Tapdancing on the edge of Reality
History of the Werewolf
Today is the Wolf Moon, according to some. So what better way to start my Full Moon Festivities than by looking at a favorite myth, the Werewolf!
Werewolves actually have a fascinating history. The name comes from the Old English, and literally means ‘man-wolf’. There are ancient Greek and Roman accounts of people who either could change into wolves, or were changed into wolves. Herodotus wrote of a tribe in Scythia that would all turn into wolves for several days every year before resuming human shape. There are several variations of the story of Lycaon, who was punished by being cursed into a wolf in several of them of them, usually for some variation of sacrificing a child or feeding human meat (sometimes a child) to Zeus to test him. Other variations he was killed by lightning. Ovid, Virgil, and Pliny the Elder all gave accounts of people changing into wolves either voluntarily or involuntarily.
And then it got generally ignored. There are scattered references throughout the centuries, and it’s believed that the roots of what we now consider the werewolf were founded in German paganism, but there was little interest or consensus in what a werewolf might be until the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Even then, it was often considered more a mental disorder where a person believed they had changed into a wolf, than anyone actually doing so.
Then there witch trials. And werewolf trials to go along side. While certainly not every witch accusation was linked to werewolfism, most werewolf trials did include the accused being charged with witchcraft. To be fair, until modern day, wolves were a serious threat throughout most of Europe.
These trials probably were a catalyst for a form of consensus into what a werewolf was, the causes, symptoms, and cure. Many said that Werewolves were indistinguishable from real wolves, except that they were bigger, had human eyes and voice, and no tail (also common among shape shifting witches). Swedish accounts said that they would run on three legs, leaving the fourth leg up to imitate a tail. Werewolves could be detected in human form by a unibrow, curved fingernails, low set ears, and a swinging stride. Some said that if you cut the flesh of a werewolf you would see fur under the skin. In Russia, they said there were bristles under the tongue.
How did one become a werewolf? Easily. Some said that you only had to strip of your clothes and wear a wolf skin or a wolf skin belt. Others said that a magic salve was rubbed over the body. Sometimes drinking rainwater out of the pawprint of a wolf or from certain magic streams would be sufficient. Or even just sleeping outdoors on the right day with the full moon on your face. And of course there was always a deal with the devil or cursed by the gods. Infection from a bite or scratch is actually a pretty modern invention.
Cures? Well, there were a few, but most were pretty deadly to the victim. Exhaustion was supposed to help, as was Wolfsbane, a poisonous plant. Some claimed that striking the victim in the forehead or scalp would cure them, or piercing their hands with nails. On the other side of the spectrum, some claimed that calling them by their Christian name three times or scolding them would work. Also, converting to Christianity, particularly a devotion to St. Herbert was supposed to work. Patron saint of dogs, apparently. (No, I didn’t know that.)
So, where did silver come in? Interestingly enough, it probably came from the account of the Beast of Gévaudan. From 1764 to 1767, there were a huge number of attacks in France that were perpetrated by one or more wolves, dogs, or hybrids of the two. Actual numbers are debated but there could have been more than a hundred attacks, mostly on solitary people tending livestock. Claim is that the beast(s) attacked primarily the throat. A lot of time was put into hunting down wolves, but the attacks continued. The final animal killed that was believed responsible was (legend has it) shot by a silver bullet. That was probably a later invention, but it sounded good, and circulated.
Silver was often reported to have mystical powers, and writers continued to use it. Bram Stoker did, and Hollywood loved the trope, using it in The Wolf Man on. I do not know if that belief that silver had magical properties was inspired by that legend or did the inspiring for that legend. I suspect the latter.
Other interesting facts:
Some said that when a werewolf died, he became a vampire.
One of Hitler’s headquarters was nicknamed Werwolf (German for werewolf) in 1942-1943.
Werewolves are the most common types of therianthropes (people changing into animals), followed by dogs, than cats. And there are many more.
Some saints supposedly cured werewolves.
What do you call a werewolf in love?
Over the moon.
What do you call a dentist who cleans a werewolf’s teeth?
What do you do if a werewolf eats all your Halloween candy?
Eat an apple instead.
What happened to the wolf who fell into the washing machine?
He became a wash-and-wear wolf.
What’s a werewolf’s favorite day?
What do you call a werewolf with no legs?
Anything you like, he can’t chase you.
There wolf. There castle.