One way of thinking about ancestors is in terms of family lines running back and breaking out in a complex web as we go back significantly. If we are not thinking in terms of immediate past family, then another way of approaching the ancestors is through cultural and other traditions that seem to be transmitting themselves through us, because of emotional, instinctive or intellectual attachments to certain images, tales, traditions or other cultural artifacts.
But we could also take quite another view: instead of tracing linear connections back through a tangle of such lines, what if we thought about lateral connections running out from these? What has the rest of the biosphere fed into what I am, both recently (the particles out of which I and my recent forebears have been constructed) and much further back (the genetic inheritance shared in common with other creatures)?
To begin thinking about such things we might look at the traditions recorded for the pre-Hellenic Arkadians of Greece who sent young men out to live as wolves as a rite of passage into adulthood. The first ancestor of the Arkadians was Lykaon, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus as a punishment for cannibilism. Lykaon's daughter – Kallisto – was turned into a bear following an amorous encounter with Zeus. These rites of passage seem, therefore, to be a temporary act of reversion to an ancestral wildness for young males before they embrace the responsibility of adulthood. Perhaps young females might have lived as bears? It has been suggested that later legends of werewolves may originate in such practices, the men becoming 'wolf-kin' during their reversion to ancestral lives.
Consider, too, in this respect, the banishment from the tribe of Gwydion and Gilfaethwy in the Fourth Branch of Y Mabinogi as deer, boar and wolves for three successive years before being allowed to return to human life. Consider too that, in the Third Branch, the enchantment on Dyfed causes loss of domestication in the land, but it continues to teem with wildlife. In some Norse material there are suggestions of reversions to earlier ancestry in stories involving shape-shifting. Or think about the Greek stories lying behind Homer’s Odysssey. Odysseus has a grandfather called Autolykos (‘wolf-self’, or werewolf) said to be close to the god Hermes. The name is used by Shakespeare (from Ovid) as Autolycos, described as ‘a rogue’ in the character list for A Winter’s Tale, where he functions as a trickster “littered under Mercury” and remains outside the domestic circle of even the most peripheral characters of in the play. Zachariah Mason’s recent fictional re-telling* of some of the background to The Odyssey has this passage where Odysseus tells of visiting his grandfather:
“… he told me that his father’s father had counted both bears and men among his kin, this in the days before the red-hairs came. Though the blood is running thin, he said, the change still sometimes comes. He took me to a glade in a dark wood, drew a dagger with a wavy blade and cut deep into his wrists. I thought he was killing himself before my very eyes and was going to run for help, but fur erupted from his wounds and surged over his arms. His hands became padded paws with yellow half-moon claws and his irises turned mirror-green. The change stopped there and he soon reverted to the shape of a man, exhausted and dissatisfied.”
It was a power he was losing. His uncle had it, but had gone off to the woods and not returned.
Stories, what can they tell us? That at some layer of being our animal selves are waiting to emerge, and may do so fictionally if not actually, in such stories, in dreams, in myths of ancestry? Could we control allowing them to do so? Could we become wolves or bears, live in a land that had reverted to wildness and return to the human world renewed? If not actually, in stories, in dreams, through rites based on myths of ancestry? And what would we have learned from our ancestors in doing so?
(* see book cover above)