Patrick Newman. Tracking the Weretiger: Supernatural Man-Eaters of India, China and South East Asia. McFarland and Co, 2012.
As we in Britain sit watching the rain pour down forever we can at least be thankful that we do not have any large carnivorous and potentially people eating wild beasts in our shores. Other places are less happy. In this book, which is definitely not for the squeamish, or for perusing before meals, Patrick Newman traces the lore relating to tigers and leopards taken from much of Asia. He draws mainly from the folklore of India, China, Malaysia and Indonesia to paint the portrait of how societies deal with such beasts.
It is perhaps no surprise that this lore often parallels European lore relating to wolves. Tigers are perceived as powerful spiritual beings that must be appeased by techniques from simply praising them in song, asking for their blessing, requesting them politely not to eat you or your family, to making sacrifices to them.
As with European werewolf lore, there are plenty of stories of human beings changing into tigers, either physically, or by means of ‘second souls’ or dream bodies. Those who had such powers were often regarded as witches, and like the witches of early modern western Europe, those accused were often from those living on the margins of society. In India these were often the ‘Untouchables’ and tribal people. Of course it is by no means improbable that the ‘downtrodden and oppressed might dream and fantasise about being powerful predators able to wreck vengeance on the rich and powerful.
In other cases it was the rich who were suspected, rather like the aristocratic vampires of western popular culture. Several of these stories revolve around mysterious rich strangers who move into the community, who are later exposed as were-tigers, often by the women that their wealth has tempted into marriage. Today we realise that tycoons do not have to don tiger skins in order to become ruthless predators.
Others of these stories echo a more general transformative line, that of the woman who is brought into the human world by the loss of her animal skin, and when she recovers it, she returns back to the freedom of wild nature.
In all of these stories we can see that the tiger or leopard becomes something apart from the paws and pelt beast, it becomes Tiger (burning bright in the forests of the night) or Leopard (or Jaguar, Wolf, Gorilla etc.) a metaphor for the implacable power of wild nature, a nature to be honoured, appeased, feared and envied.
This lore adds much weight to the idea that the origins of religion lay in the appeasing of great predators, both as flesh and blood beasts and symbols of the wilderness and of nature as The Universal Predator, and that which we fear we identify with in a sort of primal Stockholm Syndrome. Especially in small scale societies, where everyone was expected to know their place, and where there was often much emphasis on exquisite politeness, there was a mixture of fear and secret desire that one could fall out of the world of human culture into the awful freedom of the wilderness.
Not unexpectedly much of this is alien to the modern urban imagine, where the more removed from wild nature we become, the more is the tendency to infantilise both it and the stories that were once told of it. The latter are reduced to Disneyland cuteness and saccharine sweetness, the former is no longer feared and honoured as a Great Beast with gaping jaws, but is envisioned as a sort of Great Baby, to be hugged ,tendered and cooed over as delicate, fragile and vulnerable. Be warned this baby is a changeling and its teeth are as sharp as ever as the Asian tsunami and the Haitian earthquake remind us, and the terrible events in Norway and Connecticut remind us that today’s werewolves hunt with assault rifles and bombs rather than with fangs, and that even if every paws and pelt wolf and tiger were gone from the earth, still the Wolf would howl and the Tiger roar, and that we should tremble before them. - Peter Rogerson