On Shaping Other Shapeshifters

So here’s something I’ve mentioned a lot before in various places but never really expanded upon: how werewolves have influenced other shapeshifters.

Well, that’s quite a big story. I’ve touched upon this in a lot of different places. Here are just a few…

I also covered werebears a bit here, as well as berserkers (which are very much two different things and aren’t really related at all!), and I also very briefly discussed this in my post on creatures that aren’t werewolves and are often mistaken for them.

But in this post we’ll cover something I haven’t really touched upon a lot in any of those: how exactly these other shapeshifters relate to werewolves – and vice-versa.

When it all boils down to it, the relationship between werewolves and other shapeshifters is pretty simple… werewolves came first and these other modern conceptions of “werecreatures” owe it all to werewolves.

Did the word “werewolf” come first? No, not actually, if you want to get technical; werewolf was a relatively new term for that kind of thing, starting in the Middle Ages. More on that here in my etymology post.

Did “werewolf” come before any other “were-” terms? Absolutely. No question. Yes. All those other werecreatures (including the word “werecreature” itself) – weretigers, werebears, werewhatever – all of them are extremely, extremely recent terms invented by pop culture to make other shapeshifters easier to define/categorize by equating them to a much more familiar one: werewolves.

Does that mean that werewolves were the only shapeshifters in folklore? Absolutely not! There were tons of shapeshifters in folklore of all kinds of things, not limited to animals, either. There were people who turned into animals, people who turned into physical objects, people who turned into mist, other monsters who turned into animals (including many vampire legends), and countless more. I cover some of these in the other posts I linked to. There’s way too much of all that to cover in this post, so I won’t make it the focus of this one, but by no means are werewolves the only shapeshifters in folklore – they’re just the “main” one, especially insofar as modern pop culture is concerned.

However, none of those were referred to as things like “werebears.” Any term that uses “were-” as a prefix in relation to some kind of shapeshifter that isn’t a werewolf was made in the modern era based on werewolves themselves.

So yes, all other shapeshifters owe that to werewolves.

They also owe a whole lot more. Most all of these “werecreatures” obtain many of their traits from werewolf legends and/or modern Hollywood interpretations of those legends. The actual legends for things like weretigers, werehyenas, werejaguars, werebears, and all the rest – they’re actually very, very different from anything to do with werewolves, from various different cultures, and all are very interesting. Why people can’t just let them be their own thing and let werewolves be their own thing is beyond me.

They’d all be better for it, if they did.

DnD “lycanthropes.” Ugh. Don’t get me started.

Werewolves have virtually become a kind of template for other werecreatures in pop culture – you even get “lycanthropes” (which means wolf) to refer to all shapeshifters that follow the “werewolf template” in a lot of pop culture. More often than not, these days, some other werecreature is taking the potential place of a werewolf in a story, and the werewolves are relegated to random evil monsters that are simple encounters, or the “most common” “kind” of “lycanthrope” or something else like that… Meanwhile the werebears, weretigers, or werecoyotes or whatever (there are countless, across various universes) get to play main roles in a story, and the werewolves are just those yucky little evil stupid depthless ones that our heroes slay a huge pile of in passing. Yeah, I hate that kind of thing.

At any rate, yeah, there is definitely a kind of template that was all based on werewolves – ranging from elements contrived by pop culture (mostly Curt Siodmak) that have been put on all werewolves today, to things that actually at least arguably may have originated from legends. And then people take those concepts and tack them onto most or all other shapeshifters (”lycanthropes”) in a setting.

Are werewolves associated with other shapeshifters in pop culture? No, not really. Werewolves appeared individually in legends, not together with other creatures, more often than not – pretty much always. Because, in legend, they were important and interesting and often sympathetic or straight-up heroic, unlike in modern stories.

So the next time you see a werecreature in a thing that just takes all of its elements, including its name, from werewolves… imagine if the creator(s) had used a werewolf there instead, or else if they had actually tried to use the original folklore behind that particular shapeshifter (bear, tiger, whatever it may be) instead of just taking the werewolf template and cheapening werewolves and all other shapeshifters as a result.

Food for thought!