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What does it mean to be a were -
and is were is the word to use?

By Lynna Landstreet/Lynx Canadensis.
Posted to alt.horror.werewolves on Sat, Sep 18, 1999.

In article <19990916224925.02304.00001356@ng-fm1.aol.com>, spatulaloo@aol.com (BleuLynx) wrote:

> >I have been thinking of what it means to be a were. And whether were is the
> >word to use. Whether it would makes us stronger to use a term that has been
> >held up to ridicule, or whether it is time to move to a new term, such as
> >those proposed by Pinky, animality, or therianthropes. Or to try to
> >develop a new word, based on a process in which we participate.
> Being a "were" or a "therianthrope" is obviously something that's difficult
> to define. In my opinion, there's really no one statement that could sum up
> what weres really are.
> Perhaps I was a lynx in a past life, I got stuck with a lynx soul instead
> of a human one, or maybe I'm just a few tacos short of a combination platter.
> There's a whole list of things I could be. I don't feel like my animal side
> isn't anything "external", meaning I don't feel like I'm guided by a spirit. I
> just feel like it's ME.
> How does everyone else feel?

First, on the terminology question:

I think you all already know that I'm an etymology maven, and that I'm not a big fan of the word "were", either. This is partially because, as I posted a while back, on its own it just means "man" (werewolf is man-wolf, literally), and partially because the label of were-anything conjures up bad Hollywood movies in most people's minds, and as a Wiccan, I've been through enough hassles over the word "witch" that I have trouble mustering up much enthusiasm for going through it all again.

Part of the reason we have the word "Wicca" in the first place is that it gives Wiccans to explain our spirituality without pulling up all the negative, or just plain silly, images that the word "witch" does. A lot of the people that would respond to "I'm a Witch" with "Oh yeah? <smirk> Are you going to turn me into a toad?" or alternatively "Get away from me, you spawn of Satan!" might actually respond to "I'm a Wiccan" with "What's that?" -- and then listen long enough for you to get across what you really mean without a lot of unnecessary stereotypes coming into it.

Similarly, while "therianthrope" might be a bit of a mouthful, and "spiritual therianthrope" even more so, it has the advantage that, like the word "Wiccan", it is more likely to generate a "What's that?" reaction, and hence a chance to explain what you actually mean, than a word like "werewolf" (or werelynx, werehorse, etc.), which is likely to draw -- well, I think we've all seen many times over what reaction that draws, right here in this newsgroup as well as in many of other places.

I suppose I just feel that explaining a relatively offbeat and marginalized spiritual path clearly and concisely to someone that's unfamiliar with it can be enough a challenge, without also inviting misunderstandings by using a word that has a lot of connotations that you don't want.

And as I already posted some while ago, I'm in favour of replacing the word "phenotype" with something a bit more appropriate (and less clinical-sounding), like "anima" ("An individual's true inner self that in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects archetypal ideals of conduct," according to my dictionary).

(Update [January 20, 2005]: In the years since I originally posted this to the alt.horror.werewolves newsgroup, there have been some interesting developments in terminology. Increasingly, the word "therian" is being used as a shorter and simpler alternative to "therianthrope", and "were", while it's still used in some circles, seems to be falling out of favour as more people realize that it means virtually the opposite of what it's used as. Also, a newly coined word, "theriotype", seems to be displacing "phenotype", as more people become aware of the original biological meaning of that term. I think these are both very positive changes, showing that the community is becoming more educated and less insular.)

Now, on to the larger question of "What does it mean to be a (were, therianthrope, etc.)?"

I suspect there are as many answers to this question as there are people who define themselves by those terms. Literally, the word "therianthrope" comes from the Greek word therion (diminutive of ther, meaning beast, or wild animal), and anthropos, meaning human being. So therianthrope = animal-human.

(Interestingly, the Latin word theriaca for an antidote against poison, which someone mentioned a while back, comes from the same root: the Greek theriake, meaning an antidote to the poisonous bite of a wild animal, which comes from theriakos, the feminine form of therion. [This is in Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary under "treacle", which is derived from theriaca, since treacle was used in early modern times as a remedy against poison.] And the word "fierce" is an Anglicization of the Latin ferus meaning wild or savage (also the root of "feral", obviously), which in turn is also cognate with the Greek ther. I did say I was an etymology maven, didn't I?)

So a therianthrope, in a general sense, is someone who in some way has the characteristics of both a human being, and a wild animal of some sort. Now obviously, this covers a lot of ground -- but then, so do the people who think of themselves as "weres". We are looking at a very diverse community here.

There are people who believe themselves to be guided by a totem spirit, and people who, as BleuLynx notes above, feel their animal connection to be purely internal, a facet of the self rather than a spirit with an independent existence. There are people who feel their therianthropy is innate, and people who feel they consciously chose it. There are people who feel it is purely psychological -- a matter of mindset or self-concept -- and people who feel that it has at least some physical components as well. There are people who believe physical shape-shifting to be at least a theoretical possibility, and people who don't. There are people who consider themselves to be fundamentally human, people who consider themselves to be some sort of sub-species of humanity, and people who disclaim the label of "human" entirely. And of course, there are people who might take issue with my use the word "people". :-) And even with all that, I'm sure I haven't covered the entire span of variation, not nearly.

So, what is the common bond? What does it mean to be a therianthrope? Fundamentally, it means that you in some way perceive yourself as occupying the liminal space between human (anthropos) and wild animal (therion). You may believe yourself to be a human who identifies with a wild animal, or a wild animal soul in a human body, or any of a number of variants -- the key concept is the liminality, the between-ness of human and non-human animal.

And I think also the element of wildness is also important -- therion is not simply "animal", that would be zoïon, root of zoology, protozoa, etc. Therion is a wild animal, something untamed and "other" to civilized life. And hence, therianthropy denotes a liminal space not only between human and animal, but between culture and nature, civilization and wilderness, order and chaos. A therianthrope is someone who embraces the in-between spaces within these dichotomies; murky realms of ambiguity and paradox rather than the safe but stale absolutes. An individual therianthrope, depending upon philosophical orientation, may feel that he or she is torn between the opposing poles, or has a special role to play in healing the split and restoring balance, or that his or her existence is proof that the split is illusory to begin with; it all depends on how you choose to view your it.

As with so many things, there are as many stories as there are authors. And most of them are still being written.

Lynx Canadensis
(a.k.a. Lynna Landstreet)


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