Therianthropy

Therianthropy is the spiritual belief that one may host a sole of an animal’s or another being. The term “therianthropy” comes from the combination of two Greek words: theríon – “wild animal” or “beast”; and anthrōpos, – “human being.” Therianthropes, or beastmen are very common in popular culture today, but indeed have been a part of popular culture in the past. Spiritual beliefs in animal transformation appear in many ancient texts from many different cultures and religions. Yet therianthropy is not a religion itself. Let’s take a closer look on the most prominent examples:

Egypt: Animal Gods

Ancient Egyptian religion was not based on a set of theological principles, but rather the gods were connected to nature and and its elements – earth, air, fire and water. The ancient Egyptians believed in the infinite powers of the universe, and respected and worshiped each element that comprised it. The Nile Valley teemed with various forms of animal life, and locals believed that each animal had special gifts or powers. Apparently because of that belief most Egyptian gods were depicted as a mixture of human and animal, and many were associated with one or more animal species. The deities represented natural aspect of the world. For example, the supreme god Ra was the sun god. He was represented as a man with the head of a hawk, crowned with a solar disk and the sacred serpent. Just like a hawk, each day Ra traveled across the sky. He transformed into the sun, riding in his solar boat, and each night he journeyed through the underworld where he defeated the allies of chaos. He was reborn each morning in the form of the sunrise. Another example, Bastet was depicted as a woman with a cat’s head. Originally she represented the war goddess and protector of both lands that would unite as Ancient Egypt, which refers to the fact that cats in ancient Egypt were revered highly, partly due to their ability to combat mice, rats, which threatened food supplies, as well as snakes, and especially cobras. 

The convention was to depict the animal gods with a human body and an animal head. The opposite convention was sometimes used for representations of a king, who might be portrayed with a human head and a lion’s body, as in the case of the Sphinx. Sphinxes might also appear with other heads, particularly those of rams or falcons.

China: Animal astrology

The Chinese took a bit different approach to describe the presence of animal souls in humans. Chinese Zodiac, known as Sheng Xiao (birth likeness), is based on a twelve-year cycle. Each year in that cycle is related to an animal sign. It’s very hard to investigate the real origin of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. Apparently they have been developed in the early stages of Chinese civilization.  The most popular legend tells that the Chinese Buddah convened the animal kingdom to determine how to restore order in the world. However, only 12 animals showed up. Thus the 12 animals came to represent the Chinese zodiac cycle, each presiding over one year. The Chinese also realised the connection between animals and humans. Each animal in Chinese zodiac is widely associated with a culture of ascribing a person’s personality or events in his or her life. In Chinese astrology the animal signs assigned by year represent what others perceive one as a being or how that person presents himself. In addition, there are also animal signs assigned by month (inner animals), by day and hours.

That means, that at different stages of life a person can be lead by different animals. For example, while the person might appear to be a Dragon because he/she was born in the year of the Dragon, she might also be a Snake internally, an Ox on that particular day, and a Rabbit in that particular moment 🙂

Cave Art of the Stone Age Images of therianthropes go back much further than Ancient Egypt and China 4-5 thousand years ago. In fact, they go all the way back to what is called “symbolic revolution” between 30 and 40 thousand years ago, when the first art began to be painted on the walls of caves and rock shelters.

The oldest prehistoric art ever found was created during the Upper Paleolithic in the Fumane Cave (“Grotta di Fumane”) near the north-eastern city of Verona, the home to the oldest Stone Age art in Italy. In 1999 archeologists discovered a number of figurative cave paintings on fragments of rock which had broken off the roof of the underground chamber. Executed in red ochre, the cave painting includes images of animals as well as what appears to be a half-human, half-animal figure. They have been dated to as far back as 35,000 BCE.

Figures like this occur again and again in ancient painted caves. It gets fascinating when you start to think where did our ancestors got the inspiration for this kind of creatures? Obviously, creatures that were half-animal half-human were not something ancient people could observe in their life.

While archeologists shrug their shoulders, David Lewis-Williams, founder of the Rock Art Research Institute and professor emeritus of cognitive archaeology at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa has his own opinion about what is going on on the ancient paintings. Prof. Lewis-Williams attributes the scenes to shamanistic art. According to him the paintings and engravings of the Old Stone Age caves were the result of shamanic ceremonies, because only shamans were able to mediate between different realms and bodies.

Source:  The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art by David Lewis-Williams

The argument was supported by a scientific research done in the 1950 and 60th. The research used hallucinogenic substances to induce altered state of consciousness in human volunteers. In that state the volunteers were able to first encounter shimmering patterns often in geometrical forms, which look very similar to what we see in the ancient art. Furthermore, while being in a journey to another realm, several volunteers were able to see and further draw therianthropes – creatures with human bodies but animal heads.

Below are a few more images of cave art from France and South Africa vs contemporary shamanistic art by Pablo Amaringo

 

 

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