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Shapeshifters in Ancient Folklore

Guest Author - Robin Henderson

The folklore of shapeshifting, or transformation from one form to another, has been seen in many tales and legends all over the world throughout the ages. From Greek mythology to Native American legends, we see that the shapeshifter has played many roles. Let’s take a look at these stories and learn what reasons these beings had for such powerful changes.

In ancient Greek myths, the most commonly noted of the gods who transformed shapes were Zeus, the “God of the Sky,” and Proteus, a “Sea God” and the son of Poseidon. Zeus changed himself into the forms of animals and a shower of gold so that he may be able to approach female mortals and goddesses in order to persuade them. Then, in Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ it is told that Proteus was captured by Menelaus, who was returning home from the Trojan War only to find himself stuck on the island of Pharos, where Proteus lived. Proteus changed into the shapes of a lion, serpent, leopard, pig and even water in an effort to escape his capture, but when no escape was clear he gave in to Menelaus. Not only did the gods and goddesses of Greek mythology shapeshift themselves, they also transformed the mortals as a form of punishment. One such instance was when the goddess Athena turned Arachne into a spider because of her great pride in weaving skills.

Now, let’s turn to shapeshifting of a different nature. Native American tribes had certain beliefs and ceremonial rituals dedicated to the animals of the lands and the waters. It is not uncommon that these tribes believed humans could transform into animals through magic. Many rituals and dances included dressing as animal beings, wearing clothing or animal skins and masks to represent them. This is to give honor to the animals that each tribe held responsible for their bountifulness as well as their closeness to nature. Certain tribes, or families of tribes, have totem poles depicting the animals that they are spiritually linked with. And, while some legends of Native American shapeshifters are good and do good deeds, others are said to be evil and harmful to the tribes.

Of course, in classic literature and films there are the types of transformations we all know and still read about and see today. We have the infamous vampire who will turn into a bat, the human who will turn into a werewolf on a full moon, and even sometimes a witch who will turn into an animal such as a black cat. A great place to read more about these types of stories would be your local library where you can most likely find older books that still hold the same legends. Today, we are becoming more creative and these traditional stories are evolving. But, the legends are ageless and will continue with us throughout our time and beyond.
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Content copyright © 2015 by Robin Henderson. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Robin Henderson. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Heather Dodd for details.


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