As always, thanks to Rachel and Bitten By Books for inviting me to post!
I will never run out of ideas. Every time I research one idea, I discover ten others. When I started writing about werewolves, I read a lot of werewolf stories — not recent ones, but digging into the folklore, the origins of these tales of people and beasts and the sometimes very thin line between them.
One of my favorites is by 12th century writer Marie de France, who tells of a knight, Bisclavret, who is cursed to shed his clothes and become a wolf for part of the week. He gets stuck in wolf form when his double-crossing wife steals his clothes and runs off with his man-at-arms, but Bisclavret goes straight to the king and manages to get a message to him, even as a wolf. (It’s the original, “What’s that, Lassie? Bisclavret’s wife is evil?” moment.) People were telling shape-shifter love triangle stories 800 years ago! How cool is that?
But there are more shapeshifters out there than werewolves. There’s Ovid’s Metamorphosis, from first-century Rome. You know these stories — Jupiter turns himself into a cow to woo Europa, Diana turns Actaeon into a stag as punishment and sets her hounds to hunt him, various nymphs turn themselves into trees and flowers to dodge amorous gods. People are always turning into other things in Greek and Roman mythology. And it’s usually because of some romance gone horribly, horribly wrong. It’s great.
But I can crank it back even further. The Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Sumer, is credited with being the oldest story ever recorded. It’s got a character named Enkidu, who’s a wild man from the hills, raised by animals, all hairy and uncivilized — right up until he hooks up with a temple prostitute who civilizes him, cuts his hair, etc. (It turns out the “But I can change him!” story line is pretty old.) While Enkidu isn’t explicitly a shapeshifter, I like to think of him as one — he crosses the line between wild and civilized — and his story provides a template for countless “man v. wild” stories that followed.
I haven’t even started talking about human/animal divinities: all those Egyptian gods with human bodies and the heads of dogs, ibis, cows, cats and so on. Babylonian sphinxes with the bodies of bulls and the heads of men. Or Nüwa, the Chinese goddess with the body of a snake.
I’m not sure what all this means, or if it means anything beyond the idea that people everywhere, across time and geography, have been fascinated with the natural world and the wild animals who live there. I’m a big fan of the idea of the liminal — a thing or a space that falls between categories, that isn’t one thing or another, or is both at the same time. (A threshold, for example, is neither indoors nor outdoors. It’s a liminal space.) Shapeshifters fit that bill to a T. They’re both human and animal, sometimes at the same time, and sometimes there’s conflict between them, and sometimes there’s a powerful affinity. I think in the modern world we long for a connection to the natural, wild world — we sometimes feel like we’ve lost something, some kind of power or energy. Shapeshifters are a way to make that connection.
Do you have a favorite shapeshifter story from folklore and mythology? Is there an obscure shapeshifter story that you haven’t seen done in a modern paranormal novel that you’d like to? If you could shapeshift into any animal, what would you choose? (I think I would choose a bird — a hawk or an owl — so I could fly.)
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