Halloween is pretty much upon us: scary films, crazy costumes and spooky stories. What’s scarier, a vampire or a zombie? Will you dress up as a witch or a werewolf? In this series, Muriel Baillyprofiles a famous Halloween monster every day this week to manifest the myths beneath the masks and make-up.
Distinctive signs: Goes a little crazy around the full moon, tattered clothes, shedding
Likely to say: “I used to be a werewolf but I’m alright NOW-OOOOOOOH!”
A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope (from the Greek lykos: wolf and anthropos: man), is someone who can shape shift into a wolf, either at will or due to some kind of magic.
The first mention of people with the ability to transform into wolves appeared as early as the works of Herodotus, Pausanias and Ovid in Late Antiquity. In his “Metamorphoses“, Ovid tells us the story of the Lycaon, King of Arcadia, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus for trying to play a trick on the Olympian god.
There are many alleged ways to become a werewolf, besides the famous (but recently invented) method of getting bitten by one. You can be the victim of a curse as in the case of Lycaon; you can drink rain water from the footprint of a wolf; or you can sleep naked outside during a full moon.
Until the Early Modern period, werewolves were mostly considered to be the victims of curses and were met with a certain amount of empathy, such as in the 12th century French novel Bisclavret by Marie de France. Bisclavret was a nobleman who mysteriously disappeared for three days each month. Not even his wife knew what he was up to during this time. When she begged him to tell her, he finally confessed to being a werewolf. He foolishly (in retrospect) mentioned that when he transforms, he needs to hide his human clothes in a safe place to be able to return to human form. Bisclavret’s wife, shocked by this, arranged to steal her husband’s clothes with her lover to trap him in his lupine form.
In the western world, witchcraft and the supernatural were associated with satanic rituals. Witch and werewolf hunts were fairly common and the lines between them were sometimes blurred: witches were accused of being werewolves and vice versa.
Trials and executions increased in 16th century Europe where mentions of werewolves intensified alongside sordid stories of murders. Some of the accused were arrested because villagers needed someone to blame for dead livestock, but others were accused for committing much more horrendous crimes.
Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were both executed as werewolves in 1521, ditto Gilles Garnier (known as the “Werewolf of Dole”) in 1573. Records indicate that all were serial killers. During his testimony, Garnier revealed that when out hunting in the forest he was visited but a ghost. Struggling to feed himself and his wife, the apparition offered him an ointment that turned him into a wolf, resulting in far more successful hunts. Sadly, Garnier was hunting and eating children. It seems that the term ‘werewolf’ almost describes the beast inside the man surging out when committing such despicable atrocities.
A belief in werewolves had almost disappeared from French-speaking areas of Europe by around 1650. It was the Germanic, central area of Europe in which these myths persisted with any vigour. Werewolves were still being feared by people in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps into the 18th century.
The most gruesome werewolf story from Germany is the one about Peter Stumpp. He was known as the “Werewolf of Bedburg”, accused of being a serial killer and cannibal. His trial and execution were barbaric and after experiencing extreme torture, he confessed to killing and eating at least thirteen children, two pregnant women and many livestock. At his trial Stumpp stated that the Devil gave him a belt of wolf fur as a child that transformed him into:
The likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like brands of fire; a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth; a huge body and mighty paws.
Before wolves were wiped out from large areas of Europe, their attacks on people were part of life, albeit a rare one. It makes sense that wolves, being the most feared predators in that part of the world, were catapulted into the folklore of demonic shape shifters. In parts of the world without wolves, their “wolf equivalents” have entered mythology in the same way: Africa has werehyenas and India has weretigers. Other werecats feature in South America.
Werewolves were popularised again by Gothic literature (on which the British Library has an exciting new exhibition, Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination). It was at the beginning of the 20th century that the silver bullet motif first surfaced and is already inextricably linked to werewolf mythology. Lycanthropy being passed on via the bite from the monster is another relatively recent werewolf trope.
Whether they were true or not, the stories surrounding werewolves are among the bloodiest and goriest legends of the last 500 years or so. Today, like many classic monsters, werewolves have been glamorised in contemporary pop culture such as Twilight and Teenwolf. Has the beast finally been tamed?
Muriel Bailly is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.
Read the rest of the series as they become available.