Demons, Monsters, and Ghosts, Oh No! Part XIV: Blood and Fur
Last Post: Before I start into the subject of werewolves in medieval Europe, I want to let everyone know that this will be my last regular post on While We’re Paused. I have started a new blog of my own, and I’m afraid that posting daily there leaves little time for these posts. I will be continuing this series on my new blog, The Art of Writing, and the first post of that continuation is already up. If you don’t want to follow links, the url for the new blog is tobiasmastgrave.wordpress.com, and I will be posting there under the name tmastgrave.
Now, on to werewolves. As I mentioned last time, werewolves are really just a popular subset of a broader category of werecreatures (shape shifters limited to a human form and an animal form) that inhabit ancient mythology worldwide. However, werewolves themselves are predominantly European. While a few other cultures have a canine shapeshifter, usually foxes or dogs, there are only a couple that have actual werewolves. So, I want to restrict my comments in this post to the establishment of werewolf mythology in Europe. I am not going to go into the etymology of the terms for two reasons: 1) werewolf is a generic term, and these creatures have been known by a multitude of names across Europe (one list I looked at was 15+ names long and it still wasn’t complete), and 2) the etymology is not difficult to find as many people have already discussed it.
With vampires we saw that the mythology changed drastically from the ancient period to the medieval period, and then again between the medieval period and the modern period. However, the same is not true with werewolves. While there are some significant changes in mythology, the specifics generally remain the same. We also see the terminology appear earlier. You might remember that the term ‘vampire’ did not appear until the modern period, and terminology resembling it dates back only to the Medieval period (10th century). On the other hand, with werewolves, the term ‘lycanthropy’ dates back to ancient Greece, and has been linked (though not conclusively) with the myth of Lycaon in the first book of Ovid’s Metomorphoses. This myth is considered by many to be the birth of the modern werewolf legend (something that could not be specifically identified with vampire legends).
We also see even earlier evidence of werewolves in early historical writings. Herodotus, a 5th century Greek historian, wrote that a people called the Nueri, who lived in Scythia, became wolves for several days of every year, and then returned to their human forms. While the work of Ovid may mark the birth of the modern werewolf legend, this historical account lends evidence that the idea of werewolves is much older. Trying to follow the spread of the legend throughout Europe from this point forward would be impossible in a post of this kind (and with the level of research that I am willing to do for these posts), however we can say that the basics of the werewolf myth did not change much as it spread through European cultures.
In fact the greatest variation appears in the area of how one becomes a werewolf. According to some legends, lycanthropy is a generational curse, in others it is passed by bite (as rabies might be). Some legends tell of people who voluntarily become werewolves by donning a magical, wolfskin belt, while others change form by drinking from an enchanted stream, or performing a magical ritual. However, once the transformation is accomplished the legends reconverge describing the resulting creature as violent, wicked, powerful, and uncontrollable. Many legends also note that werewolves do not have tails, a trait that they supposedly had in common with metamorphosed witches.
Though silver has made its way into modern mythology as the great bane of the werewolf, this does not appear in either ancient, or medieval lore. In fact the earliest mention of silver in connection to werewolves appears to be in the 18th century story of the Beast of Gevaudan, where the creature is killed by a silver bullet. Before this common methods of repelling werewolves were rye, mistletoe, and mountain ash. The aconitum, or wolfsbane, plant has also been historically connected to werewolves, though not always as a repellent, and so the relationship is not clear.
There is some evidence in the mythology that lycanthropy was believed to be a reversible condition. Though early cures were often more likely to kill the afflicted than to cure him, some of the later legends refer to conversion to Christianity, exorcism, or simply calling the werewolf three times by his Christian name as potential cures. How efficacious these may have been (assuming they were ever actually attempted) has been lost to history. We also see, with the rise of Christianity, that lycanthropy takes on a demonic aspect that it did not originally possess. However, I will save this for later consideration on my new blog.