December 31, 2019

Word of the Month - Therianthrope

        Therianthropic - adj. being partly animal and partly human in form; of or pertaining to deities conceived or represented in such form (from Greek “wild beast” + “human”).
        This adjectival form, interestingly, seems to be a more standard dictionary word than the noun therianthrope, and I suspect that the noun may be a back-formation.  It has also acquired a more diffuse range of meanings, but let’s start with the basics.  The ancient Egyptian gods, with their human bodies and animal heads, are representatives of that most basic definition.  There are also plenty of examples in classical Greek mythology, including fauns, satyrs, centaurs, harpies, and the minotaur.  The personage below is a cyanocephalus, or dog-headed humanoid, from classical and medieval tales of distant lands.
        Therianthropy is also defined as shape-shifting: not just existing with both human and animal features, but switching entirely between wholly human and wholly animal forms.  Werewolves are the most obvious example, in addition to selkies and bird maidens, and there are shapeshifters in mythologies around the world.  A recently-added definition of therianthrope is a person who identifies, spiritually or psychologically, as a non-human animal.  Sticking with the original definition, however, therianthropic characters abound in the religions and folklores of people around the world, from hybrid monsters such as mermaids, to shapeshifting spirits such as kitsune, to animals that take human form in order to marry humans and found races and clans, to all manner of gods and demons.  Clearly this is a topic we humans find rich and fascinating.  But when did we first start telling stories of therianthropes?
        I encountered the word in a recent article about the discovery of Indonesian cave paintings at least 43,900 years old, “the earliest figurative artwork in the world.”  (The famous scenes on the walls of the Lascaux Cave in France are probably only about 17,000 years old.)  The scene in the Sulawesi cave appears to be a group of eight figures hunting wild pigs and dwarf buffaloes, and according to the archaeologists, some of those figures are therianthropes.  I confess they’re not detailed enough for me to feel confident of the identification of what I’m looking at, but I’ll take the archaeologists’ word for it.  One of them, Adam Brumm, said, “We can point to these enigmatic images of therianthropes as the world’s earliest known evidence for our ability to conceive of the existence of supernatural beings.”  Of course we have no idea what stories those ancient artists were telling or what the various figures meant to them, but it does seem safe to assume that their view of the world was more than merely literal, which reinforces just how basic and vital a part of the human identity it is to picture and share ideas of things that are beyond material experience.

[Pictures: Merman and Harpy, wood block prints from Ortus sanitatis by Johann Prüss, 1499 (Images from Boston Public Library);
Cyanocephalis, wood block print from Liber chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) by Hartmann Schedel, 1493 (Image from Universiteit Utrecht);
Bird-billed humanoid? cave painting from Sulawesi, Indonesia, c. 42000 BCE (Image from New York Times).]


Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks, Anne, a fascinating post! I am a fan of the therianthrope, myself, as the author of a werewolf novel and some short stories. I’m currently working on a story in which the critters of Greek mythology were real, and came to the conclusion that if there were centaurs, harpies, etc. in Roman times, the Romans would have used them in their games and probably made them extinct!

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Sue, that's a great premise: how the Romans would have treated those types of creatures if they were real! In the medieval world races like the cyanocephali were used to represent distant, exotic, totally "other" peoples, and I'm sure the Romans would have wanted to conquer them all, too.