On Shapechanging…

EDIT [August 16th, 2010]:  Hey everyone!  So here’s my old sidebar on shapechanging, which I did about two years ago.  Some of the videos I linked to from Youtube do not work, but most do.  I’m leaving the post largely untouched as my views haven’t really changed.  All the text links still work, so feel free to check those out.

I decided I’d do a post on shape changing and my views on them. It’s an important theme in my story, one that I hope to represent to the best of my ability in the coming chapters. If you’re like me, and have a thing for therianthropes (humans who shift into animals, i.e. werewolves or cat people) then you’ve likely got your own passionate ideas about how the shape changing process occurs (or “should” occur.)

If you’re new to therianthropy, or just fantasy in general, then you will not have a clue what the heck I’m talking about. “They change from man to beast. What’s the difference?” you might say.

But it makes all the difference in the world, my poor unenlightened friend!

I’ve had hours of discussions with friends on such delicate matters, and the debate still seems to rage. It concerns matters of spirituality, basic science, and of course, culture. Just about every major society has their own myths on shape changers. The stories told reflected societal concerns, superstitions, and environment.

Much of the stories of werewolves in Europe and Colonial America seem to share the same theme–rape. Violation. The forceful commandeering of flesh and spirit by dark forces. Lycanthropy (or therianthropy) was just about always connected to Satan or infernal beings. As such, transformations were usually seen as horrific–likely painful. What many people fail to realize is that the themes of “rape and violation” do not just apply to the victims…it also applies to the afflicted/cursed individual.

With vampires, their major theme is all about seduction. Leeching away what they want by attractiveness and hypnotization. Bottom line: self-gratification. That is part of the reason you see so many “aristocratic” vampires or “young, ambitious” vampires, because they fit the stereotypes of selfish and indulgent assholes. With werewolves, it’s the opposite. In popular culture, they are shown as people who were turned into monsters against their will, and who find their bodies at the mercy of some terrible change once a month. Very often times they were the poor, the common peasants, the loners, the sick or the insane.

Still, in other countries and other beliefs, therianthropy was looked on less as violent and traumatic, and more as deceitful and mischievous. The Japanese kitsune, for instance, was a creature that could shift at will between human and fox forms. They caused chaos through wit and craft, rather than pure violence…sometimes, however, they were seen as benevolent and wise beings that aided some unfortunate or disadvantaged soul. Continuing on that note, shapeshifting or spiritual transformation was seen as desirable ways to power and wisdom for some people, such as some Native American tribes. With the vikings, berserkers were feared and admired for their strength and bravery. It was said that they tried to draw power from the wolf and bear skins they wore, and emulated these animals ferocity and skill in combat.

Stepping away from simple ‘man-to-beast’ transformation, shape changing has had a strong presence in many religions and myths. In these cases, the physical changes underwent by the individuals were more symbolic of the mental change a person underwent, or the sin they bore, or their true underlying desire. In Graeco-Roman culture this is especially true. In Greek mythology, we can find great examples: Circe transformed Odysseus’ men to pigs in Homer’s The Odyssey; and Medusa was changed into a monster after having intercourse with Posiedon in Athena’s temple. Zeus frequently took different forms to approach women, and to conceal his affairs from his wife, Hera.

In film (and I’m speaking from an American standpoint) werewolf transformations have been depicted in a variety of ways. From fast and fluid, to slow and grotesque. Some look more human, others more like real wolves. Since there aren’t too many werewolf examples in literature that I can take seriously, I turn mostly to film for inspiration on what a shapechange would entail.

The best example of a rapid change can be seen in the movie, “Underworld”…which I thought was just a load of gothic wank. The ‘wolves’ looked more like weird, naked bears:

I will say, right now, that I am NOT part of the “it would be quick and painless” camp. Shape changing, in my opinion, would be a painful experience, and would likely take a while (several minutes at least. That can be forever for a person undergoing something so terrible.)

Here is Bad Moon’s take on shape changing. Again, not so keen on the “fast and painless” take on shapeshifting. In my opinion, it takes away a lot of the metaphorical power about transforming body and mind, and leaves a superficial understanding of what the shapechanger inherently thinks and feels.


First example I found that wasn’t related to werewolves. Instead, this shows the transformation of a man to a panther. I’m really just showing this because the form Nyx took in Chapter 1.1 looks similar to this (only a bit scruffier and with more human nuance).


From the movie “Cat People”. Again, just because it’s a cat transformation. The first few seconds of this clip made me think of when Nyx’s face “went cat” in Chapter 4. The last few seconds though…I mean, it’s interesting. It shows that the human skin is not the “true” skin, but just a cover for the beast inside. This isn’t the case with Nyx or the other therians in her world, though.

Here is a nice YouTube video that takes both “The Howling” and “American Werewolf In London’s” take on shape changing. I appreciate AWIL’s much more than The Howling’s ‘bubbling’ and ‘popping’ change. BUT…I still think that an actual transformation would be less confused and halting. I personally feel it would be a symmetrical process. You see how the main character shifts only one hand, then his face? Because I’m a spiritual git, I’d think it’d start from the torso, then spread out–because that is where the heart and gut are. In magic and in mythology, those two things are said to be where the soul or ‘Self’ is…or at least, great focal points for spiritual energy. The heart especially. So why wouldn’t the change occur where these things are first?

Furthermore–AWIL’s werewolf appears…not very wolfish, when finally revealed later on. The Howling does a better job of having a “wolfish” result, but again, AWIL earns points for showing the transformation as a painful, debilitating experience. I think about AWIL when writing Nyx’s transformations. But the issue with turning to film for inspiration is that, in their attempts to make the monster “scary” or “cool”, many film creators fail to get the overall point of lycanthropy myths (and by that vein, ailuranthropy too.)

And what do I think it “means” then? Why all my blustering? For me, shape changing is a greater metaphor for the strength that lies within all of us–a power and passion that could easily become something terrifying if allowed. I take both the good and bad of the shape changing myths because that is how life is. Too much sugar will give you cavaties, too much drinking will make you an addict, too much reading will make you an insufferable recluse. I think there is as much a balance with therianthropy as there would be anything else in our world. That is why, despite my insistence on getting the ‘bodily pain’ of transformation right, there are those in Nyx’s world that do NOT suffer, and who may even enjoy the experience.

Okay, so I’ll end with this…random anime clip I found. I think it’s from the series, “Slayers.”

The point of this post was really just to illustrate my idea of “proper” shape changing. For Nyx, her pain is symbolic of her ostracization and shame with her people. For other therians, there is still a “physical” change that takes time, but it lacks the pain–possibly even contains some sense of euphoric release. If I got too much in detail about how this relates to my story, I might ruin things for later on. I also don’t want to give the impression that I don’t trust my writing enough to speak for itself. This was simply a ‘sidebar’ talking about my thoughts on the ramifications of shapeshifting. I might do a follow-up post later, if I feel anything more needs to be said…

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One thought on “On Shapechanging…

  1. shadewalker says:

    Quite interesting. Usualy when i think about things fantasy-related, i go with how i would want it to be if it were to be aplied to me. but when i think about how i think it would be realistically, i find myself mostly agreeing with the way you look at it.

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