The Ways Of The Werewolf: A Brief History of Lycanthropy 

The shadow of the werwolf has haunted European folklore since the middle ages, but did you know that the concept of animalistic transformation is present across the globe? From second century Greece to modern day USA, let us explore a brief history of werewolves.

A perfectly normal Saturday night for some of us

A Historic Overview

Some believe the very first written reference to wolf-man-transformations is present in The Epic Of Gilgamesh – one of the oldest surviving pieces of literature. Here, our hero Gilgamesh rebuffs a woman’s advances as she turned a previous lover into a wolf.

Similar tales are seen in Greek and Nordic mythology, with the most infamous beginning with the legend of King Lycaon, who, along with his sons, were turned into wolves as punishment for serving Zeus the remains of a sacrificed boy. The latter Nordic tale also involves a father-son duo, transformed by magical wolf pelts before carrying out a killing spree culminating with the wounding of the son at the hands of the father. Perhaps there’s something to be said of the recurring themes of father, son and cannibalism.

By the Middle Ages, Christianity had spread across Europe and with it, tales of the werewolf were often entwined with witchcraft and general devilment. Belief in both were prevalent in continental Europe and Britain, and exemplified by the execution of the alleged German serial killer, Peter Stumpf. In 1589, Stumpf confessed (under torture) to owning a “magical belt” which gave him the power to transform into a werewolf. He was said to have attacked his 18 alleged victims as a wolf and cannibalised their remains.

Common Folk Beliefs   

In European folklore, it was believed the following physical characteristics indicated a werewolf in human form:

  • A monobrow 
  • Curved fingernails and hairy palms, an unusually long ring-finger was also considered an indication.
  • An Unusual gait 
  • Some believed if the accused werewolf was cut, fur could bee seen inside the wound.
  • Russian superstition believed a werewolf would have bristles under their tongue.

Once the werewolf had transformed, many believed it was indistinguishable from a regular wolf. However, variations include:

  • Some believed that a transformed werewolf had no tail – this was also said to be the case if a witch took the form of any animal
  • Sometimes, the werewolf maintained its human voice and eyes, and was larger than a regular wolf
  • Some Swedish accounts said the werewolf rain on three legs, with the forth stretched backwards to mimic a tail.

Methods of becoming a werewolf are as numerous as tales surrounding them, but some of my personal favourites included:

  • Being bitten by a wolf or werewolf.
  • Donning the pelt of a wolf – either in its entirety or in part, like a belt. This belief may be inspired by the Viking Age Úlfhednar, a group of fighters similar to berserkers. These warriors dressed in wolf skins, in order to channel the spirit of the animal and increase their performance in battle. 
  • Applying a magic salve that caused the user to transform
  • Drinking rainwater from the foot print of an animal, or certain enchanted streams.
  • In ancient France and Germany, it was believed that sleeping outside in the summer, with the full moon shining on the face could transform a person into a werewolf – but only if it was done on a Wednesday or Friday.
  • Making a pact with the devil
  • Devine punishment, as in the case of King Lycaon of Arcadia.
  • Being excommunicated by the Catholic Church.
  • Being transformed by sorcerers or Christian saints – St Patrick was said to have cursed a Welsh King named Vereticus. 
  • In some parts of Europe, the werewolf legend is closely linked to the creation of Revenants and Vampires. It is believed that those who died in “mortal sin” – whatever that means – are destined to take the form of a blood drinking wolf at night in order to pray on the living, returning to their coffin in the day. 

The Modern Werewolf

Today, belief in a physical metamorphosis is more or less relegated to the past, but that’s not to say we have abandoned the werewolf legend all together.

Humanoid creatures with wolf-like features have been spotted in across America, two of the most popular becoming known as the Michigan Dogman, and The Wisconsin Werewolf, who’s been spotted as recently as 2020.  

No physical evidence has been presented in either of these cases, however eyewitness remain convinced these monsters exist. Of course, skeptics claim the sightings are likely misidentified animals. Bears and wolves – possibly suffering from mange – are likely candidates for these.

Another notable 20th century werewolf tale is that of The Southend Werewolf, as reported by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The man in question had been suffering from fits of rage since childhood, which the Warren’s claimed showed he was possessed by a “demon that manifested as a wolf” – because of course they did. He was brought from his home in Essex to the Warren’s Connecticut lair, where he was allegedly subjected to an exorcism and thus cured of his alleged affliction.

The Eyes of a Good Boy
Photo by Brenda Timmermans on Pexels.com

The Medical Werewolf

As is often the way, modern medicine has put the kibosh on the good ‘ol werewolf tales of the past, and devised a modern explanation to their possible afflictions.

Hypertrichosis

This isa genetic condition leading to excessive hair growth, sometimes known as “werewolf syndrome”. However, this is a particularly rare disorder, and could not have been accountable for such widespread beliefs. 

Rabies

This may explain the the belief in the transmission of werewolf-ism. Being bitten by a rabid dog or wolf. 

Most reports of wolf attacks have involved rabies – a healthy wolf is incredibly unlikely to approach a human. If the victim falls ill after such an incident, they would exhibit confusion and aggression, hallucinations, “frothing” at the mouth, muscle spasms and eventually, death. When presented with these symptoms without an understanding of the medical condition, it would not be difficult to believe the person it question had, or was becoming, a werewolf.

Medical Lycanthropy or Other Forms of Psychosis 

The phrase itself steming from the aforementioned King Lycaon, Lycanthropy is a rare psychiatric syndrom, in which the affected person believes that they – either in the past or currently – transformed into an animal. The affected person may have moments of lucidity, but will otherwise behave like the animal they have “transformed” into, including crawling, howling, growling and biting. Lycanthropy is not necessarily a diagnosis of its own, and its behaviours may be a result of other psychiatric conditions, or sometimes drug misuse. 

Although it is currently considered rare, it may have been more prevalent in the past were the belief in werewolves was commonplace. 

This is also a likely explanation for the case investigated by the Warrens. 

A Naughty Puppy With Rabies

The Persistent Beast

Were-creatures of all kinds occur in myths and legends across the globe. Supernatural shapeshifters are not limited to wolves and have taken the form of tigers, hyenas and bears, depending on which predator poses the most risk. 

Although many of us have moved away from the belief in physical shapeshifters, we still allow ourselves a good scare every Halloween, with the werewolf a common feature in modern horror media.    

But why has this concept endured to the modern day? Why are we still stalked by the shadow of the werewolf?

I would suggest the werewolf reflects our hidden self. There’s a little beast in all of us.The dark parts of us that lie dormant inside us, but – in the right conditions – may wake and devour.

For most of us, that metaphorical wolf is no more threatening than the average dog. It’s well fed and healthy. 

But there are others who’s wolves are rabid and we can’t tell until their moon is full. That’s when we see them for what they are – murderers, abusers and monsters. Until then, we call them friends, family and neighbours. They are the werewolves that still live among us. 

We think we know people – Our friends, our family, members of our community. We’d think they’re just like us. Capable of the same things we are.  


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