We are sure many of you caught a glimpse of the super blood wolf moon last night. It was a beautiful sight and made our thoughts naturally go to werewolves.
The idea of the werewolf has been around for centuries, appearing in the writings of the ancient Roman novelist Petronius, in Ovid’s narrative poem The Metamorphoses, and even (possibly) in The Epic of Gilgamesh, just to name a few.
The premise of a person who can turn into an animal is culturally universal. Those in India have the Rakshasa (weretigers), the Japanese have the Kitsune (werefox), Northern Africa has the boudas (werehyena), and there are of course the skinwalkers of the Southwestern United States.
Despite these variations, the wolf remains the most popular and prevalent in history. They have always been feared for their predatory deadliness and intelligence. Just consider their place in popular culture, based on Three Little Pigs, Little Red Riding Hood, and Peter and the Wolf, stories that have been passed down for generations.
The idea of the werewolf has come from many different sources, including the Old English terms weri and wolf, which mean “the wearer of the wolf skin.” From the Norse you have var and wulf, which means “man wolf.” The word lycanthropy, taken from the Greek words Lykos (wolf) and Anthropos (man) means “the supernatural transformation of a person into a wolf, as recounted in folk tales.” The Vikings had a group of warriors known as Berserkers who would wear wolf or bear skins into battle and destroyed anything in their path.
The ancient Greeks had fascinating stories about werewolves. Herodotus wrote that the Neuri, a tribe near Scythia, all transform into wolves once every year for several days. The famous Roman poet Virgil wrote of werewolves in the Satyricon.
In folklore, the joining of the eyebrows above the nose, curved fingernails, low set ears, and a swinging stride were all signs of lycanthropy. One way said to determine whether a human was a werewolf was to cut the flesh of the accused and if a werewolf, you would see fur under the skin. Russian superstition had bristles under the tongue if you were a werewolf. The huge forests of Russia were said to be a breeding ground for werewolves.
The French and Austrians had a huge fear of werewolves, going so far as to having hunts and trials which were started in the 1500s. History has recorded 20,000 werewolf trials just in France alone. Not until the French discovered that mental illness may be the actual reason for what was believed to be werewolves did the trials stop. In Austria, the Empress Maria Theresa ended not only werewolf trials, but also witch hunts during her reign.
The archaic meaning of lycanthropy is “a form of madness involving the delusion of being an animal, usually a wolf, with correspondingly altered behavior” has actually been diagnosed as a rare disorder called clinical lycanthropy which is defined as a rare psychiatric syndrome that involves a delusion that the affected person can transform into, has transformed into, or is a non-human animal. Other reasons behind werewolves include eating rye infected with ergot mold (which causes hallucinations much like LSD), rabies, porphyria, and hypertrichosis.
Various methods have been noted as to ways of becoming a werewolf. One of the simplest was to put on a belt made of wolfskin, instead of an entire coat of an animal as many believe. A magic salve has been listed in some stories, as has drinking rain water out of the footprint of an animal or from enchanted streams. Some Russian folklore speaks of a form of incantation while those in Italy, France, and Germany spoke of the belief of sleeping outside on a summer night while the full moon shone directly on the face. There is also folklore involving Satanic allegiance.
Richard Verstegan, who wrote Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in 1628, said “(werewolves) are certain sorcerers, who have annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking they both have the shape and the nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in worrying and killing, and most of humane creatures.”
The curse of lycanthropy was considered by some as a divine punishment. Some literature has examples of God or saints cursing those who invoked their wrath. One example is that of Lycaon, turned into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for slaughtering one of his sons and serving him to the gods as dinner. Some also believe that those who were excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church became werewolves.
The power to transform others into beasts was thought to be a power of Christian saints. Omnes angeli, boni et Mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra (All angels, good and bad have the power of transmutating our bodies) was the dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Patrick was said to have transformed the Welsh King Veriticus into a wolf.
Much of what we learned as children involving werewolves comes from the pen of Hollywood. Silver bullets, fortune tellers, and pentagrams are all from the minds of a screenwriter. Curt Siodmak, who wrote The Wolf Man (1941) wrote these famous lines, “Even a man who is kind at heart and says his prayers at night might become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon shines full and bright.”
Since the transformation into a werewolf usually occurs in the Winter Solstice, Easter, or during a full moon, Halloween is a ripe time for spotting a lycanthrope. Keep your eyes and ears open this coming October. Maybe you will add to the folklore of these cursed creatures.