This week we resume our tour of werecats by traveling to Africa, home of the werelion. There, in the cradle of humanity, cats big and small are exquisite predators. Sometimes the big cats take human prey, and this must only have been more so the case in the early days of human history. Is it any wonder, then, that some African folktales have fused two of the most fearsome beasts they knew: humans and lions?
On the one hand, the folklore of Bantu African cultures explains that sovereigns are transformed into lions after death [1, 2]. This suggests a kinship with lions. However Knappert points out that is also tells us lions commanded the respect and fear of those that lived alongside them, just like kings do of their subjects . A lion that used to be a king in a former life is a sort of spiritual werelion, but there are stories of werelions with real transformative powers, and they tend to have less ambiguous personalities.
To this werelion, I do thee wed…
Sometimes, the belief is that humans use magic to take the form of a lion for various nefarious purposes [2, 3]. However, it can be the other way around . In one story, a lion took the shape of a man, moved into a village, and married a human woman . After a while they had a child . So far, so good, if a little strange. Then the werelion suggested the family go visit his parents . Yikes! None the wiser, his wife agreed, and the little family set off, accompanied by the wife’s brother .
As the sun began to set, they made camp, and the werelion built a protective shelter, or kraal, of thorn bushes before announcing his intention to fish and leaving. The brother was not impressed with his brother-in-law’s kraal and strengthened it himself. As you will surely be shocked to learn, the werelion brought his family to attack that night, but the lions couldn’t breach the kraal. The werelion’s family shamed him for his failure, and they left. 
The werelion came back in the morning with fish and plenty of excuses, but the brother was becoming suspicious. When the werelion left to fish again, the brother went on a walk to think. He found a gnome (akachekulu) who confirmed his suspicions and, in return for some housecleaning, taught the brother how to make a magic drum that would enable him to fly when he played it. The brother hid his sister and the baby inside the drum and began to play. It worked, but the noise attracted the werelion. Fortunately, it also compelled the werelion to dance, and the brother was able to fly everyone home to the village, where the werelion dared not try to hurt them. 
Werelion defeated by smart kid with feathers
Humans are human everywhere, so many elements of folklore are cross-cultural. The phenomenon of were-beasts is one example, but this story has lots: the rule of three (twice), rags to riches, advice from magical objects. It also reminds me a little of the German fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, but this time the mother is not the one who breaks the pact.
The story begins during a severe famine, with a pregnant woman searching for something to eat in the wilderness. She finds a lion that has just killed an antelope and offers to trade her child for its kill. The lion agrees.  Perhaps it’s a gap in my understanding as a cultural outsider, but it seems as though it is never clear why, exactly, the lion would want the woman’s unborn child. If he wants to eat it, why not just keep the antelope, or kill the woman and have all of the above? To me, not knowing what he has in mind is actually more disturbing.
But perhaps the lion’s intentions are irrelevant. Cases of parents bartering their children for food were not unheard of . I have no doubt that such a thing is not isolated in space or time, either. Starvation is a horrible thing that can make people do horrible things just to survive. The werelion may simply be a convenient stand-in for the sort of person who would be happy to buy a child.
Well, the woman gave birth to a son and named him Mutipi. Mutipi grew two feathers on top of his head, but he was the only one that could see them. Eventually, the lion decided the time had come, so he changed into a man and came to the house to collect Mutipi. But Mutipi took out his feathers and asked them what to do. They told him that this was Mr. Lion come to take him away, and that he must change himself into a mouse so that when his mother called him in for dinner, he would not be recognized. And it worked. 
The werelion tried twice more, but each time Mutipi’s feathers told him how to escape capture using tricks or magic. Finally, the werelion took Mutipi’s mother instead, and Mutipi fled to another country. There, he became a favored messenger for the king. The courtiers grew envious and tried thrice to kill Mutipi, but again, his feathers told him how to avoid assassination. 
When drought and famine killed everyone in the country but Mutipi, for only he had magic, all-knowing feathers, the feathers told him to make a whip of lion-skin that would bring whoever he whips with it back to life. He chose not to resurrect his murderous enemies. He did resurrect the princess, married her, and became king himself. I am unclear on what happened to the last king. He just isn’t mentioned in the closing action of the story. Make of that what you will. 
Werelions, where are they now?
If you read the magnum opus that was my article on weretigers, you might be either disappointed or relieved that this installment in the series is so much shorter. Personally, I’m a little bit of both. I struggled to find reliable resources on this topic. Most sources just seemed to be repeating each other, and I wanted to provide better information than that. The result is a higher-quality but rather short article. If you do want to get more werelions in your life, here are some examples of werelions in modern media. We see werewolves quite frequently, especially in paranormal content in the United States, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen or read anything with a werelion. Let’s see what’s out there, why don’t we?
- Beast by Krishna Udayasankar – a werelion is wreaking havoc in Mumbai, and an unsuspecting cop is on its trail
- Daughter of Lions by Catherine Banks – daughter of the leader of a werelion pride experiences teen angst
- Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews – magic is dying and Atlanta is overrun with monsters, plus shapeshifters
- And a truly shocking number of erotic novels…
- Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance and Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn feature a people called the Laguz, one tribe of which can transform into big wildcats, including lions.
- Dungeons and Dragons has an official race of lion-like people called Leonin.
- World of Warcraft druids can take lion or panther forms.
- Knappert, J. (1977). Mutipi and the werelion (Ronga). In Bantu Myths and Other Tales (pp. 54- 58). E.J. Brill.
- Gouldsbury, C. and Sheane, H. (1911). The great plateau of northern Rhodesia: Being some impressions of the Tanganyika plateau (pp. 200). Edward Arnold. PDF
- Werner, A. (1933). Chapter XIII: Of werewolves, halfmen, gnomes, goblins, and other monsters. In Myths and legends of the Bantu. George G. Harrap and Co., Ltd. Accessed at https://www.sacred-texts.com/afr/mlb/mlb15.htm
Published November 22, 2020
Published by mehshadoweye
My name is Meredith. I write speculative fiction under the name Meri Elena. I was briefly a botanist, now a journalism grad student. I am a cat lady through-and-through. I'm passionate about the environment and about learning new things. I live in Indiana, USA with two cats, Joon and Wednesday.View all posts by mehshadoweye