Werebeasts unite the world through a fear of sharp teeth and witchcraft

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Sep 3, 2019, 7:31 AM EDT (Updated)

We're pretty familiar with the basic concept of the werewolf, but that's partly due to where we grew up or where our families are from. In the US/Canada and European countries, werewolves are the prevailing human shapeshifting myth. But in other regions, regions which do not have wolves, or where wolves are at the very least in much shorter supply, portions of the myth remain the same while the animal changes drastically.

The myth of the werewolf goes back much further than you might think, which likely contributes to its existence around the world in one form or another. While no one thought the full moon was forcing men to take the shape of Europe's biggest predator, stories about men who could turn into wolves have existed at least as far back as the ancient Greeks. In some stories, these were whole peoples who were said to sometimes turn into wolves for several days out of the year. In others, like in the story of Lycaon, men were punished for their misdeeds and turned into animals by the gods.

As time went on and ancient myth turned to medieval folklore, the werewolf story began to change, taking shape into something like the one we know today. Especially in Western European countries, werewolves began to become synonymous with sorcery and devil worship and became a core component of witch trials. Beliefs about how one became a werewolf varied from region to region but most involved a ritual of some kind. In some places this could be as simple as the wearing of a wolf pelt, in others, it was a complicated formula involving salves and incantations. In still others, many believed the ability to transform was the direct result of an agreement with the devil made to satisfy cannibalistic tendencies.

All of these cases, though, did have one thing in common: they were happening in places where wolf attacks were a daily occurrence, where the threat of a wolf striking in the dead of night and killing livestock and humans alike was a very real concern for people. But what about those parts of the world where wolf attacks are uncommon or where wolves do not exist at all? Do those cultures simply forego the idea of a man who can turn into a deadly predator? Of course not. In fact, it's quite the opposite. Not only do cultures in Africa, Asia, and South America possess their own version of werewolf mythology, they've altered those beliefs, adapting the original concept to whatever predator their culture most fears.

At least, that's the theory according to some scholars.


Rev. Sheehan becomes a weretiger in Midnight, Texas (NBC).

While there may not be a consensus as to why cultures around the globe have a were myth of one kind or another, the fact remains that they do exist and that they bear a striking resemblance to each other and to the European version we've come to know so well. Take, for example, the many werecats that are said to roam Asia and parts of Africa. Weretigers were popular in many Asian countries, though the circumstances surrounding them varied as widely as the countries themselves. Thailand, much like parts of Europe, associated the transformation into a weretiger with the consumption of human flesh. Unlike in Europe, though, these weretigers were said to be tigers first who feasted too often of the flesh of men. In China, meanwhile, the ability to become a weretiger was seen as a curse or as the result of sorcery, while in still other regions, like Malaysia or Indonesia, they were seen as protective forces.

In South America, meanwhile, tigers were swapped out for all manner of big cats, like jaguars and puma. These creatures were actually referred to as Nagual in the local language and were thought to be witches who learned to become a shape-shifter based in no small part on the day of their birth. As the calendar was closely associated with various animals, the date on which a person was born would not only determine whether they had the potential to become a Nagual, but into which animal they would transform. These transformations are said to take place at night and the Naguals are said to be tricksters who would steal property or drink the blood of human victims.

In still other cultures, more animals are associated with human transmogrification. In parts of Africa, you can find the belief in werehyenas, while in Japan you might find the kitsune - people who can transform themselves into foxes.

Modern depictions of werewolves have evolved even further than those that first frightened Europe in the 1400s and led to the deaths of witches at trials around the continent. That's thanks in large part to our insistence at pulling these creatures out of their folkloric origins and adapting them for our own modern modes of storytelling, namely, TV and movies. These adaptations have not only altered the myth into something unrecognizable from its original state but have also pulled the entire concept out of the mysterious, making them a bit of cult entertainment, changing them from fear inducing stories told in the night to objects of pure fiction.

But despite the fact that modern American audiences may not fear the threat of werewolves - or seek to become them in the night - they remain a cultural touchstone around the world, a common myth that permeates the beliefs of people from one side of the globe to the other, crossing mountains and oceans to unite us all in a fear of the unknown.

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