For several years, I’ve been on a fact-finding mission focused on the history of traditional Halloween “monsters” including their origins and evolution in folklore, literature, and pop culture.
Today, let’s take a look at WEREWOLVES & SHAPESHIFTERS.
A werewolf is a human who turns into a wolf (or wolflike creature) that is feral and violet toward humans. A shapeshifter is similar, though they can change into other animals. There are some shapeshifters that can also change into objects, usually natural like flowers. But for our purposes, we’re focused on the animal kind.
Similar to many traditional Halloween “monsters”–which are generally associated with humanities fears–almost every culture around the world has some type of transformation or shape-shifting mythology (typically with animals indigenous to the area). Many of these mythologies go back to antiquity.
In earlier history, shapeshifters were most commonly deities (gods or goddesses) with the magical ability to transform. Some gods/goddesses in Greek, Roman, Norse, etc. mythology can choose their forms. In Japan we find 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.
Another frequent myth seen for shifters in earlier history is 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 myth and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, King Lycaon was changed to a wolf by Jupiter (some attribute this as the beginning of werewolf mythology). In Nordic folklore, we find The Saga of the Volsungs about wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days, but those who don them go on a killing rampage. This theme continued in later European folklore. The Frog Prince and Beauty and the Beast both involve transformation into animals as a punishment.
In most cases, the person changed had no power to return back to human. However, some mythologies around werewolves involve a curse and the change happening at a specific time (usually the full moon) which seems to be where the werewolf and shapeshifter mythologies intersect.
Enter the Middle Ages where the werewolf mythology we know today started to develop and become 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 timing and persecution also closely follows witches. In fact, shifter 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.
According to Wikipedia, “After the end of the witch-trials, the werewolf became of interest in folklore studies and in the emerging Gothic horror genre…. Then the twentieth century saw an explosion of werewolf short stories and novels published in both England and America.” For the most part, during this period, the creatures continued to remain the villain of the story, or, at best, the tragic figure, and books and movies about werewolves had the happy ending being the death or defeat of the creature.
The 200s have seen a change in perception of shapeshifters and werewolves as monsters to the view of them today as sympathetic and even heroic and sexy. This seems to have happened at the same time as we’ve seen a similar change in portrayals of vampires, witches, and other traditional Halloween “monsters,” though a certain sexual element seems to have always existed in monster stories.
Major changes we see in the accepted cannon for werewolves and shifters include:
- ability to change at will (rather than being trapped in the animal form)
- more reasoned thinking (more human attributes, previous monsters went total animal)
- usually good and are solving the problem (even if the problem stems from them)
- frequently have an entire subculture to support them / live with in peace
- more often than not, shifting/were-hood is not a punishment, but a lifestyle
These days werewolves and shifters appear as one of the main paranormal creatures in much fiction, particularly paranormal romance where the seem to split the time with vampires as the darlings of the supernatural world. And these stories don’t stick to wolves, though they continue to be popular. Now we have dragons, bears, lions, jaguars, falcons, horses, foxes, otters. You name it.
Looking for some howingly great shifter books to consume? Check these out…
- The Inferno Rising series by Abigail Owen
- The Fire’s Edge series by Abigail Owen
- Blood of the Drakon series by N.J. Walters
- Seven Range Shifters series by Kait Ballenger
- The Treasure of Paragon series by Genevieve Jack
- The Olympus Pride series by Suzanne Wright
Interested in the history and evolution of other traditional Halloween “monsters” in folklore, literature, and pop culture? Check out my other posts…