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People or monsters with the ability to change their physical forms are widespread in science fiction and fantasy. This appears in many of the biggest science fiction and fantasy franchises. For example:

  • Odo from Star Trek can alter his appearance in almost any way imaginable, even taking on inanimate forms.
  • Sauron was know to take the form of a wolf, a serpent, or a vampire (whatever that might mean in Tolkien).

But what was the first story to feature a shapeshifter?

By a shapeshifter, I mean a character with the ability to voluntarily change their form. Characters that are forced into another form by a curse or something similar do not qualify.

Examples with a definite date preferred, so as to tell which came first.

  • So since you said non-mythological, can we exclude folklore and just make it 'modern' fiction? – CBredlow Apr 25 '16 at 20:58
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    When does "modern" fiction start? – Valorum Apr 25 '16 at 21:00
  • @Richard 'modern' being post invention of the printing press? Not folklore but actual fiction? – CBredlow Apr 25 '16 at 21:01
  • @Jonah - Yes, I downvoted it because I felt that you've insufficiently defined the question. – Valorum Apr 25 '16 at 21:07
  • Fiction started a very long time ago. I don't think you've defined "modern", nor explained why it matters whether the answer is modern or ancient. – Valorum Apr 25 '16 at 21:38
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The first work of fiction to contain shapeshifting is our old friend 'The Epic of Gilgamesh', generally regarded as the first work of literature ever written, ever, anywhere, written circa 2100 BC.

During their trip into the forest, Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu encounter a forest demon named Humbaba. This chirpy little fella changes form and fights them for several hours.

Humbaba spoke to Gilgamesh, saying:
..An idiot' and a moron should give advice to each other,
but you, Gilgamesh, why have you come to me!
Give advice, Enkidu, you 'son of a fish,' who does not even
know his own father,
to the large and small turtles which do not suck their mother's milk!
When you were still young I saw you but did not go over to you;
... you,... in my belly.
...,you have brought Gilgamesh into my presence,
... you stand.., an enemy, a stranger.
... Gilgamesh, throat and neck,
I would feed your flesh to the screeching vulture, the eagle, and
the vulture!"
Gilgamesh spoke to Enkidu, saying: "My Friend, Humbaba's face keeps changing!·

The implication is that Humbaba is changing forms in order to find some way of countering Gilgamesh's mighty attacks. Eventually Shamash summons winds from the four corners of the Earth to overwhelm Humbaba and Gilgamesh is able to kill him.

Shamash raised up against Humbaba mighty tempests'--
Southwind, Northwind, Eastwind, Westwind, Whistling Wind, Piercing Wind, Blizzard, Bad Wind, Wind of Simurru,
Demon Wind, Ice Wind, Storm, Sandstorm--
thirteen winds rose up against him and covered Humbaba's face.

  • @Jonah - "When was the first X in Science Fiction" questions can invariably be answered with Gilgamesh, Beowulf or Lucian's True History – Valorum Apr 25 '16 at 21:43
  • Ha-ha! So funny and so true. Anyway, any more modifications needed before the question meets with your approval? – Adamant Apr 25 '16 at 21:43
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Using the qualifier "Characters that are forced into another form by a curse or something similar do not qualify, though the entity that cursed them may well qualify as a voluntary shapeshifter. " there are a couple potential characters.

1590-1597

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Puck changes the head of Nick Bottom into the shape of a donkey. Also, there is an Indian changeling that is central to a conflict in the play as well.

1740

Beauty and the Beast

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve's play of this story provides a backstory of how the beast gets his form. His father dies, and his mother wages war with another kingdom. The prince is then left in the care of an evil fairy, who in turn tries to seduce him when he becomes an adult. However, she fails to do so and curses the prince with his infamous form.

Also, technically in 8 AD

Metamorphoses

The Roman poet Ovid wrote a collection of books where the common theme was change, which included people changing into various objects and animals.

Source: various Wikipedia articles

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