Part Human, Part Animal: What Therianthropes and Tricksters Reveal About Human Nature

therianthropes and tricksters

Pan, a therianthrope and trickster god

A therianthrope is a mythical being that is part human, part animal, with some examples including the centaur, faun, satyr, werewolf, weredog, werecat, mermaid, siren, and minotaur. In furry fandom slang, the term therianthrope term also refers to someone who feels or believes she is partly or wholly a non-human animal, but for the purposes of this discussion, this meaning is not included when I refer to therianthropes and therianthropy – I use the terms strictly to denote human-animal hybrids and the mythological ability of humans to metamorphose into non-human animals by way of shapeshifting, respectively.

Therianthropy has long existed in the human psyche, as illustrated by various examples of ancient cave art. Scholars have offered different interpretations of these human-animal composites depicted on cave walls, identifying them as sorcerers, mythic ancestors, gods, the spirits of dead shamans, or human hunters or shamans wearing animal masks/costumes. According to archaeologist David Lewis-Williams, the presence of geometric patterns that adorn these ancient cave walls indicates that humans were altering their states of consciousness. If we accept this explanation, then the therianthropic paintings we see – or some of them, at least – could depict shamans in states of trance. Lewis-Williams posits that these trancing shamans fused themselves with specific non-human animals of power with which they had a ritual relationship.

The cave of Lascaux in Dordogne, for example, features a human figure with a bird-like head or mask (around 17,000 years old). At the cave of Les Trois Frères, in a section known as ‘The Sanctuary’, we can find ‘The Sorcerer’, an enigmatic cave painting that depicts a half-human, half-stag (around 15,000 years old); this same cave includes another therianthrope, an upright creature with hooves for hands, horns, and a snout. Inside the cave of Gabillou in Dordogne, there is an engraving bison-headed human figure (also dubbed ‘The Sorcerer’, just like the therianthropic figure in the cave at Les Trois Frères) while at the Chauvet cave, there is likewise a half-human, half-bison creature, again named ‘The Sorcerer’ (between 30,000 to 32,000 years old). 

Yet it’s not just in ancient cave art that we can discover therianthropes. Based on the examples of the other therianthropes mentioned at the beginning, as well as others portrayed in numerous films, comic books, stories, cultures, and mythologies (e.g. the animal-headed gods in ancient Egyptian religion: Ra, Sobek, Bastet, Anubis), it is clear that human-animal hybrids are a recurring feature of the human imagination. But why should this be so? 

One explanation, from ethnologist Ivar Lissner in his book Man, God, and Magic (1961), is that these beings with both human and non-human animal features were not mythical shapeshifters but shamans in the process of acquiring the strength, agility, and spiritual power of the animals they most admired and respected. Based on this theorising, this shapeshifting allowed shamans to feel like more than ordinary humans, and as Lissner suggests, these ancient cave painters may have been telling us that the “road to supernatural powers is easier to follow in animal shape”. The South African researcher Pieter Jolly, in his analysis of ancient San rock art, makes a similar argument:

By assuming a part-animal, part-human form, made visible in the therianthrope paintings, the shaman transcends categories, putting himself or herself in contact with the powers associated with this transcendent state.

Lissner additionally states that Stone Age artists were portraying “intermediary beings who were stronger than common men and able to penetrate more deeply into the mysteries of fate, that unfathomable interrelationship between animals, men, and gods.” By transforming into a non-human animal in a state of trance, a shaman could enter into a primal state that is described in the myths of many indigenous people, including the San people (or Bushmen) of Southern Africa. As the historian of religion Mircea Eliade notes in Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (1964):

Each time a shaman succeeds in sharing in the animal mode of being, he in a manner re-establishes the situation that existed in illo tempore, in mythical times, when the divorce between man and the animal world had not yet occurred. … While preparing for his ecstasy and during it, the shaman abolishes the present human condition and, for the time being, recovers the situation as it was at the beginning.

It is not so outlandish to imagine that these shamans felt themselves shapeshift if we assume they were entering altered states of consciousness, which in the case of the San people can be induced through their ritualised dance (known as the ‘trance dance’). Jolly states that likely or possible indicators of trance associated with the therianthropes of San rock art include the presence of dancers/clapping women; the body depicted in an arms-back, bending-forward, or collapsed position; and bizarre, apparently hallucinatory motifs, like thin, dotted or feathery lines emerging from or entering the therianthrope’s body. 

Furthermore, many people who drink the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca, for instance, experience themselves transforming into non-human animals, such as jaguars (the travel writer Jay Griffiths describes such an experience in her book Wild: An Elemental Journey). The cover of Don José Campos’ book The Shaman and Ayahuasca shows a shaman who is part-human, part-jaguar. You can see this same type of hybrid in Pablo Amaringo’s painting Soplo del Banco Puma (Amaringo’s artwork is inspired by his ayahuasca visions). And at the ruins of Chavín de Huantar, a ceremonial centre in the Cordillera Blanca of the Peruvian Andes, there is a stone carving that portrays a shaman in a state of feline transformation – and this shaman can also be seen clutching a San Pedro cactus (which contains mescaline).

We could apply Lissner’s sort of explanation to the profusion of therianthropes that we see throughout history, all over the world, and present in popular culture (just think of all the superheroes with animal characteristics). These therianthropes could reflect the human desire to be more than human, to be superordinary, and to have supernatural abilities. This shapeshifting and hybridism allows people to imagine that animal capacities can be subsumed, which in the case of many superheroes often translates into enhanced strength and agility.

There are also some important connections between therianthropes and tricksters; these latter archetypal entities, after all, are also known for their shapeshifting abilities. Tricksters in various mythologies and cultures are often human-animal hybrids, such as the devil, Pan (the god of the wild, from ancient Greek religion), Puck (from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and Nanabozho (an Ojibwe trickster hero, also referred to as the ‘Great Hare’; he can shapeshift into many different beings, including a rabbit – a pictogram of Nanabozho on Mazinaw Rock, Bon Echo Provincial Park, Ontario, shows the character with rabbit-like ears, and the Ojibwe artist Rabbett Before Horses Strickland has also portrayed Nanabozho as a human-rabbit hybrid). Even the Greek trickster god Hermes can be thought of as slightly therianthropic since he has wings on his feet. Many tricksters seem to have animal-like ears (e.g. the pointed ears of elves and Puck) or horns (e.g. Pan and Loki, the Norse trickster god).

Tricksters, like the shamans who undergo shapeshifting, are seen as boundary crossers. Tricksters and shamans cross boundaries in both similar and different ways. Shamans cross the boundaries between human form and non-human animal form, as tricksters often do; this applies, for instance, in the case of San shamans and Kaggen, the trickster god of the San religion who usually takes the form of a praying mantis. For the Ojibwe, the ability to metamorphose one’s appearance is considered a trait of not just Nanabozho but the shaman as well. In addition, shamans cross the boundaries of different worlds (travelling into the spirit world), similar to the way that tricksters (e.g. Hermes) act as messengers between the divine and human worlds.

Tricksters, like Kaggen, are also known to break societal rules, crossing the line of socially acceptable behaviour. According to Lewis Hyde, this is an essential characteristic of a trickster. Jolly notes that therianthropes and shamans share this characteristic as well: 

In the same way that therianthropes and other hybrid beings in San art, as well as the mythical beings of primal time, blur the edges of categories that constitute the social and biological norm, shamans/diviners/spirit mediums, who are mediators between the worlds of the spirits and of the living, may consciously or unconsciously subvert the normal order of things, reversing this order and blurring the edges of accepted social and even biological categories.

It is perhaps unsurprising that so many tricksters are human-animal hybrids and non-human animals (e.g. foxes, hares, coyotes, ravens) and that they have a disruptive nature, as we may perceive animal instincts – which we all possess – as chaotic, unbridled, and antithetical to strict societal rules.

In the European Middle Ages, the court jester served the function of the trickster in some ways, in that their nature was comic, playful, and mocking (most crucially, mocking of authority); yet they were distinct from mythological tricksters since they weren’t defined by a propensity to disobey conventional rules and behaviour, nor was their role to teach others through the use of guile, as tricksters do.

I hypothesise that the jester, this trickster-like figure, is therianthropic. The jester’s hat, which features pointed protrusions, is, I believe, representative of a non-human animal’s ears/horns. While jester hats nowadays are often depicted with several protrusions (more than two), the traditional jester hat tends to include just the two, at the side of the head, where the ears would be. These protrusions are often floppy, which makes me think of lop-eared rabbits, an animal that is, of course, one of the classic trickster figures in Native American mythologies. However, some jester garb includes a jester hat with non-floppy and more horn-like protrusions, such as Arthur Price’s court jester costume (Price was selected for the Pageant of Empire in 1909, a historical pageant celebrating the British Empire). 

Moreover, some depictions of jesters are more clearly therianthropic. As a case in point, consider the painting The Laughing Fool (circa 1500) by an unknown Dutch artist, possibly Jacob Cornelisz van Oostsanen, as well as Heinrich Vogtherr the Younger’s woodcut of a fool (circa 1540): the jester hats shown distinctly have the ears of a donkey. But do the more common protrusions of the jester hat signify the human tendency to imagine and portray therianthropes? I’m not sure. But given that this tendency exists, I would not find it surprising if the jester was just one more trickster-like figure who was given the horns or ears of a non-human animal as a way of designating their unique role in society. 

Tricksters and therianthropes also share an intriguing element of paradoxicality. Tricksters can be both cunning and foolish, like Goha, a Middle Eastern trickster character, who is sometimes foolish, sometimes wise. Indeed, tricksters are often wise fools. Carl Jung also noted that tricksters were paradoxical because they were “both subhuman and superhuman, a bestial and divine being”. And we too can describe therianthropes in this way. By transforming into a non-human animal or human-animal hybrid, they become less human but they also gain superhuman – or supernatural – powers. 

I have already touched on how therianthropy – at least in the context of shamanism but perhaps more broadly – reflects a desire to gain animal powers and superhuman abilities. If therianthropy is so omnipresent for this reason, then this might bolster Friedrich Nietzsche’s supposition that the most fundamental human motivation is power. Nietzsche thought that we are all driven by a ‘will to power’, a phrase that the philosopher coined in his work Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885). 

Nietzsche even believed that this will to power supersedes our ‘will to life’, a concept developed by Arthur Schopenhauer, which posits that all human action stems from the desire to maintain one’s own life and propagate life (through procreation). Contrary to Schopenhauer’s belief that the will to life is fundamental, people will often risk their safety, health, and even their lives in order to gain more power in this world. I am not necessarily convinced of Nietzsche’s view that power is our most primary drive. However, if the desire for power, strength, and vitality is at least one of our drives, this may help to explain our therianthropic tendency since by shapeshifting into non-human animals, or human-animal hybrids, we can absorb the powers of these other creatures. 

Jung asserted that the trickster has “a psyche that has hardly left the animal level”. This makes me wonder whether the therianthropic and trickster impulse is also based on a desire to escape the human cerebral way of thinking. Human consciousness is often felt to be a burden; in fact, the philosopher Peter Wessel Zapffe defines our level of consciousness as burdensome and argues we have had to devise various strategies in order to prevent the distressing thoughts that we are uniquely capable of having as a species. Thus, if we can become more like a non-human animal, by harnessing our instinctual, wild, and physical nature, then this could end up feeling like a form of liberation. Human-animal hybrids may also represent our wish or attempt to integrate our ancient animal instincts along with our more distinctly human thoughts, feelings, and behaviours.

The human wish to depict therianthropes and tricksters speaks to some impulse we have to transcend ourselves or, alternatively, to become even more like ourselves. It is very possible that we are trying to achieve two ostensibly opposed aims – to be both less than human and more than human – because, like tricksters, we are paradoxical by nature.

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