Mythical monsters stalk the forests of our dreams, but where did they come from? Part 3 of this Halloween series uncovers the truth behind the werewolf!
Today we know the mythical werewolf as a cursed human that shapeshifts into a wolf under the influence of the full moon. Werewolves fascinate us with their insatiable hunger and the stark contrast they pose against the ordinary person they are during the day. Folktales see the curse spread from the bite of another werewolf, a gypsy curse, or demonic transactions. The change is as uncontrollable as the beast itself. Your only recourse as a tasty bystander is to have some silver on you. Silver bullets, swords, or crucifixes are the most common wards recommended to fend off such monsters.
We derive the term werewolf from the Old English “werwulf”, meaning man-wolf. We also know werewolves as lycanthropes or Greek for wolf-person. Shapeshifters are prominent in the mythology of various cultures, specifically people changing into predators. Japanese folklore has tales of the kitsune, fox spirits that changed into beautiful women to trick men. There is also the Meso-American nagual, men who could change into jaguars after creating pacts with devils. The Navajo “naaldlooshii” or skin-walker was a malevolent witch that could take the form of any animal.
Apex Predators of the Past
The earliest traces of lycanthropy in history relate to Proto-Indo-European warrior initiation rituals. There are also references to evil werewolves in early Germanic Paganism. Greek mythology, too, is rife with shapeshifters of the wolfish persuasion. However, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that tales of werewolves took on a terrifying life of their own.
Accusations of lycanthropy share an overlapping history with witches. The witch hunts began in the 15th century and ended in the 17th. The werewolf trials began in the 16th century, gained popularity in the 17th, and didn’t end until the 18th century. Witches changing into wolves were rare in testimonies compared to wolf riding or charming. Werewolves became another accusation altogether, one more common to men. Similarly to witches, they believed that burning werewolves at the stake was one of the few ways to kill them.
Remedies for lycanthropy differed from one culture to the next. Greek mythology linked exhaustion to the transformation back to human. The werewolf trials saw several rumored remedies, including ingesting wolfsbane, surgery, or exorcism. Speculative cures ranged in severity from scolding or shouting the person’s name three times to driving nails through their hands and striking their head with a knife. Most attempts to cure lycanthropy proved fatal for the afflicted.
Treading the Line Between Human and Animal
Peter Stumpp was a German farmer convicted as a werewolf, witch, and cannibal. Known as the Bedburg Werewolf, he is the most well-known werewolf trial. His testimony of a long history of black magic, including a belt that allowed him to transform into a wolf, was obtained through torture. He confessed to murdering and devouring both livestock and humans, including 14 children. Witnesses meticulously documented his torture and execution. They placed his head on a stake as a warning and his body burned on October 31, 1589.
France was rife with similar accounts of serial killers convicted as werewolves. Gilles Garnier became known as the Werewolf of Dole ( “loup-garou” in French) and was burned at the stake in 1573. Garnier confessed to receiving an ointment from a demon that allowed him to transform into a wolf, and to killing 4 children, eating some, and taking their limbs home to his wife.
Most mythologies held that werewolves, vampires, and witches were all of a similar persuasion, often in league with one another. However, one peculiar 1692 testimony by a man named Theiss inspired future stories of antagonism between different monsters. In his own werewolf trial, Theiss confessed but claimed werewolves were actually “Hounds of God” sent to hunt down witches and other monsters. Ironically, Theiss was spared conviction and execution but was instead sentenced to a lashing for “believing in superstitions”. Some stories reconcile these opposing trends by casting werewolves as the unwilling servants of vampires, happily turning on them when given the chance.
In 1725, the discovery of a feral child living alone in the woods caused a stir among British nobility. Peter the Wild Boy, as they called him, likely suffered from Pitt-Hopkins syndrome. He walked on all fours, slept on the floor, and never learned to speak. The royal court kept him as a pet and curiosity until numerous attempts to “civilize” him failed. Pitt-Hopkins syndrome is a rare disorder involving developmental delays, speech issues, and facial abnormalities.
The Beast of Gévaudan was attributed to over 100 mutilations across three years in southern France from 1764 to 1767. This beast killed 118 people across 210 separate attacks, partially devouring some victims and ripping out the throats of others. While never verified, it’s now thought the beast was a wolf or wolf-dog hybrid based on descriptions. A rumor spread of a beast killed by a silver bullet prompted towns to upend and meltdown anything they had to turn into bullets. It’s also thought there was more than one beast. They reported several caught and killed before the attacks subsided.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?
Wolves are common antagonists in storytelling. They’ve been used to symbolize gluttony and evil in cautionary tales throughout the ages. Ovid’s “Metamorphosis,” told the story of Lycaon, transformed into a wolf as punishment for offering Zeus human entrails to eat. Other historical literature featuring wolfish shape changers includes the “Epic of Gilgamesh” and the Viking, “Saga of the Volsungs”. Today we know them from classical children’s tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood”, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, or “Peter and the Wolf”
A resurgence of interest in werewolves corresponded with rapidly evolving film technology. 1935’s “Werewolf of London” saw the necessity of creating a more humanoid wolf monster because of the limitations of editing and makeup. However, in 1941, technology made a major leap with “The Wolf Man”. The monster’s transition was a landmark achievement in film effects. Similarly, 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London” has remained a cult classic for its comedic spin and yet another impressive use of effects for its time. Werewolf transformations have become a standard by which to test the limitations of film effects.
Other than a 2010 remake of “The Wolf Man” most instances of werewolves in media today are alongside vampires as either minions or rivals. The “Underworld”, “True Blood” and “Twilight” series are the most popular examples of this. Crime dramas and documentaries have since supplanted the appeal of werewolves. Tales of horrendous acts appeal to those who love to speculate on the psychological thought processes behind them. Modern media demands complex, relatable villains to truly terrify us with semi-reasonable lines of logic taken to unthinkable lengths. In Part 4, we’ll be looking into the difference that’s allowed vampires to adapt to these new expectations.
What’s the Science Say?
Lycanthropy is still a term used in mental health to describe delusions of being a werewolf. Variations exist involving many other animals, so true clinical lycanthropy is a rare phenomenon. We now understand lycanthropy as specific delusions brought on by other mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depressive psychosis. Combined with a historically limited understanding of hypertrichosis and rabies, the fear of werewolves is understandable. Hypertrichosis is a disorder causing excessive pelt-like hair growth all across the body, including the face. Rabies is a long-mysticized and deadly disease, causing mental deterioration and violent animal-like behavior transmitted by a bite.
The effect of the full moon is integral to the werewolf myth, so much so it’s where we derive the word lunatic from. Research has found the full moon to have some interesting effects. The gravitational pull of the moon’s phases controls the ocean tides, and the human brain is 78% water. Various studies have shown this gravitational shift to increase agitation in people. Police and medical workers often find themselves busier around the full moon due to a notable increase in violent crime. However, the average person will only experience a bit of restlessness and trouble sleeping under a bright, full moon.
One of the best explanations for the werewolf myth comes from ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that causes hallucinogenic effects similar to LSD. Modern incidents involving LSD closely resemble ancient werewolf accounts, people awakening from blackouts finding themselves surrounded by carnage. In 2012, a man on LSD was shot by police for ripping someone’s face off with his teeth. Ergot spores can spread through the air and grow on wheat, remaining active after making bread and beer. These contaminated dietary staples infected entire medieval communities with symptoms of fever, convulsions, and paranoid hallucinations.
Cause and Consequence
Humans and wolves have been at odds since animal agriculture became common practice. Growing human populations require an equal growth of farmland to produce the food we eat. Clearing forests for farmland robbed wolves of their natural habitat and prey. With new, easier food sources corralled in their own backyards, wolves made themselves a natural enemy of farmers by eating livestock. This competition for resources lead to wolves becoming unilaterally demonized. Wolves are the only animal humanity has deliberately sought to eradicate, once reducing the American grey wolf from 500,000 to just 300 by 1960.
The resulting overpopulation of prey animals had harmful effects on the environment. The reintroduction of wolves in areas like Yellowstone National Park has seen drastic improvements in a relatively short time. The bloated and sickly deer population overgrazed, preventing new tree growth and leaving barren stretches of land in their wake. Wolves brought the deer population back under control, allowing reforestation and the return of owls, beavers, and bears to the park. They even changed the course of the river; mature trees preventing soil erosion along riverbanks reduced yearly flooding that once devastated nearby communities. Ecologists have named this overwhelmingly positive phenomenon trophic cascade.
A greater understanding of psychology has allowed humanity to be honest about its nature, relying less on monster scapegoats to absolve us of our sins. There is still work to do, however. Some continue to demonize people and cultures they don’t understand, relating them to animals in a familiar attempt to distance themselves. We also do animals a disservice with these insinuations by creating false hierarchies between living things. Diminishing the value of creatures “beneath” us has consistently proven catastrophic to our ability to relate to one another and to the environment we all share.
Werewolves embody the fear and revulsion we hold for our own violent and chaotic potential. The division of man and beast is symbolic of our struggle to understand ourselves and our place in the world. The image of the werewolf was just as important to the accused as the accusers. They too needed to find distance, justification and even spectacle in what they couldn’t explain about themselves. Our changing perceptions of just what a monster is; from senseless, bestial monstrosities to troubled and damaged people reflects our growing maturity across culture.