Articles on Otherkin, Therianthropes

• Joseph P. Laycock, ” ‘We Are Spirits of Another Sort’:  Ontological Rebellion and Religious Dimensions of the Otherkin Community,” Nova Religio 15, no. 3 (2012): 65–90.   DOI: 10.1525/nr.2012.15.3.65

• Venetia Laura Delano Robertson, “The Beast Within: Anthrozoomorphic Identity and Alternative Spirituality in the Online Therianthropy Movement,” Nova Religio 16, no. 3 (2013): 7–30. DOI: 10.1525/nr.2013.16.3.7

“Therianthropic,” coined from the Greek words for “wild beast” and “man,” first showed up in 1886, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, when a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote of  “Religions, in which animistic ideas still play a prominent part, but which have grown up to a therianthropic polytheism”—such as ancient Egyptian religion with the jackal-headed Set, etc., I suppose. Other therio- combinations go back to the seventeenth century, such as theriomancy.

Both Robertson and Laycock rely heavily on blogger Lupa’s book A Field Guide to Otherkin.

Laycock’s Otherkin scholarship seems to be a spin off from his work with the Atlanta Vampire Alliance, which produced Vampires Today: The Truth about Modern Vampirism.

Although he has to take time to explain the Otherkin “community” to his readers (I use the scare quotes because I have some reservations about the world community in such cases), Laycock is really engaged in religion scholars’ ongoing debate over what “religion” is or whether the word “religion” is useful at all in a scholarly setting. (There are those who claim it is not, that it merely masks political and social competitions.)

He places the Otherkin in the historical spectrum of Western esotericism and spiritualism: the idea of “walk-ins” goes back to the 19th century, for example, while the influential English esotericist Dion Fortune wrote of “possesion by ‘elementals’ or thought-forms . . . . Despite Fortune’s rather pejorative view of such people, Psychic Self-Defense has since been cited as an early reference to the Otherkin phenomenon” (71).

To Laycock, Otherkin are perhaps best described as an ” ‘audience cult,’ a movement that supports novel beliefs and practices but without a discernible organization. Individuals frequently participate in audience cults simply through reading books and watching television programs. . . . As an audience cult facilitated primarily by the Internet, Otherkin are free to practice whatever religion they like, but their identity tends to color that practice” (73).

There is more, but I am just summarizing a few points.

Robertson spends more time explaining the concept of Therianthropes’ self-descriptions of “awakening” to their dual natures, goes into “Internet religion — Therianthropy popped up on alt.horror.werewolves in 1992 — and concurs with Laycock  that Therianthropes “reify their anthrozoomorphic identity through the appropriation of spiritual concepts into personal mythologies” (10).

She spends time on the idea of shape-shifting through history and the return of totemism through neo-shamanic teaching as well as contemporary Paganism. But she also notes that there are Christian Therianthropes who see themrmselves as “having a gift bestowed upon them by God to redress the balance between nature and civilization” (23).

Her conclusion is that the Therianthropy movement “exemplifies the innovation of spiritual individuals in the postmodern age . . . popular occulture and re-enchantment in motion” (24).  In other words, the key sociology-of-religion concept of re-enchantment is more malleable and multi-faceted than previously discussed.

5 Comments

  1. Lars says:

    I’m certainly glad to have stumbled across this site–I’ve come to a crossroads in my studies, so it warms my heart to have discovered a whole world of academically-inclined pagan resources.

    While I only read the article abstracts, I’m at least somewhat familiar with the Otherkin movement, though I don’t completely identify with it. The majority of Therianthropy-themed internet sites I’ve explored all seem to share similar qualities; namely, a piecemeal approach derived from popular ideas. For example, the most frequently cited power-animals are the wolf, bear, tiger (or other great cat), or birds-of-prey. It’s easy for me to see the natural connection to these creatures, given humans’ place as apex-predators and the abundance of mythology surrounding said animals (berserks, werewolves, etc.). Besides, who would openly admit to having an affinity with possums or turkeys? However, I remain somewhat unimpressed with what I have seen thus far. I need to qualify this by saying that a) I’m by no means an expert on Therianthropy and my exploration has been limited to visiting websites; b) I really like the idea of Therianthropy, but as yet have not seen anything which strikes me as particularly insightful. For instance, despite the popularity of swine in ancient cultures, I have rarely seen boar-themed Otherkin. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right places.

    This leads me to two questions. First, what’s your opinion of the Otherkin movement–do you feel that the internet has given rise to better information, or an abundance of misinformation for readers about Therianthropy? Second, I’m having difficulty making the distinction between the mythologies of shape-shifting and totem-animals. For example, one may have the dolphin as a familiar animal without changing into a dolphin, but are the two concepts separate or part of the same philosophy?

    Thanks again for your work.

  2. Chas Clifton says:

    Am I supposed to have an opinion? Let’s see, are Otherkin good or bad? Fattening or non-fattening? Left-wing or right-wing?

    Now as to your second question, re. shape-shifting, that would be worth pursuing. Perhaps there is a spectrum from simply avowing that “Pygmy nuthatch is my totem” to saying “I have a pygmy nuthatch spirit animal” to “I was a pygmy nuthatch in a previous life” to “I am somehow still a pygmy nuthatch.”

    But no one ever has a pygmy nuthatch spirit animal. They are always non-species-specific “charismatic megafauna.” Wolf. Seal. Bear. Whatever you would find in a box of Animal Crackers.

  3. Morgan says:

    “Laycock is really engaged in religion scholars’ ongoing debate over what “religion” is or whether the word “religion” is useful at all in a scholarly setting. (There are those who claim it is not, that it merely masks political and social competitions.)”

    Wouldn’t there need to be some sort of common understanding of a goal before a group can discuss whether a tool is “useful” or not?

    • Chas Clifton says:

      How to define “religion” is an ongoing debate. Joseph Kitagawa wrote in the early 1970s, “No one has has yet proposed a satisfactory definition of the term ‘religion’ that is acceptable to everyone concerned.”

      See also the work of Jonathan Z. Smith and Russ McCutcheon on this issue.

      • Morgan says:

        Thank you for directing me to McCutcheon — looks interesting.

        I am familiar with Smith’s ‘Religion and Religious Studies’ essay. Much of his criticism of “religion” there seems to be situated in a communication or language theory (“first order phenomenon”, “imperial categories”, “second-order abstractions”) that he doesn’t cite or elaborate. He appears to be granting some part of language a concreteness that he uses as a contrast to the confusion of “religion.” I am tempted to argue that no part of language is likely to be any more concrete or universal, and the more important the concept (ie “individual”, “freedom”, etc.) the more confusing a considered attempt at definition is likely to be. That’s assuming that there is any hope at all in trying to create universal terms as opposed to always locating language in a specific and limited context.

        Meanwhile, Smith’s argument that the academy somehow created “religion” seems indulgent and further assumes a universal “religion.” Certainly, “religion” exists on the lips of those who have been touched by the academy only at a great distance — there “religion” continues to be negotiated.

        In that sense, I can see some in the academy eschewing the project of defining religion as attempting to enforce a normative “real religion” onto situations where an academic should instead be attempting to understand how a group understands “religion.” Gets into that boring insider/outsider debate ;)