- For the medical condition, see Clinical Lycanthropy.
In folklore, lycanthropy is the ability or power of a human being to undergo transformation into a wolf. The term comes from Greek lykánthropos (λυκάνθρωπος): λύκος, lýkos ("wolf") + άνθρωπος, ánthrōpos ("man") (Rose, 230). The word can also be used transitively, referring to the act of transforming someone else into a wolf, or werewolf.
The word lycanthropy is often used generically for any transformation of a human into animal form, though the precise term for that is technically "therianthropy". Sometimes, "zoanthropy" is used instead of "therianthropy" (Guiley, 192).
Folk-etymology also links the word to Lycaon, a king of Arcadia who, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, was turned into a ravenous wolf in retribution for attempting to serve human flesh (his own son) to visiting Zeus in an attempt to disprove the god's divinity.
There is also a mental illness called lycanthropy in which a patient believes he or she is, or has transformed into, an animal and behaves accordingly. This is sometimes referred to as clinical lycanthropy to distinguish it from its use in legends.
Much of the time, lycanthropy is not given any specific explanation in legends, other than being generally attributed to magic, which may be voluntary (a preternatural power) or involuntary (a curse). When a more detailed explanation is assigned, it is generally one of those listed below.
Mechanisms of transformation
Even if the denotation of lycanthropy is limited to the wolf-metamorphosis of living human beings, the beliefs classed together under this head are far from uniform, and the term is somewhat capriciously applied. The transformation may be temporary or permanent; the were-animal may be the man himself metamorphosed, it may be his double whose activity leaves the real man to all appearance unchanged, it may be his soul, which goes forth seeking whom it may devour and leaving its body in a state of trance; or it may be no more than the messenger of the human being, a real animal or a familiar spirit, whose intimate connection with its owner is shown by the fact that any injury to it is believed, by a phenomenon known as repercussion, to cause a corresponding injury to the human being.
Transmigration of souls
Lycanthropy is often confused with transmigration; but the essential feature of the were-animal is that it is the alternative form or the double of a living human being, while the soul-animal is the vehicle, temporary or permanent, of the spirit of a dead human being. Nevertheless, instances in legend of humans reincarnated as wolves are often classed with lycanthropy, as well as these instances being labeled werewolves in local folklore.
There is no line of demarcation, and this makes it probable that lycanthropy is connected with nagualism and the belief in familiar spirits, rather than with metempsychosis, as E. B. Tylor argued, or with totemism, as suggested by J. F. M'Lennan. Thus, these origins for lycanthropy mingle a belief in reincarnation, a belief in the sharing of souls between living humans and beasts and a belief in human ghosts appearing as non-human animals after death. A characteristic of metempsychosis is a blurring of the boundaries between the intangible and the corporeal, so that souls are often conceived of as solid, visible forms that need to eat and can do physical harm (Hamel, 15).
The phenomenon of repercussion, the power of animal metamorphosis, or of sending out a familiar, real or spiritual, as a messenger, and the supernormal powers conferred by association with such a familiar, are also attributed to the magician, male and female, all the world over; and witch superstitions are closely parallel to, if not identical with, lycanthropic beliefs, the occasional involuntary character of lycanthropy being almost the sole distinguishing feature. In another direction the phenomenon of repercussion is asserted to manifest itself in connection with the bush-soul of the West African and the nagual of Central America; but though there is no line of demarcation to be drawn on logical grounds, the assumed power of the magician and the intimate association of the bush-soul or the nagual with a human being are not termed lycanthropy. Nevertheless it will be well to touch on both these beliefs here.
Stories of humans descending from animals are common explanations for tribal and clan origins. Sometimes the animals assumed human forms in order to ensure their descendants retained their human shapes, other times the origin story is of a human marrying a normal animal.
North American indigeneous traditions particularly mingle the idea of bear ancestors and ursine shapeshifters, with bears often being able to shed their skins to assume human form, marrying human women in this guise. The offspring may be monsters with combined anatomy, they might be very beautiful children with uncanny strength, or they could be shapeshifters themselves (Pijoan, 79).
P'an Hu is represented in various Chinese legends as a supernatural dog, a dog-headed man, or a canine shapeshifter that married an emperor's daughter and founded at least one race. When he is depicted as a shapeshifter, all of him can become human except for his head. The race(s) descended from P'an Hu were often characterized by Chinese writers as monsters who combined human and dog anatomy (White, 150).
In North and Central America, and to some extent in West Africa, Australia and other parts of the world, every male acquires at puberty a tutelary spirit (see Demonology); in some Native American tribes the youth kills the animal of which he dreams in his initiation fast; its claw, skin or feathers are put into a little bag and become his "medicine" and must be carefully retained, for a "medicine" once lost can never be replaced. In West Africa this relation is said to be entered into by means of the blood bond, and it is so close that the death of the animal causes the man to die and vice versa. Elsewhere the possession of a tutelary spirit in animal form is the privilege of the magician. In Alaska the candidate for magical powers has to leave the abodes of men; the chief of the gods sends an otter to meet him, which he kills by saying "O" four times; he then cuts out its tongue and thereby secures the powers which he seeks.
The Malays believe that the office of pawang (priest) is only hereditary if the soul of the dead priest, in the form of a tiger, passes into the body of his son. While the familiar is often regarded as the alternative form of the magician, the nagual or bush-soul is commonly regarded as wholly distinct from the human being. Transitional beliefs, however, are found, especially in Africa, in which the power of transformation is attributed to the whole of the population of certain areas. The people of Banana are said to change themselves by magical means, composed of human embryos and other ingredients, but in their leopard form they may do no hurt to mankind under pain of retaining forever the beast shape. In other cases the change is supposed to be made for the purposes of evil magic and human victims are not prohibited.
A further link is supplied by the Zulu belief that the magician's familiar is really a transformed human being; when he finds a dead body on which he can work his spells without fear of discovery, the wizard breathes a sort of life into it, which enables it to move and speak, it being thought that some dead wizard has taken possession of it. He then burns a hole in the head and through the aperture extracts the tongue. Further spells have the effect of changing the revivified body into the form of some animal, hyena, owl or wild cat, the latter being most in favour. This creature then becomes the wizard's servant and obeys him in all things; its chief use is, however, to inflict sickness and death upon persons who are disliked by its master.
In Melanesia there is a belief in the tamaniu or atai which is an animal counterpart to a person. It can be an eel, a shark, a lizard, or some other creature. This creature is corporeal, can understand human speech, and shares the same soul as its master, leading to legends which have many characteristics typical of shapeshifter tales, such as any death or injury affecting both forms at once (Hamel, 21).
Although the term lycanthropy properly speaking refers to metamorphosis into a wolf (see werewolf), lycanthropy is in popular practice used of transformation into any animal, even though the proper term is therianthropy. In India and the Asian islands the tiger is the most common form; in North Europe, the bear (see berserker); in Japan, the fox, tanuki(raccoon dog), and sometimes a wolf; in Africa, the leopard, hyena, or lion; and in South America, the jaguar. Though there is a tendency for the most important carnivorous animal of the area to take the first place in stories and beliefs as to transformation, the less important beasts of prey and even harmless animals like the deer or rabbit also figure prominently among the were-animals. Another unusual case is the were-shark of Polynesia and were-crocodile of Indonesia and Egypt.
Lycanthropy in North America
Many Native cultures feature skin-walkers or a similar concept, wherein a shaman or warrior may, according to cultural tradition, take on an animal form. Animal forms vary accordingly with cultures and local species (including bears and wolves), for example, a coyote is more likely to be found as a skinwalker's alternate form in the Great Plains region. Skinwalkers tend to be totemic.
In modern folklore and fiction the Wendigo found in the stories of many Algonquian peoples is sometimes considered to be similar to lycanthropes, in that humans could transform into them. The original legends varied significantly, however, and the fit may not be very close.
Lycanthropy in South America
According to K. F. P. v. Martius the kanaima is a human being who employs poison to carry out his function of blood avenger; other authorities represent the kanaima as a jaguar, which is either an avenger of blood or the familiar of a cannibalistic sorcerer. The Europeans of Brazil hold that the seventh child of the same sex in unbroken succession becomes a were-man or woman, and takes the form of a headless horse (or mule), goat, guará-wolf or pig. The dolphin-man (boto) or encantado is common in native North-Brazilian folklore. However, the myth more likely stems from one of the supposed powers of the boto (wherein it changes its shape into that of a human) rather than a man changing his form into that of an animal.
Lycanthropy in Europe
The wolf is the most common form of the were-animal, though in the north the bear disputes its pre-eminence. In ancient Greece the dog was also associated with the belief. The were-boar variant is known through Greece and Turkey. Marcellus of Sida, who wrote under the Antonines, gives an account of a disease which befell people in February; but a pathological state seems to be meant.
Romanian folklore actually has multiple variations on the lycanthropy theme. The vârcolac is often - though not exclusively - seen as a werewolf though it can refer also to (usually wolf-like) demons, vampires, goblins or ghosts as well; the pricolici is more universally wolf-like, and much like the strigoi is said to be a formerly human member of the undead, having risen from the grave to wreak havoc on the living. Additionally, both the terms strigoi and moroi are traditionally closely associated with both pricolici and vârcolaci, and while modern fiction makes a clear distinction between the terms (with strigoi and moroi being in usage more a reference to the vampiric than the lycanthropic, and the latter in turn referring more to "living" as opposed to undead vampires), older folklore leaves them not always so easily differentiated, especially with regional variants.
Lycanthropy in Africa
In Abyssinia the power of transformation is attributed to the Boudas, and at the same time we have records of pathological lycanthropy (see below). Blacksmiths are credited with magical powers in many parts of the world, and it is significant that the Boudas are workers in iron and clay; in the Life of N. Pearce (i. 287) a European observer tells a story of a supposed transformation which took place in his presence and almost before his eyes; but it does not appear how far hallucination rather than coincidence must be invoked to explain the experience. The animal forms taken in Africa include the gazelle, crocodile, hyena, jackal, lion and leopard.
Lycanthropy in the South Pacific
There are various tales of people becoming sharks in various South Pacific islands. For the most part, these werecreatures are benevolent or at least not malign. There are several variant stories on how weresharks come about. One story is that a wereshark inherits their ability. Others point to children lost at sea or children adopted by a shark god. Many of the humans-turned-sharks are described as having skin patterns that no natural sharks have: similar to the cloth patterns of blankets that are wrapped around infants.
Lycanthropy in the East Indies
The Poso-Alfures of central Celebes believe that man has three souls, the inosa, the angga and the tanoana. The inosa is the vital principle; it can be detected in the veins and arteries; it is given to man by one of the great natural phenomena, more specifically the wind. The angga is the intellectual part of man; its seat is unknown; after death it goes to the under-world, and, unlike the inosa, which is believed to be dissolved into its original elements, takes possession of an immaterial body. The tanoana is the divine in man and after death returns to its lord, Poewempala boeroe. It goes forth during sleep, and all that it sees it whispers into the sleeper's ear and then he dreams. According to another account, the tanoana is the substance by which man lives, thinks and acts; the tanoana of man, plants and animals is of the same nature. A man's tanoana can be strengthened by those of others; when the tanoana is long away or destroyed the man dies. The tanoana seems to be the soul of which lycanthropic feats are asserted.
Among the Toradjas of central Celebes it is believed that a man's "inside" can take the form of a cat, wild pig, ape, deer or other animal, and afterwards resume human form; it is termed lamboyo. The exact relation of the lamboyo to the tanoana does not seem to be settled; it will be seen below that the view seems to vary. According to some the power of transformation is a gift of the gods, but others hold that lycanthropy is contagious and may be acquired by eating food left by a lycanthrope or even by leaning one's head against the same pillar. The Todjoers hold that any one who touches blood becomes a shapeshifter. In accordance with this view is the belief that lycanthropy can be cured; the breast and stomach of the shapeshifter must be rubbed and pinched, just as when any other witch object has to be extracted. The patient drinks medicine, and the contagion leaves the body in the form of snakes and worms. There are certain marks by which a shapeshifter can be recognized. His eyes are unsteady and sometimes green with dark shadows underneath. He does not sleep soundly and fireflies come out of his mouth. His lips remain red in spite of betel chewing, and he has a long tongue. The Todjoers add that his hair stands on end.
Some of the forms of the lamboyo are distinguishable from ordinary animals by the fact that they run about among the houses; the were-buffalo has only one horn, and the were-pig transforms itself into an ants' nest, such as hangs from trees. Some say that the lycanthrope does not really take the form of an animal himself, but, like the sorcerer, only sends out a messenger. The lamboyo attacks by preference solitary individuals, for he does not like to be observed. The victim feels sleepy and loses consciousness; the lamboyo then assumes human form (his body being, however, still at home) and cuts up his victim, scattering the fragments all about. He then takes the liver and eats it, puts the body together again, licks it with his long tongue and joins it together. When the victim comes to himself again he has no idea that anything unusual has happened to him. He goes home, but soon begins to feel unwell. In a few days he dies, but before his death he is able sometimes to name the shapeshifter to whom he has fallen a victim.
From this account it might be inferred that the lamboyo was identical with the tanoana: the absence of the lamboyo seems to entail a condition of unconsciousness, and it can assume human form. In other cases, however, the lamboyo seems to be analogous to the familiar of the sorcerer. The Toradjas tell a story of how a man once came to a house and asked the woman to give him a rendezvous; it was night and she was asleep; the question was put three times before the answer was given "in the tobacco plantation". The husband was awake, and next day followed his wife, who was irresistibly drawn thither. The lycanthrope came to meet her in human form, although his body was engaged in building a new house, and caused the woman to faint by stamping three times on the ground. Thereupon the husband attacked the shapeshifter with a piece of wood, and the latter to escape transformed himself into a leaf; this the husband put into a piece of bamboo and fastened the ends so that he could not escape, he then went back to the village and put the bamboo in the fire. The shapeshifter said "Don't", and as soon as it was burnt he fell dead.
In another case a woman died, and, as her death was believed to be due to the malevolence of a lycanthrope, her husband watched by her body. For, like Indian witches, the werewolf, for some reason, wishes to revive his victim and comes in human form to carry off the coffin. As soon as the woman was brought to life the husband attacked the werewolf, who transformed himself into a piece of wood and was burnt. The woman remained alive, but her murderer died the same night.
According to a third form of the belief, the body of the shapeshifter is itself transformed. One evening a man left the hut in which a party were preparing to pass the night; one of his companions heard a deer and fired into the darkness. Soon after the man came back and said he had been shot. Although no marks were to be seen he died a few days later.