Therianthropy is a generic term for any transformation of a human into another animal form, or for a being which displays both human and animal characteristics, either as a part of mythology or as a spiritual concept. The word is derived from Greek therion (Θηριον), meaning "wild animal" or "beast", and anthrōpos (ανθρωπος), meaning "man".
Scholarly use of the term
The most commonly known form is lycanthropy (from the Greek words lycos ("wolf") and anthropos ("man")), the technical term for the transformation from man to animal form. Although the precise definition of lycanthropy specifically refers only to the change into wolf form (as with a werewolf), the term is often used to refer to shape changing to any non-human animal form.
Therianthropy can also refer to characters that share man and animal traits at the same time, for example with the animal-headed human forms of gods in Egyptian mythology (such as Ra, Sobek and others) as well as creatures like centaurs and mermaids.
Etymology of varieties
Terms referring to specific varieties of therianthropy are based on Greek words for specific animals combined with anthropos. A nearly endless number of types of therianthropy could thus be referred to by their own individual terms, though most of these would be neologisms. Rare alternate derivations based on Latin are considered nonstandard at best, incorrect at worst, because they both break precedent and mix a Latin prefix with a Greek suffix. Other than lycanthropy, cynanthropy and ailuranthropy are the best known varieties (Greene, 229). Cynanthropy existed by at least 1901, when the term was applied to myths from China about humans turning into dogs, dogs becoming people, and sexual relations between humans and canines (De Groot, 184).
When people believe they change into an animal form (theriomorphosis), or possess supernatural non-human animal traits, the term clinical lycanthropy is often used. This classification is a form of mental illness, though many anthropologists would point out that the belief has extensive religious precedent in shamanic cultures. Likewise, people who call themselves shapechangers as a form of social identification are generally not considered ill by mental health professionals unless their beliefs interfere with the normal functioning of their lives. This can be a controversial issue, as the line between what the Western mind passes off as a strange or alternative belief and what is considered a mental illness is indistinct.
Modern subcultural use of the term
Description and origins
In recent times, a subculture has developed that has adopted the word therianthropy to describe a sense of inner spiritual or psychological identification with a non-human animal. Members of this subculture typically refer to themselves as therianthropes or therians. (The word were was also common for some time, as a reference to other part-human, part-animal shapeshifting creatures of legend, such as werewolves, weretigers and the like, but is much less common these days. One reason might be a growing consensus and wider awareness that the prefix simply means "man", and not "part human, part ___", as is often assumed.)
Therianthropes may describe their nature manifesting in terms of their cognitive processes, their outlook on life, their inner reactions and instincts, their senses, or through their physical body, though claims of actual physical variations from the norm tend to be regarded with skepticism both within and outside the subculture. Detailed descriptions (as with all inner experiences) vary widely, with common descriptions being of a spiritual bond, the soul of an animal within, a belief that they have an atypical or atavistic neurology, or an emotional shading of the personality. The human and non-human aspects of the self may then co-operate or conflict, leading to happiness or unhappy dysfunction, and may take much self-discovery to begin to understand or accept. Because this is a personal self-perception, identification or discovery over time, the ways in which a person describes his or her self-identification as a therianthrope vary considerably.
In the early days of the Usenet group alt.horror.werewolves (around 1992), the members discussed fictional shapeshifters. Some users began to publicly claim that they considered themselves to be partially non-human animal. A number were only joking, but enough people were serious about it, and claimed this was their personal understanding and experience of themselves, that it became the subject of ongoing discussion (Cohen, 104). Initially such people called themselves lycanthropes, but as that word more accurately describes wolf-people, therianthropes was chosen as a more general term.
Many who report such a scenario do such as personal experience, and do not claim to understand its cause or be sure of their interpretation.
Prehistoric origins claim
Some therianthropes regard the subculture as an organized effort to understand a shamanic process that is presumed to date to at least 20,000 years ago. Ethnologist Ivar Lissner theorized that cave paintings of beings combining human and non-human animal features were not representations of myths about physical shapeshifters, but were instead attempts to depict shamans in the process of acquiring the mental and spiritual attributes of various beasts (Steiger, 1999).
Common distinctions by which therians can be grouped include how they sense their "non-human side", beliefs about its relationship to their human side, whether this is a partial or full identification, the species involved, the degree of integration or separation (ie the degree to which it and their human side are experienced mutually exclusively or simultaneously), the perceptual and experiential differences which arise between the different sides, and the degree of conscious control over their access to these sides of themselves.
(Note: terminology may be slightly uncertain, as there is not always a commonly agreed set of terms to denote agreed concepts. For example, it is not fully agreed what the human and non-human "sides" or "aspects" of a therian should be called, or indeed whether they are "sides", "aspects" or some other thing)
Beliefs about therianthropy
Those preferring a spiritual understanding of this phenomenon may believe that they partly or fully have the spirit, or soul, of some type of animal. Such beliefs often overlap to some extent with aspects of shamanism or totemism, and may also draw inspiration from stories of shapeshifting in Celtic, Norse and Native American myths, among others. This is sometimes called spiritual therianthropy.
Others may simply believe it to consist of having a stable, non-human animal side (or aspect) to their personality or nature. Explanations given vary, with some believing that this could be due to some sort of unusual neurophysiology, and others believing that in fact their genes are partially non-human (this explanation is unproven and usually considered scientifically implausible, and not favored by many). Of those who favor an atypical neuropsychology explanation, most do not appear to regard it as innately dysfunctional, only counting it so if it is disruptive to, or troubles, the individual's life and happiness.
Degree of identification
In either case, the identification with the non-human animal may be partial, as in those who regard themselves as having both human and non-human attributes, or complete, as in those who regard themselves as essentially non-human animals in human bodies. The terms species dysphoria and transspeciesism have occasionally been used to refer to the latter phenomenon, in parallel with the concepts of gender dysphoria and transsexuality.
Most therians identify with a single type of non-human animal, but there are some who identify with more than one — sometimes related animals, as in several different species of feline or canine, for example, but sometimes completely dissimilar animals. Those who identify with all members of one family — for instance, someone who claims to have characteristics of all felines — is called a cladotherianthrope. The species of non-human animal with which a particular therian identifies is sometimes referred to as that person's theriotype or phenotype. The term phenotype was originally more common but has fallen into disuse because it also refers to physical appearance.
The majority of therianthropes identify as feline or canine, often big cats and wolves, but there are also reptiles, avians, other mammals, and insects. Some skeptics argue that, because of the preponderance of predators or other dangerous species, most therians are purposefully or unconsciously claiming inner association with impressive animals for ego-based purposes. There are also some individuals who identify with mythical species (e.g. dragons, elves, gryphons, centaurs and so forth), but those who fit more in the otherkin community than the therian community.
Perceptive changes and integration/separation
The different sides of a therian have some element of distinct and different processes and ways of being. The term shifting is often used to signify aspects of the collective shift of perceptions and cognitive outlook, and the changes to how they experience the world, following a change from human to non-human outlook or back. So for example, mental shift would describe the change within the cognitive and mental processes. This may be voluntary or involuntary, partial or complete, substantial or subtle, or may vary. Thus it generally refers to any manner by which, in changing this way, a therianthrope's nature is evidenced internally (to themselves) or externally to others.
The term contherianthropes is sometimes used for those who feel that rather than shifting one way or the other, they tend instead to always have both human and non-human sides forming parts of a single integrated whole at any given time. Thus they tend to experience their human and non-human sides simultaneously, more usually describing both of the two working together in a balanced manner. Shifting for contherianthropes is therefore less subjectively dramatic to them, sometimes being described as not dissimilar to a mood change, akin to how another person might feel differently inside when they attend some event. (For example, contherianthropes have been described as finding it very natural to use both human conceptualization/logic and native animal emotion/instinct, jointly, as combined factors in decisionmaking, dynamically blending each to add richness and insight to the overall process)
A controversial aspect of therianthropy is the subject of physical shifting (ie shapeshifting). Few people within the subculture doubt that shifts of mental and emotional perception may occur, however some therianthropes also claim to experience a subtle or gross physical change to their appearance. Whilst subtle physical and internal changes are everyday effects of mood and personality changes (eg eye focus, skin color, perceptions, neurological patterns and habits), most people, both in the therianthrope subculture and outside it, would seriously doubt that gross body changes to physical form can actually occur in this way.
Therianthropy as a subculture does not have any central dogma or tenets, nor any recognized authority. However, those who have been around for a long time are generally listened to, though less out of any perceived spiritual authority than simple acknowledgement of experience. The word "greymuzzle" is often used tongue-in-cheek to describe these people.
While there is no offline social organization, there exist online communities of therians with many diverse outlooks on the concept, including Christians, pagans, and atheists. As could be expected, disagreements are frequent, and the many online forums and chatrooms of the community each have their own "atmosphere," ranging from total acceptance to scornful cynicism. There have been intermittent "real-world" gatherings, referred to as howls, but their purpose is primarily social.
There is a complex and evolving interrelationship between social/subcultural therianthropy, the gay "bear" community, a motif that is slowly infiltrating the hetero BDSM world, neo-paganism, roleplaying gamers (see especially Werewolf: The Apocalypse), the vampire lifestyle via the gamer connection, and thus (but to a lesser extent) the goth scene and horror fandom, furry lifestylers, cosplay and anime/manga fandom, and the more costuming-oriented aspects of high fetish fashion. Practitioners may be in several, even potentially all, of these affinity groups at once, and work their "animal side" into their image within them in various subtle to highly visible ways, such as anthropomorphized animal costuming, the adoption of an animal-referential "scene name", affected animalistic mannerisms, live action roleplay, the wearing of furs or other totem-animal items, and even artificial fangs, claws, ear prosthetics or cat-eye contact lenses.
The vampyre connection is particularly visible subculturally (despite the divergent origin and nature of the myths behind shapechangers and the undead) because of the strong connection between the aforementioned game and it's parent publication, Vampire: The Masquerade, as well as the recent vampire vs. lycanthrope movies Underworld and Underworld: Evolution, loosely inspired by the games. This simultaneous subcultural surge is of course mostly propelled by the post-1960s reimagination of the man-beast and the vampire — the most enduring horror icons since the early days of cinema — in a neutral, even favorable (and frequently erotic) light (cf. the novels of Anne Rice, the Beauty and the Beast TV series, etc.)
Therianthropy vs. clinical lycanthropy
Spiritual therianthropy is not automatically the same as clinical lycanthropy, a mental illness in which an individual believes he or she belongs to or can change to another species. While some therianthropes believe they can take on the mindset of their "other side" in what is referred to as a mental shift, they usually believe that they retain control during these transformations and are no greater danger to themselves or others.
Therianthropy vs. multiple or split personality
Most therians do not assert that they have multiple or split personality (also known as dissociative identity disorder) in the clinical sense. That said, since therianthropy involves at least the inner experience of dual (ie human and non-human) natures of some kind, it is reasonable to expect that the two may seem on the surface to share in common at least some dissociative traits. (Some consider the DSM personality disorders to be expressions of individualism or spirit, rather than illness. See "Schizophrenia: Alternative Approaches" for more on this viewpoint).
At least one key difference seems to be that most therians see this as being part of their nature, rather than a dysfunction or psychological defence mechanism, thus it is often valued rather than hoped to be "cured". Another is that for dissociative identity disorder, the other personalities represent usually other or the same human personalities, and specifically fragments of repressed, alternative or childlike personality representative of the defence, that is (in laymens terms), they may represent the anger a person has, or the cunning, they may represent the splitting of personality to protect the mind in the aftermath of a traumatic sexual abuse, an alcoholic vs a sober personality, and so on.
Phenomenologically, this is very different from the consistently identified range of features of the therian personality and experience.
Therianthropy vs. body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
In some cases, one could probably classify therianthropy as a form of dysmorphia (a non-clinical term meaning a strongly held belief that one is not in the body that one should be in, or a general dissatisfaction with the form or capabilities of one's appearance). In that sense, therians who feel this way are similar to those who seek gender reassignment, or who undergo body modification in other ways.
While some therians feel that their human bodies could be improved by being made more animal-like, their desires in this direction have little to do with the desire to be normal or beautiful that usually characterizes BDD and eating disorders, or the dissatisfaction with a particular appendage that plagues the apotemnophiliac. It is more similar to transsexualism and gender identity disorder, where there is a persistent feeling that one "should have been" the other gender and a feeling of discomfort or inappropriateness about playing one's biological gender role, rather than looking for acceptance from others.
Although only superficial body change (rather than major biological transformation) is surgically possible at this time, the request for surgical modification of the teeth (canine implants by vampire lifestylers) is common enough that it is now a well-documented form of cosmetic dental surgery that is readily available in many places to those seeking it. Similarly, the recent trend towards more extreme and/or more realistic tattooing in the neo-tribal and modern primitive veins has seen a sharp rise in humans sporting large patches of naturalistic or stylized animal pattern tattooing (zebra, leopard, etc.) - nearly whole-body in the cases of the most extreme practitioners. Other forms of body modification such as horns, ear shaping (cat, elf, or vulcan style), and the like are already available, albeit uncommonly as of this writing. It is likely that over time, other elective surgical procedures of this kind will become available.
Therianthropy vs. furry fandom
Therianthropy should not be confused with furry fandom or the furry lifestyle, though some intermixing of the groups does occur. As a general rule, to an extent, therianthropes are more focused on the sense of an animal within, an animal side to their nature, or spiritual concepts; by contrast, furries are more commonly focused on furry art and/or role-playing related to anthropomorphic non-humans. There is some overlap with those who identify themselves with each group or view the other positively, as well as those in each group who view the other negatively.
Stereotypically, it is said that furries view therianthropy as "taking it too far" or "too seriously", while therianthropes assert that furries are frivolous, juvenile, and/or don't respect or understand the true nature of animals.