Monday, February 14, 2011

The Pre-Modern Werewolf

Werewolves have been prevalent Characters in horror movies and literature over the years. The thought of a man that can change into a half wolf by the full moon is something that has haunted the dreams of society for ages. The beast that is featured in movies with their long fangs and hair-covered bodies, howling at the full moon and running around and turning others into werewolves has been proven just a fictitious creature created by the Hollywood minds. Werewolves were once very real, but as society evolved their place was lost and they assimilated to the modern ways. The idea of the werewolf or the wolf in general is an archetype that is found in cultures all around the world and is a prominent figure in their literature and mythology. Like many myths and legends however, the image and explanation of the werewolf has been changing over the years to change with the times.
The idea of shapeshifting (changing one’s physical appearances into something else) has been around since the dawn of time. Nearly every culture has stories of shapeshifter lore. For example in Native American lore they have the yenaldooshi who are men that can turn into coyotes, Bearwalkers which are men that can turn into bears and Nahuales which are men that can turn into a number of animals like eagles, jaguars, snakes, coyotes, etc. Likewise nearly all cultures have lore about men turning into wolves, or having deep connections with the wolf. The first lore came from the ancient Mesopotamians in the book Gilgamesh where Gilgamesh’s best friend Inkidu transforms into a wolf-like creature in the woods after putting on a cloak. In Greek mythology there was the god Lykaon who was half man half wolf. The ancient Greeks worshipped this god even sacrificing humans to him, thus believing that there were creatures out there like Lykaon (South 267). The Romans had their share of wolf lore also. They believed Romulus and Remus were raised by wolves before they founded the city of Rome (South 267). Perhaps one of the more well known and more hostile of the werewolf mythologies is of the Norse god Fenrir. Fenrir was chained up by Odin and is supposed to break out at the apocalypse (South 269). Also Germanic myths talk about ancestors dying heroic deaths and coming back as wolves (South 270). Theses basic archetypes of wolves, and men turning into wolves through different circumstances has always existed.
The Medieval era was where the werewolf phenomenon was most prevalent. From around 1520 – 1600 in Western Europe was when all the stories of slaughtering and wolf men started to multiply (Legends of the Werewolf). According to the Europeans by what they experienced during this time there were several different ways of becoming a werewolf. There was the slim chance of having the werewolf gene. One could obtain a magical cloak or belt (like in Gilgamesh), or even be transformed by a witch. The most popular though is that the person entered a pact with the devil and obtained this “gift” of being able to turn into a wolf (Oldridge 95). It was also an accepted thought that werewolves were witches that could disguise themselves (Oldridge 99).
Richard Verstegan writes in 1628 in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence about the transformation: “[werewolves] are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne enchanted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the girdle, And they dispose themselves as very worrying and killing, and most of humane creatures.” Verstegan hints in his work that werewolves don’t realize what they are doing when they are transformed as he says “to their own thinking.” He also hints, as some other writers of the time hinted, that these werewolves can only transform when they are in this state of trance or simply asleep (Irvine 70).
No matter the method of becoming a werewolf, this transformation was accepted throughout Medieval and part of Renaissance Europe. Werewolves were savages they killed, were out for blood and were associated with the devil. Across Western Europe, mainly in Germany and France there were many documented cases of men turning into werewolves and killing people. One case was in 1573, a lawyer by the name of Jean Bodin recorded the trial of Gilles Garnier, a werewolf who slaughtered multiple people (Oldridge 97). Another account was Jean Grenier claimed to have the coat that could turn him into a werewolf. He was detained and questioned after local children had been attacked by wolves. Grenier confessed and was convicted of the crimes (Oldridge 106). These were just some of the cases during the werewolf trials that took place in the 16th and early 17th century. Werewolf persecution was not as wide spread and as well known as the witch trials, and is the reason that many people dismiss werewolves as myth. Although like the witch trials false werewolves were accused also.
Werewolves reflect the primitive instincts that lie in everyone. There has always been a thin line between men and beasts. In Renaissance art many paintings depict men turning into animals and vice versa. It was Sabine Baring-Gould that suggested all men had the desire to kill, and that put in the right situation all men are capable of the act of murder (Oldridge 99). This primitive instinct has almost become synonymous with the wolf, and the wolf becomes a figure of terror in many fairy tales. Both in Little Red Riding Hood and in The Three Little Pigs, the wolf is described as the “Big Bad wolf” thus conjuring up in the mind this monster like creature. Other cultures have this idea of the wolf being malevolent figure, especially in the Russian and Germanic cultures where the wolf eats little kids and takes the form of family members so to trick the children. Children then get this idea of dread and fear whenever the wolf is mentioned because they were brought up to fear it. This primitive need to associate evil and benevolence with something that is less than human has been around forever. Instead of blaming evilness on humans and man themselves, the blame is placed onto a manifestation of evil, and the figure of the wolf has become that manifestation (Fodor 311).
The need to escape from the “human realm” is not one that is limited to the primitive man however; modern man also is tempted by it. We see this is the belief of things that are other worldly or occult. It was a thought back in the medieval times that when one was dreaming they were really being carried out of the “human realm” and into the realm of the supernatural by spirits or elementals (faeries). So there was then a link between lycanthropy and dreams and that both was this psychic phenomenon and therefore even explained away some criminal offenses that were committed (Fodor 310).
Werewolf lore is tied almost directly to religion; since during the time period when the werewolf was most prominent was ruled by the Catholic Church. The transformation of man into wolf has an uncomfortable parallel to the transformations in the Bible such as the transformation of Christ on the mountain, water into wine, or the Eucharist which the bread is the flesh or Christ and the wine was his blood. All of this the Church claimed was heresy (Massey 2). The main lore of men turning into a wolf was with help from the devil which finds its root in Judeo-Christian religion. This knowledge came from the pre-modern concerns with the devil not from scientific research or evidence (Oldridge 99). This notion then comes back to faith, and believing in something beyond the control of humans be it God or the Devil. Theologians then rebutted this argument and came out to say that the devil would trick people into believing that they committed crimes when demons actually committed them (Oldridge 108). The question then arose: Does the devil have the power to change the form of humans? The answer according to Henry More was no. “Changing the species of things was a power too big to be granted to the devil” (Oldridge 100).
The werewolf over the time periods of thought was diminished as technology grew and the need to change into a wolf was unnecessary. The middle ages or the medieval period was when the werewolf was in society the most. They were in society previously but they kept to themselves, the werewolf trials were what really brought out the werewolf hysteria. Then came the Renaissance, where thoughts changed and the thought of the werewolf was thought to be possession by the devil, but nothing to fantastical as the accounts of the middle ages (South 271). Years passed and then came the Enlightenment. Scientists discovered many new ideas during this period regarding the basic scientific notions we have today. For example the planets were found to revolve around the sun instead of the earth as previously thought. During this period of new technology and new scientific discoveries, the possibility of a shapeshifter of any kind was thrown out (South 271). Scientists rationalized that the transformation of man to an animal of any kind was impossible. They argued that it was impossible because the soul of the human would have to leave the body and go into the animal which was not equipped house souls (Oldridge 106). Then the Romantic period arrived and shortly after that came the transcendental period, both of which brought the werewolf back out into society mainly in prose and poetry (South 272). Now in the modern society the werewolf is merely a creature of myth that come out in literature and movies. With modern psychiatry any accounts of “werewolves” is now considered to be psychosis (South 272).
The Modern idea of the werewolf, a man that can transform into this half man half wolf hybrid during the full moon, is a creation of Hollywood that came about in the early Twentieth Century (South 280). The first werewolf film was The Werewolf in 1913 by Bison Productions. This was an American film that started the werewolf movie craze, which Germany soon copied (South 282). The Hollywood version tends to be fantastic magical and a lot the time somewhat romantic.
Since then television shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Wolf Lake and Supernatural have all touched on this idea of a “wolf man.” It is mostly presented as a half wolf, half man creature that can change its appearance at the lunar cycle (day before, day after, and day of the full moon). This is another idea that has been thought up by Hollywood, but has some stock in the mythology behind the werewolf. The “lunar” in lunar cycle comes from the word lunacy and it was always said that all things evil would come out during the cycle because the moon incited this “lunacy” in people (Legends of the Werewolf). So in that respect it could be true that in fact the moon brought out of the beast in the werewolf, but it was the initial magical elements that caused the original transformation.
In 1951 a psychologist by the name of Robert Eisler used Carl Jung’s methods to explain the phenomenon of lycanthropy. He said that the outward manifestation is clinical psychosis, but Eisler used Jung’s theory of collective unconsciousness to explain the archetype of the wolf in cultures around the world. Eisler also argued that the notion of man turning into a beast occurred during the evolution from vegetarian apes to carnivorous man (South 275). With modern psychiatry and medicine, doctors have explained medical conditions that cause what could be construed as “werewolfism.” First there’s the psychological disease of Lycanthropy where the patient thinks they are actually a werewolf, but there is the disease of Hypertrycosis where the body produces excess hair that covers it (Legends of the Werewolf).
Most of the werewolf lore that society knows now comes strictly from Hollywood movies. The medieval werewolf was simply a man that could turn into a wolf, with help of some magical object or with a pact with the devil. Hollywood movies tell of a creature that is a cross between a wolf and man that turns at the full moon, can turn others into werewolves with a simple bite, and can be killed with a silver bullet to the heart. Whereas the medieval werewolf doesn’t bite other people and turn them; they just kill them, can be killed like any other man or animal, and is not immortal.
The Hollywood version of the werewolf is a myth, there were never such things as men that could transform into half wolves that prowl the night on the full moon finding victims to turn into more werewolves. There were however once men that could change their forms into wolves with the help of the cursed objects or witchcraft. However in modern society they found themselves obsolete just like the witches with all the new technology. Some still exist though, just like witches still exist, though they don’t go around proclaiming what they do in their spare time. There have been accounts of Para-religious forest clans that have been involved in transformations. So the werewolf shouldn’t just be dismissed as myth, it finds its roots in history and should be acknowledged as one of the great creatures of our past.
Work’s Cited
Irvine, Alex. The Supernatural Book of Monsters, Spirits, Demons, and Ghouls. New York: HaperCollins Publishers, 2007.
“Legend of the Werewolves.” History’s Mysteries. History Channel, A&E Television
Lorenz, Kathryn Mohler, Writing the werewolf: Metamorphosis in medieval literature.
Diss. University of Cincinnati, 1991. ProQuest Digital Dissertations. ProQuest. 5 Nov. 2007
Massey, Jeffry Allen Corpus Lupi: The medieval werewolf and popular theology. Diss.
Emory University, 2003. ProQuest Digital Dissertations. ProQuest. 5 Nov. 2007
Oldridge, Darren. Strange Histories. London and New York: Routledge, 2005
South, Malcolm, et al. Mythological and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and
Research Guide. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Fodor, Nandor. “Lycanthropy as a Psychic Mechanism”. The Journal of American
Folklore. 58.230 (1945): 310 – 316.


Amanda said...

This is freakin' awesome!!! Keep it up!!! I think you miss school, though! ;)

petoskystone said...

Well written & so timely! (however, in the sentence "Other cultures have this idea of the wolf being benevolent figure..." did you mean malevolent instead of benevolent?)

Sam Curtin said...

Petoskystone, thanks! And yes I did mean malevolent, whoops!

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