Werewolves are the unfortunate beings that are believed to have the ability to transform into wolves and then back into human beings. The English word werewolf is a descendant of the Old English wer (man) and wulf (wolf).
The concept of the werewolf is common to many Indo-European cultures that can be traced back to Russia and the Ukraine in the fifth to the third millennium B.C.E.
The Indo-European word for wolf has been reconstructed by scholars as wlkwos. Many modern words for werewolf can be traced to this Indo-European word for wolf: vulcolaca (Old Slavic), vukodlak (Slovenian), wilkolak (Polish), vrykolokas (Greek), vurvolak (Albanian), and varcolac (Romanian).
These words also are used to mean “vampire” in some areas. As most of these terms are a combination of the words wolf and pelt, they can be loosely translated as wolf-coat.
The Romanian varcolac is sometimes a vampire, and sometimes a wolf that eats the Moon, causing eclipses. In other cases, the varcolac is a person who periodically descends into a deep sleep from which his or her soul wanders forth in the shape of a wolf. This may be a dim recollection of ancient shamanic traditions.
The earliest werewolves in Indo-European cultures were probably shamans, or spiritual leaders. A shaman placed himself in a trance to travel to the realm of the dead, and he used his great power to return safely to the realm of the living. He also might seek to be possessed by a creature of great strength to help him in this journey.
That some shamans in Indo-European cultures had a special relationship with the wolf is evident in many cultural traditions. The Magyar shamans of Hungary were said to have been fathered by wolves. Slavic priests were referred to as volkhvy, which derived from the word for wolf, velku.
These shamans were not only magicians and holy men, but also often warriors. Many warrior societies developed among Indo-European cultures. One of the best known is the so-called berserkers. Though the group’s name literally meant “bear-shirt,” such warriors also were identiﬁed with wolves.
In the poem Hrafnsmal, which was composed in Iceland around 900 C.E., the Ulfedhnar, or wolf-warriors of Norway, are described as those who carry swords and participate in slaughter. The only armor worn by the Ulfedhnar was the vargstakkar, or wolf-shirt.
The warriors, who could become possessed by the spirit of wolves due to their shamanic magic, were outside the realm of ordinary people. Often, they could kill without consequences when they were so possessed.
Other Early Traditions
Those who did not belong to these societies and broke the laws of the tribe also were identiﬁed with wolves. In Germanic areas, criminals were referred to as vargr i veum, or the “wolf in the temple.” These men’s lives were forfeited to anyone who caught them.
In the Middle Ages, condemned criminals who had taken to the forest to hide were referred to as wolfsheads. In Saxon, the gallows was called the varg treo, or wolf tree. The association with criminality and the wolf appears even in Sanskrit, where vrka was the word for a highwayman.
The ability to shape-shift into a wolf is a common element among many folklore traditions. In Saga of the Volsungs, composed in thirteenth-century Iceland, Sigmund and his son, Sinfjotli, became wolves.
During their time as werewolves, they killed many men in the land of King Siggeir, who was responsible for the death of much of Sigmund’s family. Eventually, Sigmund and Sinfjotli removed the coats and burned them.
As there were no wolves in Iceland, this story may be a reference to earlier initiation rites of young men into the wolf-warrior cults of Northern Europe.
Another werewolf appears in this saga. When Sigmund and his nine brothers were captured by King Siggeir, they were bound in chains. Each night, a wolf came and devoured one of them. Sigmund, who had been left for last, killed the werewolf, which was believed to be King Siggeir’s mother wearing wolf skin.
In 1187, Giraldus Cambrensis, a Welsh writer and historian, related the following werewolf tale from Ireland:
A priest traveling from Ulster to Meath was waylaid on the road at night by a wolf. The wolf spoke to him and pleaded with him not to be afraid. The wolf called upon the almighty God and invoked the Trinity and, in time, convinced the priest that he meant no harm.
When the priest was at last convinced to put aside his fear, the wolf told him that he and a companion had been placed under a curse and that his companion was near death. The priest followed the wolf to where a she-wolf lay and administered extreme function.
The male wolf then ripped open the she-wolf’s coat and revealed an old woman who had been trapped inside. The wolf and woman thanked the priest for his kindness, and he went on his way.
Most werewolf legal cases were recorded between 1520 and 1630. In that time, it is estimated that 30,000 people in France were identified as werewolves. Many were tortured into confessions, and many were executed. For those who survived, the stigma of being identified as a werewolf became a lifelong curse.
One of the most famous werewolf cases took place in 1603. Jean Grenier, who was only thirteen years old at the time, was accused of changing into the form of a wolf and killing and eating other local children.
Grenier apparently believed he could become a wolf, and at least one witness claimed to have seen him change form. However, the judge in this case ruled that Grenier was not a werewolf, but a boy deluded into believing he could change shape.
It was determined that Grenier was mentally deficient and therefore could not be executed for his crimes. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a monastery, where he died seven years later at age twenty.
Many werewolves were executed in Germany. In 1589, Peter Stubbe was convicted of killing fifteen people when in werewolf form. His lover and his daughter were convicted as accomplices and were burned at the stake. Stubbe was strapped to a cartwheel and had his flesh pulled from his body with red-hot pincers. After his arms and legs were broken, Stubbe was beheaded.
In some stories, it is indeed a man-wolf rather than a true wolf that is encountered. In one tale, a man who had persecuted those he believed to be evil was lost in the woods at night.
A werewolf approached him and led him to a house, where the werewolf performed human tasks, such as opening doors and pouring soup into a bowl. This werewolf walked upright and had hands, rather than paws. In the morning, the man discovered that the wolfish visage of his benefactor had disappeared.
He learned that this was one of the men whom he had persecuted and whose family he had sent to the executioner. In this case, it was the werewolf that showed compassion and mercy, and the man who was revealed to be the monster.
Real or Imaginary?
|Real or Imaginary|
The belief that werewolves do not truly exist, but are merely deluded people, is older than the modern practice of psychiatry. In 1590, Henri Boguet, a French judge who presided over many cases involving witches and werewolves, declared that no one could truly change his or her shape.
A person could merely be deluded by Satan into believing he or she could change. Anyone who saw the person change was equally deluded by Satan. Boguet also allowed that certain “natural maladies” could cause people to be so deluded, and that Satan might not actively be involved in each and every case.
The belief that a person can change into a wolf has not completely died out, though modern cases consist of individuals who are habitual drug users or who have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, such as schizophrenia.
Two cases were reported in the Canadian Psychiatric Association Journal in 1975. Another case was presented in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1977. The medical term for this condition is lycanthrope, which is Greek for “wolf-man.”
By the twentieth century, werewolves had almost completely retreated into the realm of fiction. But as recently as 1993, the Associated Press reported that the Evenimentul Ziliei, a daily newspaper in Romania, had urged its readers to use garlic to protect themselves on Saint Andrew’s Day against ghosts and werewolves.
The concept of a “beast within” has remained popular with modern readers of fiction and the moviegoing public. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) to tales of the Incredible Hulk, people remain fascinated with the idea that animal ferocity, uncivilized and untamable, lurks within us all.
The first movie to feature a werewolf character was The Werewolf, an eighteen-minute movie filmed in 1913. In this story, a Navajo girl became a werewolf in order to exact revenge for her father’s murder.
Since then, werewolves have been the focus of more than fifty movies, including The Wolf Man (1941), The Werewolf (1956), I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957), The Curse of the Werewolf (1960), and An American Werewolf in London (1981). And in the 1985 film Ladyhawke, a man was cursed to become a werewolf every night and change back into a man during the day.
Werewolves in recent fiction obey different rules than those found in history. Usually, fictional werewolves are created through a gypsy’s curse or when a character is bitten by a werewolf. Most of these werewolves transform only during the full moon and must be dispatched with silver bullets.