Monday, October 06, 2014

Haunted Garden: Shapeshifter Mythology

Happy Halloween Season! October is possibly my favorite month of the year, and Halloween has a great deal to do with that. This year, I thought it would be fun to do a little fact finding about the traditional Halloween monsters (werewolves, vampires, and Frankenstein) and their evolution in folklore and literature.

Since my upcoming release - Andromeda's Fall - (release date TBD) involves mountain lion shifters, let's start with werewolves (and shifters in general).

As I researched this topic, I found it very interesting that--unlike vampires and Frankenstein--almost every culture around the world has some type of transformation or shape-shifting mythology (typically with animals indigenous to the area) that go back to antiquity.

In earlier history, shapeshifters were most commonly deities (gods or goddesses) with the magical ability to transform. In Japan they have Kitsune, a fox shifter who is typically benevolent but often a trickster. Korea and China have similar fox shapeshifter myths. In Africa, deities shift into lions or leopards. In South America they transform into jaguars. Some gods/goddesses in Greek, Roman, Norse, etc. mythology can pick their forms.

Another frequent myth seen for shifters in earlier history were humans who were transformed into something by a god or goddess as a punishment. In Greek mythology, Arachne was transformed into a spider. In Roman and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, King Lycaon was changed to a wolf by Jupiter (some attribute this as the beginning of werewolf mythology). But in these cases, the person shifted had no power to change back to human. This theme continued in later European folklore. The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast both involve transformation into animals as a punishment.

Enter the Middle Ages where the werewolf mythology became prevalent. Most of the people executed for being werewolves in this time period were later found by historians to be serial killers. The werewolf mythology closely follows witch folklore and persecution. In fact, shifters mythologies were not all that prevalent in North America until brought over by European colonists at the same time as they brought their fear of witches.

Based on what I could find, not a lot seemed to change about shapeshifter folklore for quite some time. Up to the 1940s (and even later) they were truly seen as monsters eliciting terror and revulsion. Early books and movies about werewolves have the happy ending being the death or defeat of the creature.

In my research, I couldn't find a specific trigger for the change in perception of shapeshifters and werewolves as monsters to the view of them today as sympathetic and even heroic. Even books written in the mid- to late-1900s still use a more classic example of shifters. For example, in C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia, Eustace is shifted into a dragon - but more as a learning moment or punishment, not at will.

I would argue that shapeshifters we see today are found in literature and movies only in the last 10-20 years. Unlike their earlier counterparts, these people/creatures are not deities (or not always), are not being punished, can change forms at will (or at least aren't permanently an animal), are powerful, are usually benevolent or good, and frequently have an entire sub-culture of like-shifters to support them or deal with in some way.

What a change from the monsters they originally were. Right?

I've found this topic so interesting to research, I'll have to dig more on the psychology behind this phenomenon. My guess is that, like vampires, we've romanticized werewolves and other shapeshifters, giving them more human qualities, behaviors, and values. Dissatisfied by our human frailty, we are intrigued by the thought of what additional power assuming such a form could provide.

It makes me wonder what the next 10, 20, 100 years have in store for these fascinating--and ancient--creatures.

Abigail Owen
Award-Winning Author of the Svatura Series

1 comment:

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