The Allure of the Werewolf
Updated: Oct 6
Whether satyr, Minotaur, vampire, or centaur, no part-human creature has ever held for us the allure—or the revulsion—of the werewolf.
by Anjuli McDonald
Humans are fascinated by the idea of taking on the physical characteristics of a terrifying beast or mythical creature. But why do we ﬁnd the thought of becoming part animal so intriguing? Perhaps it is because animals do not live by civilized standards; we are inexorably drawn by the part of us that longs to be reunited with our primal self.
Although a lycanthrope is occasionally used to describe a werewolf, it actually describes someone who suffers from a mental disorder in which he genuinely believes he has turned into a wolf. On the other hand, a werewolf is someone who actually takes on, for brief periods of time, the physical characteristics of a wolf, including fur, elongated teeth, and claws. The transformation is usually triggered by a full moon, the werewolf’s own evil intentions, or the intervention of a sorcerer.
Medieval Europeans believed that, like witches, incipient werewolves could be identified by hairy palms, an elongated middle finger, a single continuous eyebrow, small or pointed ears, or canine-looking teeth. The nail of a wolf was believed to be a talisman against the werewolf, who could be destroyed if attacked with any weapon that had been blessed by a priest.
lt was believed that a man became a werewolf through any number of processes. Being bitten by another werewolf was a sure way to such a metamorphosis, but even an act as harmless as eating wolf meat or drinking from a stream near the path of a wolf could bring on the transformation, a notion that may have been inspired by the fear of contracting rabies from the saliva of a rabid wolf.
Theories and Sightings
From whence does the idea of the werewolf derive? One theory is that prehistoric hunters dressed in wolfskins in the belief that the skins would endow them with the skill and prowess of the wolf. Others conjecture that the werewolf myth was inspired by the Egyptian and Norse cult of the wolf. Even the ancient Greek legend about Lycaon, the barbaric king of Arcadia, has been cited as the possible origin of the werewolf myth. (The tale goes that the King Lycaon once tried to ingratiate himself with Zeus by offering him the ﬂesh of a child. Appalled, Zeus turned the king into a wolf.)
The earliest documented sighting of a werewolf occurred in 1591 in the German countryside, near Cologne and Bedburg. A thriving culture of superstition and fear held Europe in thrall at the time, and as this particular area was located near forests, it was a prime target for wolf attacks, so much so that the citizenry lived in terror of these creatures.
Legend has it that one day, as the townspeople were in the process of killing a wolf, they witnessed the beast turn into the well-known form of their neighbor, Peter Stubbe. Under torture, Stubbe confessed to killing more than a dozen of his neighbors while under the inﬂuence of sorcery. By the use of a magic girdle, Stubbes reported, he had turned himself into a wolf and wreaked havoc on the neighborhood, his bloodlust growing with each attack.
Stubbes’ crimes were considered so heinous that great creativity was put into contriving a suitable punishment for him. After he was tortured on the wheel, his ﬂesh was torn off with red-hot pincers, after which his arms and legs were broken, and his body decapitated. The corpse was then burned to ashes and, as an added ﬁllip, his daughter and mistress were also executed.
Fear of the Wolf
During ancient times, the wolf was admired as a skilled hunter and existed in Celtic and Egyptian mythology as a companion to the Gods. But as civilization became less centered on hunting and more focused on farming and husbandry, the wolf came to be viewed as threatening and wicked. By the late Middle Ages, the wolf was nearly always portrayed as evil, a symbol of the predatory nature of Satan.
This evolution from revered hunter to feared pursuer of humans brought a new layer of horror to the legend of the werewolf, removing from the mythology any appeal and making those accused of being a werewolf universally reviled. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church took advantage of this fear by declaring that those who dealt with the devil would become werewolves themselves. In fact, in 1270, the Church declared that those who did not believe in the existence of werewolves were to be considered heretics. Genuine belief on the part of the Church hierarchy was certainly evidenced in this policy, but it was mixed with a deliberate use of the manipulative nature of power.
Even as the influence of the Church began to wane during the Protestant Reformation, the Church hierarchy clung to their stand on all matters of the occult, in an effort to subjugate their increasingly rebellious parishioners, thus continuing the religious castigation against those who practiced the Dark Arts or those who were believed to be werewolves.
But nowhere was the werewolf taken more seriously than in 16th-century France, when hundreds of innocent people were put to death on suspicion of being werewolves. Between 1520 and 1630, close to 30,000 people were suspected of, tried, tortured, and killed for being werewolves.
By the 17th century, as the study of science began to free Europeans from superstition, laws against werewolves were all but eliminated in Europe. Yet their myth remained, particularly in Ireland, where wolves existed in great numbers, long after they had disappeared from the English countryside. In fact, the fear of wolves and werewolves in Ireland was so great that ancient legends were perpetuated in the Irish canon for years after the werewolf superstition had abated.
An Inspirational Motif
Medieval European literature was also inspired by the myth of the werewolf. The Topographia Hibernica, written by Gerald of Wales in the 13th century, describes how a priest and his traveling companion encountered a werewolf couple while on their way to Meath. The male beast approaches their campﬁre, explaining that, although he cannot come into the light (as his form would terrify the priest), beneath his lupine visage he is a Christian human.
After the priest persuades the creature to approach the firelight, the werewolf describes how the local Abbott has cursed the people of the town of Ossory for what he considered their sins. Thereafter, two citizens of the town must wear the shape of a wolf for seven years at a time. At the end of each seven-year cycle, they regain their human form, and two others must take their place. This scenario depicts the priest as compassionate rather than judgmental, and the werewolves as deserving of sympathy.
Also writing in the early 13th century, Gervase of Tilbury in Otia Imperialia described the story of Raimbaud de Pinetum of Auvergne, a former soldier of third-century France who has been disinherited. Rainihaud is described as “smitten by a great dread... lost his senses, and turned into a wolf.” He then preys on the locals until his hand is amputated by a courageous woodworker, a move that restores him to his former self. Later, Raimbaud is said to have stated that he chose to lose a limb in order to regain his human state, as it was a folkloric belief that the loss of a limb would restore the werewolf to humanity.
The cult of the werewolf lay relatively dormant between the late medieval and modern periods until the advent of the motion picture revived the public’s fascination. Scientific explanations of lycanthropy have served to dispel the horror once reserved for this man/wolf, yet humanity remains intrigued by the thought that one of their number could assume the form of this feared creature. Despite our modern determination to explain away our ancient myths, the cult of the werewolf seems destined to live on, intriguing and horrifying us as long as there are campﬁres around which tales can be told.
Anjuli McDonald (Ellen McDaniel-Weissler) is a writer, actress, singer, teacher, and activist who lives on a mountainside with her husband, their two sons, and their dopey dog Bella. (Actually, the sons are dopey, too.) The family enjoys medieval re-enactment with the Society for Creative Anachronism. This article was originally published in Renaissance Magazine issue #28, and was reworked for Mystorical.