Changing Shapes and Fluid Forms: Shapeshifters in Greek Poetry

  • Katharine Mawford

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis examines the depiction and nature of shapeshifting characters such as Proteus and Thetis in early Greek poetry and traces the effects and appearance of these characters, where appropriate, into Hellenistic poetry. Shapeshifters can be read as a distinct group of figures with varying degrees of a family resemblance; a range of approaches is required to analyse them. These include discussion of the structural parallels and recurring motifs which exist between episodes, analysis of the intra- and intertextual links between different literary depictions, and thematic assessment of the episodes and the characters involved. The thesis further employs comparative readings: a study of Greek shapeshifter myths with international tale-types, including those of European folktale, and additionally with certain character-types in the Greek mythic corpus - monsters and hybrid creatures such as Scylla and Typhon, and trickster figures. Finally, the thesis also employs two synoptic readings, focusing respectively on the development of the individual characters of Proteus and Thetis, the best-attested shapeshifters. The thesis therefore explores the characterisation and narrative significance of shapeshifters, along with their roles and functions in the texts in which they appear. The nature and depiction of the transformation process itself is a central focus of the thesis, including shared (and unique) narrative elements and the variance between shapeshifting episodes. Accordingly, the thesis explores distinctions between voluntary and involuntary transformations, between transforming and being transformed, and between disguise and metamorphosis. The thesis demonstrates the vast interest and potential for study which these figures hold, building on previous readings, and provides a reinterpretation of Greek shapeshifters. It argues for firm identification of Dionysus as a shapeshifter and delves more deeply than previous studies into the implications of gender for shapeshifting, providing a more nuanced reading of female shapeshifters which allows both for parallels (such as those between Mestra and Thetis) and divergences (for instance between Metis and Thetis) to become apparent.
Date of Award1 Aug 2020
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorAlison Sharrock (Supervisor) & Andrew Morrison (Supervisor)


  • thetis
  • proteus
  • intertextuality
  • transformation
  • shapeshifters
  • greek poetry
  • greek literature
  • classics
  • greek mythology

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