A Mythological Perspective on Therianthropy

I originally posted this to my personal blog, but I thought I’d crosspost it here as well since it does deal with spiritual beliefs. I’ve met several people who believe that therianthropy (and Otherkin in general) are just those who have an odd interpretation of animistic/shamanic concepts; while I don’t think that explains everyone who identifies as Otherkin/etc., I do think it’s an angle I want to explore more for my *personal* purposes.

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This is quite possibly one of the most difficult parts of my personal cosmology for people who aren’t Otherkin to grasp. On the surface, it seems entirely delusional and escapist–“You believe you’re a wolf? Have you looked in the mirror lately? Maybe we should get you to a psychiatrist…” And believe me, plenty of us have gone through the belief-doubt-belief cycle.

As I’ve gotten older, though, and this odd bit of my psyche hasn’t gone away (no matter how I’ve tried ignoring and even repressing it), I’ve started looking at it from different angles. The concept of therianthropy, the idea that a person is, on a certain psychological, spiritual, or other nonphysical level, a nonhuman animal, is the concept that best explains what’s going on in a *functional* manner. Telling me I’m crazy doesn’t make me more functional. I’m already quite functional; therianthropy doesn’t hinder my ability to live a perfectly normal life, with a husband, a job, and a decent social life. However, part of that functionality comes from being able to accept myself as I am and integrating everything about myself into my life, rather than trying to play the Pigeonhole Game.

Many therians see therianthropy as a psychological/neurobiological thing. Many Otherkin in general are enamored of the idea of reincarnation, that who and what we were in previous (or alternate, depending on your view of linear space/time) lives affects who and what we are now. For myself, though, I’m gravitating more and more towards a metaphorical perspective (in addition to psychological and spiritual layers).

I like Joseph Campbell’s work, warts and all. I’m particularly fond of the concept that people need mythology in order to have a complete worldview, that mythology answers a need we have on a very deep level. IMO, rationality appeals to the left brain, while mythology appeals to the right hemisphere (and keep in mind this is very generalized). Now, granted, I can’t speak for everyone. But for myself, spirituality, and by extension, mythology, are part of my psyche’s complete breakfast. Rationality answers my need for a physical, down-to-earth, left-brain explanation of things. However, if anything, I’m canted more towards the right brain (I’m even left handed, and I’m one of those damned artsy types ;). Therefore, in order to be happy, I need the mythological/metaphorical end of things as well. (I’d make an awful rational atheist/materialist.)

Mythology occurs on two levels, IMO/IME. It occurs on a collective/community level, where a group consensus of belief is arrived at. This is where the more outward trappings of religion and spirituality come into play, as well as the cultural mythology shared by an entire group, tribe or nation of people. It’s more commonly recognized in modern American society, though in a fragmented manner. We do not, as a nation, have a cohesive cultural mythology that permeates the fabric of our society in the same way that mythology shaped, say, the ancient Greek or Norse cultures. (And even then, the collective mythology could vary according to individual culture-within-a-culture, by region, etc.) However, we do not have a national mythology (or a national religion). We are a patchwork quilt made of a number of different cultures that arrived here over several centuries, and who are still arriving. Additionally, America as a whole is incredibly materialistic and possessed of a short attention span. The closest we have to heroes and other mythological entities are the denizens of pop culture, who (with rare exception) last a few weeks, months, or years, and then drop out of existence. We worship what we see on the T.V., though it’s not conventional worship and we don’t always realize what we’re doing. Additionally, we have a rather destructive relationship with that form of mythology–we create heroes, and then take malicious joy out of knocking them down. The evening news and “reality” T.V. are testaments to our cultural fetish for watching the mighty tumble back down to our level; rather than aspiring to become better people through their examples, we revel in dragging them down to our level, made rabid by our insecurity and fear of success.

There’s also the mythology inherent in religion to consider. The most common religion in America is Christianity, but the values of that religion are largely based in ancient Hebrew society, and in some ways don’t mesh particularly well with modern American culture. Not that it can’t be done, but many of the original values of Christianity and its predecessor, Judaism, have been dropped by liberal Jews and by Christians in general–how many Christians routinely slaughter cattle as per Leviticus, or throw stones at adulterers? My point, though, is not judging whether any particular religion is right or wrong–that’s up to the individual to decide. Rather, I want to make it clear that this is in no way a Christian nation, and although the motifs of Christian myth* do permeate society to an extent, it’s not the same as Native American or other indigenous cultures, or the pre-Christian cultures of Europe–or even primarily Christian societies prior to the past two centuries or so.

Still neither pop culture nor religions make for a cohesive *cultural* mythology in America. Additionally, more than any known society before us, modern America is incredibly individual-based. This has only really cropped up in the past several decades, and while it has had some definite benefits (such as encouraging people to challenge stereotypes, prejudices, and other negative elements traditionally accepted by the status quo), it has contributed to the lower possibility of cultural mythology.

However, the rise of the individual increases the exposure of *personal* mythology, something which has always existed but has been largely downplayed in more group-oriented societies. Personal mythology is understanding reality from the microcosmic view, determining one’s own perspective, and telling the story of what the world is from a single viewpoint. It often meshes with a cultural mythology (in some cases, more than one), though it may have completely unique elements as well (as in Unverified Personal Gnosis).

And this is where my therianthropy ties in to all that stuff above this point–it is a part of my personal mythology. Part of the story I tell about myself is that, inside me, there is a part of me that is a wolf–in that respect, I am a wolf. This is something that I’ve recognized in myself for most of my life, and have found different ways to explain it. When I was a child, I called Wolf my “favorite animal” because that’s what I was told it was. When I first learned about totems, I thought perhaps Wolf was my totem (and I was right). However, therianthropy fit my experiences even more, particularly the identification WITH Wolf.

There are no cultural motifs in modern America for explaining this feeling beyond classic lycanthropy (fiction) and clinical lycanthropy (insanity). We don’t have a system of animal totemism, nor is there widespread functional belief in animal spirit guides; our totems and spirits are relegated to children’s cartoons and sports mascots. Additionally, we are detached from the concept that we, humans, are animals–some people get incredibly offended by the assertion that we share the majority of our genetic material with all other mammals (and all vertebrates, for that matter). “But we’re special! We can reason! We’re (insert deity’s name here)’s chosen beings!” That may be, but other animals are pretty special, too–could you survive in the woods if you were thrown out there naked with no supplies? Can you smell a deer a quarter mile away? Our big brains, evolutionarily speaking, are our species’ adaptation, just as more olfactory glands are the adaptation of scent-based predators such as wolves. We have gained reason, but we have lost a healthy grasp of instinct.

I acknowledge I am an animal, a mammal, a primate. Because the basic human social structure, more pronounced in hunter-gatherer societies, resembles that of wolves, and because American culture often equates the Wild (instinct, wilderness, base emotions) with wolves (werewolves being the most common shapeshifter in American culture, and in many of the cultures that shaped modern America), it’s no surprise, then, that when the instinctual part of myself, the archetype of the Wild (Wo)Man, raises its shaggy, sharp-fanged muzzle, it manifests as a wolf.

This does NOT mean that therianthropy is ONLY “make-believe” for me, that it is only metaphorical–there are also psychological and spiritual levels to it as well. However, we live in a setting where “metaphor” is taken to mean “not real” because it doesn’t manifest literally on the physical/rational. Go beyond a certain level of abstractness, and people want to delineate between what is “real” and what is “imagination”. Yet in mythology–the study of myth–metaphorical is just as real as literal. It may be real in different ways–but it has a very real effect on people. Let me say that again: metaphor is real, because it has a very real, concrete effect on how people view the world around them and how they act on that world and its denizens. Whether it’s the ancient tribe that placates the spirits of the dead to keep them from harming the living, or the anti-abortion protester who believes wholeheartedly that God wants hir to protect unborn lives, or the person who believes s/he was an elf in a past life and that part of hirself still resonates with that, the mythology we believe in is very real for us–particularly on a personal level.

And this is part of why I identify as a therian–because it answers my need for mythology, and meshes with my personal mythology. It answers questions that the rational/literal reality denies even exist, and functionally, it helps me to feel I am a more complete person. My life is enriched by this belief. On a left-brain level, yes, it’s possible that I have a weird neurobiological quirk, or a strange bit of psychological imprinting/conditioning (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been called weird or strange 😉 But on a right-brain level, this makes sense. And rather than trying to pick between the left/literal and right/metaphorical, I choose to embrace them both as possible explanations for myself–not just for therianthropy, but for everything that encompasses my life.

The left brain is the Earth–grounded, solid, physical; the right brain is the Sky–free of hindrances, open, with breezes that carry me ever higher. As long as I am between the Earth and the Sky, things can’t be all that bad.

* No, “myth” does not equal “fiction”. However, the current subjective treatment of myth, of declaring one myth to be more true than another, sometimes makes it difficult to speak of some religions in mythological terms for fear of offending adherents.

ETA: And an addendum to this post.

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