Liminal beings are those that cannot easily be placed into a single category of existence. Associated with the threshold state of liminality, from Latin līmen, "threshold", they represent and highlight the semi-autonomous boundaries of the social world.
Liminal beings are naturally ambiguous, challenging the cultural networks of social classification.
The cultural anthropologist Victor Turner considered that liminal entities, such as those undergoing initiation rites, often appeared in the form of monsters, so as to represent the co-presence of opposites—high/low; good/bad—in the liminal experience.
Liminal personas are structurally and socially invisible, having left one set of classifications and not yet entered another. The social anthropologist Mary Douglas has highlighted the dangerous aspects of such liminal beings, but they are also potentially beneficent. Thus we often find presiding over a ritual's liminal stage a semi-human shaman figure, or a powerful mentor with animal aspects, such as a centaur.
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By extension, liminal beings of a mixed, hybrid nature appear regularly in myth, legend and fantasy. A legendary liminal being is a legendary creature that combines two distinct states of simultaneous existence within one physical body. This unique perspective may provide the liminal being with wisdom and the ability to instruct, making them suitable mentors, whilst also making them dangerous and uncanny.
Hybrids (two species):
- Centaurs from classical mythology, among them Chiron, the mentor of Achilles
- Tritons from classical mythology, half-human sea beasts
- Satyrs and their elder counterparts the Silenoi from classical mythology, half-man half-goat (similar to the Roman Faun)
- Harpies from classical mythology, half-woman half-bird (see also: Furies)
- Cynocephali, dog-headed humans
- Yali (Hindu mythology)
- 'A liminal figure, like the Sphinx...straddling the divide between animal and human, and partaking of both'.
Both human and spirit by blood:
- Merlin is a cambion, the son of a woman and an incubus
- Caliban in William Shakespeare's play The Tempest
- Abe no Seimei, legendarily attributed a human father but a kitsune (fox spirit) mother
Both human and vegetable:
- the Green Man
Both alive and dead:
- ghosts, among them Tiresias, the dead seer whom Odysseus consulted in the underworld, in the Odyssey. Tiresias also had been transformed into a woman and back into a man while living, and was blind as well as a seer.
Both human and machine:
- In science fiction, liminal beings include cyborgs, such as the Six Million Dollar Man and Seven of Nine from Star Trek.
Both human and alien:
- "liminal", Oxford English Dictionary. Ed. J.A. Simpson and E.S.C. Weiner. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989. OED Online Oxforde 23, 2007.
- Musgrove, Frank (1977). Margins of the Mind. Taylor & Francis. p. 8.
- Nicholas, Dean A. (2009). The Trickster Revisited: Deception as a Motif in the Pentateuch. Peter Lang. p. 37.
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- Hume, Llynne (2007). Portals: Opening Doorways to Other Realities Through the Senses. Berg. p. 110.
- Aniela Jaffe and Joseph Henderson, in C. G. Jung ed., Man and his Symbols (London 1968 p. 261-2 and p. 101
- [Gilmore, David D. (2012) Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 38-45]
- Lauretis, Teresa de (2008). Freud's Drive: Psychoanalysis, Literature and Film. Basingstoke. p. 119.
- Briggs, Katharine (1976). "Wizards". An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 440. ISBN 0-394-73467-X.