Universal Pictures' The Wolf Man (1941)

Crying “Werewolf”: The Folklore and the History

Most of us can rattle off a list of qualities when we hear the word “werewolf.” They might range from “full moon” to “silver bullets” to “cursed,” and while we assume they have been passed down from ancient legends, most of them are surprisingly sparse in ages past. Few historic stories feature 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 oral legends of werewolves originated, but there’s a possible link to Scandinavian culture and tales. In the early Middle Ages, the region was famous for its fierce berserker warriors who would wear animal skins into battle and fight with extreme, sometimes substance-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.

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. However, one of the most prominent examinations, called The Book of Were-Wolves, appeared in 1865.

The Man and the Myths

The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould
The Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould

The Book’s author, the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould was born in Exeter in 1834. Besides being a preacher, he was a prolific writer with an appreciation for history, folklore, and literature. He frequently made trips outside of England, during which he explored the cultures and literature of the nations he visited. Sometimes his efforts resulted in the translation of a new poem or story—he even made English versions of Basque poetry, a notoriously difficult language—but even when they didn’t, he remembered the tales he encountered.

The Book of Were-Wolves was one of the many results of Baring-Gould’s travels. In it, he outlines the scores of lycanthropic legends he heard while abroad. The information includes a list of causes for the fictitious disease, almost none of which appear in our modern tales:

  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, 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 lycanthropy, is also neglected (although there is a Danish legend that asserts werewolves transform only at night, which hints at a full moon transformation). Its role as a cause in the last example should be noted, but 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’ legends gave lycanthropes additional special qualities that don’t appear in modern tales. In Devonshire, Prussia, and the Baltic States, werewolves were believed to break into pubs and alehouses, ransack them, and drink the alcohol before leaving. A Polish tradition claims that men only transform twice a year, in December and July. Greek werewolves were especially unlucky—cursed to become vampires after they died.

Renaissance broadside showing werewolves
Broadside regarding werewolves, by Georg Kress. Jülich, Germany, 1591.

Curing the Curse

In addition to explaining various tales’ causes and consequences of lycanthropy, Baring-Gould’s book also offers different cultures’ cures for the condition. The diversity between techniques clearly reveals strong differences in perspective on the topic:

  1. Stabbing the lycanthrope three times in the head
  2. Drawing three drops of the werewolf’s blood with a needle
  3. Rebuking the afflicted individual for being a werewolf

With the exception of the first example, the cures and other solutions may reflect that historical 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 prominence of wards and temporary solutions in folklore may also hint at a trend toward 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 they didn’t include 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 historically 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 legends.

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 multiple murderers and cannibals who claimed to be werewolves, and, in some cases, 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 that 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 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.

Universal Pictures' The Wolf Man (1941)
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 later 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 have changed, but they have remained—and likely will remain—a folkloric fixture.


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