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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 <37d90700.130592186@news.alt.net> nutz@mailbr.com.br wrote:

> 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?

Although 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 real
> lives?

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...

Lynx Canadensis
(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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