How to become a werewolf: Everything you ever wanted to know about lycanthrope mythology, but were afraid to ask

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Abstract

This research paper surveys modern and historical werewolf legend, looking for universal commonalities and discrepancies. Peer reviewed papers, books, historical documents, and web based resources were utilized to paint a comprehensive picture. Various issues on lycanthropy are reviewed herein, such as; terminology, modern fiction, ancient mythology, voluntary and involuntary lycanthropy, medical illnesses that fueled the legend, the appearance of werewolves according to various cultures, their malevolent or benevolent nature. 

It is presented here that werewolves, though terrible monsters, are typically less evil than their damned vampire counterparts. In fact, they are sometimes even portrayed as God’s own benevolent defenders of humanity against Satan and his minions.

Welcome to the world of werewolves

There is a super-abundance of modern fiction, based around the legends of the werewolf. As early as the 1930’s, Hollywood has been featuring this gruesome creature on the big screen. Since then, we have seen werewolves of all shapes and sizes. Some were completely wolflike in form. Others displayed a more anthropomorphic appearance, as is seen in the upcoming installment of the “Underworld”  movie series. Some were benevolent (like the werewolf knight, protecting his lady, in the movie “Lady Hawk”). Others were the, more typical, malevolent stereotype. We have them, mostly, presented to us in horror films. Occasionally, however, they debut in comedic movies, such as “Teen Wolf” and “An American Werewolf in London.”

Modern fiction tells us that they have superhuman strength, even in their human form. That they are able to land on their feet from great heights. Hollywood tells us that becoming a werewolf is akin to becoming a vampire. You contract it, like a disease, from an infected host when you are bitten or scratched. The unsuspecting, modern person is told that, while impervious to many injuries, werewolves can be killed by the use of silver weaponry. 

Where did Hollywood get so many ideas on a fictitious creature? How long have humans been telling such stories? Are the historical legends of the werewolf as varied as their portrayals in modern media? With so much in popular media about them, how can we separate what is pop-fiction and what is true of them, mythologically? Finally, If one wanted to become a werewolf, how would one go about it? What says the record? These are some of the questions, that will be explored in this review of werewolf mythology.

What’s in the name?

First, let us define our terms. Every civilization, world wide, has a wolf-man mythology, and their own names for them. We, english-speaking peoples generally refer to them as werewolves. There is some discrepancy to the origin of this word. The most common explanation is that it is a compound word, formed from the old English, “were” -which means man, and wulf, or wolf. But another prominent theory is that it has a Norse derivation. Warg-wulf, where warg (and later, verg and vero) meaning, “Rogue” or “outlaw” is connected with the word wolf. A vergulf, was a lone wolf, not living with a pack. These lone wolves were more prone to live close to human habitation and prey upon the easier domesticated livestock due to wolf-pack social dynamics.

Another, more technical term, Lycanthropy, is defined as the the ability or professed ability to turn into a wolf. It is often used, in general, to describe the ability to turn into any type of animal, but that is, more accurately, denoted by the word, Therianthropy. The word, lycanthropy is a compound word formed from the greek, Lykos (wolf) and anthropos (human). This greek word for wolf, itself is derived from the legends of werewolves.

Some draw a distinction between these two terms (Frost, 2003). In his Essential Guide to Werewolf literature, Brian Frost argues that a lycanthrope is one who believes that he or she is a wolf, while the term werewolf is reserved for those who are actually shape-shifters. But this distinction of terms is not universally accepted, so they will be treated synonymously here.

The ancient foundations of the modern fiction

There are many writings in ancient Greek literature that speak of wolf-men. According to the Greek geographer, Psausanius, in the second century BC, the  god, Zeus, cursed the ancient king of Arcadia, Lycaon, by turning him into a ferocious wolf. This is the origin of the greek name for wolf (Kline, 2000). 

Even before Psausanius wrote about king Lycaon, Herodotus wrote in the 400’s BC of an entire tribe of werewolves, called the Neuri, northeast of Scythia.

According to the Roman poet and contemporary of Jesus, Ovid, there were, in his day, werewolf inhabitants of the Arcadian forests. To this, agreed the writers Virgil, Pliny the Elder, Euanthes and Agriopus (Frost, 2003).

In more recent history the Belarusian Prince, Usiaslau of Polatsk, of the 11th century was said to have been a werewolf. The Tale of Igor’s Campaign, describes him this way: “Vseslav the prince judged men; as prince, he ruled towns; but at night he prowled in the guise of a wolf. From Kiev, prowling, he reached, before the cocks crew, Tmutorokan. The path of Great Sun, as a wolf, prowling, he crossed. For him in Polotsk they rang for matins early at St. Sophia the bells; but he heard the ringing in Kiev.”

French werewolf legends and documented events, too, intersect in the late 18th century. 80 people, in central France were murdered by what was called the beast of Gevaudan (Smith, 2011). The only eye witness and survivor of the slaughter insisted that a giant wolf was the perpetrator. Although many wolves in the region were destroyed before the attacks stopped, the wolf described by the witness was never identified.

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How to discern a werewolf, in human and animal form

While there is great uniformity in the world on certain aspects of werewolf mythology, there is great variance in other aspects. For example, in some regions of the world, a lycanthrope would became almost indistinguishable from a true wolf, when transformed. Shape shifting witches were said to be missing the tail of a true wolf, because humans lack that appendage. It is also said that a true werewolf (not a witch) would be much larger than a non magical wolf. 

In other regions, the werewolf was much more anthropomorphic, having hybrid features of both a human and wolf, except with supernatural speed, strength, and more impervious to injury.

There were, according to some ancient myths, ways in which you could discern a werewolf in it’s human form. The Russians, for example, believed that there would be hair bristles under the tongue of the person suspected of lycanthropy. Others believed that you cut their flesh and see fur underneath their skin (Woodward, 1979). Still others believed that those with curved fingernails and unibrow or monobrow (the growing together of eyebrows at the bridge of the nose) were likely werewolves. Some traditions were so suspicious of these shape-shifters that the way you walked could be reason enough for suspicion.

Commonalities and discrepancies in the mythologies of various cultures

Some commonality amongst many traditions existed, though, as well. For example, it is almost universally held that the werewolf would be weakened after returning to its human form, having exhausted the body through superhuman feats (Woodward, 1979). Many traditions held that werewolves would exhume recently buried corpses for consumption to satisfy their hunger for human flesh rather than preying on the living, as do the vampires (Woodward, 1979). 

But much of the modern fiction concerning these mythological creatures is historically faulted. Much of the discrepancy is due to the fact that they are often addressed in the same stories with vampires. The modern tendency to put these myths together is right. For, vampires and werewolves were often addressed in the same ancient myths. Many misconceptions have come of this practice, however.

Vampires (often referred to as the damned) and werewolves are typically enemies in both modern and ancient myth. Unlike vampires, werewolves are not “undead” but are living creatures. They therefore do not have the need that vampires to prey on the living to maintain their condition. In fact, many traditions hold that werewolves are not “cursed” at all, but are monstrous defenders of humanity from vampires. 

One tradition even holds that they are the hounds of God, tasked with descending into the pits of vampires and robbing them of their booty. An 80 year old man named Thiess, testified under oath to being a werewolf while on trial in 1692, in Livonia (current baltic nation of Latvia). He said that he and his kin were welcomed into heaven when they died for the service they have provided humanity and to God. He not only claimed that he, and other werewolves in germany and Russia, were warriors tasked with descending into the underworld to fight against evil minions. For his insistence on this being true, he was flogged for superstitious beliefs (Gershenson, 1991). 

This is in keeping with the fact that religious artifacts such as crucifixes and holy water are tortuous or lethal to the vampires while having no effect on werewolves. Some traditions hold that they are, indeed, cursed, but not necessarily by God. In fact, there is not even any evidence of the notion that silver weaponry hurts them, until the 1930’s movie, The Wolf Man (Clemens, 1968).

The foundation of these Baltic traditions concerning werewolves date back to Endo-European times and include tales of the Vilkacis. Vilkacis were a band of benevolent young, unwed warriors that were spiritually connected with wolves.

So, how does one kill a werewolf? The simple answer is that it is, evidently, not an easy proposition. While it depends on how one became a werewolf, they are regarded, almost universally, as immune to ordinary injury. They are often represented as having superhuman strength and speed. While they are physical creatures, and not spirit, there is no “silver bullet.”

There is, at least, one more modern myth about lycanthropes that is unsupported by the history. It is presented in popular fiction that the transformation from a man to wolf is a painful one. This, however, is not the case in their traditional representations.

Voluntary and Involuntary lycanthropy

You may be thinking that if they aren’t necessarily damned, and the morph is not painful, and they are endowed with superhuman abilities; how can one become a werewolf? This is where the record is quite varied. The one thing that the historical record is consistent on, is that you cannot become a werewolf by being bitten or scratched by one, as is the case in modern movies and in vampire lore (Woodward, 1979). It is not a disease, like rabies, that can be contracted. The answers to how one becomes a werewolf falls under two categories. The werewolf is either a werewolf voluntarily or involuntarily.  

The Greek king, Lycaon, was involuntarily turned into a wolf because he had sinned against Zeus (Kline, 2000). Pliny the Elder tells the story of a man that could voluntarily transform into a wolf by hanging his clothes on an ash tree and swimming an arcadian lake. He could become a man again by simply swimming back across the lake, back to his clothes, provided he did not attack any humans while in his wolf form (Bostock, 2012). Another voluntary method is recorded for us by Gaius Petronius Arbiter. He told of a man that would simply strip off all his clothes into a pile, put on an enchanted belt made of a wolf pelt, and then make a circle around him on the ground by urinating. He would then, immediately become a howling wolf and dash off into the woods (Brahm & Kinney, 1996) . 

Other methods include putting on an entire wolfskin, covering ones self in a magic salve, lapping rainwater out of the footprint of a wolf, drinking from an enchanted stream (Bennet, 2003). In Sweden, all one must do to be initiated into a pack of Livonian werewolves, is to drink a magical beer. The German tradition is that you could become a werewolf by sleeping outdoors under a full moon on either a Wednesday or a Friday (Woodward, 1989). 

There is a lot of documented trials of werewolves in Hungary. In Hungarian folklore, abused children that ran away from home at an early age would become wolves hunting at night, and able to change between forms at will. Adults, too, could become werewolves by enacting a ritual involving a birch arbor and wild roses. Most werewolves of Hungary was said to dwell in the region known as Transdanubia (Baring-Gould, 1973 [1865]).

In Armenia, werewolves were most often women, who were involuntarily turned into werewolves, cursed, by a spirit who demanded they wear a wolf coat (Antreassian, 1987). Then she is transformed into a flesh craving wolf as she would every night thereafter. This she-wolf would then devour her own children. After that, she would prey upon the children of her near kin. If not stopped she would devour the children of the entire community.

Some were said to have been involuntarily turned into werewolves for cannibalism. The Catholic church and it’s priests were capable of turning those who rejected Catholicism into werewolves (Woodward, 1989). But, more typically, when lycanthropy was associated with curses, it was brought on by the devil, rather than a curse from God.

Other forms of lycanthropy include the ideal of a familiar spirit, where a person is so attached to a wolf that he feels what it feels. Another is that the person’s body is left in a trancelike state, while the soul wanders the night as a wolf. Yet another, is akin to demonic possession, wherein the persons body does not change but the person takes on the nature and superhuman strength of the werewolf. 

It is commonly known that some norse peoples believed they were transformed into bearlike creatures, called berserkers, when they wore bearskins into battle. This legend is represented well in the movie, “The 13th Warrior” with Antonio Banderas. What is not so well known is that many Norse sagas speak of the Ulfhednars, or wolf coated warriors, as well. These warriors were more resistant to pain are were ferocious in battle as a result of channeling the spirits of the wolf. They were reportedly, closely related to Odin mythology. King Herald of Norway is said to have been an Ulfhednar (Woodward, 1989).

Clinical Lycanthropy

The latter is likely derives from a documented mental illness known as clinical lycanthropy. Clinical lycanthropy is documented to effect people of various cultures worldwide. One study of the Babylon area of Iraq alone, showed 8 separate and documented cases there in the past 20 years (Younis, Moselhy, 2009).

This is not a new diagnosis, however. Medical practitioners have been diagnosing and treating lycanthropy as a disease for years. A study of clinical lycanthropy in Byzantine times showed that 6 medical writers described it as a melancholic depression and was attributed to mental aberration and neurobehavioral disorders (Poulakou-Rebelakou, Tsiamis, Panteleakos, & Ploumpidis, 2009). 

In what Dr. A. G. Nejad argues is a variant of clinical lycanthropy, patients can also suffer from the delusion that someone else is a werewolf. In his case study a young male patient was convinced that his mother was a werewolf. Although he never believed himself to be a werewolf, Nejad argued that it could be a variant of the same syndrome (Nejad, 2007).

Conclusion

In conclusion, werewolf folklore is almost universal throughout the ancient cultures of the world. There is also, not only ancient mysteries, but documented events in modern history that has leant itself to the lycanthropic legends. While there is great variation in some aspects of their mythology, other points are relatively consistent across the historical and geographical spectrum. Modern medical science has given us a glimpse into the psyche that has, likely, fueled much of the legend throughout the ages. Finally, it is noted here that werewolves, though terrible monsters, are typically less evil than vampires, sometimes even being portrayed as benevolent defenders of humanity against Satan and his minions.


One Response so far.

  1. Tammy says:
    So very interesting. I love mythology and folklore. I can’t wait to see your post about your own experience. Keep on writing. 🙂

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