Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
A werewolf in folklore and mythology is a person who changes into a wolf, either by purposefully using magic or by being placed under a curse. In fictional treatments starting in the 19th century and in popular modern superstition, this transformation takes place during the full moon, either for a few nights every month or permanently. Most modern references agree that a werewolf can be killed if shot by a silver bullet, although this is more a reflection of fiction's influence than an authentic feature of the folk legends.
Origins and variations of the word
The name is thought most likely to derive from the Proto-Indo-European roots *wi-ro-, "man" (c.f. Latin Vir, German: we(h)r, we(h)ren (Abwehr, Feuerwehr, Bundeswehr: group of men engaged in defense) Old Prussian: wirs: meaning men and Old English wer (or were) and *wlkwo-, "wolf." The compound thus yields man-wolf. An alternative etymology looks to Old English weri (to wear) plus "wolf," thus bearing wearer of the wolf skin.
Other sources believe it is derived from warg-wolf, where "warg" (or later "werg" and "wero") is cognate with norse "varg" meaning murderer or predator and as "vargulf" means the kind of wolf that slaughters many of a flock or herd but eats only a bit. This was a serious problem for herders as they had to somehow destroy the individual wolf that had run mad before it destroyed their entire flock or herd. "Warg" by itself was used in Old English for that specific kind of wolf (see J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit) and it was used as well for what would now be called a serial killer.
The Greek term Lycanthropy (a compound of which the first part derives from the same Proto-Indo-European root for "wolf," *wlkwo-, as the English word) is also commonly used for the "wolf - man" transformation. The term for the metamorphosis of people into animals in general, rather than wolves specifically, is therianthropy (therianthrope means animal-man). The term turnskin or turncoat (Neo-Latin: versipellis, Russian : oboroten, O. Norse: hamrammr) is sometimes also used.
History of the werewolf
Many European countries and cultures have stories of werewolves, including Greece (lycanthropos), Bulgaria (varkolak, vulkodlak), Serbian (vukodlak) Russia (volkodlak), Poland (wilkołak), Romania (vârcolac), England (werwolf), Germany (Werwolf), France (loup-garou), Galicia, Portugal and Brazil (lobisón, lupisomem), Lithuania (vilkolakis and vilkatlakis) and Estonia (libahunt). In northern Europe, there are also tales about people changing into bears. In Norse mythology, the legends of berserkers may be a source of the werewolf myths. Berserks were vicious fighters, dressed in wolf or bear hides; they were immune to pain and killed viciously in battle, like a wild animal. In Latvian mythology, the Vilkacis was a person changed into a wolf-like monster, though the Vilkacis was occasionally beneficial. A closely related set of myths are the skin-walkers. These myths probably have a common base in Proto-Indo-European society, where the class of young, unwed warriors were apparently associated with wolves.
In Greek mythology the story of Lycaon supplies one of the earliest examples of a werewolf legend. According to one form of it Lycaon was transformed into a wolf as a result of eating human flesh; one of those who were present at periodical sacrifice on Mount Lycaon was said to suffer a similar fate. The Roman Pliny the Elder, quoting Euanthes, says (Historia Naturalis viii. 22) that a man of the Antaeus family was selected by lot and brought to a lake in Arcadia, where he hung his clothing on an ash tree and swam across. This resulted in his being transformed into a wolf, and he wandered in this shape nine years. Then, if he had attacked no human being, he was at liberty to swim back and resume his former shape. Probably the two stories are identical, though we hear nothing of participation in the Lycaean sacrifice by the descendant of Antaeus. Herodotus (iv. 105) tells us that the Neuri, a tribe he places to the north-east of Scythia (thus essentially "Hyperboreans", were annually transformed for a few days, and Virgil is familiar with transformation of human beings into wolves (see Eclogues viii. 98). In the novel Satyricon, written about year 60 by Gaius Petronius, one of the characters recites a story about a man who turns into a wolf.
There are women, so the Armenian belief runs, who in consequence of deadly sins are condemned to pass seven years in the form of a wolf. A spirit comes to such a woman and brings her a wolf's skin. He orders her to put it on, and no sooner has she done this than the most frightful wolfish cravings make their appearance and soon get the upper hand. Her better nature conquered, she makes a meal of her own children, one by one, then of her relatives' children according to the degree of relationship, and finally the children of strangers begin to fall a prey to her. She wanders forth only at night, and doors and locks spring open at her approach. When morning draws near she returns to human form and removes her wolf skin. In these cases the transformation was involuntary or virtually so. But side by side with this belief in involuntary metamorphosis, we find the belief that human beings can change themselves into animals at will and then resume their own form.
France in particular seems to have been infested with werewolves during the 16th century, and the consequent trials were very numerous. In some of the cases -- e.g. those of the Gandillon family in the Jura, the tailor of Chalons and Roulet in Angers, all occurring in the year 1598, -- there was clear evidence against the accused of murder and cannibalism, but none of association with wolves; in other cases, as that of Gilles Garnier in Dole in 1573, there was clear evidence against some wolf, but none against the accused; in all the cases, with hardly an exception, there was that extraordinary readiness in the accused to confess and even to give circumstantial details of the metamorphosis, which is one of the most inexplicable concomitants of medieval witchcraft. Yet while this lycanthropy fever, both of suspectors and of suspected, was at its height, it was decided in the case of Jean Grenier at Bordeaux in 1603 that lycanthropy was nothing more than an insane delusion.
From this time the loup-garou gradually ceased to be regarded as a dangerous heretic, and fell back into his pre-Christian position of being simply a "man-wolf-fiend." In Province of Prussia, Livonia and Lithuania, according to the bishops Olaus Magnus and Majolus , the werwolves were in the 16th century far more destructive than "true and natural wolves," and their heterodoxy appears from the Catholic bishops' assertion that they formed "an accursed college" of those "desirous of innovations contrary to the divine law." In England, however, where at the beginning of the 17th century the punishment of witchcraft was still zealously prosecuted by James I of England, the wolf had been so long extinct that that pious monarch was himself able (Demonologie, lib. iii.) to regard "warwoolfes" as victims of delusion induced by "a naturall superabundance of melancholic." Only small creatures such as the cat, the hare and the weasel remained for the malignant sorcerer to transform himself into, but he was firmly believed to avail himself of these agencies.
The werewolves of the Christian dispensation were not, however, all considered to be heretics or viciously disposed towards mankind. "According to Baronius, in the year 617, a number of wolves presented themselves at a monastery, and tore in pieces several friars who entertained heretical opinions. The wolves sent by God tore the sacrilegious thieves of the army of Francesco Maria , duke of Urbino, who had come to sack the treasure of the holy house of Loreto, A wolf guarded and defended from the wild beasts the head of St. Edmund the martyr, king of England. St. Odo, abbot of Cluny, assailed in a pilgrimage by foxes, was delivered and escorted by a wolf" (A. de Gubernatis, Zoological Mythology, 1872, vol. ii. p. 145). Many of the werewolves were most innocent and God-fearing persons, who suffered through the witchcraft of others, or simply from an unhappy fate, and who as wolves behaved in a truly touching fashion, fawning upon and protecting their benefactors. Of this sort were the "Bisclaveret " in Marie de France's poem (c. 1200), the hero of "William and the Werewolf " (translated from French into English about 1350), and the numerous princes and princesses, knights and ladies, who appear temporarily in beast form in the German fairy tales, or Märchen. See "Snow White and Rose Red," where the tame bear is really a bewitched prince. The lubins or lupins of France were usually female and shy in contrast to the aggressive loup-garous.
Indeed, the power of transforming others into wild beasts was attributed not only to malignant sorcerers, but also to Christian saints. Omnes angeli, boni et mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra ("All angels, good and bad have the power of transmutating our bodies") was the dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Patrick transformed Vereticus , a king in Wales, into a wolf; and St. Natalis cursed an illustrious Irish family with the result that each member of it was doomed to be a wolf for seven years. In other tales the divine agency is still more direct, while in Russia, again, men are supposed to become werewolves through incurring the wrath of the devil.
Becoming a werewolf
Historical legends describe a wide variety of methods for becoming a werewolf. One of the simplest was the removal of clothing and putting on a belt made of wolf skin, probably a substitute for the assumption of an entire animal skin which also is frequently described. In other cases the body is rubbed with a magic salve. To drink water out of the footprint of the animal in question or to drink from certain enchanted streams were also considered effectual modes of accomplishing metamorphosis. Olaus Magnus says that the Livonian werwolves were initiated by draining a cup of specially prepared beer and repeating a set formula. Ralston in his Songs of the Russian People gives the form of incantation still familiar in Russia. It is also said that when a woman gives birth to six female children, the seventh will be a male and a werewolf. In Galician, Portuguese and Brazilian folklore, it is the seventh of the sons. This belief was so extended in Northern Argentina, that seventh sons were abandoned, ceded in adoption or killed. A law from 1920 decreed that the President of Argentina is the godfather of the every seventh son. Thus, the State gives him a gold medal in his baptism and a scholarship until his 21st year. This ended the abandonments, but it is still traditional that the President godfathers seventh sons.
Various methods also existed for removing the beast-shape. The simplest was the act of the enchanter (operating either on himself or on a victim), and another was the removal of the animal belt or skin. To kneel in one spot for a hundred years, to be reproached with being a werewolf, to be saluted with the sign of the cross, or addressed thrice by baptismal name, to be struck three blows on the forehead with a knife, or to have at least three drops of blood drawn have also been mentioned as possible cures.
In other cases the transformation was supposed to be accomplished by Satanic agency voluntarily submitted to, and that for the most loathsome ends, in particular for the gratification of a craving for human flesh. "The werwolves," writes Richard Verstegan (Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1628), "are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an oyntment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, doe not onely unto the view of others seeme as wolves, but to their owne thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they weare the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in wourrying and killing, and most of humane creatures." Such were the views about lycanthropy current throughout the continent of Europe when Verstegan wrote. The ointments and salves in question may have contained hallucinogenic agents.
Theories of origin
A recent theory has been proposed to explain werewolf episodes in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ergot, which causes a form of foodborne illness, is a fungus that grows in place of rye grains in wet growing seasons after very cold winters. Ergot poisoning usually affects whole towns or at least poor areas of towns and results in hallucinations, mass hysteria and paranoia, as well as convulsions and sometimes death. (LSD is derived from ergot.) Ergot poisoning has been proposed as both a cause of an individual believing that he or she is a werewolf and of a whole town believing that they had seen a werewolf.
Like most attempts to use modern science explain away religious beliefs and folklore, this theory is controversial. For example, it does not explain why outbreaks of witchcraft hysteria and legends of animal transformations exist around the world, including in places where there is no ergot. Hysteria and superstition have existed across the world for all of recorded history, and, generally speaking, fungus poisoning is not to blame.
Similarly, some modern researchers have tried to use conditions such as rabies, hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth over the entire body) or porphyria as an explanation for werewolf beliefs, although the symptoms of those ailments don't match up well with the folklore or the evidence of the episodes of hysteria either.
There is also a rare mental disorder called clinical lycanthropy, in which an affected person has a delusional belief that he or she is transforming into another animal, although not always a wolf or werewolf.
Others believe werewolf legends arose as a part of shamanism and totem animals in primitive and nature-based cultures. The term therianthropy has been adopted to describe a spiritual concept in which the individual believes he or she has the spirit or soul, in whole or in part, of a non-human animal.
Werewolves in modern fiction
The process of transmogrification is portrayed in many films and works of literature to be painful. The resulting wolf is typically cunning but merciless, and prone to killing and eating people without compunction regardless of the moral character of the person when human. The form a werewolf takes is not always an ordinary wolf, but is often anthropomorphic or may be otherwise larger and more powerful than an ordinary wolf. Many modern werewolves are also supposedly immune to damage caused by ordinary weapons, being vulnerable only to silver objects (usually a bullet or blade). This negative reaction to silver is sometimes so strong that the mere touch of the metal on a werewolf's skin will cause burns. Current-day werewolf fiction almost exclusively involve lycanthropy being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like a disease by the bite of another werewolf.
Werewolves have been used in many movies, short stories, and novels, with varying degrees of success. The genre was made popular in recent times by the classic Universal Studios movie The Wolf Man (1941), starring Lon Chaney Jr. as the werewolf Larry Talbot. This movie contained the now-famous rhyme: "Even a man who is pure in heart / And says his prayers at night / May become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms / And the autumn moon is bright." This movie is often credited with originating several aspects of the legend which differ from traditional folklore (including invulnerability to non-silver weapons, contagiousness, and association with the moon).
More recently, the portrayal of werewolves has taken a significantly more sympathetic turn in some circles. With the rise of environmentalism and other back-to-nature ideals, the werewolf has come to be seen as a representation of humanity allied more closely with nature.
- A prime example of this outlook can be seen in the role-playing game Werewolf: The Apocalypse in which players roleplay various werewolf characters who work on behalf of Gaia against the destructive supernatural spirit named Wyrm, who represents the forces of destructive industrialization and pollution.
- Author Whitley Strieber previously explored these themes in his novels The Wild (in which the werewolf is portrayed as a medium through which to bring human intelligence and spirit back into nature) and The Wolfen (in which werewolves are shown to act as predators of humanity, acting as a "natural" control on their population now that it has been removed from the traditional limits of nature).
- The novel Howling Mad by Peter David takes the unusual approach of featuring a wolf who has been bitten by a werewolf, becoming a "werehuman" as a result. The werehuman provides the reader with a unique perspective on human civilization.
- Joss Whedon's TV program Buffy the Vampire Slayer featured a likeable young werewolf, Daniel 'Oz' Osborne, who often assisted Buffy in fighting evil while in human form.
- J.K. Rowling uses a werewolf named Remus Lupin in her Harry Potter series as the only competent Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher.
Unsympathetic portrayals of Werewolves as monsters also continue to be common in popular culture.
- J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium also features werewolves. Tolkien's werewolves are not shapeshifters, but evil spirits in wolf-form. See: werewolves (Middle-earth).
- Angela Carter's The Company of Wolves is a modern take on the story of Little Red Riding Hood in which the wolf is actually a werewolf.
- Werewolves are also featured in computer games, for example the 1995 Sierra On-Line game The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery.
- Arby Stones, "Hellhounds, Werewolves and the Germanic Underworld"
- A timeline of werewolves, shapeshifters, and hominid cryptozoology
- The Book of Were-Wolves, by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1865
- Therianthropy History Timeline
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