! It’s for the Savvy Authors people (www.savvyauthors.com), who offer all sorts of workshops. My co-presenter Jacquie Rogers (www.jacquierogers.com) and I have done others for them, and doing the research for each has been a ball.
Anyway, about werewolves. You don’t find wolves all over the world, but you can certainly find stories no matter where you go. In one form or another, there are always stories about men and women who morph into the forms of wolves and other creatures. But it’s not one simple legend, so that you could take an Armenian werewolf story and drop it into China and have it make perfect sense there. No, there are all sorts of variations in the legend, making the change of a person into a mysterious beast of some kind.
The stories about humans changing into an animal of some sort is as old as any story in the library of man. Wolf shapeshifters are frequently found in the European tradition, but certainly not the only kind: there are dogs, cats, rats, and bats — and those are just the creatures that vampire legends usually claim for shifters. There are many, many more.
But that’s Europe, and as we start our journey along the Silk Road, we find different stories about shapeshifters. African folklore has many instances about shapeshifters, including bears and apes, with many strong similarities between the shifters here and those that can be found in Central and South America. Among the Zulu, owls, hyenas, and wildcats are often shifters in disguise, sometimes for good intent, sometimes for evil.
Once we find ourselves in Asia, those shapeshifter stories are markedly different. Because wolves are relatively uncommon in large portions of Asia, the animal tricksters are usually in the form of foxes and even tanuki, the raccoon dog (it’s a dog, but it looks like a raccoon—seriously!). One of the most haunting fairy tales from Japan involve the sad story of a vixen who falls in love with a human male, and decides to change into the shape of a woman, only to encounter trouble because she has chosen to do so. Not an unusual story, variations of which you can find elsewhere along the Silk Road and beyond — and if you consider the bare bones of that tale, remember the story of Hans Christian Andersen’s little mermaid, who was a shapeshifter herself, after all, with a sad ending (at least in the original version; let us not speak of the Disney version).
And what about the story of the princess and the frog? Being cursed into a shapeshifted form is universal, too, with a modern twist on the story being found in the movie Shrek — but instead of the human being cursed, it is the ogre, doomed to be in the form of a woman.
Not to mention dragons. Dragon shapeshifters are common in folklore and literature; in Armenian lore (again), there’s a story about a serpent-like river monster — that description’s usually reserved for a dragon, you know — that shifts into the shape of a human woman or a seal. And the Hawaiians have a tragic tale of the son of the shark king being beaten to death, basically because he was different. The scariest of the Hawaiian shapeshifting legends? The story of the fire goddess Pele, who keeps a close eye on her home. Don’t think about taking a pebble from Hawaii home with you, because she will make sure you suffer the consequences! Sometimes seen as an elderly woman (a common disguise for her), encouraging the local culture to be nice to the little old ladies, because they could smite you just as easily reward you! Not an animal, but shapeshifter nonetheless.
Of course, we have to ask ourselves: Why do we have the shapeshifter legend at all? And why are they mostly predatory animals that the shifting is into? You never hear about a were-pig, after all. Think about that!
What all this comes down to: Anthropology rocks!
Eilis Flynn can be found at Facebook, Twitter, and even at www.eilisflynn.com. Or even presenting yet another workshop.