For everything that makes people different across the world, there is something that makes us the same, a cultural universal. Cultural universals include things like gender roles, jokes, death rituals, and mythology. It’s in that last cultural universal where we make our home today. We’re talking about a particular type of being that crops up everywhere, the shapeshifter. The most common example in Europe and later America, is the werewolf, a cursed man who turns into a blood-thirsty wolf under the full. The word werewolf comes from Old English, wer “man” and wulf “wolf”. Underworld fans and D&D players, please resist the urge to correct this to lycanthrope, because they’re actually two different things. It has a parallel etymology, from lukánthropos (from λύκος lúkos “wolf” and ἄνθρωπος, ánthrōpos “human”), but it originally applied not to super-natural beasties, but to people who thought they *were super-natural beasties, according to the physician Galen. When people these days present with Animorph delusions, they may be diagnosed with clinical lycanthropy.
Lycanthropes can transform at will and they have a more specific origin story than werewolves as an institution do. In Greek mythology, Lycaon was a king of Arcadia who got it in his head that Zeus was not as omniscient as people believed and that he was the right man to prove it. In the most popular version of the myth, Lycaon held a ceremony and feast to honor Zeus, and Zeus showed up. The main dish on the table was the roasted flesh of Lycaon’s own son Nyctimus, the scheme being that Zeus would eat Nyctimus, probably thinking it was pork, thus proving his wasn’t all-knowing. Turned out, he was. Rather than kill Lycaon outright, Zeus turned him into a wolf and resurrected the prince, who then ascended to the throne. But enough about werewolves and lycanthropes, there are a half-dozen Underworld films if you need more. Even though there are many different werewolf legends in many different cultures, we’re going to do our best to stay away from wolves and out of Europe. As usual, easier said than done.
Let’s spin the globe [sfx] and see where to start. And stop! Ooh, Brazil, the home of the boto encantado, the dolphin shapeshifter of Amazon River folklore. During the day, the boto encantado cavorts in the Amazon, living its best pink-dolphin life. If you’ve never seen a picture of a pink river dolphin, there’s a link in the shownotes, they’re like mother nature meets Lisa Frank. At night, though, the boto transforms into a handsome young man who seduces girls, gets them pregnant and pops back to his river come morning. And they love a party, they can’t resist inviting themselves. So if you’re having a get-together in the basin, keep a close eye on your single girl friends because it’s really hard to serve a dolphin with a paternity suit. You should be okay if your party is indoors. Boto encantados may look human, but they have a distinct tell — they retain their blowholes on the back of their heads and will always wear a hat to hide it. Asking that handsome stranger to take his hat off inside might be the only way to reveal the encantado. They were renowned for being charming, to the point that party-goers will beg them to stay even as morning encroaches and the encantado need to get back to the water. Boto encantados aren’t one-trick dolphins either. They have the power to control storms and transform humans into encantados themselves or inflict them with disease or insanity.
Many people who live near the Amazon won’t go near it between dusk and dawn, or won’t go into the water during the day alone, because encantados are fond of abducting humans they fall in love with, the children born of their dalliances, or just about anyone near the river who looks like they’d be company. Kidnapping is a common theme in folklore in general and among shapeshifters in particular. But sometimes it’s the shapeshifter who gets kidnapped. In the waters around the Orkney islands off the northeast coast of Scotland, seals are a regular site. Their meat, blubber, and hides have been an important resource for the Orcadians for centuries. But you must be careful which ones you hunt, because you never knew who is a seal and who is a selkie. Selkies have the power to turn into humans, and beautiful ones at that, who like to dance under the moon or bask in the sun. There’s no consensus among story-tellers as to why, how, or when selkies transform, maybe Midsummer’s Eve, maybe “every ninth night.” What is commonly told is that the selkies don’t just change from one shape to another like Mystique or Odo, they take off their skins, and the skins are the thing. Selkies need them to be able to return to their natural seal form. If their skin is lost, or *stolen, the selkie is doomed to remain in human form until it could be recovered. With a liability like that, selkies try to steer clear of humans… most of the time. 😉
A selkie-man in human form is a handsome creature, with almost magical seductive sway over mortal women and they’re not shy about using it. They’ll take off their skins, tuck them away somewhere secret, and head inland to seek out “unsatisfied women.” Women can slip into a selkie’s DMs too. She must go to the sea at high tide and shed seven tears into the water, and the selkie will come [sfx phrasing] Should a young woman of a seaside village go missing while out on the water, people would say her selkie lover had come to collect her. Selkie men don’t have the market cornered on interspecies romance. Selkie women are said to be irresistible to men. That’s probably why there are so many tales that follow the same format. A young man sees a beautiful selkie in her human form and either by trickery or theft, gets ahold of her seal skin. Trapped on land, unable to return to the sea, the selkie has no choice but to marry the man. The stories end about as well as you’d expect, given the nature of their relationship. After some years and some children, someone accidentally tips off the selkie to where her skin is and she’s finally able to free herself. In some versions, she takes her children with her, in others, she runs back to the sea as fast as she can. That’s the version used in the movie The Secret of Roan Inish, which is a near-perfect movie if you like listening to storytellers. You get so invested in the story the character is telling that it goes back to the main plot and you’re like, “Oh yeah, the movie.”
A similar fate befalls the Italian Dove Girl, the Croatian she-wolf, the buffalo maidens in Algeria. In East Asia, the shirts & skins stories tend to involve birds, from it is also known featuring maidens who transform into various bird species, like the Russian Swan-maiden and the Japanese crane wife, wherein a man marries a woman who is in fact a crane disguised as a human. To make money the crane-woman plucks her own feathers to weave silk brocade which the man sells, but she becomes increasingly ill as she does so. When the man discovers the truth of his wife’s illness and identity, she flees. She is a tengu, a shapeshifter ubiquitous in Japanese folklore, that are seen as protectors of the mountains and forests they live in. Just as with the selkies, there are versions of the story where a young man finds the swan maiden’s magical robe of feathers and she’s stuck marrying him and later one of the children accidentally reveal what has happened. For the young men listening, this is not good relationship advice. Don’t steal women’s clothes, magical or otherwise.
Japan is also home to one of the best-known Eastern shapeshifters, the kitsune, which means both magical fox and regular old chicken-stealing fox. Fox spirits who transform themselves into women aren’t exclusive to the land of the rising sun. They can also be found in China as huli jing and Korea as kumiho. Traditionally, fox spirits are tricksters, who shapeshift into beautiful women to seduce men, sometimes to drain their life energy, sometimes just for the lols. A man might find himself falling in at first sight with a gorgeous stranger, leave his family to be with her, only to discover she’s a kitsune –the fact that they retain their fox tail when in human form is usually what gives them away– and when he returns home, it hasn’t been a few days or weeks, but many years. In Japan and China, the fox spirit is a spirit to begin with, but in Korea, they begin life as normal foxes who gain power as they grow older. They also gain tails, one for every hundred years they’re alive, which is no mean feat considering a red fox is lucky to make it to 5. The max number of tails seems to be 9, no matter how old the kitsune, and is of course the origin of the Pokemon Nine-tails. For a lot more information on kitsunes, I can’t recommend highly enough the YouTube channel Linfamy, link in the show notes.
Many selkie and kitsune stories see the mythical beast have children with a human, but the children don’t seem to be special in any way despite that. Luckily, Hawaiian legend ties up that loose end, kinda. A beautiful young woman named Kalei would bathe in the sea under the light of the moon. One night, she caught the eye of Kamohoalii, the king of all sharks. He was so enamored of her that he transformed himself into a human and searched the valleys of the big island for her. They fell in love, got married, and lived happily until Kalei became pregnant. Before the baby was to be born, the shark king knew he had to return to the sea –I’m sure the timing was just a coincidence– ordered Kalei to give birth alone and to never allow the baby to eat the flesh of any animal. The baby, Nanaue, was born as beautiful as his mother, except for a gaping hole on his back, like the mouth of a fish. Kalei kept her word not to let Nanaue eat meat, but eventually who grew to the age when he would eat with the men rather than the women and of course the men gave him meat. This triggered a ravenous hunger in Nanaue and the fish mouth on his back grew razor-sharp teeth.
His first taste of meat also awoke in Nanaue the ability to change shape and his mother watched in sad horror as he turned into a shark and swam around in the stream, eating everything he could. It wasn’t long before Nanaue was grown and swimming in the ocean…and people started to go missing. One day, the villagers discovered the great mouth on Nanaue’s back and put two and two together. They went after Nanaue, [sfx mob] but he changed into a shark and swam to the island of Maui. There he took the form of a man and got married, but he couldn’t suppress his lust for human flesh. He must have been in a real state, because when his resolve finally broke, he changed shape and ate a girl in full view of several people. They tried to spear Nanaue from their canoes, but he swam to Molokai. Act three of the story was basically act two all over again, except this time the people on Molokai were able to catch shark-Nanaue in their nets and kill him. Thus died Nanaue, son of Kamohoalii – King of Sharks.
On the mainland, there stalks a creature so fearful, that people don’t like to speak of it. They like even less when outsiders do, because we tend to twist their beliefs into cheap movie monsters. The Navajo call them “yee naaldlooshii,” “with it, he goes on all fours,” we call them skin-walkers. In the Navajo culture, a skinwalker is a type of harmful witch who has the ability to turn into, possess, or disguise themselves as an animal. The Navajo believe there are places where the powers of both good and evil are present and that those powers can be harnessed for either. Medicine men use these powers to heal, while others seek to use the power for harm, often using human corpses in their magic. Becoming a Skinwalker comes at a high price — they must kill a close family member, most often a sibling. Usually male, these witches walk among the unsuspecting tribe during the day and secretly transform under the cover of night. Most often, they are seen in the form of coyotes, wolves, foxes, cougars, dogs, and bears, but can take the shape of any animal. They then wear the skins of the animals they transform into, hence, the name Skinwalker. Sometimes, they also wore animal skulls or antlers atop their heads, which brought them more power. They choose what animal they want to turn into, depending on the abilities they need, such as speed, stealth, or claws, and teeth, etc. Because of this, the Navajo consider it taboo for its members to wear the pelt of any predatory animal.
You can tell that an animal is a skinwalker on all fours by looking into their eyes, which will still be human, but you do so at your own peril. Locking eyes with a skinwalker can let them take possession of your body. They can bring illness and death, control other animals, and even reanimate the dead. The Skinwalker kills out of greed, anger, envy, spite, or revenge. It also robs graves for personal wealth and to collect much-needed ingredients for use in black magic. These witches live on the unexpired lives of their victims and they must continually kill or perish themselves. Those who have talked of their encounters with these evil beings describe a number of ways to know if a skinwalker is near. They make sounds around homes, such as knocking on windows, banging on walls, and scraping noises on the roof, even peering through windows. People still report seeing skinwalkers in modern times, often on the roads trying to make them crash their cars.
In another example of a cultural universal, skinwalkers and other witches are blamed for hardship and misfortune. This was most apparent with the Navajo Witch Purge of 1878, which rose from a real tragedy. After a series of wars with the U.S. Army, the Navajo were expelled from their land and forced to march to the Bosque Redondo (Fort Sumner) in New Mexico in what is known as the Long Walk of the Navajo in 1864. There, the people suffered from bad water, failed crops, illness, and death, reducing their numbers dramatically. Many of the tribe’s members were said to have turned to shape-shifting to escape the terrible conditions, and can you blame them; the rest of the tribe were convinced that their gods had deserted them. After four years, the government finally admitted they had made a mistake, a surprising change, and the Navajo were allowed to return to their homeland. Back home, their conditions improved, but they believed the skinwalkers were still among them and the accusations and hunting began. The situation came to a head when someone found a collection of witch artifacts wrapped in a copy of the Treaty of 1868. 40 Navajo suspected witches were killed in order to restore harmony and balance for the tribe.
Skinwalkers don’t plague the Navajo exclusively. The neighboring Ute believe they have been cursed with skinwalkers by the Navajo. At one time, the Ute and Navajo fought together against their common enemies. However, later when the Ute first acquired horses from the Spanish, they began to abduct Navajo people and sold them into slavery. Later, during the Civil War, some Ute bands took joined with Kit Carson in a military campaign against the Navajo. This ended with the Long Walk. After the Navajo returned home, skinwalkers began to attack the Ute, in repayment for their betrayal.
Around the Horn of Africa –Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan– parents warn their children not to talk to strangers, not to wander away from the lights of the house at night, and to be wary if they think they hear someone calling their name in the darkness. Where you have wolves, you fear werewolves. Where you have hyenas, you fear werehyena. That is of course the English term used to lump a broad group of foreign concepts into one box. Werehyenas can be either human-born or hyenas disguising themselves as humans, transforming at will with the help of a magic stick or a sprinkling of ash, or being triggered by the smell of human flesh. Werehyenas hunt alone or in groups, with an insatiable appetite and a reputation for luring people from the safety of their homes.
Hyenas and humans have had an adversarial relationship that dates back to the earliest human presence in Africa. For millennia, cackles of hyenas, for tis their collective noun, have sacked villages like more-furry vikingrs, killing livestock and even children. So naturally, this real threat got transmuted into the very concept of fear. Hyenas are also considered cowardly and repulsive for their incorrectly perceived nature as scavengers. One early myth originating from the Ivory Coast describes how “Hyena” attempts to convince all other animals to kill the first man and woman in existence. Fortunately, “Dog” warns our ancestors, foiling Hyena’s plot and saving humanity. Growing out of that, werehyena mythology centers the idea that they aren’t just a threat, but a lowly, vile one. In some regions, this evolved into a means of isolating already marginalized people.
Elsewhere in Africa, the werehyena takes on slightly different properties, as well. In Somalia, it transforms by rubbing itself with a magic stick at sundown. The Sudanese version is more violent, and is known for attacking lovers after dark. In Morocco, all werehyenas are believed to transform every night after sunset and return to human form at dawn. All these myths share a common thread: a fear of the other, and of nature’s ability to disrupt life for those who don’t respect her power.
In Ethiopian folklore, werehyenas were referred to as bouda, a term synonymous with the evil eye and connected, via a strange twist on the Christian creation story, with the lower, uneducated artisan class, and blacksmiths in particular. For a time, all blacksmiths in Ethiopian culture were believed to be bouda, capable of wielding the power of the evil eye to transform into werehyenas at will. This belief still persists in some regions, which is unfortunate for the tiny minority of Jews, who have worked as smiths for centuries. Also known as “Beta Israel,” the Jews of Ethiopia weren’t allowed to own land or attend most schools. This left them professions such as blacksmithing, which required no formal education. Don Seeman, a scholar of religion at Emory University, believes that labeling the Jewish population of Ethiopia as bouda was “a form of ideological segregation, largely by drawing associations between bouda and craft, creating a ‘seamless’ mythic association and inhibiting the social mobility that might have been possible in previous eras.” Further dehumanizing them, legend had it that Jewish shape-shifters would rob tombs at night in hyena form to eat the bodies, and that they would still have a whiff of corpse about them after they changed back. Werehyenas’ ties to the Jews of Ethiopia has greatly reduced with time, not because of any particular enlightenment, but because most Ethiopian Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity or emigrated to Israel in the 1980s.