Amongst the Flock

A German woodcut from 1722

To support the release of World Weaver Press’s Specter Spectacular anthology (giant linky ) featuring my own ghost story, Little House at Bull Run CreekI was asked to do a guest post over on their blog (linky number 2  ). It’s not yet up yet, but the post is done, so I thought I’d air it here first. The subject was simply “Halloween” and anything and everything to do with it, so I went for something that’s been a bit of a side hobby of mine now for a couple of yours – brace yourselves for a very brief, incomplete and brutally potted journey back in time, to when monsters were very real indeed.

A 1512 woodcut of a werewolf attack

So what do you get when you mix a History student with the build-up to Halloween? Why, a history of Werewolves of course!

“Wut?” I hear you say. Yeah, that’s right, there is such a thing as serious academic study of the history of lycanthropy in human cultures. And while I’m not going to subject you to an in-depth psychological analysis of various case studies, I will give anyone mildly interested in the real-world impact of those infamous full moon shapeshifters some fun facts to chew on.

Like his sissy and uncool little brother the vampire, the werewolf has no single founding myth. Just about every culture and race on earth has some story containing wolves that turn into men, or men that turn into wolves, or any other combination of half-wolf-man-thing. The oldest references to shapeshifting wolf-man interaction date back to ancient times, with works like Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 8 AD making reference to a man cursed with the form of a wolf, whilst Herodotus wrote around 450 BC of a tribe of Scythians who transformed into wolves for a few days every year. The idea of the transformation being linked to the lunar cycle first began to appear among Greek writers at this time too.

The advent of Christianity heralded a new era for werewolf mythology. Like many creatures of folklore, the werewolf was seen as both very real and very much a threat. Interaction with wolves was considered to be a hallmark of the devil, and witches were frequently accused of shapeshifting.

Exactly how a human being went about changing himself into the form of a wolf or half-wolf varied from culture to culture. A man could be cursed by a witch or the devil, he could use a magical salve or ointment, he could drape himself in a wolf’s pelt or wear a belt of wolf fur. Often the time of year was of crucial importance. It was said that a werewolf could still be discerned in his human form – he often had a bushy monobrow, long fingernails, sallow features and was known to be introverted and bad-smelling (kind of like a student then). The sight of fur on the palms of the hands or growing on the underside of the tongue was said to be a sure indicator of a wolf in human form. Sometimes the transformation literally involved the man or woman tearing off their flesh, and one way of executing suspected werewolves was to flay them alive, looking for the fur beneath the skin.

An 18th century French depiction

It’s difficult to overestimate how serious the idea of lycanthropy was taken by people right up to the 20th century. Tens of thousands of innocents throughout Europe were tortured and often brutality executed after being accused lycanthropy. In Estonian in the mid 1600s 18 trials found 18 women and 13 men guilty of damage to property and cattle they had caused in the shape of werewolves. Under torture, they confessed to having hidden their wolf skins under a rock. Interestingly, a few self-confessed werewolves claimed to be acting in the right. In 1692 an eighty year old woman confessed to being a werewolf who, with other werewolves, regularly went to hell three times a year to fight the witches and wizards of Satan to ensure a good harvest.

Fear of werewolves only gradually decreased with advances in medical science, which led to an understanding of the conditions causing people to believe they or others around them were transforming into wolves. The image of the wolf in human culture continues to have a profound impact upon human perception, and though it can be very easy for us in the 21st century to scorn our ancestors for a subject they considered deadly serious, it is unwise judge. It’s intriguing to note that the idea that a man can be transformed into a werewolf by being bitten by one, or mixing saliva with one, only really began to take hold in stories after the HIV/AIDS crisis of the latter 20th century. The legend of the werewolf continues to shift alongside our modern-day understanding of the world.


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