The subject of Werewolves have been a fascination of mine since I was a child and still is to this day. There are so many folktales and indigenous lore regarding them found around the world that it is in itself a huge subject that can take years to study. Werewolves have captivated people around the world so much so they can be found in novels, movies and even in festivals. There is so much that can be discussed about these creatures of the night that it would take a series of posts but I decided today to give you a sort of ‘best of’ resources for you to dive into. So with that I hope you enjoy as we get into the topic of the Werewolf.
It’s unclear exactly when and where the werewolf legend originated. Some scholars believe the werewolf made its debut in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known Western prose, when Gilgamesh jilted a potential lover because she had turned her previous mate into a wolf.
Werewolves made another early appearance in Greek mythology with the Legend of Lycaon. According to the legend, Lycaon, the son of Pelasgus, angered the god Zeus when he served him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. As punishment, the enraged Zeus turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves.
Werewolves also emerged in early Nordic folklore. The Saga of the Volsungs tells the story of a father and son who discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. The father-son duo donned the pelts, transformed into wolves and went on a killing rampage in the forest. Their rampage ended when the father attacked his son, causing a lethal wound. The son only survived because a kind raven gave the father a leaf with healing powers. Continue reading HERE.
Theories of Origin
A recent theory has been proposed to explain werewolf episodes in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ergot, which causes a form of foodborne illness, is a fungus that grows in place of rye grains in wet growing seasons after very cold winters. Ergot poisoning usually affects whole towns or at least poor areas of towns and results in hallucinations, mass hysteria and paranoia, as well as convulsions and sometimes death. (LSD can be derived from ergot.)
Ergot poisoning has been proposed as both a cause of an individual believing that he or she is a werewolf and of a whole town believing that they had seen a werewolf. However, this theory is controversial and unsatisfactory. Witchcraft hysteria and legends of animal transformations, as well as hysteria and superstition in general, have existed across the world for all of recorded history. Even if ergot poisoning is found to be an accurate explanation in some cases, it cannot be applied to all instances. An over-reliance on any one theory denies the diversity and complexity of such occurrences.
Some modern researchers have tried to use conditions such as rabies, hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth over the entire body) or porphyria (an enzyme disorder with symptoms including hallucinations and paranoia) as an explanation for werewolf beliefs. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria has clinical features which include photosensitivity (so sufferers only go out at night), hairy hands and face, poorly healing skin, pink urine, and reddish colour to the teeth.
There is also a rare mental disorder called clinical lycanthropy, in which an affected person has a delusional belief that he or she is transforming into another animal, although not always a wolf or werewolf.
Others believe werewolf legends arose as a part of shamanism and totem animals in primitive and nature-based cultures.
The term therianthropy has been adopted to describe a spiritual concept in which the individual believes he or she has the spirit or soul, in whole or in part, of a non-human animal. SOURCE
The belief in werewolves is not just a European phenomenon but is encountered world wide. This is apparent when considering the etymology of the word. Medieval Europe held strong beliefs in the existence of werewolves during the 15th to 17th centuries, which was reflected in the literature of the time. The term lycanthropy is derived from lycanthropos of ancient Greece meaning wolf plus man (Rose, 2000).
In Old English werewolf is derived from wer or were signifying man, and the word wulf for wolf. In Old Welsh there is gwir and Old Irish has tear where wild dog is used synonymously for wolf. Again, weri from Old English means to wear the skin of a wolf, perhaps ritually. The word is compounded from lyc from the Proto-Indo-European root wlkwo meaning wolf, hence the vira of Sansrit, and the vir of Latin. Counterparts of the English word werewolf are found in the Germanic form of wehr-wolf, a variation meaning man-wolf. A cognate is the Gothic word wair, the wer of Old High German. I France the derivation of loup-garou is from the loup for wolf.
In Eastern Europe the idea of the werewolf is related closely to the concept of the vampire, referred to in Serbia as the vukodlak. In Lithuania the werewolf is called vyras. The word vampire in Slavonic languages is vampire and the origin of the English term, with the Greek vrykolakas originating amongst the Serbs, with werewolf being wilkolak amongst the Poles. For the Scandinavians the Old Norse cognate is verr. Again, in Old Norse there is the vargulf, a wolf that kills large numbers of livestock, which connects with warg-wolf. The words warg, werg, and wera are cognate with the vargr of Old Norse. This refers to an outlaw being regarded as a wolf, a ulfhednar seen as a wolf-like berserker wearing wolf skins in battle. SOURCE
“English folk-lore is singularly barren of were-wolf stories, the reason being that wolves had been extirpated from England under the Anglo-Saxon kings, and therefore ceased to be objects of dread to the people. The traditional belief in were-wolfism must, however, have remained long in the popular mind, though at present it has disappeared, for the word occurs in old ballads and romances.““The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring Gould (1865)
The ‘werewolf gap’: it’s all about the folklore
Between St Augustine (c. AD 400) and the twelfth-century flowering of werewolf stories we hear nothing about them. What are we to make of this 500-year gap? A simple explanation might be that the authors of the twelfth century rediscovered the long-forgotten werewolves in their ancient texts and just chose to start writing about them again. Such an explanation might initially seem to be favoured by the fact that Marie de France’s Anglo-Norman werewolf poem Bisclavret of AD 1160-78, for example, has much in common with Petronius’ story: signally, we find the recurring theme of the werewolf’s need to keep his clothes safe if he is to be able to recover his human form, with Bisclavret hiding his clothes under a rock when it is time for him to transform. However, it is unlikely that Marie had direct access to Petronius’ story…
The more interesting and intriguing possibility is that werewolves just went underground, as it were, and continued to thrive under the radar in the realm of folklore and folktale throughout these centuries, only to resurface into the world of fine literature again in the twelfth. And this is almost certainly what happened. A clue to this is to be found in what is a central theme of Marie de France’s tale, and the tales of other writers of her age: that of the adulterous wife.
When Bisclavret’s wife learns that he is a werewolf, she makes him reveal where he hides his clothes whilst under transformation, and accordingly steals them and makes off with them with the help of her lover, with whom she then elopes, leaving Bisclavret stranded as a wolf for many years before his is able to take his revenge on the pair and recover his human form. When we look back at Petronius’ tale we can see that the motif of an adulterous wife is already lurking in it in an incidental detail of which nothing is made: Melissa is conducting an adulterous affair with Niceros. There is no obvious reason why Marie and the writers of her time should have seized upon this incidental detail and elaborated it so greatly – even if they did, after all, have access to Petronius’ text. It is much more likely that, as an artful writer, Petronius had included the incidental detail of the adulterous wife in order to allude to another, related werewolf story he was familiar with but was not on this occasion telling. It will then have been upon this second story, preserved in folklore alone for a millennium, that Marie and her contemporary writers were eventually to seize. SOURCE
Today, werewolves are known to be mythical creatures found in fiction instead of lurking in the dark woods, but that was not always the case. Not so long ago, belief in werewolves was common. Overall, there was little difference between the killings and activities of wolves and werewolves: both would hunt at night, attacking sheep or livestock, and sometimes humans. The main difference was, of course, that the werewolf changed into human form at some point.
There are several medical conditions that can mimic the appearance of a werewolf and may have contributed to early belief in the literal existence of the creatures. One is hypertrichosis, which creates unusually long hair on the face and body; a second condition, porphyria, is characterized by extreme sensitivity to light (thus encouraging its victims to only go out at night), seizures, anxiety, and other symptoms. Neither of these rare conditions turns anyone into a werewolf, of course, but centuries ago when belief in witches, vampires, and magic was common it didn’t take much to spawn werewolf stories.
Clinical lycanthropy is a recognized medical condition in which a person believes himself or herself to be an animal, and indeed there are rare cases where people have claimed to be werewolves. For example in 1589, a German man named Peter Stubbe claimed to own a belt of wolf skin that allowed him to change into a wolf: His body would bend into a lupine form; his teeth would multiply in his mouth; and he craved human blood. Continue reading HERE.
Curse or Power?
Various methods for becoming a werewolf have been reported, one of the simplest being the removal of clothing and putting on a belt made of wolf skin, probably as a substitute for the assumption of an entire animal skin (which also is frequently described). In other cases, the body is rubbed with a magic salve. Drinking rainwater out of the footprint of the animal in question or from certain enchanted streams were also considered effectual modes of accomplishing metamorphosis. The 16th century Swedish writer Olaus Magnus says that the Livonian werewolves were initiated by draining a cup of specially prepared beer and repeating a set formula. Ralston in his Songs of the Russian People gives the form of incantation still familiar in Russia.
In Italy, France and Germany, it was said that a man or woman could turn into a werewolf if he or she, on a certain Wednesday or Friday, slept outside on a summer night with the full moon shining directly on his face.
In Brazil, it is believed that when a woman has seven daughters and the eighth child is a man, the latter is likely to be a werewolf.
Becoming a werewolf simply by being bitten or scratched by another werewolf as a form of contagion is common in modern horror fiction, but this kind of transmission is rare in legend, unlike the case in vampirism.
Even if the denotation of lycanthropy is limited to the wolf-metamorphosis of living human beings, the beliefs classed together under this head are far from uniform, and the term is somewhat capriciously applied. The transformation may be temporary or permanent; the were-animal may be the man himself metamorphosed; may be his double whose activity leaves the real man to all appearance unchanged; may be his soul, which goes forth seeking whom it may devour, leaving its body in a state of trance; or it may be no more than the messenger of the human being, a real animal or a familiar spirit, whose intimate connection with its owner is shown by the fact that any injury to it is believed, by a phenomenon known as repercussion, to cause a corresponding injury to the human being. SOURCE
So as you have seen here there is a vast amount of information regarding the subject of Werewolves which can take someone a great deal of time to look over. I truly enjoy this subject and will just leave you with this. Medically yes there are those inflicted with a genetic disorder to give them the appearance of a Werewolf at no fault of their own. We can clearly see that around the world Werewolves are woven into folklore and modern culture. So the question could be asked, do werewolves or some sort of cryptid wolf-like being exist? Did Werewolf type creatures once roam this world and have in some mysterious way vanished? Could they still exist but be as rare as Hen’s teeth? The truth is we cannot really answer these questions with certainty but the open-minded side of me likes to think it is possible.
Werewolf Legends from Around the World
The Werewolf in Norway: Everything You Need to Know
Werewolves that Fish and Fight in Battles: The Scottish Wulver and Irish Faoladh in Folklore
The Long, Hidden History of the Viking Obsession With Werewolves
King Lycaon Mythology | What is the Greek Origin of Werewolves?