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Why Big Fierce Animals Aren't Rare*
(on AHWW, anyway)
By Lynna Landstreet/Lynx Canadensis.
Posted to alt.horror.werewolves
on Fri, Sep 10, 1999.
In article <firstname.lastname@example.org> email@example.com
> Funny, isn't it, how the weres all claim to
be in touch with the
> spirit of big, bad, scary animals? I mean, so we see these fucks
> claiming to be werewolves and wereleopards, but where are the
> were-sea-anemones or were-garden-snails or were-dung-beetles?
I killfiled the author of the above-quoted post sometime during my lurk period (along
with upwards of 70 others), I found this question interesting when I
saw it quoted in various people's responses. Regardless of the author's
tone and intentions, it is a valid question.
From my readings in the anthropological and folkloric literature on
shamanism and shapeshifter legends, it appears that the shamanic customs
that many scholars feel may have been the origin of the worldwide legends
of shapeshifters often centred around hunting.
Look at the existing shapeshifter legends from various parts of the
world: across much of Europe, you have tales of werewolves, with the
addition of bears in Nordic myth (via the berkerkers) and seals (selkies)
among the insular Celts. In Africa, you have legends of wereleopards;
in some parts of Asia, tigers; and among some central American groups,
jaguars. In North America, there are tales of various types of shapeshifting,
but bears are the most common, with seals also known among the Inuit.
The exact details of the folkloric beliefs vary considerably from one
culture to another, even within the same continent, but the one thing
that is relatively consistent is that by and large, all the creatures
that have become the focus of shapeshifting legends are those that are
perceived as being strong and powerful, and skilled at hunting (or fishing
in the case of seals).
Tribal cultures specifically revered these types of animals, and their
shamans specifically sought to connect with their spirits, because they
embodied qualities that were seen as highly desirable for the survival
of the tribe. The spirit of a garden snail or dung beetle would not
have been seen as a useful one to pursue a relationship with, because
it had relatively little to offer to the well-being of the tribe. In
fact, insect spirits are seen as dangerous and malevolent in many shamanic
traditions, perhaps because of their role in carrying disease, or blighting
the plants that people also depended on for food.
Now obviously, very few societies lived by hunting alone, but the gathering
of plant foods is not as dangerous or demanding an activity, and was
probably felt to be less in need of spiritual assistance. In addition,
hunting is more psychologically problematic than gathering, as animals
are perceived as being more "like us" than plants are: they
flee from pursuit, they cry out when struck, they bleed when injured,
they visibly manifest pain.
Early cultures accordingly had a need to find psychological and ethical
ways of coping with the guilt engendered by killing animals for food.
The practice in some tribal cultures of offering prayers to the spirit
of the prey animal is well known; cultivating a relationship, or an
identification, with the spirit of a predatory animal may also have
served as a means of symbolically easing guilt and ensuring that one's
actions were in keeping with the balance of nature.
A good source on this that is written for a non-academic audience is
Adam Douglas's excellent book The Beast Within: Man, Myths &
Werewolves, especially the "Animal Magic" chapter.
> Could it be that pretending to have the spirit
of a powerful animal
> gives them a sense of power and potency all too absent in their
Again, leaving aside the author's tone, this is a good point. In today's
society, we no longer need to hunt for food; however, many, if not most,
people feel alienated and disempowered to some extent. There are many
ways in which people deal with this, from the highly destructive (the
factory worker who goes home and beats his wife and children; the abused
kids who grow up to be abusers themselves; the alienated teenagers who
go out and beat up people of a different race or sexual orientation
for kicks) to the harmlessly neutral (all the many forms of escapism
our society offers, from video games to science fiction to organized
religion) to the actively positive (working to change the aspects of
society that cause us to feel that way).
So where does therianthropy fit in on that scale? I would submit that
it depends entirely on the individual. Some may approach it as pure
escapism; role-playing extended into "real" life. For those,
it's neutral, no different than anything else that provides a safety
valve for the tensions of modern life. For others -- not many, but some
-- it may tempt them into actions that are dangerous either to themselves
or others. That, obviously, is destructive. And for still others, it
may function positively, as a source of community and a motivation to
work on a practical level to benefit the animal they feel a kinship
with, or the natural world as a whole. In these times of ecological
crisis, cultivating a kinship with nature can be very valuable.
Anyway, while I realize that my thoughts on this subject are unlikely
to be of much interest to the author of the original post, or most of
the other hostile voices here, they may be of some help to others here
in contextualizing their experiences...
(a.k.a. Lynna Landstreet)
* The title of this piece is a reference to Paul Colinvaux's book Why
Big Fierce Animals Are Rare: An Ecologist's Perspective.
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