Therianthropy is a generic term for any transformation of a human into an animal form, either as a part of mythology or as a spiritual concept. The word is derived from Greek therion, meaning "wild animal," and anthrōpos, meaning "man."
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Scholarly use of the term
In folklore, mythology and anthropology, therianthropy can be used to describe a character that shares some traits of humans and some of animals. The most commonly known form is lycanthropy, from the Greek word lycos ("wolf"), the technical term for werewolves. Although lycanthropy specifically refers to man-wolf transformations, many people use that term loosely to refer to shape changing to any animal form. For further information on this concept, see the article on Lycanthropy
In cases where someone actually believes to personally change into an animal form, or to possess supernatural animal traits, the term clinical lycanthropy is often used. This is a form of mental illness. People who call themselves shapechangers as a form of social identification are generally not considered ill by mental health professionals unless they have delusionary beliefs or take damaging actions as a result of their beliefs.
Modern subcultural use of the term
In recent times, a subculture has developed which has adopted the word therianthropy to describe a sense of intense spiritual or psychological identification with a non-human animal. Members of this subculture typically refer to themselves as therianthropes or therians; the word "weres" was also common at one point, in reference to shapeshifting creatures of legend such as werewolves, weretigers and the like, but seems to be less common now than it was in the early days of the subculture.
Those within this subculture who gravitate towards a spiritual understanding of this phenomenon may believe that they have the spirit or soul, in whole or in part, of an animal, and their beliefs often overlap to some extent with aspects of shamanism or totemism. Some also draw inspiration from legends of shapeshifting in Celtic, Norse and Native American mythologies, among others. The term spiritual therianthropy is often used to differentiate this definition of therianthropy.
Those who prefer a psychological explanation may simply describe it as having an animal side to their personality or nature, with some believing that it may be due to some sort of atypical neurophysiology, as is thought to be the case with syndromes like attention deficit disorder and autism. Most of those who favour this explanation, however, do not appear to regard it as innately dysfunctional.
In either case, the identification with the animal may be partial, as in those who regard themselves as having both human and animal attributes, or complete, as in those who regard themselves as essentially an animals in human bodies. The term species dysphoria has occasionally been used to refer to the latter phenomenon, in parallel with the concept of gender dysphoria.
Most therians identify with a single type of 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. The species of animal with which a particular therian identifies is sometimes referred to as that person's theriotype. There are also some individuals who identify with mythical animals (e.g. dragons, gryphons, etc.), but those who do seem more likely to gravitate toward the otherkin community than the therian community.
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. The animal and human aspects of the self may co-operate or conflict, leading to happiness or unhappy dysfunction, and may take much self-discovery to begin to understand or accept. Since this is a personal self-perception, the manner in which a person describes it, and the manner of self-identification as a therianthrope, varies considerably.
A controversial aspect of therianthropy is the subject of shifting, which generally refers to any manner by which a therianthrope's nature may become evidenced internally (to themselves) or externally to others. Whilst few people would doubt that shifts of mental and emotional perception, and to alternative ways of thinking, may occur, some therianthropes also claim to experience a physical change to their appearance, a subject known as physical shifting, which is more controversial and many or most other therianthropes view with doubt.
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.
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.
Comparison with lycanthropy and furry fandom
Therianthropy vs. clinical lycanthropy
Spiritual therianthropy is not the same as clinical lycanthropy, a mental illness in which an individual believes they are physically of 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 retain control and are no danger to themselves or others. Some therianthropes do not shift at all: these people are called contherianthropes and always feel themselves to be partly animal and partly human. Most therianthropes claim physical shapeshifting is impossible, mostly on scientific grounds, though there are therianthropes who claim differently and some who even claim to have done so.
Therianthropy vs. furry fandom
Therianthropy should not be confused with the furry fandom, 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 animals. 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.