views updated May 29 2018


A human temporarily or permanently transformed into a wolf, from the Anglo-Saxon wer (man) and wulf (wolf). It is a term used in the phenomenon of lycanthropy, which in ancient and medieval times was of very frequent occurrence. It was in Europe, where the wolf was one of the largest carnivorous animals, that the superstition became prevalent. Similar tales in other countries usually introduced bears, tigers, leopards, or other animals.


The belief in werewolves may be a relic of early cannibalism. Communities of semicivilized people would begin to shun those who devoured human flesh, ostracizing them and classifying them as wild beasts. The idea that they had something in common with animals would grow, and the concept that they were able to transform themselves into veritable animals would likely arise.

More likely, however, the belief derives from early ritual practices in the Balkan area. For example, the Dacians, an ancient people who had the wolf as their totem animal, annually turned their young men into wolves during a ritual in which they wore wolf skins and imitated the animal. The wolf was much respected in the area as a hunter. The ritual transformation into a wolf survives today in the Greek word vrkolaka (and its Slavic equivalents), derived from the old Slavic word for wolf-pelt, though the term is now applied to a form of vampire. It has been suggested that as the people settled into an agricultural life, the wolf lost its positive associations and became the outlaw animal many still consider it today. Thus the vrkolaka became the werewolf. Werewolf itself is an Old English term meaning shape-shifter, probably derived from older Germanic roots.

The oldest account of a man changing into a wolf came from Greek writings. Lycaon (from whom the term lycanthropy is derived) was changed into a wolf by Zeus, whom the unfortunate Lycaon had displeased.

The Nature of the Werewolf

There were two kinds of werewolves: voluntary and involuntary. The voluntary were, as has been said, persons who, because of their taste for human flesh, had withdrawn from association with other people.

They possessed a reputation for the magic power to transform themselves into the animal shape at will. This they effected by merely disrobingby taking off a girdle made of human skin, or putting on a belt of wolf skin, obviously a substitute for an entire wolf skin. There were also cases in which they donned the entire skin. In other instances, the body was rubbed with a magic ointment, or water was drunk from a wolf's footprint. The brains of the animal were also eaten. Olaus Magnus (1490-1558) stated that "the werewolves of Livonia drained a cup of beer on initiation, and repeated certain magic words."

In order to throw off the wolf shape, the animal girdle was removed, or else the magician merely muttered a certain formula. In some instances, the transformation was supposed to be the work of Satan.

The superstition regarding werewolves seems to have been exceedingly prevalent in France during the sixteenth century, as is evidenced by numerous trials, in some of which murder and cannibalism took place. Self-hallucination may have accounted for some of these cases, the supposed werewolves admitting that they had transformed themselves and had slain numerous persons, but at the beginning of the seventeenth century such confessions were not believed. Self-hallucination does not cover a number of cases in which werewolves were seen by witnesses, however. In Teutonic and Slavonic countries, men of learning complained that werewolves did more damage than real criminals, and a regular "college" or institution for the practice of the art of animal transformation was attributed to them.

Involuntary werewolves were often said to be persons transformed into animals because of the commission of sin, and condemned to pass a certain number of years in that form. Certain saints were said to metamorphose sinners into wolves. In Armenia it was thought that sinful women were condemned to pass seven years in the form of a wolf. To such a woman a demon appeared, bringing a wolf skin. He commanded her to don it, and from that moment she became a wolf, with all the nature of a wild beast, devouring her own children and those of strangers; wandering at night, undeterred by locks, bolts, or bars; returning only in the morning to resume her human form.

French romance literature often mentions werewolves, and there are complete romances on the theme, such as the Lais du Bisclavret of Marie de France and the Guillaume de Palerne (known as William and the Werewolf ) of the twelfth century. However, in such romances the werewolf was the innocent victim of magic, rather than a dangerous cannibal.

Many werewolves were said to be innocent persons suffering through the witchcraft of others. To regain their true form it was necessary for them to kneel in one spot for a hundred years, to lose three drops of blood, to be hailed as a werewolf, to have the sign of the cross made on their bodies, to be addressed thrice by their baptismal names, or to be struck thrice on the forehead with a knife.

According to Donat de Hautemer, quoted by Simon Goulart (1543-1628), "There are some lycanthropes who are so dominated by their melancholy humour that they really believe themselves to be transformed into wolves. This malady is a sort of melancholy, of a black and dismal nature. Those who are attacked by it leave their homes in the months of February, imitate wolves in almost every particular, and wander all night long among the cemeteries and sepulchres, so that one may observe a marvelous change in the mind and disposition, and, above all in the depraved imagination, of the lycanthrope. The memory, however, is still vigorous, as I have remarked in one of these lycanthropic melancholiacs whom we call werewolves. For one who was well acquainted with me was one day seized with his affliction, and on meeting him I withdrew a little, fearing that he might injure me. He, having glanced at me for a moment, passed on followed by a crowd of people. On his shoulder he carried the entire leg and thigh of a corpse. Having received careful medical treatment, he was cured of this malady. On meeting me on another occasion he asked me if I had not been afraid when he met me at such and such a place, which made me think that his memory was not hurt by the vehemence of his disease, though his imagination was so greatly damaged."

Guillaume de Brabant, in the narrative of Wier, repeated by Goulart, writes in his History that a certain sensible man was so tormented by the evil spirit that at a particular season of the year he would think himself a ravening wolf and would run through the woods, caves, and deserts chasing little children. It was said that this man was often found running in the deserts like a man out of his mind, and that at last by the grace of God he came to himself and was healed. Job Fincel, in the book On Miracles, relates that a villager near Paule in the year 1541 believed himself to be a wolf and assaulted several men in the fields, killing some. Captured at last, though not without great difficulty, he strongly affirmed that he was a wolf, and that the only way in which he differed from other wolves was that they wore their hairy coats on the outside, while he wore his between his skin and his flesh. Certain persons, more inhuman and wolfish than he, wished to test the truth of this story, and gashed his arms and legs severely. Learning of their mistake and of the innocence of the melancholiac, they passed him on to the surgeons, in whose hands he died some days later.

Those afflicted with lycanthropy are pale, with dark and haggard eyes, seeing only with difficulty; the tongue is dry, and the sufferer very thirsty.

Speaking of lycanthropy, Gaspar Peucer (1525-1602) stated the following:

"As for me I had formerly regarded as ridiculous and fabulous the stories I had often heard concerning the transformation of men into wolves; but I have learnt from reliable sources, and from the testimony of trustworthy witnesses, that such things are not at all doubtful or incredible, since they tell of such transformations taking place twelve days after Christmas in Livonia and the adjacent countries; as they have been proved to be true by the confessions of those who have been imprisoned and tortured for such crimes.

"Here is the manner in which it is done. Immediately after Christmas day is past, a lame boy goes round the country calling these slaves of the devil, of which there are a great number, and enjoining them to follow him. If they procrastinate or go too slowly, there immediately appears a tall man with a whip whose thongs are made of iron chains, with which he urges them onwards, and sometimes lashes the poor wretches so cruelly, that the marks of the whip remain on their bodies till long afterwards, and cause them the greatest pain. As soon as they have set out on their road, they are all changed into wolves.

"They travel in thousands, having for their conductor the bearer of the whip, after whom they march. When they reach the fields, they rush upon the cattle they find there, tearing and carrying away all they can, and doing much other damage; but they are not permitted to touch or wound persons. When they approach any rivers, their guide separates the waters with his whip, so that they seem to open up and leave a dry space by which to cross. At the end of twelve days the whole band scatters, and everyone returns to his home, having regained his own proper form. This transformation, they say, comes about in this wise. The victims fall suddenly on the ground as though they were taken with sudden illness, and remain motionless and extended like corpses, deprived of all feeling, for they neither stir, nor move from one place to another, nor are in any wise transformed into wolves, thus resembling carrion, for although they are rolled or shaken, they give no sign of life."

Jean Bodin (1529-1596) related several cases of lycanthropy and of men changed into beasts, including the following:

"Pierre Mamot, in a little treatise he has written on sorcerers, says that he has observed this changing of men into wolves, he being in Savoy at the time. Henry of Cologne in his treatise de Lamiis regards the transformation as beyond doubt. And Ul-rich in a little book dedicated to the emperor Sigismund, writes of the dispute before the emperor, and says that it was agreed, both on the ground of reason, and of the experience of innumerable examples, that such transformation was a fact; and he adds that he himself had seen a lycanthrope at Constance, who was accused, convicted, condemned, and finally executed after his confession. And several books published in Germany say that one of the greatest kings of Christendom, who is not long dead, and who had the reputation of being one of the greatest sorcerers in the world, often changed into a wolf.

"I remember that the attorney-general of the King, Bourdin, has narrated to me another which was sent to him from the Low Countries, with the whole trial signed by the judge and the clerks, of a wolf, which was struck by an arrow on the thigh, and afterwards found himself in bed, with the arrow (which he had torn out), on regaining his human shape, and the arrow was recognised by him who had fired itthe time and place testified by the confession of the person.

"Garnier, tried and condemned by the parliament of Dole, being in the shape of a werewolf, caught a girl of ten or twelve years in a vineyard of Chastenoy, a quarter of a league from Dole, and having slain her with his teeth and claw-like hands, he ate part of her flesh and carried the rest to his wife. A month later, in the same form, he took another girl, and would have eaten her also, had he not, as he himself confessed, been prevented by three persons who happened to be passing by; and a fortnight after he strangled a boy of ten in the vineyard of Gredisans, and ate his flesh; and in the form of a man and not of a wolf, he killed another boy of twelve or thirteen years in a wood of the village of Porouse with the intention of eating him, but was again prevented. He was condemned to be burnt, and the sentence was executed.

"At the parliament of Bezançon, the accused were Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, who confessed to having renounced God, and sworn to serve the devil. And Michel Verdun led Burgot to the Bard du Chastel Charlon where everyone carried a candle of green wax which shone with a blue flame. There they danced and offered sacrifices to the devil. Then after being anointed they were turned into wolves, running with incredible swiftness, then they were changed again into men, and suddenly transformed back to wolves, when they enjoyed the society of female wolves as much as they had done that of their wives. They confessed also that Burgot had killed a boy of seven years with his wolf-claws and teeth, intending to eat him, but the peasants gave chase, and prevented him. Burgot and Verdun had eaten four girls between them; and they had caused people to die by the touch of a certain power."

Some cases of lycanthropy may have been a cover for a perverse appetite for drinking blood or eating human flesh, but it is also possible that there were cases of psychic transformations, in which the astral double of a lycanthrope was projected in the form of a beast, similar to other stories of witches and wizards attacking their victims in an astral form.

Modern attempts to understand the werewolf have opted for a psychological approach, one exception being Robert Eisler, who has explained it in terms of the cycles of human violence that have been a part of social existence since time began. Richard Noll has gathered a variety of reports of modern were-wolves, whom psychologists see as people under the delusion that s/he has been transformed into an animal.

Another aspect of lycanthropy is the Romulus and Remus theme of abandoned children reared by wolves. One classic case of such "feral children," as they are termed, is that of the two wolf girls of Midnapore, India, who were rescued by the Reverend J. A. L. Singh in 1942. This case is discussed in detail by Charles Maclean in his book The Wolf Children (1978). (See also Vampire )

Werewolf Fiction

In the middle of the nineteenth century, as other forms of modern horror fiction were emerging, three werewolf novels appeared: Hughes the Wer-wolf, by Sutherland Mnzies (a serial published in installment in the 1850s); The Wolf-Leader (1857); and Wagner the Wehrwolf, by George W. M. Reynold (1857). The latter is considered the fountainhead of modern werewolf fiction, and it was not until 1934 that another noteworthy were-wolf novel was published.

Guy Endore's The Werewolf of Paris was bought by Universal Studios, who wanted to produce a cinematic version. The screenplay changes the location of the movie, which appeared in 1935 as The Werewolf of London. The story was inspired by the true story of Francis Bertrand, a French noncommissioned officer who in 1848 was convicted of breaking into several Paris graveyards, and consuming the flesh of several recently buried bodies. His ghoulish activity was transformed into the story of Bertrand Caullet, the son born as a result of a brief affair between his mother and a priest. He discovered that he was a werewolf when shot with a silver bullet. (The now-standard association of werewolves and silver is derived from a Scottish belief in the efficacy of silver in killing witches.)

The Werewolf of London was followed by its more famous sequel, The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney reappeared in several movies with other Universal monsters, but made his next notable appearance in the 1961 remake, The Curse of the Werewolf. The werewolf became a television star as a character in the early 1960s in the vampire television soap opera Dark Shadows.

Since the 1970s the werewolf has become an integral part of a horror genre that has grown spectacularly. While not approaching the popularity of the vampire, new werewolf novels have appeared annually and some, such as Whitney Streiber's Wolfen have become popular movies. Gary Brandner's The Howling led to no less than five sequels, most of which were made into movies. The lycanthropy/shape-shifting theme also was prominent in movies like the Cat People, which features a woman able to transform into a panther.


Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Were-Wolves. London, 1965; New York: Causeway Books, 1973.

Cooper, Basil. The Werewolf in Legend, Fact and Art. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977.

Douglas, Adam. The Beast Within: Man, Myths and Werewolves. London: Chapmans, 1992. Reprint. London: Orion, 1993.

Dunn, Charles W. The Foundling and the Werewolf: A Literary-Historical Study of Guillaume de Palerne. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1960.

Eisler, Robert. Man into Wolf: An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism, and Lycanthropy. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Ross Erikson, 1978.

Gesell, Arnold. Wolf-Child and Human Child. London: Harper/Methuen, 1941.

Hamel, Frank. Human Animals. London, 1915. University Books, 1969.

Kaigh, Frederick. Witchcraft & Magic of Africa. London: Richard Lesley, 1947.

Maclean, Charles. The Wolf Children. Hill & Wang, 1978.

Noll, Richard. Vampires, Werewolves, and Demons. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992.

O'Donnell, Elliott. Werewolves. London, 1912. Rev. ed. New York: Wholesale Book Corp., 1972.

Summers, Montague. The Werewolf. London, 1933. University Books, 1966.

Woodward, Ian. The Werewolf Delusion. London & New York: Paddington Press, 1979.


views updated Jun 11 2018

werewolf The werewolf (Old English: wer, a man + wulf, a wolf) or lycanthrope is one of the most familiar monsters of European mythology. It has stalked the popular imagination from antiquity through to modern times. In classical literature, the werewolf was usually depicted as the victim of a divine or hereditary curse. In Plato's Dialogues, King Lykaos of Arcadia was changed into a wolf by Zeus after he attempted to trick the gods into eating human flesh. When Pausanias repeated this tale in the second century ad this curse had been transformed into a racial characteristic. He believed that Arcadia was a nation of werewolves, whilst Virgil and Herodotus identified the Neurians of north east Europe as a lycanthrope tribe.

This early conception of the lycanthrope as a victim of heredity left the monster in a morally ambiguous position. The werewolf could be a benign individual, trapped within a bestial frame. In the Eastern and Celtic churches, St Christopher was often portrayed as a dog-headed convert, a representative of Cynocephali who inhabited the mountain ranges of Northern India. In the medieval romances of William and the Werewolf by Guillaume de Palerne and Laide Bisclaveret, by Mavie de France, the werewolves appear as noble favourites of the king, tricked into a wolf form by their adulterous wives, and later redeemed into humanity through royal kindness. As late as the seventeenth century the belief that werewolves could serve as ‘dogs of God’ persisted amongst the Russian and Baltic peasantry. The Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg has reconstructed the trial of one Livonian werewolf, Thiess, who claimed he and his werewolf companions travelled annually to the underworld to protect the harvest from the Devil and sorcerors.

For the most part however, werewolves have been depicted as malign and demonic creatures. The Paschal imagery of Christ as the Lamb of God encouraged the wolf's satanic associations. In post-Reformation Europe, the werewolf was largely seen as a male counterpart of the witch, obtaining his power through a pact made with the devil. Peter Stump, the most notorious werewolf of the sixteenth century, began his lycanthropic career of mass murder, rape, and incest after Satan presented him with a magical wolf skin. His crimes were apparently emulated by thousands of others. Recent authors have claimed that there were 30 000 recorded cases of werewolves between 1520 and 1630 in France alone. Such high estimates must be questioned in light of the recent revisionist historiography of the witch craze.

Post-reformation Europe also saw a growing attempt to medicalize the werewolf. Physicians such as Simon Goulart, Johannes Schrenk von Graftenberg, and Robert Burton claimed that lycanthropy was a form of delusional insanity brought about through an excess of black bile. The condition was epitomized by the madness of Duke Ferdinand in John Webster's Duchess of Malfi. Ferdinand is apprehended clutching a human leg and howling at the moon. As his captors explain, the Duke ‘[s]aid he was a wolf, only the difference/Was a wolf's skin was hairy on the outside/His on the inside’. Similar attempts to explain lycanthropy as a delusion rooted in illness have been repeated throughout the twentieth century. Authors have variously suggested congenital hypertrichosis (abnormal hair growth), rabies canina, and ergot poisoning as possible pathological causes. More recently, Dr Lee Illis, of Guy's Hospital, London, has claimed that werewolves may be victims of porphyria, a disease which results in photosensitivity, reddening of the teeth, and nervous disorders.

With the appearance of novels such as George Reynolds' Wagner the Werewolf (1857) or Dudley Costello's Lycanthropy in London or the Wehrwolf of Wilton Crescent (1859), more psychological accounts of the werewolf emerged. In these works, the wolf-man emerges as a kind of romantic anti-hero, torn between social mores and carnal desire. These moral struggles were repeated in the Hollywood B-movies of the 1950s. Films such as American International's I was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) or Royal's Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory (1962), presented the lycanthrope as a sympathetic character, led into a life of unbridled lust after attending beat gatherings and bongo parties. This model of the werewolf as a figure in which adolescents could identify their own awkward passions persists to this day. The title track of Michael Jackson's Thriller (1983), the world's best selling pop album, focused on the emotional and sexual difficulties of a pubescent lycanthrope.

Through its popular associations with sex and violence, the werewolf has become a rich symbol for man's bifurcated human nature. Modern academics see lycanthropy as a fantasy which reveals fundamental aspects of modern personality. The Jungian anthropologist, Robert Eisler, thought that werewolves emerged through an ancestral memory of man's transition from fruit-gatherer to hunter. Man's identification with carnivorous animals, Eisler claimed, was a psychic operation that allowed him to conquer his disgust at killing. This identification could still be seen in hunting groups such as the leopard men of East Africa, Operation Werewolf (a post-war Nazi resistance organization), and British Guards Regiments who continue to decorate themselves with leopard pelts and bearskins.

Sigmund Freud offered a much more reductionist explanation for man's lupine identification. In his study of Wolf-Man, a young Russian whose childhood had been tormented by dreams of wolves that beckoned him from beyond his bedroom window, Freud suggested that the fantasy must be rooted in a primal scene of parental or animal sex. The French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari contested this interpretation of the dream. They argued that the lupine fantasy could be seen as a fundamental challenge to Western notions of subjectivity. It was a dream in which man cast off his atomic individuality, as the lycanthrope surrendered to the multiplicity of the wolf pack.

Rhodri Hayward


Douglas, A. (1992). The beast within: man, myths and werewolves. Chapmans, London.
Woodward, I. (1979). The werewolf delusion. Paddington press, New York and London.

See also vampire.


views updated Jun 27 2018


Werewolves are man-wolveswer is Old English for "man." Legends from around the world tell of men who could turn into wolves and then back into human form again. In their animal form, werewolves were bloodthirsty creatures that devoured people, both living and dead.

Legends of people changing into animals occur in all parts of the world. In countries where wolves are unknown, such legends have involved tigers, leopards, hyenas, bears, panthers, snakes, boars, and other animals. Perhaps these stories reflect a universal unease about the more bestial aspects of human nature and behavior. Some scholars have suggested that these transformation legends are faint echoes of ancient ceremonies in which people wore animal skins and masks.

European werewolf tales date from ancient times. Among other stories, Ovid* wrote that a Greek king named Lycaon was turned into a wolf as punishment for serving human flesh to the gods. From the Greek words lukos (wolf) and anthropos (man) comes lycanthropy, which refers to the werewolf's transformation. Modern psychologists also use the term to describe a mental illness in which the patient believes he or she is a wolf or some other animal.

Belief in werewolves was widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages. Any infant born with body hair, a strange birthmark, or a caul (a membrane covering the head) was thought to be a potential werewolf. It was believed that a person could become a werewolf voluntarily, generally by embracing black magic or worshiping the devil. The bite of a werewolf could also turn someone into a werewolf.

One of the most frightening aspects of werewolf legends was the idea that the cannibalistic beast could pass his days as a mild and righteous citizen, unsuspected of any evil. In some traditions, the werewolf took on animal form at will, perhaps every night. Other traditions, however, said that the transformation occurred only on nights of the full moon.

Folktales offered various tips about how to injure or kill a werewolf. Some suggested that any weapon that could hurt an ordinary wolf could harm a werewolf as well and that when the beast returned to its human form, its injuries would reveal its identity as a werewolf. Other legends said that only special weapons made of silver or possessing religious powers or blessings could harm a werewolf.

See also Animals in Mythology; Monsters; Vampires.


views updated May 18 2018

werewolf in myth or fiction, a person who changes for periods of time into a wolf, typically when there is a full moon. Recorded from late Old English, in form werewulf; the first element has usually been identified with Old English wer ‘man’. In modern use the word has been revived through folklore studies.


views updated Jun 27 2018

were·wolf / ˈwe(ə)rˌwoŏlf/ • n. (pl. -wolves) (in myth or fiction) a person who changes for periods of time into a wolf, typically when there is a full moon.


views updated May 23 2018

Werewolf ★ 1995 (R)

A remote desert town is stricken by an ancient curse that turns its occupants into werewolves at the full moon. This doesn't help the tourism industry. 99m/C VHS, DVD . Jorge (George) Rivero, Fred Cavalli, Adrianna Miles, Richard Lynch, Joe Estevez, R(ichard) C(arlos) Bates, Heidi Bjorn, Randall Oliver, Nena Belini, Tony Zarindast; D: Tony Zarindast; W: Tony Zarindast; C: Robert Hayes, Dan Gilman.


views updated May 29 2018

werewolf, werwolf person transformed or capable of transforming himself into a wolf. Late OE. werewulf (once) = LG. werwulf, (M)Du. weerwolf, MHG. werwolf (G. we(h)rwolf). The first el. is doubtful, but it has been identified with OE. wer ( = L. vir) man.


views updated May 29 2018

werewolf In folklore, a person who metamorphoses into a wolf at night but reverts to human form by day. Some werewolves can change form at will; in others the change occurs involuntarily, under the influence of a full moon.