We’re all familiar with the old gypsy poem and Curt Siodmak’s iconic werewolf mythology, but what were the true origins of the werewolf?
The full moon rose and along with it the hideous visage of the wolf. The wolf cries to the night, ready to steal from men and from God. The beast scours the countryside in search of blood, lives and souls. However, this is no mere wolf. This is a man transformed into the image of an altered beast. This is the work of Satan, an abomination born in the nightly illumination and the shadows that fall away beneath it. A curse has fallen across Europe and there is nowhere upon the continent to escape it.
The story of Lycanthropy (literally “wolf-man”) stretches deep into the mindset of mythology and superstition. Stories of shape shifters and magicians who could take on the form of animals can be found throughout the entire world but the specific branding of the wolf and the stigmas that come with that as they appear today are almost strictly European. The main body of lycanthropic legends goes only as far back as the fourteenth century at the beginning of the witch trials of the Middle Ages.
Due in no small part to the Christianization of Europe, nearly all that was relegated as pagan became synonymous with Satan and the forces of Evil. The propaganda of the day was that all other religions, Abrahamic or indigenous, were deceptions placed on this Earth by the powers of Hell to steer humanity away from the one true God, Jesus the Messiah. Also, following the mass hysteria in the wake of the Black Death and the total lack of understanding as to how the plague occurred, all that was not seen as good was the work of the arch demon. Therefore, any magic and supernatural power that may have once been respected, even revered, were suddenly vilified and persecuted. By the time of the high Middle Ages, the Inquisitions against witchcraft had already begun and while many of the accused were women accused of cavorting with the Devil himself, an equally staggering number of men stood trial as Werewolves. How else could one achieve such mastery over the nature of the body without the help of such Evil?
As is known, a simple accusation was enough to warrant an interrogation. Following the old Roman precedent that one is guilty until proven innocent, all means of extracting the truth was expended. Sparing the grotesqueries of medieval torture, most of the accused confessed out of a sheer desire to end the suffering, which lead to the penalty of Death. A famous case is that of Michel Verdun in 1521. Verdun was discovered dripping blood and accused of the affliction. Under torture, he confessed he was a werewolf and did not act alone. He implicated two men as his accomplices, Pierre Burgot and Philibert Montot. Stating that they had made a deal with three mysterious men for an elixir that would change them and it was only after they had, as they confessed, murdered two children together that they had realized the pact had renounced their baptisms and they were sentenced to death.
Just over one hundred years after this account, we find Hans of Estonia. The case dated to 1651 states that Hans was a teenage witch and werewolf simultaneously. Barely eighteen at the time of the trial, Hans even states he was a werewolf for sometime but denied any form of witchcraft or dealings with the Devil. This is the first mention we have of the bite of the werewolf, likely borrowed from the vampire legends that had a more solidified cultural basis. Hans confessed that he became a lycanthrope after being bitten by a man robed in black that must have also been a werewolf. Unique as his story may have been at the time, he along with dozens of others were tried and sentenced to death for their ties to the occult. However, this is where the modern Wolf-man story takes shape.
The idea that one could be bitten by a wolf or werewolf and subsequently cursed with the affliction became more and more commonplace after the trial of Hans and several others throughout Europe. While still inherently considered the work of Satan, the pact that is now more associated with witches fell away. This is when the werewolf begins to be placed in the pantheon of the cursed soul instead of the renounced soul. The legend had become fully realized. By the 18th and 19th centuries, it was quite well known that by the light of the full moon, a man afflicted with lycanthropy would turn and ravage the countryside until his bloodlust had been satiated. Most of the common peoples who lived during these times were very aware that werewolves, zombies, vampires and malevolent spirits, even demons themselves, were all living amongst them in the shadows. There were certain measures that could be taken to fight against the curse but these were mostly limited to herbs such as wolfsbane, surgery or exorcism. It is not until the more widespread distributions of firearms that silver becomes an effective tool in slaying the beast. Conversely, there was also a wide belief that if the body of the werewolf were not destroyed properly and utterly that the afflicted would return in the pure form of a wolf and further spread the disease.
Despite the evils that lycanthropy has been associated with in the past five hundred to one thousand years, in earlier pagan times, the werewolf and the nature of the beast seemed to be based on the nature of the man who would take its form. Two thousand years before the modern tale began to take hold we find the earliest records of men transforming into wolves in ancient Greek accounts. Widely considered in Western culture to be the first Historian, Herodotus around the fifth century BCE describes a tribe of Scythians called the Neuri. In the Histories, Herodotus states, “It seems that these people are conjurers: for both Scythians and the Greeks who dwell in Scythia say that every Neurian, once a year, becomes a wolf for a few days at the end of which he is restored to his proper shape.” Other than this and other myths such as Lycaon who was transformed into a wolf by Zeus for daring to feed him Lycaon’s own son, most accounts of man-wolf shape shifting was relegated to the fictions and theatre plays of the time.
Closer to the modern era though are the tales of the Germanic tribes and their reverence of the wolf. Ever the destroyers however, Sköll and Hati (literally Treachery and Enemy) chase the Sun and the Moon eternally around the sky. Fenrir, son of the shape shifting trickster Loki, is the father of these wolves and a wolf himself whose gaping jaws could scrape the edge of the sky and the ground beneath when opened wide. It is Fenrir’s destiny to destroy Odin, Father of the Gods, during the final battle of Ragnarök. There were also several groups well into the Viking age, the most famous of which were the Ulfhednar, who dressed in wolf skins and could supposedly channel the spirit of the animal through combat. Conversely, these wolf-men were seen as holy warriors, chosen by Odin himself.
As evidenced before, it was the suppression of these beliefs that led to the evil and eventual curse of the Werewolf. Seen now as evidences of mass hysteria and scapegoating for natural events and deaths, the werewolf trials along with the witch trials convoke images of great terror. Even in the modern day, there is the psychological condition of clinical lycanthropy in which those afflicted truly believe they are bound to the spirit or power of the wolf and cannot control their bloodlust. Some cases are so severe that the afflicted truly feel they will transform at sight of the full moon. Thankfully however, those affected by the condition no longer have to fear the prolonged torture, exorcism and probable and eventual death that would follow the revelation that one was a werewolf. We now have psychiatrists and psychologists for this and many other mental illnesses. However, one should always take heed. All legend is based in fact. Should one find oneself wandering the countryside alone on the night of a full moon, who else would know? Perhaps more importantly, who would really believe you if you survived?
Even a man who is pure of heart,
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf,
when the wolfbane blooms,
and the Autumn moon is bright.