The Rise of the Werewolf in Europe
The Popularity of Werewolves
Do you believe in werewolves? With so many popular TV programmes like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, Trueblood and Being Human filling our screens, you might be starting to think that our world really is heavily populated with supernatural creatures like vampires, werewolves, demons, shape shifters, fairies, goblins and garden gnomes.
Heck, you might even be just a bit peeved that you were born a mere human, as all your favourite TV characters seem to end up being supernatural in some way. Putting aside the fact that I would probably find out that I was part garden gnome, rather than part seductively gorgeous female vampire or water sprite, where did our beliefs in these supernatural beings come from? And why do we find them so appealing?
However much our rational, logical brains tell us that such beliefs are merely superstitious nonsense, we carry on being fascinated by these old myths and legends and a big part of us really, really wants them to be true. Over here in Europe, one of our more enduring legends is that of the werewolf; those poor, cursed human beings who are forever condemned to change into the form of a wolf on nights when the moon is full.
Werewolves in Antiquity
So how far back in European history do we have to go to find the first references to werewolves? These fearsome mythical creatures first appear in literary sources in the time of the Ancient Greeks, although the traditions and folktales probably go back to before the invention of writing.
One Greek myth that was recorded by both Apollodorus and Ovid tells how an early king of Arcadia called Lycaon dared to question the divinity of the great god Zeus in a manner that outraged the heavens and brought terrible retribution down on the king and his family. It was said that Zeus paid a visit to Lycaon’s kingdom, and although he managed to convince his subjects that he was a deity, the king himself did not believe it and so set out to kill the visitor.
Being unable to kill Zeus, he instead killed a young man, in some accounts this is a prisoner and in others his own son Nyctimus, cooked the flesh and served it up as dinner for the god. Zeus exploded with rage when he discovered that he had been tricked into eating human flesh. He destroyed the palace, killed Lycaon’s 50 sons by hurling lightning bolts at them and turned the duplicitous king into a wolf.
Lycaon had to remain in this wolf form for nine long years and was forbidden to devour any human meat during that time, because if he did he would have to stay in wolf form forever. Herodotus also wrote of a tribe called the Neuri who lived beyond the borders of Scythia, who reputedly shapeshifted into wolves once every year.
Do You Believe in Werewolves?
Werewolves in Medieval Europe
The legend of the werewolf really takes off in Europe during the Middle Ages, where there were many different versions of the folktales surrounding this supernatural creature depending on which country or region you were in. Most of the stories agree that while in animal form a werewolf, or lycanthrope, looked pretty similar to the real wolves that roamed the great forests and steppes of Europe at that time, howling through the snow storms on a winter’s night, except for the fact that they did not have tails, kept their human eyes and could speak in their normal human voices.
It was said that there were also features and traits that could give away a werewolf when it was in its human form, such as having heavy eyebrows that met in the middle, ears that were set low on the head, curiously curved fingernails and a loping gait. It would seem that even in human form the lycanthrope could not completely hide its fur, as any checking under the tongue would reveal long animal hairs and also if you cut its skin you would be able to spot wolf fur in the wound. The fate of any human who was reckless (or stupid) enough to start looking in the mouth or carving chunks out of a suspected werewolf has not been recorded!
How Did You Become a Werewolf?
So why were werewolves so feared back in the Middle Ages? Well, it was believed that they had supernatural strength and agility allied to a depraved taste for human flesh. It was a highly superstitious age, where any straying from the orthodox religious beliefs of the Catholic Church left you open to being preyed on by any manner of demon in the night.
Not only were medieval folk terrified of being attacked by a werewolf, they were also scared that they would be turned into one, thus losing their soul and being turned away from the comforts of heaven forever. Beliefs on how you could be turned also differed, ranging from being cursed, stripping off your clothes and putting on a belt made from wolf skin or by rubbing a magic salve into your body.
There was also a belief in countries such as France, Italy and Germany that if you slept out in the open on some Wednesday or Friday nights in the summer with the light of a full moon bathing your face with its gentle luminosity then you too would transform into a wolf. It was during the Middle Ages that the association between transforming into a lycanthrope and the time of the full Moon was made, and an English chronicler called Gervase of Tilbury mentions it in his compendium of medieval marvels and curiosities called the ‘Otia imperialia’.
Interestingly, as well as being linked with the English aristocracy, Gervase also claimed that he was descended from a water sprite called Melusine who was part serpent or mermaid. No garden gnome ancestry for him then! The modern belief that you get turned into a werewolf by being bitten or scratched does not actually surface until the nineteenth century, when it starts appearing in fictional accounts of this creature of the night.
Killing the Beast Within
As our medieval forebears were so scared by these creatures, they also gave a lot of thought to how they could be killed. And because of their supernatural nature, it was not only how they could be killed, but also how to safely dispose of their remains so that they would stay dead and not rise again to menace the populace.
Back in the time of Ancient Greece and Rome, it was thought that one of the best ways to cure someone who suffered from lycanthropy was to physically exhaust them, and so they were subjected to extreme physical exertion over a long period of time. By the Middle Ages, the cures had become really quite creative, often painful and sometimes even fatal. The victim could be given a herbal remedy called Wolf’s Bane or aconite in the hope for a cure, which is very powerful and acts as a local anaesthetic if applied to the skin and if taken internally can slow the pulse and reduce heart rate.
Taken in too large a dose it will also kill you. The wolf could also be exorcised out of you, involving a long religious exhortation and many prayers and various forms of surgery were also undertaken to release you, such as having nails driven through your hands and feet or having a knife driven into your forehead. Again, the legendary silver bullets supposedly needed to kill a werewolf were inventions of modern fiction that did not appear until the 19th century.
The Human Cost of Medieval Hysteria
Inevitably, all this fear and hysteria about werewolves preying on humans and doing the devil’s work had a human cost. In France alone during the 16th century, some 30,000 souls were accused of being werewolves and were tortured and then burned at the stake.
They were known as loup-garou and although there was strong evidence against some of the accused that proved that that they were murderers, and in a small number of cases even cannibals, most of these unfortunates were innocents that had in some way come under suspicion and then arrested.
One of the cases involved a man called Gilles Garnier, who became known as ‘the Werewolf of Dole’. He reputedly lived a very solitary life as a hermit, and as his home was so secluded he had trouble finding enough food to feed his new wife. Several children in the district went missing or were found dead and horribly mutilated. Rumours started going around the area that a werewolf was on the prowl, and in 1573, a bounty was put on its head.
One night a group of workmen came upon what they thought was a wolf savaging a young child. It turned out to be Gilles Garnier, who was duly arrested for his depravations. During his trial, Garnier stated that when he was out scavenging for food one night he had been approached by a supernatural being who had offered to make it easier for him to find food.
The spirit or ghoul had given him a magic salve that would allow him to turn into a wolf if he rubbed it onto his skin, causing him to become a much more effective hunter. Garnier admitted in court to killing and then devouring the flesh of at least four children and was found guilty of witchcraft and lycanthropy. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake for his crimes.
The Beast of Gevaudan
Another famous French werewolf case was that of the Beast of Gevaudan that supposedly attacked around 210 people in this region of south-central France between 1764 and 1767, with 113 of them losing their lives. This beast was described by those unfortunate enough to have seen it as having a wolf-like appearance with reddish fur, an extremely long tail and huge, vicious teeth.
The creature was also supposed to have smelled really terrible. It attacked its victims by ripping out their throats and then partially eating their bodies. Huge resources were put into the capture of the Beast of Gevaudan and even the King of France, Louis XV, offered a reward to a group of young people who had fought off an attack by the creature. He also sent professional wolf-hunters with bloodhounds into the area, but the attacks did not stop.
Louis XV then sent his Lieutenant of the Hunt, François Antoine, who managed to kill a very large grey wolf in September 1765. This huge wolf was identified by some of the victims as the animal that had attacked them and Antoine was given a huge reward. The wolf became known as the ‘Le Loup de Chazes’ and was stuffed and sent to the king’s palace at Versailles as a trophy. Unfortunately, the attacks resumed that winter and this time a local hunter called Jean Chastel was the one who dispatched the beast. The story was that when Chastel was out with the hunting party, he took some time out to pray and read from his bible.
During one of his prayers, the beast appeared in front of him, but he was able to finish his devotions before shooting it dead. There have been many theories as to what type of animal the beast actually was, with some believing the attacks were undertaken by a pack of wolves and some thinking that that it was a cross between a wolf and a domestic dog. There were even suggestions that the beast could have been a hyena.
Any Possible Scientific Explanations for Lycanthropy?
So are there any scientific explanations for werewolves? Is it possible that humans could be transformed into wolves? While there is no proof that a human has ever changed into a wolf under the light of a silvery moon, there are a few medical conditions that in less enlightened times might have induced people into thinking that it had occurred. There is a rare medical condition called porphyria which can cause abnormal hair growth, sensitivity to light, disfigurements to the teeth and fingers and even madness.
It is believed that this is the disease that afflicted King George III of England and caused his bouts of madness. There is also a rare genetic disorder called hyper-trichosis or werewolf syndrome which causes the face and upper body of a sufferer to be covered by thick hair. In the superstitious times of the Middle Ages, these distressing physical symptoms would have been regarded as a sign that the unfortunate sufferer was a werewolf and it would have been all too likely that they would then be reported to the authorities, arrested, tried and executed.
So do you believe in werewolves? Do you still think that you could be attacked by a ravening beast if you walk alone at night under a full moon? However rational and scientific that we like to think we are, many of us do still believe in the old legends and superstitions. Only recently it was reported in the news that a grave had been disturbed and a corpse mutilated in Romania because the relatives of the deceased were convinced that their loved one had turned into a vampire.
These stories speak to something very deep inside of us. We are closer to the animal kingdom than many of us would ever care to acknowledge, and this part of our nature needs to be honoured or the darker side might just spring out one dark night and ambush us when we least expect it.
Written for Alastar Packer to thank him for his wonderful article on Native American shape shifters.
© 2012 CMHypno