Weretigers. They sound like something modern media would make up just to add to the pantheon of were-creatures. And from the looks of RPGs and paranormal romance novels, that’s exactly what happened. But did you know there’s also a rich mythological heritage behind the weretiger? In fact, weretiger traditions exist in cultures across Asia. Today, I’d like to give you a quick tour of those myths.
A note on sources: Weretigers are one of those subjects with a sharp divide between scholarly and open access sources. Most of my information on weretiger myths comes from scholarly sources like JSTOR. I can access JSTOR from my public library, but I’m aware this isn’t the case for everyone. So I’ll just share a little of what I learned there with the wider internet world. I’ve left off JSTOR URLs because a closed door is worse than none at all.
The Mythological Weretiger
Weretiger traditions tend to correspond with, unsurprisingly, places where tigers once lived alongside humans. For the most part, this means the Big Three of China, Southeast Asia, and India. Some places may never have hosted tigers regularly, like the Indonesian island of Madura, according to Robert Wessing’s article on tiger beliefs there.1 However, Madura is geographically and culturally close to Java, where tigers did live, so the beliefs probably migrated over.
The number of different weretigers out there is staggering. Many cultures have more than one. Trying to give you a detailed description of every type would be overwhelming, so I’ll stick with an overview of the most common types in the Big Three. I’ll post a more complete list of the different weretigers with names and short descriptions later. I’ll also be using my own made-up terms to categorize these beasts to make this an easier read. Again, unless it’s in italics, these are my own terms, not the names from the original cultures!
So what do all weretigers have in common? First off, they are not limited to one gender. Most of my sources focused on male weretigers, but they all mention female weretigers. One article I couldn’t access even discusses the portrayal of women and ethnic minorities as weretigers in China.
Most weretigers also kill and may eat humans, though some only attack their enemies and a few may protect rather than kill. Some have similarities to the traditional werewolf—changing from a hereditary condition, sorcery using an animal skin, or divine punishment.2 However, they’re not much like the modern werewolf. The moon has no effect on them, they don’t spread their condition with bites and scratches, and silver is not a special weakness. Some can’t be hurt by mortal weapons, but most have the same vulnerabilities as real tigers. Finally, many have a touch of the sacred about them. They may be dangerous, but they aren’t all monsters.
China has many different mythological beings who could be called weretigers. Each becomes a weretiger in a different way, but they all eat humans. Charles E. Hammond, in an article discussing the many weretigers of China, notes that their most common meals are women and children.3 Based on his descriptions, I’ve identified four major types.
Ghost Servants: These tigers are created by vengeful ghosts known as ch’ang. Originally people killed by tigers, the ch’ang seek to gain company by throwing a tiger skin over passing humans and making the transformed tigers kill for them. Sometimes the transformation can be undone. Hammond includes a story where a ch’ang-made weretiger hides in a temple until he returns to human form. He then discovers he can never leave or the ch’ang will get him again.4
Divine Assassins: Sometimes, a higher spirit commands the weretiger. Hammond has several stories where deities change humans into tigers to dispense heaven’s wrath by eating those who have displeased said heavens. In some cases, a person is chosen seemingly at random and operates on a hit-by-hit basis until the heavens release them. Other times, the weretiger’s condition is itself a punishment from the gods and they have a set number of people they must kill, sometimes even a list of names.5 After their task is done, these divine weretigers can retire to a human life, as long as they don’t anger the heavens themselves.
Self-Made: Other weretigers bring their fate on themselves. In several stories Hammond shares, people become tigers either because of indulging an obsessive interest in them or by acting in negative ways associated with tigers—greedy or violent.6 The latter can also lead to reincarnation as a tiger, but in some cases, humans are said to change either on death or without dying at all. These tigers might remember their human side or they might eat their former relatives. Hammond notes this behavior is often accepted rather than leading to the tiger’s death.7 This was because a change in mind followed a change in form. The tiger, even if once human, was expected to act as an animal, while humans were expected to show their humanity by continuing to respect their transformed relatives.
Shape-Shifting Shamans: According to Hammond, Chinese shamans traditionally wore a tiger skin when performing certain rituals to dispel their clients’ bad karma by symbolically devouring them.8 In legends, the ritual could turn dangerously real. These shaman weretigers –appearing as Buddhist monks, Taoist priests, or unspecified holy men—could more or less control their transformation through donning or removing the tiger skin. Some overlap with the divine weretigers in being sentenced to eat a number or list of people for transgressions against the heavens. Even then, their ability to return to human form at will allows them to conspire with their assigned victims. The tiger might consume an object with the victim’s blood instead or, less ideally, an innocent with the same name.9
Considering how many types of weretigers come from China alone, it might seem crazy to try to summarize so many different cultures’ tigers in one section. However, there’s enough similarity between the basic weretiger types in this region that I’ll give it a shot.
Ancestor Spirit-Tigers: These are probably the gentlest type of Southeast Asian weretigers. People in certain regions, ethnic groups, or families are said to take tiger form after death. In Madura, ancestor tigers are more spirit-like, summoned to protect or serve their descendants through a ritual and sometimes only visible to “evil people.”10 In northeast Malaysia, people of certain families are believed to physically turn into tigers on death, similar to Self-Made Chinese weretigers. Unlike the Chinese weretigers, the Malaysian ones were expected to remember and respect their human connections. An article from 1922 observes people in this region often told each other something along the lines of, “When you turn into a tiger, you better remember me or I’ll shoot you.”11 No getting away with eating your relatives here!
Ancestor weretigers could sometimes shift between tiger and human form. In legends about a weretiger village ruled by the formidable Dato Paroi, ancestral weretigers spent their days in human form fencing, farming, reading the Koran, and cooking.12 Later they might prowl as tigers. These spirits still demanded respect through their strength, but they didn’t seek to harm.
Tigers in Human Form: I’ve seen hints this type of weretiger occurs in other places, but the only specific description comes from Thailand. There, according to a Quora response, the sua sming is feared because it begins as a tiger who gains the ability to take human form after eating enough humans.13 This weretiger reverses the usual pattern and adds the creepiness of a monster able to hide in human appearance.
Shape-Shifting Magician: This is the main type of Southeast Asian weretiger. Called many names, including harimau jadian in Malaysia, this weretiger is a human with enough spiritual/magical power to change their form at will. Attitudes toward these shifters vary. The Madurese ritual included incense and removing clothing rather than putting on a tiger skin. Sometimes these magicians were good, though tales of evil ones are more common.14 Sumatra has a tradition of seeing people from Korinchi (modern Kerinchi) as potentially dangerous weretigers. Joane le Roux of New Straits Times, however, claims some Malaysian weretigers guard fields at night.15 She also visited a shrine in Johor that weretigers traditionally guarded, sometimes snacking on locals.
The magician weretiger is the one with the most recognizable signs. In human form, these weretigers lacked a philtrum, the grove on the upper lip, and might be seen vomiting up chicken feathers. Their tiger form would leave a five-toed paw print rather than a normal four-toed one, sometimes with a smaller human print within.
Technically, this category should be South Asia because weretiger legends bleed over national boundaries, but most of the traditions I found come from people living in or near India.
Shifting Sorcerers: The overview sources on the internet call India’s weretigers evil sorcerers. But according to a paper by Francesco Brighenti, it’s mostly the Gondi and Munda tribes who feared physical shape-shifters.16 Details on these weretiger can be hard to find. L. A. Cammiade’s cringe-worthy 1931article about Gondi weretiger beliefs implies they were considered immune to firearms and that victims of weretigers were placed in trees.17 Missionary Verrier Elwin’s book on the Muria tribe of Gondi people notes their weretigers assume tiger form by circling an anthill while reciting an incantation.18 The tiger form was then used to kill—but not eat—personal enemies. From the sound of it, these weretiger sorcerers were feared primarily because they used their power for violent revenge.
Possessive Weretigers: India also has two kinds of psychic weretigers, which I call possessive and astral weretigers. Instead of physically transforming, possessive weretigers project their essence into a real tiger to control it while their human body sleeps. The ability might be granted by a deity, like the earth goddess Darṇi Pēnu of the Khond or Kondh tribe19 or the deity Tatara of the Garo tribe.20 Magical rituals or begging the deities might gain an ordinary person weretiger powers, but generally it’s up to fate.
Possessive weretigers might sometimes recognize and refrain from eating their own people, but they were generally believed to eat humans and livestock. Sometimes this led to them being feared and even killed, but apparently the Garo tribe tends toward “a rather casual attitude” toward weretiger neighbors.21 An interesting point Brighenti makes is that the Khonds believe natural tigers don’t eat humans, so all man-eaters are seen as weretigers or agents of the earth goddess who bestows weretiger powers on people.22 Basically, tigers don’t kill people; people in tigers kill people!
Astral Weretiger: This is my name for the weretiger of the Khasi people. Brighenti lumps the Khasi in with the general psychic weretiger crowd from the Khond, Garo, and Naga tribes. However, Desmond Kharmawphlang’s article on Khasi weretiger beliefs shows several key differences. Drawing on nine years of study with Khasi who identify as weretigers, Kharmawphlang notes they don’t possess physical animals in their sleep but instead take tiger form in the dream-world. Even when misbehaving weretigers are “tied to the mango tree” as a punishment, their body dozes while their mind is apparently tied up in the dream-world.23 This sounds a lot like astral projection to me, which is why I use a different word.
Most importantly, these weretigers do not eat humans! Though they interact with the physical world enough to leave five-clawed paw-prints,24 the weretigers he interviewed saw their role as protecting their people from ordinary tigers or rival weretigers.25 This protective role probably makes relations with neighbors easier. I doubt Kharmawphlang would have found as many people openly claiming weretiger-hood in places they’re seen as evil. Finally, the ability is expected to pass from mother to daughter and from maternal uncle to nephew.26 There’s some hint of deity involvement, but it’s more like a family tradition than a strange gift granted by the divine or gained through individual magic.
The Weretiger in Modern Media
In the world of film, weretigers remain most common in the places with long traditions of weretiger lore. Wessing describes weretigers as popular book and film monsters in Madura as late as the 1990s.27 Look for “harimau jadian” online and you may come across this trailer for a 1972 Malaysian film with terrible special effects. More recently, the Thai film Lhor Lark Sai (aka Tiger and Wolf) pits a werewolf and a weretiger against each other. Bollywood even has an occasional weretiger like in the 1992 film Junoon. I haven’t found any Chinese weretiger films, but South Korea contributes a rare peaceful tiger-to-human weretiger named Jeom-Soon in the K-drama Mama Fairy and the Woodcutter. Korea may have had weretiger legends, but I was unable to confirm it.
In the U.S., weretigers are more elusive on-screen. IMDb has an entry for a 1925 silent film called The Were-Tiger, but the only recent TV show I’ve identified with weretigers is Midnight, Texas, based on Charlene Harris’ novels. The Midnight fan wiki makes it clear weretigers are “born, not turned.”28 That’s similar to weretiger mythology, but they also transform on the full moon and sicken from silver like werewolves. So if you’re looking for films with weretigers based on mythology, look to Asian media.
The most common places to find weretigers in U.S. media are paranormal romance novels and RPGs. Scroll down Goodreads’ list of popular weretiger novels and you’ll see a lot of shirtless men and punny titles. No doubt how these weretigers are written varies by author, but given most seem to be white men, I would expect many to follow the werewolf-but-with-a-tiger formula that Midnight uses. RPGs have a similar situation. Dungeons &Dragons, Pathfinder and Lukoi all have weretigers with their own game mythologies. However, each one describes the weretiger condition as being passed on through bites or scratches. Weretigers have surfaced in U.S. media as part of the general interest in were-creatures, but they still tend to be based on werewolf media rather than on the original weretiger myths.
The mythological weretiger has come to the U.S. in one recent popular novel: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo. Weretigers are just one of many paranormal elements weaving a ghostly undercurrent in Choo’s novel, beguiling enough to believe in yet never solid enough that skeptics can’t explain them away. The only time one of the main characters directly witnesses the possible weretiger, Dr. MacFarlane, in a semi-tiger form takes place in a dream/near-death experience.29
Choo uses Malaysian words like keramat—a sacred phantom-like animal—and harimau jadian,30 but she seems to draw on influences from all of the Big Three. Dr. MacFarlane’s devoted servant Ren believes the weretiger only hunts women similar to the Chinese weretiger,31 Dr. MacFarlane’s lack of philtrum is a classic Malaysian weretiger sign,32 yet his body appears to dream while he claims to roam and hunt in tiger form like the possessive weretigers in India.33 Given that the cast of characters includes a mix of Tamil, Chinese, and other ethnicities, this blending is not surprising. I am a little confused about why she uses harimau jadian to describe a tiger who takes human form to kill when all the other sources I’ve seen use that word only for human magicians who take tiger form.34 However, The Night Tiger is still a fascinating read and a welcome addition to weretiger literature available in the U.S.
So there we have the weretiger. It’s been quite a ride researching this beast and I’ve barely shared the beginning of it here. If you’d like to hear more or if you know something to add, please share in the comments!
13. Suttichart Denpreuktham, December 29, 2015 answer on the question, “Who are some legendary heroes, monsters, warriors, sorcerers of Southeast Asian mythology?,” Quora. Accessed September 25, 2019. https://www.quora.com/Who-are-some-legendary-heroes-monsters-warriors-sorcerers-of-Southeast-Asian-mythology.
15. le Roux, Joane, “In Pursuit of a Weretiger,” New Straits Times, November 2, 2014, https://www.nst.com.my/news/2015/09/pursuit-were-tiger.
16. Brighenti, Francesco, “Kradi Mliva: The Phenomenon of Tiger-Transformation in the Traditional Lore of the Kondh Tribals of Orissa,” Lokaratna 4 (2011): 11-25, accessed Sept. 28, 2019, https://www.repository.cam.ac.uk/bitstream/handle/1810/244857/Lokaratna_04.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y. Pg. 24.
18. Elwin, Verrier, The Muria And Their Ghotul (Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1947), 205, https://archive.org/stream/in.ernet.dli.2015.474880/2015.474880.The-Muria_djvu.txt.
20. Brighenti, Francesco, “Traditional Beliefs About Weretigers Among the Garos of Meghalaya (India),” eTropic 16, no. 1 (2017): 96-111, accessed Sept. 27, 2019, https://www.academia.edu/35400723/Traditional_Beliefs_About_Weretigers_Among_the_Garos_of_Meghalaya_India_. Pg. 105.
23. Kharmawphlang, Desmond, “In Search of Tigermen: the were-tiger tradition of the Khasis,” India International Centre Quarterly 27/28, vol. 27 no. 4/vol. 28 no. 1: The Human Landscape (Winter 2000/Spring 2001): 160-176. JSTOR (23005708): 170.
28. “Weretiger,” Midnight, Texas Wiki, accessed Sept. 21, 2019, https://midnight-texas.fandom.com/wiki/Weretiger.