Last Updated on May 31, 2021 by Brandon Hall
Shapeshifting is a trope we often see in popular culture these days. From episodes of Star Trek, the Twilight Saga, to Terminator 2, shapeshifters are an integral part of fantasy, and science fiction shows, stories, and films.
However, the concept of shapeshifting has been around far longer than most of us can even fathom. In 1914, three brothers explored a cave in southwest France, and discovered ancient drawings along the cavern walls. Some of these drawings, which have been dated back to 13,000 B.C., depict humans changing into the shape of animals.
But what does shapeshifting fully entail? And is it an ability humans will ever be able to learn?
What is Shapeshifting?
To completely understand shapeshifting, we must first start from the beginning. In essence, shapeshifting is the ability to physically transform into another shape, be it that of another human, or an animal. This also includes the idea that animals can turn into other animals. Shapeshifting can come about in a variety of ways. In some myths, the ability to shapeshift is an inherent one–meaning some people are simply born with the skill. Other shapeshifters allegedly acquire the skill by means of magic, or divine intervention.
Shapeshifters can often control when they change shape, but not always. Lon Chaney’s iconic role as the Wolfman depicts a shapeshifter who not only can’t control his secondary form, he fears it.
This ability to metamorph is also known as therianthropy. This rather antiquated term also pertains to when a deity transforms a human into some type of floral or fauna. Shapeshifting is a cross-cultural concept, spanning continents, countries, and multiple religions. The idea that someone can turn into an animal at will has been a prevalent notion in literature since the Epic of Gilgamesh was written in 1800 B.C.
Types of Shapeshifters
There are multiple types of animals that are common in varying myths, but none so more than the werewolf. This popular concept is also known as lycanthrophy. The ability to turn into a wolf exists in Native American, European, and Canadian cultures, but often seems most heavily used in Norse mythology.
Loki, the famous Norse God, is said to have turned into a female wolf in order to bear his son, Fenrir. The Volsunga saga is a poem that was written in the 13th Century. In it, many mythological characters turn into wolves, both on purpose, and by accident. In Scandanavian culture, there also exists the Maras, an entire race of female werewolves.
Stories from Trinidad, and Tobago also include humans that have the ability to turn into wolves. They are often referred to as the loup-garou, yet another term for werewolf. It is believed that abilities are handed down from ancient creole families–families that practice old African magic, or perhaps even a family member that considers themselves to be a witch doctor.
But there are many other types of shapeshifters, varying in appearance, ability, and perhaps most importantly, intent. Here are some examples of humans that change shape for malevolent reasons.
According to the Navajos, skin-walkers are evil witches that possess the ability to turn into different animals. Most tales regarding skin-walkers are not openly discussed outside of Navajo communities, however, it is believed that these particular shapeshifters were once traditional healers, who eventually became corrupt.
The wendigo is a mythological evil spirit, from the Algonquian tribes of Eastern Canada. It is believed that this evil entity can possess, and control humans, forcing them to commit murder, and sometimes cannibalism.
The wendigo has become more widely known, and has even influenced the naming of a modern, controversial syndrome, known as Wendigo Psychosis. Psychiatrists use this term to describe individuals who both fear they will become cannibals, and for those who actually admit to craving human flesh.
The Ijiraq is an Inuit shapeshifter that assumes as many forms as it wills. The Ijiraq is very elusive, and impossible to see if you attempt to look at it straight on. Instead, an Ijiraq will slip by in your periphery.
These eerie beings can occasionally be helpful to hunters that stumble upon them. Or they can be dangerously manipulative–to a fatal extent. The Ijiraq are also known for slipping into family dwellings at night, kidnapping any children present, and abandoning them in some far away, deserted location.
According to myths from the Philippines, the dreaded Aswang is a very evil, very adaptable shapeshifter. It can assume the shape of a bat, a black boar, a black cat, or a large black dog. It likes to emerge at night, and stalk any humans it can find. Other shapeshifters, such as the Kapre, the Tikbalang, and the Engkanto, also exist in Philippino culture. These types of shapeshifters are known for their attempts at wooding young, attractive females who have yet to be married.
In one better-known story, called Chonguita the Monkey Wife, a beautiful woman is lured out by one of these malicious shapeshifters. She is turned into a monkey against her will, and will remain a monkey until the end of her days…unless she finds a handsome young man, makes him fall in love with her, and he offers her his hand in marriage.
The Kumiho is a fox that possesses the ability to take on the shape of any human it likes. Stories of the Kumiho are prevalent in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean culture, but the animal is considered friendly in nature to the Chinese, and Japanese. Koren myths tell of evil deeds done by the fox.
Wanting to be a full human, this nine tailed fox will often assume the shape of a gorgeous woman, and use her charm, and wiles to seduce young men. Once the man has found himself in the arms of the Kumiho, she will rip out his heart, and eat it, believing it will help keep her human. Another variation claims the Kumiho will eat the human’s liver instead. Once she has consumed one hundred livers, she will remain a human indefinitely.
Shapeshifters in Greek Mythology
Shapeshifting is a common occurrence in early Greek literature, and often linked to deities, such as Homer’s The Odyssey. In the epic poem, Odysseus’ men are turned into pigs, thanks to the Goddess Circe.
Proteus, a Greek God of rivers, and oceans, is also known for his shapeshifting abilities. Gifted with the ability to foretell the future, Proteus was often sought out by gods, and mortals alike. He would answer their questions, but only if they happened to catch him first. He would often change shape in order to elude anyone who searched for him.
Shapeshifters in Irish, and British Mythology
Fairies, witches, and wizards make frequent appearances in Irish, and British folktales, and they often have the ability to change their appearance as a plot device. It is believed that many types of fairies were merely limited to creating glamors–temporary illusions to slightly alter their appearance. But many witches and wizards had the capability to shift themselves, and others, into any shape they wished, be it an animal, a human, or even some type of plant. Witches were believed to turn into hares, sneak onto properties, and steal milk, and butter.
Shapeshifters in Indian Mythology
Hindu folklore tells of the Rakshasa, demonic beings that assume the shape of various animals in order to trick humans. The Rakshasa in their natural forms are said to have two large fangs, and long claws as fingernails. They enjoy feasting on human beings.
In Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, it is believed that a race of people called Naga exist. These entities are half mortal, half divine, and reside in the netherworld. Their natural forms are half-human, half serpent, but it is believed they have the ability to assume the shape of ordinary humans as well.
Shapeshifters in Death
One type of shapeshifting that seems common across multiple cultures, and belief systems is that the dead can also assume the shape of an animal–sometimes in order to simply visit their loved ones, but often in an attempt to get revenge on those who killed them.
These ghostly visitors often assume the shape of birds, such as a white dove, or a white duck. People who often elect to visit their loved ones in this manner were murdered in some particularly gruesome manner. Once no longer living, they attempt to visit loved ones in these shapes, either to say goodbye, or in an attempt to let their loved ones know what really happened to them.
One macabre story, The White and the Black Bride, is a German folktale. A sorcerer in disguise asks for directions. A mother, and daughter refuse to help him, but the stepdaughter does. The mother, and daughter are then turned black, and ugly, while the stepdaughter is rewarded with eternal beauty, and infinite wealth. The king learns of the stepdaughter’s beauty, and decides to marry her. But the mother enchants the waiting coachman to become half-blind, and she curses her stepdaughter to become half-deaf. The mother then tricks the coachman to lose his way, and bring the stepdaughter to a window, where the mother proceeds to push her out.
Upon her death, the stepdaughter hears that the mother has convinced the king to marry her, the black bride. The stepdaughter is then able to transform herself into a white duck and begins to talk to a boy who works in the kitchens. When the King hears of a talking duck, he finds it and cuts off her head. But this seemingly violent act transforms the stepdaughter into her ordinary, living self again. Thus, the King marries her and kills the black bride.
Another avenging shapeshifter tale is The Rose Tree. Adored by her stepbrother, but hated by her stepmother, a young lady agrees to let her stepmother comb out her hair for her. Claiming her hair is far too detangled for an ordinary comb, the stepmother convinces the girl to retrieve an axe. The stepmother then uses the axe to cut off her head and puts the girl’s heart, and liver into a stew for the family to eat. Mourning, the stepbrother does not eat any of the soup but rather buries his stepsister under some roses in the yard. Determined to have her revenge, the dead stepdaughter comes back as a white bird, winning over the affections of local townsfolk. They give her a pair of red shoes, a gold watch, and a giant stone.
Rapping the stone against the house, the family believes a storm has started. The stepbrother comes out, and the white bird rewards him with the red shoes. The father comes out, and the white bird rewards him with the gold watch. Finally, when the evil stepmother comes out, the white bird drops the millstone on her head, killing her on the spot.
Are Shapeshifters Real?
There is much debate about whether or not shapeshifters really exist. Shapeshifting has been such a common concept on a global level for so long, many argue that there is simply no way it is a fictional ability.
Others, however, state that to change shapes in such a drastic, all encompassing manner, is currently scientifically impossible. Body alterations happen slowly, over time. Despite current day technology, it is impossible to add or remove mass that does not previously already exist.
Metamorphosis does occur in the natural world, such as when a tadpole develops into a frog. However, this process is gradual, and the mass acquired by the tadpoles is no more than what is physically possible as their organs grow between 12 and 16 weeks.
Modern-day movies, and shows often depict the process of shapeshifting to be a quick, seemingly elegant transition, done in a manner of minutes, even seconds. Unfortunately, this is not remotely accurate. Shapeshifting so rapidly would be excruciatingly painful, to the point where most people would die in the process, due to shock.
Shapeshifting as a Mental Process
The idea of shapeshifting as a mental exercise is considered possible to many. Individuals who practice meditation, and deep trance-like techniques claim they can mentally project their mental self away from their physical self. This process would allow a person to temporarily transport their spirit into the body of an animal, without physically altering their cellular makeup. While the spirit travels, the individual’s body would remain an empty vessel, in an unconscious state.