Mechanics of Shapeshifting

The mechanics of shapeshifting have been covered almost from the first recorded appearances of shapeshifting figures.  That is, if we define the mechanics as “how does one change into an animal”.  In fact, this definition of mechanics was a rather major concern for the medieval and early modern sources.  The early modern authors were particularly concerned with the “how to” question, as represented by a couple examples:

  • Peeter Stubbe—A True Discourse. Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of One Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer (1590)
  • Henri Bouget—Discours des Sorciers (1602)
  • Jean Grenier—his trial for werewolfism (1603)
  • Thomas Blount—Glossographia: or a Dictionary, Interpreting all Such Hard Words of Whatsoever Language, Now Used in Our Refined English Tongue; With  Etymologies, Definitions, and Historical Observations on the Same (1661)

There were many possible methods of transformation discussed by the sources from ancient Greece through the 17th century.  For the purposes of conserving space, I’ll limit this post to the five most common elements or methods in no particular order.

 

Removal of Clothing

Many stories of werewolves, in particular, require that the person remove their clothing to change form.  This is a symbolic removal of the trappings of civilization and humanity in order to embrace and become the beast.  Clothing is also, historically, an important indicator of social status, so the soldiers and noblemen of classical and medieval literature removing the symbols of their status is also important.  The shedding of clothing may, or may not, be connected to other elements, such as unguents and demonic instruction.

  • Petronius—Satyricon (1st century CE)
  • Marie de France—“Bisclavret” (late-12th century; though the condition seems to be genetic)
  • Jean Grenier—Trial record (1603)

 

Unguents

Often, particularly in classical and demonological sources, the potential werewolf must coat themselves in an unguent of some sort.  In the demonological sources (14th to 18th centuries), the recipe for this unguent is often taught by a demon or devil in return for service.

  • Virgil—Eclogue VIII (1st century CE)
  • Jean Grenier—Trial record (1603)

 

Curse

A favorite throughout history is shapeshifting as a curse.  This stretches back as least as far as ancient Rome, in the written record; at least as far as ancient Greece in the oral tradition.  The source of the curse varies from the pagan gods to agents of the Judeo-Christian God to witches (or simply ambitious noblewomen) in some of the more misogynistic texts.  In sources with divine origin of the curse, the curse seems to be permanent.  In those in which human agency causes the curse, it is reversible.

  • Ovid—Metamorphoses (8 CE; Jupiter curses Lycaeon)
  • —“Arthur and Gorlagon” (12th century; Gorlagon’s wife curses him)
  • Gerald of Wales—The History and Topography of Ireland (1188 CE; St. Patrick curses the people of Ossory)
  • Romance of William of Palerne (c. 1200; Alphouns’s stepmother curses him)

 

Bathing in a Special Lake

In some, particularly old, stories, the ability to change forms is the result of bathing in a particular lake.  Something in the ritual, which echoes prehistoric rites, allows the bather to change shapes.  It can, in some cases, be that the ritual awakens a latent genetic talent.

  • Pausanias—The Description of Greece (2nd century CE; Demarchus, the Olympic boxer)
  • Augustine—City of God (426 CE; discussion of the Arcadians)

 

Donning a Wolfskin

A few stories, more in the oral tradition than the written, indicate that wearing a specially prepared wolfskin (or other animal skin) is necessary for the transformation.  This is often connected with other methods.  For instance, in the case of Jean Grenier (1603), supposedly a devil taught Jean how to prepare a wolfskin with a special salve, coat himself in another substance, and wear the wolfskin to turn into a wolf.

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Fantasy: Origin of the Genre and Tropes

In thinking about the fantasy genre and history, my mind circled around a few topics.  One that it kept coming back to was the origins of the genre and its tropes.  There are many scholars and others who have argued that the origins of the fantasy genre are the ancient Greek epics, perhaps even the Mesopotamian epics like Gilgamesh.  I tend to disagree on that point, in large part because the ancient epics, and the myths, were all religious in nature.  That is to say, they were considered to be part of the religious canon of their respective cultures.

I would argue that the modern fantasy genre begins with the medieval romances and epics/sagas.  These tales possess all the elements of modern fantasy, display most of the tropes, and concern many of the character types involved in the genre.

But, wait, you say . . . the romances and sagas involved God and gods.  Weren’t they religious?

Yes and no.

Although they often incorporated religious elements, whether the devotion to the Abrahamic God in the Arthurian tales or the presence of Norse deities in the northern sagas, they were not considered part of their respective cultures’ religious canon (or cultural origin stories, for that matter).

Both genres were inherently linked to history and shaping society.  The sagas and epics reinforced societal norms through tales of punishment for violations.  They also set and reflected social ideals.  Most focused on tribal warfare, whether mortal or divine.  For their part, the romances and lais focused on royal courts and proper behavior.  They were, arguably, written in an attempt to pacify the wild warriors of the early-12th century French court (and spread throughout Europe).  It is believed that the romances, and lais, may have originated in the court of Marie of France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  At the very least, she was a major patron of romance writers.

I’ve chosen three examples to look at a bit more closely, and will address them in chronological order.

 

Beowulf

(10th century; trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton, 2002)

Throughout the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, we see many elements of modern fantasy.  We have the (semi-)wandering hero, who is also a prince.  We have a monster threatening civilization, in fact we have a pair of them.  In the first two thirds, the Grendel section, we have magic swords—“a sword in her armor, an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants” (1558-9) that could slay Grendel’s mother.  In the less well known final third, we have dragons and barrows—“Then an old harrower of the dark / happened to find the hoard open, / the burning one who hunts out barrows, / the slick-skinned dragon” (2270-3).  Many of the elements found in Beowulf’s story continue to appear throughout Tolkien’s work and that of his contemporaries.

 

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

(c. 1170; trans. Burton Raffel, Yale UP, 1987).

Chretien’s romance, written for Marie of France, is chock full of modern fantasy tropes, many of which also happen to be tropes of the medieval romance.  The questing knight, attempts to restore honor, fights with monstrous beasts, and sacrifice appear throughout the romance.  Chretien discusses giants, different from the Norse, as herdsmen and monsters.  He writes, “And I saw, / Sitting on a tree stump, a lowborn / Creature, black as a Moor, / Huge, and hideously ugly” (287-90).  Later, in order to complete his quest of honor, Yvain needs to infiltrate a castle.  He meets a woman who “gave him the little ring / And told him it had such power / That, just as bark hid the wood / Of a tree, and no one could see it, / So this ring would conceal anyone / Who wore it, as long as the stone / Sat in his palm” (1025-32).  In short, she loans him an invisibility ring, possibly the earliest appearance of one that I can recall.

 

The Story of the Volsungs

(13th century; trans. Douglas Killings & David Widger, Project Gutenberg, 2013)

The Volsunga Saga is one of the most well-known of the Norse sagas.  It appears throughout our culture and tales, from Richard Wagner through Rick Riordan.  But, the original features the dragon hoard as one of its primary elements, including the dragon.  “Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went” (Ch. 18).  It also includes both dwarves and elves, although the Volsunga Saga tends to conflate the two.  Some versions consider Andvari an elf, others a dwarf.  As Killings and Widger translate, “there was a dwarf called Andvari, who ever abode in that force, which was called Andvari’s force, in the likeness of a pike, and got meat for himself, for many fish there were in the force; now Otter, my brother, was ever wont to enter into the force, and bring fish aland, and lay them one by one on the bank” (Ch. 14).

Medieval Top 10

1)      Beowulf, Anon.

The oldest known piece of literature in English. Also a great pair of stories, whether Beowulf v. Grendel or Beowulf’s last fight v. the dragon. Bonus feature: It offers some insight into Danish and Saxon upper class life.

2)      Gawain and the Green Knight, Gawain-poet

Probably my second or third favorite on this list. Fun piece of Arthurian lore by an obscure poet writing in an obscure dialect. Features Gawain, a head chopping challenge, illusion, deception, attempted seduction, and a bit of questioning the ideals of Camelot.

3)      Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer

The classic English response to Boccaccio. Some of the tales are dry and mildly dull, but there are significant fun ones as well—Miller’s and Reeve’s tales. The piece also gives us an interesting insight into late-14th century cultural views about people in various walks of life. Ultimately, unfinished (there were supposed to be over 100 tales) despite some later claims of “lost” Chaucer tales (actually written by the people who “discovered” them).

4)      Yvain: Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

Probably my favorite of Chretien’s Arthurian pieces, in part because of some links to Tolkien. The story features giants, knights, wars, and Arthur’s conquest of Europe. But it also involves a magic ring that makes the wearer invisible . . .

5)      Lais, Marie de France

While all of Marie’s lais are good and interesting, my favorites are “Bisclavret” and “Yonec” for their shape-shifting elements. Nice pieces of 12th century literature, possibly written in London.

6)      The Romance of William of Palerne, Anon.

A 14th century translation of an earlier French work. A fairly popular and fun werewolf tale taking place mostly in Italy with a few scenes in Spain. Although named for William, Alphouns the werewolf tends to take center stage throughout the romance.

7)      “Arthur and Gorlagon”, Anon.

Short werewolf piece in the Arthurian corpus, much more violent than the two previously mentioned above. Basically, Arthur offends Guenevere and goes on a quest to make things up to her. He meets Gorlagon, hears the other king’s story, and goes home (oddly, it’s not quite clear whether Arthur’s quest was successful).

8)      The History and Topography of Ireland, Gerald of Wales

Gerald’s account of Irish life, legends, and culture as recorded during one of the Norman invasions of Ireland. Interestingly, Gerald, like many of the soldiers, was half-Welsh, half-Norman, on the margins of society, invading a place on the margins of Europe. Among the stories is the tale of the Ossory werewolves that presents both history and a theological conundrum for Gerald.

9)      Volsunga Saga, Anon.

Classic epic song of the Volsungs, from the gods’ slaying of a dwarf prince to the theft of Andvari the elf’s gold to Sigurd’s fight with Fafnir to the rise and fall of the Volsungs.

10)  Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Anon.

An excellent account of Mandeville’s travels around the world . . . that is, even for the places in Europe, probably totally fictitious. Even so, it’s a great piece to read, partially because it was considered one of the top travel narratives and travel guides in England for roughly four centuries. That said, from what we can tell, the actual author never left England and had no firsthand knowledge of Europe, much less the rest of the world.

Tradition vs “Tradition”: Werewolves (& Other Shifters, Really)

Thinking about history, I think about traditional figures, particularly shapeshifters since I’ve spent a long time studying them. When I think about traditional figures, I like werewolves especially because there’s a divide between what most modern audiences consider to be traditional and what actually is traditional. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to the latter as traditional and the former as “traditional”.

The modern “traditional” is really a new phenomenon that is largely built out of Hollywood, rather than the traditional figures of folklore, legend, myth, and literature. For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on cases of supposed actual change, not psychology (Sigmund Freud, Henri Boguet, James I of England, Simon Goulart).

According to the “traditional”, werewolves have a number of interesting traits. Most of these traits would be unrecognizable to pre-modern audiences. For instance, “traditional” werewolves take a wolfman shape, sometimes in addition to a wolf shape. “Traditional” werewolves are forced to change at the full moon (a theory posited by Gervase of Tilbury in the medievla era and dismissed by his peers, a theory that was never posited again until the 18th century), possibly coming about due to theories about ties between the moon and madness. “Traditional” werewolves are regenerative and vulnerable to silver (likely tied to the moon change, also a relative cheap precious metal). Finally, “traditional” werewolves transmit their condition through biting victims (or sometimes transfer of other bodily fluids), an idea that doesn’t appear before germ theory.

On the other hand, the traditional werewolves of the ancient through early modern eras were rather different. They only had human and animal shapes, no hybrid form. They did not regenerate (nor share injuries between forms, a concept that developed in 18th c. literature). All traditional werewolves changed for one of four reasons: curse, genetics, ritual, or an item. The most well known curses are in Gerald of Wales, Ovid, and William of Palerne. Marie de France seems to work with genetics. Petronias’ werewolf and Demarchus of Acadia were ritual based. Item based change, with an attendant deal with the devil, was most commonly use in the early modern/Renaissance era. Werewolves of the eras could be cured, typically by being struck three times by certain objects (with the spread of Christianity). They were a mix of monstrous (classical and early modern) and sympathetic (classical and medieval). Virtually all traditional werewolves were male (only one female comes to mind, in Gerald of Wales), from Lycaeus to Alphouns, Bisclavret to Gorlagon.

The “traditional” has become considered traditional due, I think, to saturation. Most modern audiences know the werewolves of movies and modern horror novels (and urban fantasy of the last decade). Few know the older stories, especially the early modern, medieval, and classical.

Are the “traditional” in any way worse than the traditional? No. But, as some authors rediscover the older sources, I’ve seen readers scream that the figures “aren’t right” because they don’t have the “traditional” attributes. I think this is another area where some awareness of history and awareness of just how young some of our “traditional” things really are is helpful.

Werewolf Story

Last night I read “The Rabbi Who was Turned into a Werewolf” from The Mayse Book (1602).  There are a lot of parallels to Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” and William of Palerne.  More Marie than the other, but there are still a few echoes.  It is also a lot more mysogynistic than its predecessors.

That said, I find it rather interesting.  What I find most interesting is that it is an early modern sympathetic werewolf tale and story-genre fiction.  The early-17th century accounts are all “monstrous werewolf” or “lycanthropy as mental illness” in form, as are their 16th century predecessors.  So, based on that alone, I find this sympathetic story stands out.  The genre is also an interesting thing.  Every discussion of werewolves after the 14th century, at least based on my research (dissertation and book), is a treatise, court document, broadsheet, memoir, or play (in fact, I can only think of one play).  This story, hearkening back to both the subject matter and form of the 12th and 14th centuries, seems to be a throw back.

In fact, I wonder how much it predates The Mayse Book.  Based on its components, I suspect it is probably a 13th or 14th century story, although it could be older, that managed to survive long enough in popularity within Europe’s Jewish community to be transcribed into the 17th century book.