A History of Werewolves: fun facts to chew on about the “beasts within”

A werewolf depicted “devouring a woman.” Woodcut believed to be from 1794.

Robbie MacNiven’s chilling tale in Specter Spectacular: 13 Ghostly Tales is set during the American Civil War, it sees a troop of US cavalry cornered by Confederates in an abandoned old house, but the rebs on the outside aren’t half the problem – what’s still “living” inside could yet undo them all … But today he’s jumping to a different creature on a different continent. Read on to find out the connection between Scotsmen and werewolves.

So what do you get when you mix a History student with the build-up to Halloween? Why, a history of Werewolves of course!

“Wut?” I hear you say. Yeah, that’s right, there is such a thing as serious academic study of the history of lycanthropy in human cultures. And as someone who has grown up in the werewolf hotspot of the Scottish Highlands, I’ve always had a soft (albeit not furry) spot for those particular moonlighting grizzlies. I’m not going to subject you to an in-depth psychological analysis of various case studies, but I will give anyone mildly interested in the “beasts within” some fun facts to chew on.

Like his sissy and uncool little brother the vampire, the werewolf has no single founding myth. Just about every culture and race on earth has some story containing wolves that turn into men, or men that turn into wolves, or any other combination of half-wolf-man-thing. The oldest references to shapeshifting wolf-man interaction date back to ancient times, with works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 8 AD making reference to a man cursed with the form of a wolf, whilst Herodotus wrote around 450 BC of a tribe of Scythians who transformed into wolves for a few days every year. The idea of the transformation being linked to the lunar cycle first began to appear among Greek writers at this time too.

The advent of Christianity heralded a new era for werewolf mythology. Like many creatures of folklore, the werewolf was seen as very real and very much a threat. Interaction with wolves was considered to be a hallmark of the devil, and witches were frequently accused of shapeshifting.

Exactly how a human being went about changing himself into the form of a wolf or half-wolf varied from culture to culture. A man could be cursed by a witch or the devil, he could use a magical salve or ointment, he could drape himself in a wolf’s pelt or wear a belt of wolf fur. Often the time of year was of crucial importance. It was said that a werewolf could still be discerned in his human form — he often had a bushy monobrow, long fingernails, sallow features and was known to be introverted and bad-smelling (kind of like a student then). The sight of fur on the palms of the hands or growing on the underside of the tongue was said to be a sure indicator of a wolf in human form. Sometimes the transformation literally involved the man or woman tearing off their flesh, and one way of executing suspected werewolves was to flay them alive, looking for the fur beneath the skin.

It’s difficult to overestimate how serious the idea of lycanthropy was taken by people right up to the 20th century. Tens of thousands of innocents throughout Europe were tortured and often brutality executed after being accused lycanthropy. In Estonian in the mid 1600s 18 trials found 18 women and 13 men guilty of damage to property and cattle they had caused in the shape of werewolves. Under torture, they confessed to having hidden their wolf skins under a rock. Interestingly, a few self-confessed werewolves claimed to be acting in the right. In 1692 an eighty year old woman confessed to being a werewolf who, with other werewolves, regularly went to hell three times a year to fight the witches and wizards of Satan to ensure a good harvest.

Fear of werewolves only gradually decreased with advances in medical science, which led to an understanding of the conditions causing people to believe they or others around them were transforming into wolves. The image of the wolf in human culture continues to have a profound impact upon human perception, and though it can be very easy for us in the 21st century to scorn our ancestors for a subject they considered deadly serious, it is unwise judge. It’s intriguing to note that the idea that a man can be transformed into a werewolf by being bitten by one, or mixing saliva with one, only really began to take hold in stories after the HIV/AIDS crisis of the latter 20th century. The legend of the werewolf continues to shift alongside our modern-day understanding of the world.

Specter Spectacular from World Weaver PressRobbie MacNiven is a small-time author and freelance journalist living in the Highlands of Scotland and currently enrolled as a full-time student at the University of Edinburgh, studying History and English Language. In between exams (only a passing discomfort) and writing Robbie follows politics, football, backstabs people on Team Fortress 2 and stalks small presses online to see if they have a “submit” button. He generally prefers cats to dogs, and is 20 years old.

[Editor's note: Robbie MacNiven is having lots of fun this fall making Halloween preparations and writing about its spooky critters on his writing blog.]

This creepy childhood memory is part of the Haunted October blog tour featuring Specter Spectacular and The Haunted Housewives of Allister, Alabama. Hosted by World Weaver Press.

About World Weaver Press Guest Blogger

World Weaver Press invites many guest bloggers to join us in our discussion of fantasy and science fiction. Opinions expressed by guest bloggers are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of World Weaver Press, its staff, or authors.

Posted on October 17, 2012, in from the authors of WWP, Haunted October, horror, World Weaver Press and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. You said “It’s intriguing to note that the idea that a man can be transformed into a werewolf by being bitten by one, or mixing saliva with one, only really began to take hold in stories after the HIV/AIDS crisis of the latter 20th century.” But now I’m curious — how did people believe others became werewolves before this idea of being bitten or mixing saliva?

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  2. There were many ways that different cultures believed you could become a werewolf, I mentioned a few – “A man could be cursed by a witch or the devil, he could use a magical salve or ointment, he could drape himself in a wolf’s pelt or wear a belt of wolf fur” but the list is huge. My favourite transformation stimulus was the idea that you could change by eating a tomatoe (a medieval writer believed this, he thought if you ate tomatoes (he called them wolf peaches) at a certain time of year you became a werewolf)). There was some belief in the saliva-infection idea before the 20th century, but it was much, much less common than it is today in the folklore.

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    • Ha! the tomato thing is classic. That could be a lot of fun to play with — I wonder if that was related to the nightshade relationship of the tomato plant. Nightshade does sound ominous and werewolfy, just in general.

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  1. Pingback: We’re Coffin Hopping! « World Weaver Press

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