The mere mention of the Werewolf for many people will conjure up images of a cursed soul whom is destined to turn into a monster under the full moon and hunt for human flesh to satisfy its uncontrollable hunger. Much of today’s modern view of this supernatural beast, stems from the Hollywood machine and pop culture, with movies like The Wolfman, American Werewolf and of course the Twighlight series. But the source of much of the Werewolf lore stems from the middle ages in Europe, and was believed to have come from a clash between Indo-European Mythology and the arrival of Christianity. Before this the wolf had long been a popular symbol of the pre-Christian tribal warrior class. The Werewolf or Lycanthrope are known as shape-shifting creatures with unusual speed, strength, reflexes and senses, they have existed for thousands of years across many different cultures. With the full moon being a recurrent theme in much wolf-lore, this it would seem to be more of a trigger for the transformation than a cause. But where did this all begin?
To find out more about the werewolf, perhaps it is best to start looking for clues in the name? The word werewolf derives from the Old English wer (e) wulf, a compound of were meaning “adult male human” and wulf “wolf”. So here we have a possible Anglo Saxon connection to our story. Then look at the word Lycanthrope! Which refers to the ability to transform into a wolf? From the Greek lykos, meaning “wolf”, and anthrōpos, meaning “man”. There are a number of Werewolf stories dating from ancient times. One interesting verse of the bible (Genesis 49: 27) states, “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; in the morning he shall devour the prey, and at night he shall divide the spoil” Whilst this is believed to be in reference to God giving the tribe of Benjamin the symbol of the wolf, like much of the bible it all boils down to one’s interpretation. Could this really be an early reference to werewolves? Another case from ancient Greece concerns a certain King Lycaon, said to be a rather nasty ruler of Arcadia, whom seeking favour with the god Zeus, offered the flesh of a young child as a sacrifice. As the story goes Zeus was not pleased and punished Lycaon by turning him into a wolf.
My personal favourite story goes back to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. These twin boys were said to have been a result of the Union of the God Mars and a forest deity known as Rhea Silva! Their birth was said to have created chaos amongst the gods, which resulted in them being abandoned in the woods and left to die. However their Mother was said to be able to communicate with the creatures of the forest and as the story goes, she made a pact with a powerful she-wolf known as Lupa. In return for Lupa rearing the twin boys as her own, Rhea Silva promised that she would share them with Lupa on every full moon. And so when the boys became adults, on every full moon they would turn into werewolves and always return to their adoptive mother in the forest. This story ends tragically when Remus is killed by Romulus in an argument over where to build their city which was to become Rome. After completing Rome, Romulus is said to have divided his followers into three tribes. The Ramnes, Tities, and Luceres. Some Werewolf folklore suggests that the Luceres were in fact a tribe of Werewolves!
Moving on, with so much history and legend associated with the werewolf, some have tried to use science to explain the links between man and wolf. Whilst a complete metamorphosis from Human to Wolf is incomprehensible to modern science there have been a number of attempts to do so. Some historical accounts of werewolves could have in fact been referring to victims of Congenital Porphyria, which explains how the symptoms of photosensitivity, reddish teeth and psychosis could have been grounds for accusing a sufferer of being a werewolf. Another theory is the possibility of historical werewolves having been sufferers of Hypertrichosis. This is a genetic disorder linked to the X-chromosome which can cause people to grow very thick hair over their faces and bodies. If people with this condition can physically resemble werewolves, then perhaps this extremely rare condition could have caused the panic and mass hysteria. Other theories included Ergot poisoning, Rabies and Wolf Hybrids. Now by Wolf Hybrids I don’t mean the kind you would find on the Vampire Diaries but a cross between wolf and dog. Wolves don’t generally attack people without provocation, but aggressive hybrids may have attacked villages, resulting in the rise of the werewolf phenomenon.
So how did one go about becoming a werewolf? Well I’m not recommending that anyone try this but, the best way to become a Werewolf was to be bitten by one that is if you are fortunate enough to know one that would be willing to bite you and not rip your throat out in the process. Other methods described in associated folklore include removing ones clothes and wearing the pelt of a wolf. Another less likely option was said to be drinking rainwater out of the footprint of the animal in question or from certain magical streams?
Throughout the folklore of these creatures there are numerous examples of Lycanthropy being used as a curse, not only by ancient Gods, Magicians and Sorcerers, but also a number of early Christian Saints? In the dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas, (Omnes angeli, boni et Mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra) which translates to (All angels, good and bad have the power of trans mutating our bodies). Then there was the lad known as St. Patrick whom was said to be amongst many other things, responsible for turning the Welsh king Vereticus into a wolf. During the 6th century the Irish monk Saint Naile from Ulster was said to have placed a wolf curse on the members of a well-known family, each of which were doomed to live as a wolf for several years. This may or may not tie in with my next article on a certain werewolf tale from Ireland so stay tuned.
And finally we move on to the cure for Lycanthropy. Most people will be well aware of the silver bullet method. Said to be the only true way to kill the werewolf, but the creatures aversion to silver only seemed to surface in the 18th century and various gothic literatures. That said Silver, being a precious metal has been used for centuries in certain medicines and was used to kill bacteria prior to the arrival of modern antibiotics. So perhaps there may be some truth to this connection. If the affliction of Lycanthropy was caused by some sort of bacteria or a parasitic infection, then maybe silver could have been seen as a cure. More traditional methods used in Europe in medieval times included the use of the aptly named Wolfsbane as a medicine, and then there were various surgical procedures and finally the cure all for anything supernatural, the Exorcism. Chances are if you were on the receiving end of any of these treatments, the only cure would be in your death.
So do Werewolves really exist? I tend to believe in what my senses tell me, and to date I have never encountered such a creature. Now that does not mean that I don’t believe in such a creature, perhaps our awareness of what a werewolf is might be all wrong and misinterpreted. Many tribal warriors from Native American Indians, Ancient Ireland and tribes in Africa and various other places, were known for entering a trance like state and assuming certain animalistic characteristics before going into battle. Perhaps this is the path we need to travel in order to unravel the true mystery behind the origin of the Werewolf?