Clarissa Johal: Shape-shifters and Werewolves

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Shape-shifters and Werewolves

Werewolves. Probably the only thing that scares me besides butterflies...
and we won’t go there. I believe my fear stems from an incident I experienced at six-years-old. It was Halloween and I was making my way up a neighborhood driveway to trick-or-treat. As I got to the front door, a werewolf jumped out of the bushes and scared the bejeezus out of me. It wasn’t a real one of course, but a costumed teenager who was counting on a bit of fun. My parents tell me I went flying down the driveway at 90 miles an hour, with no intention of stopping. 
Apparently, the teenage boy was mortified. 
And I was made to go back and “face my fear.”  
The boy took off his mask, apologized profusely and filled my pillowcase with candy. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that part because I think I blanked out.
And so a phobia was born.

Werewolves and shape-shifters are a hot item these days. You can't turn on the television or pick up a paranormal novel without encountering one in some form or another. They have been populating mythologies and literature from all over the world since the dawn of time. Historically speaking, those with the affliction of lycanthropy, or werewolves, were usually cursed. Shape-shifting however, was a different story.

Shape-shifter: Also called metamorphs, skin-walkers, mimics, and therianthropes. A human with the ability to change its shape into that of another person, creature, species, or entity. It could be voluntary or the result of a curse, magic potion or object. Some shape-shifters were able to change form only if they had an item, usually an article of clothing.

In Norse mythology, warriors or berserkers, were said to change into wolves and bears in order to fight more effectively. The tradition of wearing the pelt of a bear or wolf into battle and penchant for fighting into an uncontrollable fury may have given rise to these myths.
In Greek mythology, shape-shifting was often a punishment from the gods to the humans who crossed them. Zeus transformed Lycaon into a werewolf as a punishment for killing his children. Athena transformed Arachne into a spider for challenging her as a weaver. Artemis transformed Actaeon into a stag for spying on her while she was bathing. And so on.
Early Mayan texts speak of the shape-shifter, or Mestaclocan, who had the ability to change his appearance and to manipulate the minds of animals.
Selkies, found in Scottish, Irish and Icelandic folklore, were magical beings said to live as seals in the sea, shedding their skin to become human on land. In order to change back into seals however, they had to keep their seal skins in a safe place.
Japanese kitsune (foxes) were said to be intelligent beings. They possessed magical abilities that increased with age and wisdom. Among these magical abilities was the ability to assume human form at will.
In Korea, a gumiho (nine-tailed fox) was a creature that could transform into a beautiful woman with the goal to seduce men and eat their heart or liver.

Werewolves, on the other hand, have slightly different mythologies. Many authors have speculated that werewolf legends may have been used to explain serial killings.

Werewolf: a human, through either a curse or will, with the ability to shape-shift into a wolf or wolf-like creature. The idea that werewolves were able to be killed by silver or infect another with a bite or scratch wasn’t popularized until the appearance of modern literature.

Werewolves in European tradition were always considered evil. Usually said to be men that terrorized people (in the form of wolves) at the Devils command, there were few stories of people being transformed involuntarily.
In Hungarian folklore, the concept of werewolf goes back to the Middle Ages. It was thought that the ability to change into a wolf was obtained after suffering abuse by parents or by being cursed as a child.
In Latvian folklore, a vilkacis was someone who could transform into a wolf-like monster. In some instances, it was a human who could send their soul into that of a wolf. Vilkacis were considered benevolent, however.
In Armenian mythology, sinful women were condemned to spend seven years in wolf form. A condemned woman would be visited by a wolfskin-toting spirit who ordered her to wear the skin, thus causing cravings for human flesh soon after.

Werewolves and shape-shifters: both with similar abilities, but perhaps different origins and reasons for utilizing them. I've toyed with writing a horror novel focusing on werewolves, but every time I begin it, I have nightmares. The story stays on the back-burner until I stop being such a weenie.

In spite of my werewolf phobia (and oddly enough) I have a tattoo of what you could call a shape-shifter. A friend of mine, knowing how much I like history and art, gave me a copy of The Book of Kells as a gift. I started reading it and came across this gorgeous illuminated drawing of a wolf. Wandering across the page, it seemed completely out of place within the illuminated scripts. I couldn’t stop looking at it. I researched the the wolf online and found that they think it represented a Pictish 6th century clan of people. Its twin, the Ardross Wolf, is located in Inverness Museum and Art Gallery. My husband joked that I was obsessing over the drawing, which I probably was at that point.
One night, I had a dream that my wolf was getting lost in the Celtic knots on my bedspread, weaving in and out of them. I tried to catch him, but he kept slipping in and out of my fingers and jumped off the bed; shape-shifting into a warrior. I could see him in great detail—his weapons, his beard, the animal skins he wore. I could smell him, everything. I woke up and thought, “I’m getting that wolf as a tattoo.” And so I did. 
Shape-shifter? Kind of. But definitely not one I’d be afraid of. And oddly enough, the 6th century Pictish clan in question lived in northern and eastern Scotland, which is where my family history can be traced. 
Perhaps this is a sign that I need to let my fear of werewolves go. 
Or perhaps, that the shape-shifter has my back.


Sharon Ledwith said...

Love your tat! I've got a star and lightening bolt! My first book was about shapeshifter long before the genre became popular. I tried to sell it again and again, then BOOM, Twilight came and flooded the market with the paranormal craze. Oh well, loved your post, and of course, your artwork! Tweeted and shared.

Rhea Rhodan said...

You have the most fantastic experiences! I love your blog entries and this one is no exception. As for theories, what if your original reaction as a child was related to your ancestral memories? The fact that you have the velcro for that kind of reaction to your first experience and then the artwork makes it an interesting possibility. In any case, I'd go with this one having your back!

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

Thanks so much for commenting, ladies! Sharon--did you resend your novel out? Or did it get published? Rhea--I never really thought about it that way. I'll have to ponder and read up on that.

S said...

I too love the tat! I find the paranormal very interesting and exciting to read. I'll be hopping around these blogs to see what the other MUSA authors are all about (and creating a reading list).

Clarissa Johal, Author said...

S--thank you for stopping by and taking a peek at my blog and tattoo, heehee! Have fun reading the blogs--good luck!