Crying “Werewolf”: Looking Back on Folklore

When asked what comes to mind at the word “werewolf,” a person might give a variety of answers, ranging from “full moon” to “silver bullets” to “Twilight.” While we assume that these qualities (with the exception of Stephanie Meyer’s series) have been passed down from ancient legends, most of them are surprisingly sparse in ages past. Few historic stories incorporate the things that have become synonymous with lycanthropy, and those that do are a fraction of a larger folkloric tradition.

It’s unclear exactly where the legends of werewolves originated, but there’s a possible link to culture and stories from Scandinavia. In the Middle Ages, the region was famous for its fierce berserker warriors who would wear animal skins into battle and fight with extreme, sometimes drug-induced, ferocity. Although it’s not an explicit link to lycanthropy, it’s easy to see a how good storyteller could exploit superstition to transform these fearsome fighters into a great story.

Sabine Baring-Gould
Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould: preacher, writer, and historian

Written folklore is much easier to trace. European stories about werewolves go back at least as far as Gaius Petronius Arbiter, a writer from the first century A.D./C.E., whose story involves a man who can transform into a wolf, yet there’s never any explicit mention of a “werewolf.” Direct references to werewolves came later, famously in Marie de France’s lai, “Bisclavret,” which tells the story of a nobleman afflicted with lycanthropy. The story dates from the late 1100s, and it’s likely that the original legend is even older, since Marie claims to have heard it from someone else. Werewolves received further, more scholarly attention later into the Renaissance and the modern era. One of the most prominent examinations is Sabine Baring-Gould’s The Book of Were-Wolves, which explores many legends, including causes and cures in stories across Europe.

Baring-Gould’s Fictional Causes

  1. Suffering a curse from diabolic forces
  2. Receiving a curse from divine forces as punishment for one’s sins
  3. Wearing a special girdle, sometimes made of human skin
  4. Being the cursed daughter born to parents who have seven daughters in a row
  5. Bathing in a special fountain and wearing a cursed animal hide
  6. Wearing a cursed wolf pelt
  7. Being an illegitimate son and wearing a cursed pelt during a full moon

Interestingly, causes featured in modern fiction don’t factor heavily into older European legends. Transforming after being bitten (perhaps the most well-known cause in pop culture) is conspicuous by its absence. The effect of the full moon, another hallmark of modern culture, also receives neglect (although there is a Danish legend that asserts werewolves transform only at night, which could imply a full moon transformation). Still, its role as a cause in the last example should be noted. Unlike what other sources claim, it’s clear that the moon was a factor at least by 1865 and not the 20th century. Even then, it’s important to realize that the moon is only one part of the transformation here, with genetics and the cursed pelt also contributing.

Certain cultures also ascribed special qualities to lycanthropes that have been forgotten in today’s culture. In Devonshire, Prussia, and the Baltic States, werewolves were believed to break into pubs and alehouses, ransack them, and drink the beverages before leaving. A Polish tradition claims that men only transform twice a year, in December and July. In Greece, werewolves were cursed to become vampires after they died.

Baring-Gould’s Fictional Cures

  1. Stabbing the lycanthrope three times in the head
  2. Drawing three drops of the werewolf’s blood with a needle
  3. Scolding the afflicted for being a werewolf
Werewolf of London
Henry Hull in Universal Pictures’ Werewolf of London (1935)

With the exception of the first example, the cures and other solutions may reflect that these people thought it would be better to cure the afflicted rather than kill them. There’s a clear trend toward mercy rather than judgment in these legends, perhaps because people saw fictional werewolves as unfortunate souls who needed rescuing from the clutches of the devil. The use of wards and temporary solutions may also hint at a desire for mercy. In parts of what is modern-day Germany, it was said people could ward off a werewolf by running into a rye field. Traditions from the same area of Europe also claim that a werewolf could be forced to return to human form by addressing him with his baptismal name. While not including total cures, these legends allowed for people both to save themselves from an attack and to give lycanthropes respite from their cursed position.

Regardless, silver bullets are absent as a “solution” to lycanthropy, and silver barely factors into the stories. Baring-Gould only mentions one tale where two werewolves are returned to human form when a silver button is fired over their heads. Even then, the focus is not on lethal force but on a short-term solution, a perspective very different from today’s culture.

Real Medicine and Real Minds

Historical concerns about lycanthropy extended beyond the pages and words of classical tales. Throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Enlightenment, there were numerous murderers and cannibals who claimed to be werewolves, and crowds also tried and executed innocent people who they thought were actual werewolves. Scholars tried to confront these situations, theorizing as to how people could end up believing they were such creatures.

Although many intellectuals explored the psychology behind lycanthropy, Baring-Gould’s insight is some of the most interesting. He offers two explanations: natural bloodthirstiness and hallucinations. His first is something of a cop-out, but his exploration of the second is worth mentioning. The hallucinations, he claims, may have been caused by extreme fever, but he also asserts that monomania (a desire to be something else to the point that a person tries to be that thing) could have been a factor. He also entertains the idea that some poor “lycanthropes” may have been drugged with medicines or salves that included aconite (a potent neurotoxin), hyoscyamus (a hallucinogen), belladonna, and opium. Whatever the causes, his 1865 study indicates that lycanthropy had become such a cultural phenomenon that it warranted serious academic attention.

The Wolf Man
Lon Chaney Jr. in Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man (1941)

Earlier thinkers in continental Europe also attempted to explain the cases of those psychological disorders. The writers of the exhaustingly-titled A general collection of the discourses of the virtuosi of France, upon questions of all sorts of philosophy, and other natural knowledge made in the assembly of the Beaux Esprits at Paris, by the most ingenious persons of that nation offer four theories about the causes of medical lycanthropy. Two are simple: that it was due to an overactive imagination and that it was due to an excess of the humor of choler (an acceptable theory at the time of publication in 1664). Another is not scientific at all, with the intellectuals claiming that sorcerous deception may have caused the condition. The last, however, sounds a lot like modern pop culture: that it may have been caused by a bite from a rabid wolf. The “condition,” then, could have been a byproduct of rabies, which may be the medical kernel of truth behind the wolf bite of the legends.

Whatever the medical background may be, it’s undeniable that werewolves have been a major part of Western culture for centuries. Just as they feature prominently in our society every Halloween, so also were they often recognized in centuries past, even being mentioned in some of poet John Donne’s sermons. Their stories may have changed over time, but it seems that werewolves will be an important part of our legends for now and for many years to come.

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