Nearly all societies have some sort of belief in/mythical tales of shapeshifting. It is probably an event more prevalent myth/belief than vampirism.
Some cultures believed that powerful magic men and women could talk to the animals, communicate with them and even transform into certain animals. Most belief systems incoroporating totemism or shamanism also contain the belief in shapeshifters. Some cultures celebrated the idea, whereas others were terrified of it – and of those they thought had the ability to walk in an animal form.
Just as there are many varying myths regarding shapeshifting – so there are many different ways a person can take on the form of an animal. They can be born under a full moon. Cursed by a witch. Be a powerful shaman capable of doing so. Or they might have drank water a wolf drank from earlier, or eaten the meat of a dead animal – most often a wolf – that they then take the shape of.
In Greek mythology shape shifting was often a form of punishment – a painful process a person went through after being cursed or punished by the gods. This theme also occurs in Norse mythology, and ancient Egypt.
Ancient Scottish and Irish tales of Selkies go back centuries. These seals can change into human form by shedding their skin, but they must hide their pelt because if it is taken they will remain trapped in human form, unable to return to the ocean.
In Norwegian folklore one of the scarier shapeshifter myths is the Nokken. A magical being who lives in rivers and lakes. He is a shapeshifter who can turn into a handsome young man or a stunning white horse. He will try to drag you into the pond and drown you in his human form. In horse form he will let you climb on his back and then run into the water with you. His true appearance is terrifying. He has the skin of a drowned corpse and glowing eyes. This one really creeps me out!
So there are many myths about humans shifting shape into animal form. Some are seen as good, powerful beings, and others as creatures to be feared or even pitied. For some reason the wolf shifter is the one that has really stayed in the cultural imagination. Whether it be in the form of shifters, or the form of a werewolf, lycan, or loup-garou. We are fascinated with all things shifter.