The Non-human, the Sub-human, the Half-human – explaining disability, difference and danger

Across all cultures there are tales of semi-humans living beyond the reach of safety and society. The ‘Yeh Ren’ in central China, the Yeti, Bigfoot, ogres, giants, fairies, green men, sirens and man-monsters.

Then there are the half-man half-animals – the centaur, the mermaid, people with wings, tails, hooves and horns who inhabit our world but don’t necessarily play to our rules.

And there are the myriad but strikingly similar ways of explaining disorder, dysfunction and disability in children – either a healthy child has been cursed or possessed in some way, or the child itself has been swapped for a wicked and dangerous Changeling. From the Philippines to Ireland to West Africa, Changeling stories make sense of infant abnormality and death. Either way, the child’s difference is because they are not quite human any more.

The Super-Human

The idea of the wild education, and a powerful hero appearing from outside civilization, crops up repeatedly in myths from many cultures:

  • Romulus and Remus, the brothers who founded Rome, were said to have been suckled by a SHE-WOLF, and brought food by a WOODPECKER.
  • The Ancient Greek characters Amphion and Zethos were abandoned on a mountainside but survived in the wild. They went on to found the city of Thebes.
  • Semiramis, the legendary Babylonian Queen, was kept alive by DOVES as a baby.
  • Atalanta, the Ancient Greek heroine, was suckled by a BEAR after being abandoned on a mountainside, grew up in the wilderness and became a fierce, skilled hunter.
  • Enkidu (or Eabani), the Ancient Mesopotamian hero in the Gilgamesh epic, is a WILD MAN raised by animals in the forest.

Their feral lives give them knowledge, strength, and a power harnessed from the natural world that others don’t have. Because of their wild experiences, they are different from normal people.

By exploring the ways these different creatures are problematically human, we explore the idea of what it does means to be human – what it means to be ‘us’ rather than ‘them’. To a great extent, we define what we are by defining what we are NOT.

We do the same to differentiate man from animals, and to differentiate between different groups of humans (family/not family, citizen/immigrant, ally/enemy). The ways we think and talk about these identities and differences have very real impacts on how we treat these people.

1 thought on “semi-humans

  1. Stephanie Ellison

    Not to toot my horn, as I’m still learning about what’s happening, but I have to put my nose where it might not belong at the risk of being wrong. I’ve nothing to lose.

    I have to admit that I have a stronger connection with animals than I do with people, assuming animals and people I am not close to. I will react more strongly to things that happen to animals than to people. It’s why I became vegetarian 20 years ago and vegan for 15 of these years.

    I may not be a classic feral person, but I do have the experience of having been deaf for so long that my personality, my worldview, my thinking is not like other people. I have done things and do things people would simply not do given my circumstances.

    I am looking for anyone who can research this with me.

    Thank you!


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