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The transformation of a human being into an animal. The belief is an ancient one. The term derives from the Greek words lukos, a wolf, and anthropos, a man, but it is employed regarding a transformation into any animal shape. It is chiefly in those countries where wolves are numerous that we find such tales concerning them. But in India and some parts of Asia, the tiger takes the place of the wolf. In Russia and elsewhere it is the bear, and in Africa the leopard.

Such beliefs generally adhere to savage animals, but even harmless ones sometimes figure in them. There is considerable confusion as to whether such transformations were voluntary or involuntary, temporary or permanent. The human being transformed into the animal may be the physical individual or, on the other hand, may be only a double, that is, the human spirit may enter the animal but the human body remain unchanged.

Magicians and witches were credited with the power of transforming themselves into wolves and other animal shapes, and it was asserted that if the animal were wounded, then the marks of the wound would be discovered upon the wizard's body. The belief was current in many tribal cultures that every individual possessed an animal form, which could be entered at death or at will. This transformation was effected either by magic or natural agency.

As mentioned, the wolf was a common form of animal transformation in Europe. In ancient Greece, the belief was associated with the dog, which took the place of the wolf. Other similar beliefs have been found in India and Java. In the former country we find the werewolf in a kind of vampire form.

Magical Transformation

The seventeenth-century writer Louis Guyon related the history of an enchanter who used to change himself into different beasts:

"Certain people persuaded Ferdinand, first Emperor of that name, to command the presence of a Polish enchanter and magician in the town of Nuremberg to learn the result of a difference he had with the Turks, concerning the kingdom of Hungary; and not only did the magician make use of divination, but performed various other marvels, so that the king did not wish to see him, but the courtiers introduced him into his chamber. There he did many wonderful things, among others, he transformed himself into a horse, anointing himself with some grease, then he took the shape of an ox, and thirdly that of a lion, all in less than an hour. The emperor was so terrified by these transformations that he commanded that the magician should be immediately dismissed, and declined to hear the future from the lips of such a rascal.

"It need no longer be doubted [that Lucius Apuleius Plato was a sorcerer, and that he] was transformed into an ass, foras-much as he was charged with it before the proconsul of Africa, in the time of the Emperor Antonine I, in the year 150 A.D., as Apollonius of Tyana, long before, in the year 60, was charged before Domitian with the same crime. And more than three years after, the rumour persisted to the time of St. Augustine, who was an African, who has written and confirmed it; as also in his time the father of one Prestantius was transformed into a horse, as the said Prestantius declared. Augustine's father having died, in a short time the son had wasted the greater part of his inheritance in the pursuit of the magic arts, and in order to flee poverty he sought to marry a rich widow named Pudentille, for such a long time that at length she consented. Soon after her only son and heir, the child of her former marriage, died. These things came about in a manner which led people to think that he had by means of magic entrapped Pudentille, who had been wooed in vain by several illustrious people, in order to obtain the wealth of her son. It was also said that the profound knowledge he possessedfor he was able to solve difficult questions which left other men bewilderedwas obtained from a demon or familiar spirit he possessed. Further, certain people said they had seen him do many marvellous things, such as making himself invisible, transforming himself into a horse or into a bird, piercing his body with a sword without wounding himself, and similar performances. He was at last accused by one Sicilius Œmilianus, the censor, before Claudius Maximus, proconsul of Africa, who was said to be a Christian; but nothing was found against him.

"Now, that he had been transformed into an ass, St. Augustine regards as indubitable, he having read it in certain true and trustworthy authors, and being besides of the same country; and this transformation happened to him in Thessaly before he was versed in magic, through the spell of a sorceress, who sold him, and who recovered him to his former shape after he had served in the capacity of an ass for some years, having the same powers and habits of eating and braying as other asses, but with a mind still sane and reasonable as he himself attested. And at last to show forth his case, and to lend probability to the rumour, he wrote a book entitled The Golden Ass, a mélange of fables and dialogues, to expose the vices of the men of his time, which he had heard of, or seen, during his transformation, with many of the labours and troubles he had suffered while in the shape of an ass.

"However that may be, St. Augustine in the book of the City of God, book XVIII, chapters XVII and XVIII, relates that in his time there were in the Alps certain sorceresses who gave a particular kind of cheese to the passers by, who, on partaking of it, were immediately changed into asses or other beasts of burden, and were made to carry heavy weights to certain places. When their task was over, they were permitted to regain their human shape.

"The bishop of Tyre, historian, writes that in his time, probably about 1220, some Englishmen were sent by their king to the aid of the Christians who were fighting in the Holy Land, and that on their arrival in a haven of the island of Cyprus a sorceress transformed a young English soldier into an ass. He, wishing to return to his companions in the ship, was chased away with blows from a stick, whereupon he returned to the sorceress who made use of him, until someone noticed that the ass kneeled in a church and did various other things which only a reasoning being could do. The sorceress who followed him was taken on suspicion before the authorities, was obliged to give him his human form three years after his transformation, and was forthwith executed.

"We read that Ammonius, a peripatetic philosopher, about the time of Lucius Septimius Severus, in the year 196 A.D., had present at his lessons an ass whom he taught. I should think that this ass had been at one time a man, and that he quite understood what Ammonius taught, for these transformed persons retain their reason unimpaired, as St. Augustine and other writers have assured us.

"Fulgose writes, book VIII, chapter II, that in the time of Pope Leon, who lived about the year 930, there were in Germany two sorceresses who used thus to change their guests into beasts, and on one occasion she changed a young mountebank into an ass, who, preserving his human understanding, gave a great deal of amusement to the passers-by. A neighbour of the sorceresses bought the ass at a good price, but was warned by them that he must not take the beast to a river, or he would lose it. Now the ass escaped one day and running to a near-by lake plunged into the water, when he returned to his own shape. Apuleius says that he regained his human form by eating roses.

"There are still to be seen in Egypt asses which are led into the market-place to perform various feats of agility and tricks, understanding all the commands they receive, and executing them: such as to point out the most beautiful woman of the company, and many other things that one would hardly believe; and Belon, a physician, relates in his observations that he has seen them, and others also, who have been there, and who have affirmed the same to me."

Augustin Calmet, author of The Phantom World (2 vols., 1850), stated:

"One day there was brought to St. Macarius, the Egyptian, an honest woman who had been transformed into a mare by the wicked art of a magician. Her husband and all who beheld her believed that she had really been changed into a mare. This woman remained for three days without taking any food, whether suitable for a horse or for a human being. She was brought to the priests of the place, who could suggest no remedy. So they led her to the cell of St. Macarius, to whom God had revealed that she was about to come. His disciples wished to send her away, thinking her a mare, and they warned the saint of her approach, and the reason for her journey. He said to them: 'It is you who are the animals, who think you see that which is not; this woman is not changed, but your eyes are bewitched.' As he spoke he scattered holy water on the head of the woman, and all those present saw her in her true shape. He had something given her to eat and sent her away safe and sound with her husband."

Modern Beliefs in Transformation

Belief in transformation of human beings into predatory animals persisted into relatively modern times in Africa, India, Java, Malaya, and other countries. In Africa there were tiger men and even a leopard society of wizards. It seems very likely, however, that many apparent cases of transformation were effected by wearing the skin of an animal when hunting victims. In some cases there may have been a perverse desire for blood-drinking or cannibalism, as in the celebrated sixteenth-century case of the French lycanthrope Gilles Garnier.

In July 1919 the Journal of the SPR published a summary of Richard Bagot's article, "The Hyaenas of Pirra" (Cornhill Magazine, October 1918), in which some experiences were reported by a Lieutenant F. personally and an experience of the late Capt. Shott, D.S.O. dealt with the killing of Nigerians when in the form of supposed hyenas. The main facts, which deeply impressed the officers were as follows:

"Raiding hyenas were wounded by gun-traps, and tracked in each case to a point where the hyena traces ceased and were succeeded by human footprints, which made for the native town. At each shooting a man mysteriously dies in the town, all access being refused to the body. In Lieut. F.'s experiences the death wail was raised in the town almost immediately after the shot; but Capt. Shott does not mention this. In Capt. Shott's experience the beast was an enormous brute, readily trackable, which after being hard hit made off through the guinea-corn. It was promptly tracked, and a spot was come upon where 'they found the jaw of the beast lying near a large pool of blood.' Soon after the tracks reached a path leading to the native town. The natives next day came to Capt. Shottand this is the curious part of the affairand told him, without any regrets, that he had shot the Nefadaa lesser head-manwho was then lying dead with his jaw shot away. The natives gave their reasons as having seen and spoken to the Nefada, as he was, by his own admission, going into the bush. They heard the gun and saw him return with his head all muffled up and walking like a very sick man. On going next morning to see what was the matter they found him as stated."

Mr. Bagot, a member of the SPR, added in response to further questions:

"In the article in question I merely reproduced verbatim the reports and letters sent to the said official by British officers well known to him, and said that the authenticity and good faith of the writers can be vouched for entirely. I have evidence of precisely similar occurrences that have come under the notice of Italian officers in Eritrea and Somaliland; and in all cases it would seem that a gravel patch thrown up by the small black ants is necessary to the process of metamorphosis. I drew the attention of Sir James G. Frazer (author of The Golden Bough ) to this coincidence and asked him if he had come across in his researches anything which might explain the connection between gravel thrown up by the ants and the power of projection into animal forms; but he informed me that, so far as he could recollect, he had not done so. Italian officials and big game hunters assure me that it is considered most dangerous (by natives in Somaliland, Abyssinia, etc.) to sleep on ground thrown up by ants; the belief being that anyone who does so is liable to be possessed or obsessed by some wild animal, and that this obsession once having taken place, the victim is never afterwards able entirely to free himself from it and is compelled periodically to assume the form and habits of some beast or reptile."

Psychic Aspects

Psychic research does not normally admit such phenomena as lycanthropy within its scope, but there are two possible points of contact. The first is the projection of the double (or astral body ), provided it could be proved that the double may assume any desired shape. Eugen Rochas asserted that the double of his hypnotic subject, on being so suggested, assumed the shape of her mother. If it were proved that the shape of animals could be assumed, we would have to consider lycanthropy as a psychic possibility. But the animal, in that case, would not be more than a phantom, and we would have to prove that this phantom can be hurt and transfer, by repercussion, the wound to the projector.

The second possibility brings us nearer to this aspect of the problem. Paul Joire succeeded in transferring the exteriorized sensitivity of his subject to a figure made of putty. If the hand of the putty figure was scratched by a needle, a corresponding red mark appeared on the somnambule's hand.

The question arises: would it not be possible to transfer sensitivity to a living being, to an animal? In that case it would be natural to expect a repercussion from the animal to the human body.


Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Were-Wolves. London, 1865. Reprint, New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Hamel, Frank. Human Animals. London, 1915. University Books, 1969.

Kaigh, Frederick. Witchcraft and Magic of Africa. London: Richard Lesley, 1947.

Maclean, Charles. The Wolf Children. Hill & Wang, 1977.

Summers, Montague. The Werewolf. London, 1933. University Books, 1966.

Woodward, Ian. The Werewolf Delusion. London & New York: Paddington Press, 1979.


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ly·can·thro·py / līˈkan[unvoicedth]rəpē/ • n. the supernatural transformation of a person into a wolf, as recounted in folk tales. ∎  archaic a form of madness involving the delusion of being an animal, usually a wolf, with correspondingly altered behavior.DERIVATIVES: ly·can·throp·ic / ˌlīkənˈ[unvoicedth]räpik/ adj.


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lycanthropy XVI. — modL. lycanthrōpia — Gr. lukanthrōpíā, f. lukánthrōpos, f. lúkos WOLF + ánthrōpos man; see -Y3.


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lycanthropy the supernatural transformation of a person into a wolf, as recounted in folk tales. Lycanthropy is recorded from the late 16th century, as a supposed form of madness involving the delusion of being a wolf. The word comes from modern Latin lycanthropia, and ultimately from Greek lukos ‘wolf’ + anthropos ‘man’.