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Beyond Werewolves: Strange Were-beasts of the World

Since the dawn of recorded history there have been persistent stories, myths and legends throughout cultures of people turning into beasts or half-beasts. The most widely known and famous is the werewolf, yet wolves are by no means the only animal to be linked to mysterious stories of shapeshifting. From traditions far and wide we have accounts and tales of those who could transform into a veritable menageries of wild creatures, and at times the werewolf seems absolutely tame in comparison. In the weird world of were-creatures, the wolf may have achieved the most notorious and popular status, but as we will see it is by no means the only such creature out there.

One mighty animal that has perhaps not surprisingly long been connected to shapeshifting is the bear. Like wolves, bears have perhaps understandably entrenched themselves as supremely powerful creatures of lore in many cultures, and it is this rich history of worshipping them and coveting their strength that has also caused them to be featured as objects of shapeshifting. In Finland the bear was long worshipped by pagan religions since from long before Christianity was even a thing, and it was revered as an all powerful supernatural being. The spirit of the bear was said to reside within its skull, and was referred to as kallohonka. If a bear died, its spirit was said to be able to move on to another animal, object, or even a person, where it would wait and bide its time until it was ready to be reborn as another bear. If the new vessel was a human, that person was said to take on the attributes and strength of a bear, and to this end some shamans kept bear skulls for the purpose of inviting the spirit held within into them to gain this immense power. These shamans or witch doctors would also make use of special clothing made of bearskin that could supposedly transform them into a bear. These articles were called ber serkr, from the Norse word ber-, meaning “bear,” and serkr, meaning “shirt,” giving us the modern English word “berserk.”

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Indeed, in ancient Norse traditions there was a class of warriors called the berserkr (berserkers), which were crazed fighters that stormed boldly and fearlessly into battle without armor, clad only in these magical bearskins, or ber-serkr, and displaying animalistic ferocity and strength. These warriors were said to howl and snarl like beasts, foam at the mouth, bite and claw, and to display vast feats of superhuman strength, as well as showing near invulnerability in the face of swords and other conventional weapons. It is believed that these berserkers were followers of the bear cult and drew their power from the spirit of the bear, channelled through their bearskins and partially transforming them into these beasts to lay waste to the enemy. In Old Norse when these warriors went berserk it was called hamask, meaning “to change form.” This earned them the title of “bear warriors,” and when they did die they were laid out on bear skins to show respect to their source of strength.

Some tribes in Lapland, such as the Sami, also revered the bear as a powerful totem spirit, and here too the most powerful shamans were said to be able to take the form of a hulking bear, mostly for hunting. In North America, the bear was widely worshipped among many Native American tribes as well, where it was regarded as a god-like animal whose eternal spirit never died. Native American shamans were said to be able to harness the power of the bear spirit in order to tap into its strength or to even turn the shaman into a bear. Many Native American legends tell of figures who transformed into bears through wearing bearskin robes and were called the “Bear People.” The popular Native American tale of the Bear Mother can be found in various incarnations throughout tribes and although it takes many forms basically tells of a tribal woman who bore children with one of these Bear People and had twins who were half-human and half-bear. Some myths expand on this story and claim that all human beings are somehow descended from these “Bear Sons.” A similar story can be found in the Native Canadian First Nations, with shamans called “Bear Walkers” who could supposedly take the form of a bear at will.

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Other powerful animals also seem to draw in stories and legends of shape-changing. In parts of Asia there have long been traditions of weretigers, and there were various ways in which one might become one of these ferocious beasts depending on the culture. In Thailand, weretigers were said to be the result of a tiger that had feasted too much on human flesh, which then transformed them into half-human, half-tiger beasts with the intellect of a human but the power, speed, and viciousness of a tiger. In China, it was seen in some areas as a curse inflicted upon a family and passed down through the genealogical line. Due to the curse being locked within a family line, sometimes whole villages were said to be infested with weretigers, which were said to mostly keep to themselves and shun contact with the outside world, although they could be fierce if approached. If a human were to fall in love with a weretiger, they were said to be encouraged to cut off all contact with friends and family in the world of humans.

Other areas of China saw weretigers as the result of vengeful spirits of those killed by tigers possessing the animals, and in still other regions they were said to be powerful sorcerers who were able to change their form into that of a tiger in order to gain their power and ferocity for the purposes of battle, murder, or revenge. In these areas, weretigers were said to be distinguishable from normal tigers by the presence of five toes instead of four, and that it was possible to approach a weretiger more closely than would normally be possible with a regular one, as they had control over their animal nature. India also has its own rather malevolent version of the weretiger, which were said to be crazed magicians who had developed an insatiable appetite for blood and taken the form of a tiger to quench it.

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In other societies weretigers were seen as mostly benign. In Malaysia and Indonesia these creatures were often said to be typically harmless to humans unless provoked or very hungry. In Malaysia the transformation into a weretiger was seen as something one typically chose voluntarily through the use of magical spells for the purpose of guarding the village or crops, although there were some who were said to pay sorcerers to change them into this form in order to carry out violence, vengeance, or dark vendettas. Other traditions of Malaysia describe families who suffered from a hereditary curse that caused them to turn into tigers, similar to the legends of China.

In Mesoamerican folk religion, there were not weretigers, but rather werejaguars or werepumas, which were called the nagual or nahual, which can roughly be translated into “transforming witch” or “transforming trickster.” These shape-shifters turned into an animal that was represented by their birthdate, with each day representing a different animal counterpart to which their lifeforce was linked, such as donkeys, cattle, monkeys, birds, dogs or coyotes, but the really powerful magic users who were able to tap into this force for the transformation were typically born on days of powerful animals like the jaguar or puma. Due to this strong spiritual connection with these fierce animal spiritual counterparts and their proficiency with magic, the nagual were said to be able to transform at will into the animal of their birth date. Other werejaguars of Mesoamerican cultures were the “jaguar warrior” of the Aztec culture, who were said to derive their shapeshifting powers from wearing magically imbued jaguar skins, the balams of Yucatan, who took their jaguar form to guard crops, and those who were cursed to become werejaguars through being bitten or scratched by a sphinx.

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Africa also has strong traditions of humans changing form into big cats such as lions or leopards. In these cases, cultists who worshipped these animals were said to drink a magical brew called borfima, which was often crafted from the organs of enemies and was said to incur the powers of their chosen totem. These transformed individuals were said to gain great cat-like powers through the process, and were often known to wear steel claws or even steel-tooth mouthpieces to augment their power. Wereleopards in African lore were also sometimes said to be the offspring of a leopard god or goddess who had mated with a human to produce shapeshifting offspring, and werelions were often believed to have been some form of royalty in a former life, or lions possessed by the spirits of those who were once royalty.

Noble and revered or respected animals are not the only creatures that share this world of the weird, and in fact there are more nefarious beasts that join the ranks of shape shifters; every bit as propelled into the realm of myth and legend by their infamy as other creatures are for their power and standing. North Africa has numerous myths, legends, and stories of those who can shape-shift into hyenas, an animal which has long been regarded here with repulsion and disdain, attributed with being cowardly, conniving, stupid, mean-spirited, treacherous, evil, wicked, and blamed for robbing graves, thievery, and kidnapping people. In various African cultures the hyena has been credited as a magical trickster having a range of mischievous mystical powers, and is almost solely seen as a malevolent creature in the region. Werehyenas in Africa took on an array of forms and origins. One was the idea that some hyenas were born human, but through a variety of circumstances slowly transformed into hyenas which gained the ability to disguise themselves as humans if they so chose. These creatures were known to have preternatural strength and were said to call out people’s names to lure them out into the night where they could be attacked and devoured mercilessly.

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Another form of werehyena was those who had some predilection for becoming one. According to some superstitions, those who were blacksmiths were particularly at risk of developing the ability to morph into a hyena hybrid. In the Lake Chad area, the former Bornu Empire had those known as the bultungin, which translates more or less into “I change myself into a hyena”; people with magical powers that allowed them to take the form of hyenas. One town called Kabutiloa was said to be completely populated by werehyenas, every single inhabitant infected or under the spell, making it a place to be given wide berth.

In Ethiopia, this myth was especially prevalent, and such creatures were known as bouda, which were said to have a macabre propensity for raiding graves under the cover of night. An odd account of an Ethiopian werehyena, in what was then known as Abyssinia, was recounted in the autobiographical The Life and Adventures of Nathanial Pearce, by Nathanial Pearce. In the account, a man named Coffin is asked by a servant for a leave of absence, which was granted. Soon after, as the servant made his way out across the open plain, another servant pointed out that he had turned into an exceptionally large hyena. Coffin apparently looked out to see that there was no sign of the servant, but rather an enormous hyena bounding away. The villagers insisted that what Pearce had seen was a werehyena, which were considered a scourge.

When the mysterious servant returned the next day from his inscrutable agenda and was asked about the incident, he apparently admitted that he had indeed become a hyena and had had this ability for quite some time. Pearce offered up further evidence of such transformations by including in the book stories of coming across the carcasses of dead hyenas that had sported earrings that were typical of the people of the region. It was unclear if this meant that people were indeed turning into hyenas or if there were those who wished to sow this idea by intentionally putting the earrings into the ears of the dead animals. Werehyenas are also known from the countries Sudan, Tanzania, and Morocco, where they are said by the Berber people to be those who undergo a transformation into hyena by the dark hours of night to run amok, only to turn back with the coming of day. These bizarre monsters are supposedly especially drawn towards lovers.

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Other areas outside of Africa had their own stories of werehyenas. In Persia there were tales of a creature known as the kaftar, which was said to be half human and half hyena, with a habit of preying on young children. They were said to be able to mesmerize and bend humans to their will, and that they enjoyed sucking the blood from their victims. In all versions of the werehyenas, they are wholly nocturnal, always malevolent, and are said to have about them a rather unpleasant smell like rotting flesh.

Another animal seen as trickster in many cultures and which has its own shapeshifting propensities is the fox. In many areas of Asia foxes have a long tradition of such stories. In Northern China, werefoxes were considered to be beasts of the netherworld between our reality and the dimensions beyond. They were said to appear in human form as strikingly attractive, albeit with a fox tail they were forced to hide to carry out their charade, with their stunning looks all the better to attract human mates who they were able to enslave through such matings. The werefoxes of China were believed to lose control of their human form as they slept, reverting back to a fox during their slumber or shifting back and forth between the two. Japan, where the fox, or kitsune, has long been an animal attributed with various supernatural powers, also has a long tradition of shape-changing foxes, whose true form could be glimpsed by their reflection in a pool of water. These werefoxes often chose the form of a beautiful young woman, and were every bit the mischievous trickster. Werefoxes also feature in some Native American lore, where shamans were said to actually prefer this animal form to others, despite the negative reputation attributed to it.

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A similarly frowned upon animal with a notorious reputation in many cultures is the jackal, but in Africa and the Middle East there were supposedly witch doctors who could assume this form through magical rituals. One report from the Congo in the 1930s comes from an English doctor who claimed to have witnessed such a transformation firsthand. During the account, the witch doctor allegedly joined a ritual dressed in the skins of a jackal as onlookers chanted and made his way to the center of a circle surrounded by other villagers before imbibing a potion of some sort. He then unleashed an unearthly wail and fell to the ground as villagers danced in an animalistic fashion about his prone, unmoving form. It was at this point when the physician claimed that two of the villagers transformed into jackals. In the Middle East, these werejackals were blamed for robbing graves and using the body parts they accrued to carry out rituals of dark magic.

Werewolves have achieved an iconic status. They feature heavily in legends, fiction, film, and alleged real life sightings to this day. Yet they have overshadowed a list of other equally menacing and mostly obscure were-creatures that are frightening in their own right. While werewolves remain at the top, as we have seen here they are certainly not alone in the area of shapeshifting beasts, and are maybe not even the most interesting. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see a film about weretigers or werebears? Why has this not happened yet? Indeed in many cultures throughout the world, the wolf takes back seat to other equally enigmatic beasts of myth and legend, and shows us just how widespread and varied the belief in shapeshifting humans is.

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  • MUltan

    “Why has this not happened yet?”
    There have been a few movies about were-seals a.k.a. selkies, the most famous being “The Secret of Roan Innish”, but also: “The Seventh Stream”, “Song of the Sea”, and “Ondine”.

    Big cats should be better than seals, but the 1982 big-budget horror flop “Cat People” might have killed that genre before it got started.