The Epic History of Werewolves


Werewolves are generally thought to be dangerous, cunning and even evil. GSoul/Shutterstock

In the earliest literary mentions of werewolves, gods use lycanthropy as punishment. The idea of werewolves as punished men is also part of a number of folk tales, although gods aren’t always part of the story. Sometimes, someone simply becomes a werewolf as a result of bad behavior — or someone whose behavior is bad turns out to be a werewolf. The transgression often has something to do with sexual excess, and the culprit is usually male. In one tale, a woman suspects that her husband is a werewolf. One day, while he’s at work in the fields, a wolf comes into her kitchen and attacks her. It bites her skirt or apron, which is usually red, and runs away. When the husband returns, his wife sees part of her skirt caught in his teeth. The double entendres abound.

When lycanthropy is a punishment, the transformation is sometimes permanent. The offender remains a wolf or transforms into a wolf at various times throughout his life. In other stories, the man becomes a wolf for a number of years, usually seven or nine. Then, he gets better.


But in other folk tales, becoming a werewolf isn’t a punishment — it’s a gift and a source of power. Stories describe articles of clothing like belts or straps that allow the wearer to become a wolf [source: Historic Mysteries]. This has a number of perks, including a pantry perpetually stocked with chickens and wild game. In several German versions of this story, the belt is made from the skin of a wolf. If the belt is destroyed, the ability to transform disappears, too. In depictions like these, the transformation from human to wolf is voluntary — it doesn’t depend on the phase of the moon. A man can change from human to wolf and back whenever he likes, as long as he has the right clothing.

Such stories are common in several northern European countries, including Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. In a 13th-century Icelandic work, the “Völsunga Saga,” men wear the skin of wolves to fight as wolves. This may also tie in to the Norse berserk warriors, who were named for the bear skin they wore in battle.

In some folk tales, becoming a werewolf requires removing clothes rather than putting them on. The werewolf can only regain his human form by getting back into his clothes, although the stories don’t typically explain how he does this without human hands or thumbs. In one tale, a man and his companions travel into the woods. The man removes his clothes, urinates in a circle around them — causing them to turn into stone — and runs off into the forest. Since his clothes are stone, no one can move them. The wolf has guaranteed that he can return to the human world. Another fictional werewolf isn’t so lucky. In a Breton lai called “Bisclavret,” a werewolf’s adulterous wife steals his clothes, keeping him from becoming human. The next time the werewolf sees her, he bites off her nose.

In modern depictions, lycanthropy is often transmitted by the bite of a werewolf, but there are exceptions. In Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels, for example, werewolves are a race, much like dwarves or trolls. Pratchett’s werewolves can change from human to wolf at any time. Some choose to spend most of their time in wolf form, while others, like Angua, an officer in Ankh-Morpork’s Watch, change form whenever it suits them.

The transformation itself is generally more important in film than in written works. Next, we’ll look at how people physically change into werewolves.


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