Werewolves in myth and legend were indistinguishable from wolves
Last month I talked about the origin myths behind the modern day vampire as part of my mythical creatures series (previous posts  can be found here – dragons, fantastical horses, mythical creatures of the sky, saltwater spirits – Part 1 and Part 2freshwater spirits, and spirits of the desert). This month we’re looking at the origins of the werewolf. 

The myth seems rooted in the notions of ancient man about wolves; man both feared and admired the wolf, and in some ways the wolf was the ultimate enemy man wished to emulate. Some of the earliest suspected origin myths include:
  • The Sorcerer of Trois Freres – this shamanistic cave drawing depicts the “Sorcerer”, a curious animal/human hybrid;
  • The story of Romulus and Remus, the founding fathers of Rome, supposedly raised by wolves. Apparently it seems probable there were such instances, and it’s believed tales of feral children, raised by wolves and behaving like wolves, strengthened links between wolf and human in our mind;
  • The Greek legend of Actaeon, turned into a stag for spying on Artemis bathing, and the older Akkadian legend of a shepherd transformed into a wolf by the goddess Ishtar;
  • Viking berserkers (and similar in other cultures) – warriors who went into battle berserk and ravening, mad ‘as wolves or hounds’ and biting their shields. They may have been clad in animal shirts;
  • The Lykaian Zeus – it was believed a ritual of sacrifice to this sky god involved one participant being transformed into a wolf for a period of nine years, unless they ate human flesh, in which case the change became permanent.
Links to the moon and the lunar cycle may have arisen from the behaviour of wolves baying at the moon, and the belief that moonlight robbed the human mind of reason – hence the word lunatic, from the French lune meaning moon – though it was never part of the werewolf legend that they would transform in the light of the moon. However, in these early beliefs we can see the beginnings of the werewolf legend. 

The first use of the word ‘wehrwulf’ was in the Ecclesiastical Ordnances of Cnut, a Danish king. The word appears to have been used to mean either berserkers, or wild, animal like people, in the sense that he described unchristians as wild, ravening animals. This attitude may have derived from early Christian observations of animalistic, fertility rituals and other pagan customs. Later the word wehrwulf referred to an outlaw or outcast – people associated with viciousness and bloody slaughter. 

The first written, werewolf legend appeared in Ireland. The writer was Giraldus de Barri, a churchman and Normal aristocrat, and his book was written around 1187. Giraldus may have been too credulous, accepting as truth many old tales, and he was particularly fascinated with an old werewolf tale he heard.  

Supposedly a priest and his boy companion came across a wolf in the forest, which spoke to them, saying he was a man of Clan Altan, and the clan was cursed by the Abbot Natalis. Every seven years, two members of the clan (a man and a woman) were forced to take the shape of a wolf for seven years. If they survived, they would resume human form, and two others would take their place. The wolf wanted the priest to minister to his companion wolf, who lay dying. He completed the rites without final communion, then cut through the skin of the wolf, peeling it back to reveal the face of an elderly woman; and so he offered the Blessed Sacrament. 

The tale is similar to the Lykaian Zeus myth, and also an Irish/Scandanavian tradition whee St Patrick turned rivals into wolves for nine years, and a fragmentary tale from what is now Germany, where St. Willibrod turned godless people into wolves for seven years. 

The Norman writer, Marie de France, also wrote an epic poem about a werewolf. Her protagonist, Bisclavret, is a knight who admits to his wife he is a garwaf, a man who becomes a wolf for three days each week. His wife betrayed him, trapping him in the form of a wolf by stealing his clothes, to marry a former paramour, but the treachery was later discovered by the king and the knight restored. Although Bisclavret was treated sympathetically, the writer made a point of emphasising the terrible and savage nature of the garwaf.

The later wolf-man hybrid werewolf
 In the later 16th century and all through the 17th century, belief in witches increased; one of their supposed magical powers was to transform into animal forms.  The forms they could take were endless, and one of them was the wolf. Many werewolf cases thus arose out of suspected witchcraft.

Peter Stubb, the werewolf of Cologne, Germany, was said to transform via witchcraft. He was tried in 1589 for a variety of crimes, including witchcraft, incest, and murder. He allegedly transformed by use of a magic belt, which was never found. He was sentenced to horrific tortures, followed by death by decapitation.  Around the same time, several Frenchmen were also tried for lyncathropy. Stories circulated, fuelling the werewolf panic. Several of them were burned alive, usually for crimes of witchcraft and heresy. Some may have been cannibals. 

In 1697, Charles Perrault, a collector of such supernatural tales, published a collection of folkore tales, including one wolf-themed one which caused a stir. It was about a pretty young girl who journeys through a dark wood to take some groceries to her grandmother wearing a red cloak. Yes, Little Red Riding Hood contributed to the werewolf legend, although in this original version there is no happy ending. Since the girl experienced no surprise at a talking wolf, it was suggested it was a werewolf, which she met first in human guise, then in wolf guise when it devoured her. The Grimm version, published in 1812, has the more satisfying end.  The story played its part in keeping the wolf, and the werewolf, prominent in the rural mind. 

Despite later attempts of scientist and psychiatrist to explain the 16th century werewolf cases, including Freud’s own theories about sexual abuse, the werewolf continued to hold a dark fascination – so much so that when cinema became popular in the early 20th century, and Dracula and Frankenstein were big earners at the box office, the film industry searched around for a new horror – and found the werewolf legend. With no well-known book for the movie to be based upon, the studio had to ensure the movie could stand on its own. 

The screenplay of The Wolf Man passed off certain inventions of the writer as gypsy tradition, such as limiting the werewolf to Eastern Europe (consistent with the vampire and monster movies), and the werewolf used no magic to transform himself, but was transformed unwillingly by the rays of the moon. Another invention was the notion a person could be ‘infected’ by the werewolf’s bite, which had no precursor whatsoever in the folklore, and the use of silver to kill a werewolf. The film also originated the concept of the werewolf as a human-wolf hybrid. While the folklore reflected a transformation completely into a wolf, indistinguishable from others of the species, now the werewolf as we know it was born. 

So while the werewolf has roots in very old folklore and legends, the modern-day werewolf, made popular in film and TV, which changes at the full moon, infects with its bite, and is susceptible to silver, is almost entirely a construct of the film industry.

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Source Material: A Field Guide to the Creatures That Cannot Rest In Peace – Encyclopedia of the Undead by Dr. Bob Curran