While this blog is often about exploring well-known mythical creatures in fiction, sometimes I’d like to shine a light on ones that don’t get so much attention. With that in mind, today I’m introducing a new feature, Monster of the Week, which focuses on underused or little-known spirits, monsters, and supernatural beings.

I’m sure you’re familiar with werewolves, but around the world, there are many similar stories of were-leopards, were-bears, were-crocodiles, and so on. Really, so long as there was a giant predatory animal around, our ancestors fantasized about becoming it. There is, however, another side to this coin, which is when instead of people becoming animals, we have stories of these sorts of animals becoming people.

There’s no formal term for this type of mythical being (or, rather, the term changes across cultures), so I’ll simply refer to them as Animal-People. They are a concept that crops up around the world, especially in the tribal cultures of Africa, Australian Aboriginals, and Native Americans, thought there are definitely some similar concepts in Europe and Asia. They are one of the truly universal mythical creature types, cropping up in some form in most cultures.

So what are they, exactly? Well, sometimes, it seems to just be a matter of normal animals who take human shape. For example, there is an African story about a girl who marries a strange man. The man smells, very strongly, like a male lion, and sometimes leaves lion paw prints in the dirt instead of human footprints. With the help of her brother she convinces the town that her husband is really a lion, and they drive the beast off. Yet despite this, the lion, walked, talked and looked like a man. He even fathered two children upon the woman.

So, they are animals that take the shape of people, and look completely human, aside from a few tells. Some stories have them shift back to animal shape, though this often takes place out of sight. Other stories gloss over the transformation even more, by having these animal people do something only a human could do one moment, and then something only an animal could do the next, with no mention of shifting shape.

In Native American folktales, Animal-People seem to be somewhat otherworldly in nature. In the Pacific Northwest, the Kwakiutl tribe tells the story of a boy who is washed out to sea. He awakes in a village underwater, populated by giants. They offer to take him home, and when he hops on their backs they start swimming up from their world and into ours. When he comes to the surface, the boy is being carried by an orca. These sorts of stories have similarities to those of fairies or djinn in other parts of the world, involving a hidden realm of quasi spirit beings, separated from our own by an invisible boundary.  Though, that said, Animal-People don’t entirely replace this role, because some of these cultures have other spiritual beings that fit the same model, such as the fairy-like Nunnehi spirit-people of Cherokee lore.

These sorts of stories are often set in a time before history, where the distinction between man and animal was more fluid. Yet others are set contemporaneously, like the story of the girl who married a lion. In the Native American traditions Animal-People were thought to once be very common, but as time went on animals either lost the ability to shift their shape, or the Animal-People, who may merely be spirits that are distinct from normal animals, retreated into their own world.

You don’t see these beings in fiction too often, but they’re a nice alternative to fairies, elves or trolls if you’re looking for quasi-human characters, and they’re a great addition to any stories that draw on the myth and folktales of the cultures that prominently feature them.


1 Response to “MONSTER OF THE WEEK: Animal-People”

  1. 1 Michael September 2, 2013 at 10:23 pm

    I wrote a screenplay a few years back about a tribe of Native Americans living in the Montana Rocky Mountains in 1880. They had the ability to shape-shift into werewolves. Your article reminds me of that script, which won a writing competition. Sadly, I doubt it will ever find its way to the big screen.

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