Evolving Forms: An Intriguing Look at Shapeshifting
The notion of shapeshifting has been around for nearly as long as human beings. The possibility that a person can take the shape of another being—most often an animal—can be traced back thousands of years, permeating various cultures and religions. While transmogrification has been widely valued in various religious mythologies, there is also evidence of its influence in pseudo-historical (possibly historical) records.
Shapeshifting in Fairy Tales and Myth
Shapeshifting appears very often in fairy tales and myths. In tales from Greek mythology, Zeus transformed into countless creatures, such as a swan, a bull, and an ant. The myths of the Egyptians depicted the gods with the heads of animals, as seen in the bird head of Horus and the dog head of Anubis, while the myths of the Norsemen showed the mischievous god Loki change into a giant, a woman, and various animals. More recently, in the well-known tale recorded by the Brothers Grimm, The Frog Prince (written in the 19th century), the male protagonist was changed into a frog for a mistake he made in his past.
Illustration of The Frog Prince, P. Meyerheim (Wikimedia Commons)
It is considered likely that the earliest depictions of shapeshifting capabilities comes from the Cave of the Trois-Frères, located in southern France. Though the purposes behind the images discovered there are constantly up for debate, and are unlikely to be definitively decrypted in the near future, many scholars believe that some of these drawings indicate a pre-historic belief in the ritual of transformation. The cave's depiction of "The Sorcerer", for example, gives the impression of both animal and human parts, his awkward position explained by placing him in the physical moment of alteration. If modern scholars are right about this, then beliefs in shapeshifting and transmogrification can be traced all the way back to 13,000 BC.
- The ancient text that describes Jesus as a shape-shifter
- Baba Yaga, The Confounding Crone of Slavic Folklore
- Ten Discoveries of 2014 that Suggest there is Truth to Ancient Myths and Legends
The Sorcerer, drawing of the cave art, Cave of the Trois-Frères, France (Wikimedia Commons)
The most common type of metamorphosis of a human into another being is documented as therianthropy, or the transformation of a human into an animal. These people, known as therianthropes, often have been greatly valued and highlighted in the historical record. Werewolves, for example, are undoubtedly one of the oldest and most prominent, with their supposed existence among the oldest recorded.
Known as lycanthropy, the concept of werewolves stems from as far back as Ancient Greece, culminating in the modern belief of men transforming into wolves during the three nights of the full moon. For the Ancient Greeks, this was not as magical as it is perceived now.
German woodcut of a werewolf transformation (1722), (Wikimedia Commons)
The mythology of werewolves remains one of the most extensively written, often considered to be victims themselves of a spell or curse—such as the case of the Beast in the 18th century fairy tale La Belle et la Bête.
Though the earliest references of therianthropy cannot definitively be traced, references from antiquity do exist. The most well-known from the age of the ancient Greeks. In Homer's Iliad for instance, one of the foremost characters is a sea god called Proteus who can alter as swiftly as the shifting waves, and is known for his prophetic capabilities.
- Bulgarian farmer discovers skull resembling werewolf in a sealed box
- Ten Mysterious Examples of Rock Art from the Ancient World
- The Ancient Practice of Tengriism, Shamanism and Ancient Worship of the Sky Gods
Shamans: Highly-Valued Shapeshifters
This theme—of a shapeshifter possessing other extraordinary powers—is common in most tales of shifters, as the ability to alter the physical form tends to be indicative of the highest degree of knowledge. These particularly evolved individuals often take on the role of some sort of shaman in various cultures.
Commonly, shamans are revered for their wisdom, healing capabilities, and powers of premonition, all possible because of their dual form abilities. Even though the actual job description of shamans varies depending on the culture, they are considered valuable and, in many cases, irreplaceable members of a society.
Shamans are known to take on transformative forms in rituals for many reasons, but it appears to be widely believed that they can alter their state of consciousness and interact with the supernatural world. It is believed that without the gift of transformation—often brought on by the use of certain drugs or mental/physical rituals—these shamans would not be able to achieve the necessary level of enlightenment.
The oldest illustration of a Siberian shaman, N. Witsen (late 17th Century) (Wikimedia Commons)
Tales of shapeshifting could go on forever, just as could the tales of countless mythologies. Regardless, the ability to shapeshift has long spanned time as the belief in people with supernatural capabilities usually brought on by some kind of mystical or magical instigator.
Undoubtedly these beliefs will continue to evolve as time goes on, as they have since the days of Grecian werewolves. As the belief seems to have begun thousands of years before the written language, it appears that these views will also endure the passage of time.
Featured image: Tsarevna Frog (or The Frog Princess), by Viktor Vasnetsov, tells of a frog which metamorphoses into a princess (Wikimedia Commons)
By Ryan Stone
Coleman, JA. The Dictionary of Mythology (Arcturus Publishing Limited: Canada, 2007.)
Guerber, Helene A. Myths of the Norsemen (Barnes & Noble, Inc.: New York, 2006.)
Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. "Trois Frères: Cave, Ariège, France." Encyclopedia Britannica. December 2014. Accessed July 21, 2015. http://www.britannica.com/place/Trois-Freres#ref=ref893311
Hamilton, Edith. Mythology (Warner Books: New York, 1969.)
Illes, Judika. Encyclopedia of Spirits: The Ultimate Guide to the Magic of Fairies, Genies, Demons, Ghosts, Gods & Goddesses (New York: HarperOne, 2009.)
Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology, Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: H. G. Bohn, 1850.)
Murphy, Trevor. Pliny the Elder's Natural History: the Empire in the Encyclopedia (Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2004.)
Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1996.)
Thompson, Aarne. "Beauty and the Beast." Translated by D.L. Ashliman. University of Pittsburgh. January 2015. Accessed July 22, 2015. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/type0425c.html
Virgil. Bucolica. trans. Thomas Ethelbert Page (Ulan Press, 2012.)