Terrifying thought, isn’t it? Isn’t what, you may ask? Picture this – you’re out walking late at night; you’re alone; there is little or no light, except for the moon, which glows bright and full in the star studded sky. You are on edge, your breathing laboured, as you walk as fast as you can, whilst trying not to make a sound. And then you hear it. The distant howl that stops you in your tracks and literally makes your heart stop beating.
You freeze, not daring to move an inch; not daring to breathe. The howl comes again, closer now, yet all around you. The hairs stand up on the back of your neck and your skin prickles. You stare into the darkness, trying to see. Why? What good will it do you? Surely it’s best not to see? Surely it’s best to be caught off guard? To be rendered immobile, sightlessly? To be unseeing of the beast that has eviscerated you in one swift movement? Surely? For what can be gained from coming face to face with a werewolf?
So, dear reader, do you think you would know a werewolf if you saw one?
Werewolves, or lycanthropes, are mythological or folkloric humans who have the ability to shape shift into a wolf. Lycanthropy is one form of therianthropy, which is the ability to transform into animals in general. Therianthropy is more of a worldwide belief, whereas lycanthropy tends to be centred round European beliefs.
Traditionally the transformation coincides with the lunar cycle and a shift occurs around the full moon. As well as bearing both human and wolf like traits, the afflicted are said to have strength and speed far beyond those of either, thus catapulting them into the realms of myth and folklore.
Myth or not, clinical lycanthropy is a medical condition that is recognised in the modern world. Those with the condition truly believe that they are, or have transformed into, an animal and behave accordingly.
The legend of the werewolf is linked to the story of Lycaon – the original werewolf of classical mythology. Lycaon, a King of Arcadia, was turned into a ravenous wolf by Zeus, as divine punishment for slaughtering one of his own sons and serving his remains to Zeus as dinner. Why? To see if Zeus really was a God.
According to European folklore, a werewolf is easily recognisable in his human form, if you know what you are looking for. It was said to fear a man whose eyebrows met at the bridge of his nose (Never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle – Company of Wolves, 1984); a man with curved fingernails; a man with low set ears; and a man with a swinging gait. Better take a look in the mirror, boys, if you want to understand why your chat up lines have been failing.
It was widely believed that you could prove someone was a werewolf by cutting into their flesh. If there was fur beneath the surface, then a wolf lay within. Either way, I think you’d have one seriously angry person after doing that! In Russia, they believed a werewolf would have bristles under his tongue. Now, call my sceptical, but if you suspected someone of being a werewolf, I would have thought his mouth would be the last place that you would want to get close to, no?
One of the biggest giveaways of this dual personality was the aftermath of a metamorphosis. Werewolves were reported to be weak, debilitated and to possess a painful and nervous disposition. Unfortunately, I think this could also describe a large number of people after a heavy night out on the town. But, what it highlights yet again, is the lack of medical knowledge that existed and how easily it was for people to mistake common medical conditions for something more sinister and fantastical.
As with vampirism, porphyria and rabies sufferers were often accused, and executed, of being werewolves.
In a 1963 paper, Dr Lee Illis of Guy’s Hospital, wrote that the symptoms of congenital porphyria – photosensitivity, reddish teeth and psychosis – were often taken as an indication of the existence of a werewolf. This thought has been disputed since, as mythological werewolves looked like wolves and, when in human form, rarely showed such symptoms.
As for rabies, it was more about the way the disease was transmitted that tied it to werewolf legend. In the same way that rabies is transmitted through a bite, so too is werewolfism. It was conveniently forgotten that this form of transformation was not part of the myth.
Hypertrichosis, the hereditary condition of excessive hair growth, is said to have been another illness that condemned the sufferer to death for being a werewolf. This too, however, has been disputed, as this condition is extremely rare and so highly unlikely to have occurred in the numbers required for a legend to be born.
Other origins of the werewolf myth are, for me, more in keeping with the ‘old wives’ tales’ that are passed down through the generations.
The legend of the werewolf has been used as a way of explaining serial killings. The serial killer does, after all, display similar hunting and killing techniques to the wolf – cannibalism, mutilation and cyclic attacks. In 1589, Peter Stumpp, a German farmer and alleged serial killer, was executed. His tag name had been the Werewolf of Bedburg.
Up until the twentieth century, wolf attacks on people were an occasional but very real aspect of European life. As such, it stands to reason that such a feared predator would be morphed into an evil monster. After all, isn’t this the way of the human race? If we don’t understand it or accept it; it becomes something to be feared?
Ultimately, the more socially acceptable and believable explanation, is that the legends may simply have been inspired by real life encounters with animals. After all, how many people have sighted a puma which turned out to be a domestic cat; have caught a huge trout, when actually it was a minnow; and have been attacked by a 400 lb. dog, when in fact it was the jack Russell belonging to the little old lady next door?
The appearance of a werewolf in animal form varies across cultures. In the main, though, it is said to resemble an ordinary wolf, but minus the tail; is larger; and retains its human eyes and voice. The absence of a tail links to the belief that witches, in animal form, appear without a tail. In Sweden, they believed that the werewolf used one of its legs as a tail and so ran around on three legs, thus telling it apart from other wolves.
So, dear reader, how was it believed that a person became a werewolf, given the modern view of a bite or a scratch didn’t actually appear in folklore? I think you are going to be surprised.
Based on traditional beliefs, becoming a werewolf is a fairly simple affair. You can remove all your clothing and put on a belt made of wolf skin; you can rub your body with magic salve; or you can drink rainwater out of the footprint of the animal in question or drink from certain enchanted streams.
If you live in Sweden, you can drink a cup of specially prepared beer and repeat a set formula. For those of you in France, Italy or Germany, a summer night sleeping outside, with the full moon shining directly on your face, can render you shape shifting attributes, as long as it is a certain Wednesday or Friday.
Of the sinister – satanic allegiance for sating the craving of human flesh would render you a werewolf; of the magical – the phenomenon of repercussion and the sending out of a familiar are linked to lycanthropy; of the religious – excommunication from the catholic church…….I am not going to comment on this one!
Lycanthropy was believed to be a choice as well as a curse. Those thought to have made a pact with the Devil, were believed to have voluntarily chosen their path and would morph at night to indulge in nefarious acts. Others, however, through an accident of birth or health, had no choice. In some cultures, it was believed that those born during the full moon or who suffered from epilepsy were cursed by the wolf.
So, how do you stop a werewolf? How do you kill it, given the vulnerability to silver is a twentieth century phenomenon?
The belief was that werewolves had to be cured. The range of remedies, as you would expect, varied by culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that exhaustion would purge the person of their malady; in medieval Europe there were three methods used – medicine (wolfs bane), surgery or exorcism – all of which tended to prove fatal. A Sicilian belief (of Arabic origin) was to strike it on the forehead or scalp with a knife or to pierce its hands with nails. In the German lowlands, addressing it three times by its Christian name would cure it, while the Danes believed in scolding as a cure.
As always, the church believed that conversion to Christianity would cure a person and a devotion to St Hubert (the patron saint of hunters, mathematicians, opticians and metalworkers) would act as both a cure and a protection from lycanthropy.
There is so much more I could write on the myth and legend surrounding this wonderful creature, but I won’t.
Instead, I would like to finish this blog by looking at the links to vampirism and the fictional werewolf of today.
Vampires and werewolves have been intertwined for centuries. In Medieval Europe, the corpses of people executed as werewolves were cremated to prevent them being resurrected as vampires. Before the end of the nineteenth century, the Greeks believed that the corpses of werewolves, if not destroyed, would come back to life as vampires, in the form of wolves or hyenas. In rural Germany, Poland and Northern France, it was believed that people who died in mortal sin, would come back as blood drinking wolves.
The vampiric werewolf would return to corpse form at daylight and could be destroyed by decapitation with a spade and exorcism by a parish priest. The head would then be thrown into a stream where the weight of its sins was believed to weigh it down.
It is interesting how these view of werewolfery differ from the more traditional view of the werewolf being a living creature, rather than the undead…..
In fiction and on screen the werewolf is almost as prolific as the vampire. In his 1897 novel, Dracula, Bram Stoker drew on the early mythologies of werewolves and other demons.
The 1935 film, Werewolf in London, which saw Henry Hill in the starring role, was the first film to use an anthropomorphic werewolf – largely because Hill refused to spend hours in the make-up chair – actors!
It wasn’t until Lawrence Talbot’s tragic portrayal in The Wolf Man in 1941, however, that werewolves were finally catapulted into public consciousness.
Over the years the werewolf has taken on a range of roles, form the sympathetic portrayals by David Naughton (An American Werewolf in London, 1981) and Jack Nicholson (Wolf, 1994); to the wilful and malevolent creatures of The Howling (1981). I can remember sobbing my heart out when they cornered David Naughton’s wolf at the end of that film….so very sad.
In more modern portrayals, lycanthropy is either hereditary or transmitted by a bite or scratch.
The modern werewolf is immune to damage by ordinary weapons, but is rendered impotent by silver and wolfs bane; has powers of super human strength and speed; heightened senses; the ability to heal (like vampires); and animalistic tendencies – hunger and increased sexual arousal – all of which extend into its human form.
The modern day werewolf can turn at will and is no longer a slave to the full moon; it can become a hybrid (vampire and werewolf) and its bite can kill a vampire.
For me, the werewolf is the super hero of all fantastical creatures, for nothing is outside the scope of possibility, and Dog Soldiers (2002) remains, in my view, the most realistic and believable werewolf film of all.
As a final note, dear reader, when you are curled up in your nice warm bed tonight, pray read the tale of Snow White and Rose Red and take heed of the bear……….
May fear protect you when the darkness comes.
Til next time.