THERIANTHROPISM is a term derived from the Greek compound of thēr ("wild beast") and anthrōpos ("human") and is usually used to denote a deity or creature combining the form or attributes of a human with those of an animal. As an analytic category, it has little salience, since scholars have variously included under its rubric not only animal-headed gods, were-animals, mythological demihumans and monsters (such as centaurs, sphinxes, and minotaurs) but also examples of animal impersonation in rituals, spirit possessions by animals, mythological beings of animal aspect but human character (such as the North American Indian figure Coyote), and anthropomorphic gods (such as Zeus and Dionysos) who sometimes transform themselves into animals. Ideas about the supernatural linkage of humans and animals are probably universal—even in cultures with anthropomorphic monotheism, there are ideas of were-animals, therianthropic demons, and the possession of human souls by animals. Visual or literary images of therianthropic beings can be found in virtually all of the world's cultures, where they contrast with and complement representations of other forms of supernatural beings.
Discussions of therianthropy were most prevalent during the nineteenth century, when the idea of a part human, part animal deity was seen as a critical development stage in human history, midway between the totemic identification of hunter and prey that was supposed to characterize savage religions and the anthropomorphic deities of civilization. The occurrence of therianthropic deities was interpreted either as a survival of savage ideas in later religions or as the result of a historical diffusion of these more advanced representations of the divine from their Egyptian/Mesopotamian point of origin. The fact that most therianthropic figures known at that time came from the civilizations of the Middle East, where most of the archaeological research was being conducted, and that these civilizations were seen as midpoints between savagery and civilization gave added weight to the idea that therianthropy was a partial progress toward a rational, anthropomorphic religion. (Interestingly, Plato uses an account—one that is probably spurious—of a rural Arcadian cult of lycanthropy to contrast with the rational religions of urban Athens.)
The categorical distinctions between primitive and civilized mentalities that provided the rationale for developmentalist interpretations of religious history have not been supported by anthropological research, and most contemporary interpretations of therianthropic symbolism take a semiotic approach to the subject. Animals are seen as emblems of principles, as vehicles for symbolically expressing existential truths about the human condition. Therianthropic images juxtapose two principles in a unified being. Thus, it is not the animality of the image that is important but its duality, its ambiguity, its nature as a dialectic category that simultaneously contrasts and synthesizes two opposing metaphorical principles—images of noncontiguous categories made continuous (culture-nature, wild-domesticated, rational-emotional, independent-submissive, etc.). Therianthropic images, given their nature as a category of representation betwixt and between other categories, as a category whose elements are neither separate nor unified, are frequently associated with rituals of transition and liminality (as in initiation rites and carnivals) or with the intermediate stages of creation, when the world is in neither its primal nor its finished state.
Only as the psychology of religion and the theory of symbolism permit the development of new modes of understanding can we hope to deal with the historical and theological questions that are posed by differentiating therianthropic images of the divine from those that are theriomorphic or anthropomorphic. All three kinds of images may exist simultaneously in the psychologies, if not the artistic representations, of the world's peoples. Therianthropic ideas simultaneously differentiate and synthesize the qualities that define humanness with those that define the nonhuman other, and they may not represent significantly different, historically traceable, understandings of the nature of divinity so much as conventional representations of a universal religious phenomenon.
Stanley Walens (1987)