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The idea of werewolves, vampires and other shapeshifters is big business in modern culture with films and books making liberal use of the concepts.  And rightly, so, there is something fascinating about the idea of man who can voluntarily or involuntarily transform into a supernatural being of great strength and speed.  Or something tragic about his lack of control, terrible curse or other burden.  But where did the concept of the werewolf come from?  What is the mythology behind the modern character?

Ancient History

Lycaon Turned into Wolf - Goltzius 1589

Lycaon Turned into Wolf – Goltzius 1589

The term lycanthrope is also used to describe a werewolf and is an ancient Greek term meaning simply ‘wolf-man’.  One such early example of a man who became a wolf was named Lycaon.  He had tried to show up Zeus, king of the gods, and outsmart him so Zeus transformed him into a wolf and killed all of his sons.  Lycaon became something of a cultural hero and founded a city called Lycosura and started the tradition of the Lycaean Games, believed to be even older than the Panaethenaic Games.  Another werewolf reference came from the Lykaia, a festival held on the slopes of Wolf Mountain, Mount Lykaion, that involved the real possibility of the young men involved turning into werewolves and was connected very loosely back to Lycaon and his games.

The travelling historian Herodotus also talked about werewolves in reference to a tribe called the Neuri who lived in northeast Scythia.  They all transformed into wolves once a year for a few days then returned to human form.

Middle Ages

Like many concepts from mythology, the werewolf underwent a change when Christianity took over as the main religion of much of Europe.  By the Middle Ages, belief in werewolves was common and there were numerous stories about people transforming into wolves for one reason or another.  The very term Werwolf was mentioned by one German chronicler Burchard von Worms in the 11th century while wolfmen were commonly known.

The Vikings also believed in the idea of the werewolf and one king, Harald I of Norway, was said to have a group of ‘wolf-coated men’ called Ulfhednar to call upon.  They were like berserkers, dressing in wolf hides and channelling the spirit of a wolf during battle to become fiercer.  They were resistant to pain and killed with great viciousness.  They were also closely associated with the Norse god Odin.

Prince Usiaslau of Polatsk was a Belarusian prince of the 11th century who was said to be a werewolf, able to move at speeds beyond a human being and prowling his territories at night in the form of a wolf.

Werewolf trials

16th century France was a bad place to be a werewolf because after a number of reported attacks, the country decided to begin hunting down the creatures.  In fact, the loup-garou came to be seen as a dangerous heretic who had reverted to pre-Christian religions and become a man-wolf fiend.  There were even female forms, known as lubins or lupins, who were less violent and very shy.

As witch trials became the vogue for people across parts of the world, so too did werewolf trials.  The peak of witch hunting took place from the late 16th to the early 17th century and during this time, a number of people were also accused and killed for being werewolves.  This was also the time of several notable cases, to be examined at length in after articles including the Beast of Gevaudan.

How to spot a werewolf

There was no authoritative guide written across history telling people how to spot a werewolf and the very characteristics of the breed varied from place to place.  Some thought that the body physically transformed from a man to a wolf while others saw the wolf as a spirit form, leaving the body in a trance state.

Some believed that the human form could belie the wolf form with slightly odd ideas such as eyebrows meeting at the bridge of the nose being taken as a sign of a werewolf hidden within.  Others thought that a human could be cut and the werewolf fur would show inside or they would have bristles under the tongue.

Similarly, how the creature came to be is another varied idea with everything from donning a wolfskin to a magic salve being suggested.  One Swedish writer in the 16th century said that a cup of specially prepared beer was drank followed by an incantation to achieve the transformation.  In France, Italy and Germany it was common believe that a person could become a werewolf if they slept outside on a summer’s night with the full moon shinning directly in their face – but only if done on a Wednesday or Friday.

And, of course, Satanic rituals were also said to do the job.  According to a book written in 1628, sorcerers would anoint their body with an ointment and wore an enchanted girdle to take the form of a wolf while retaining the mental faculties of a man.  They would then go out and kill people using the ‘instincts of the devil’.

One unusual account was from an 80-year-old man in Jurgensburg, Livonia, who in 1692 said that he and a group of werewolves weren’t evil but were Hounds of God.  They were warriors who took their wolf form to battle witches and demon and to stop the Devil from ruining the crops.  He insisted that this was the normal case for werewolves around the world and when they died, they were to heaven.  This was rewarded with ten lashes for idolatry and superstitious belief.

There are a few paths to try when it comes to curing lycanthropy too.  The Ancient Greeks and Romans thought that if you got tired enough, you would be purged of the malady but medieval Europe had a host of different ideas.  Some thought medicine was the idea, usually using wolfsbane, or a good exorcism would sort out the problem.  In Sicily, the belief of Arabic origin, said that striking the forehead of the person with a knife would cure them, or piercing their hands with nails.  A gentler cure came from Germany and Denmark where saying the person’s name three times released them from their werewolf form – assuming you knew who they were in the first place!

Modern take

WerewolfoflondonThe modern ideas of the werewolf include their vulnerability to silver objects, despite their high resistance to other injuries.  This idea came along as early as the 19th century when it was said that the Beast of Gevaudan was shot with a silver bullet and in the 1930s, this idea came into the new genre of werewolf fiction.

The Werewolf of London (1935) was one of the first films to convey the werewolf in the form we recognise today – a scientist who kept some of his human features and most of his style when he became a werewolf.  A more tragic vision was the 1941 The Wolf Man, staring Lon Chaney Jnr, as was An American Werewolf in London.

Modern additions to the ancient tales include the ability to transmit lycanthropy as a disease from one person to another along with an increase in strength, aggressiveness and speed.  It is also seen as a heredity condition, perhaps in a nod to the real medical condition that may have led to many misidentifications down the ages.