The Legend of the European Werewolf

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The belief in lycanthropes or werewolves dates back to ancient times with Ovid, Virgil and Herodotus all expressing belief in the phenomenon.  Although the origin of the myth of the werewolf is unknown, in one of the earliest examples of a werewolf legend, Greek mythology tells of the story of Lycaon who was transformed into a wolf as a result of eating human flesh and wandered in that shape for nine years.

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Lycaon by Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) for Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book I.   Image Source

They also appear frequently in the Scandinavian and Viking sagas, which refer to them as eigi einhamir or ‘not of one’s skin’.  The Norse god Loki and the goddess Angerboda were parents to several werewolves, including Fenris, who could break through any chain placed on him by the gods until a the god Tyr bound him with a magical spell made by the dwarfs.

In Armenian legends, there are women who in consequence of committing 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 which she must wear until morning draws near, when she can remove it and return to human form.

List of countries and their equivalent myths:

  • France – loup-garou
  • Greece – lycanthropos
  • Spain – hombre lobo
  • Bulgaria – varkolak, vulkodlak
  • Czech Republic – vlkodlak
  • Serbia – vukodlak
  • Russia – oboroten, vurdalak
  • Ukraine – vovkulak, vurdalak, vovkun, pereverten
  • Croatia – vukodlak
  • Poland – wilko?ak
  • Romania – vârcolac
  • Scotland – werewolf, wulver
  • England – werewolf
  • Ireland – faoladh, conriocht
  • Germany – Werwolf
  • Holland – weerwolf
  • Denmark/Sweden/Norway –  Varulv
  • Norway/Iceland – kveld-ulf,varúlfur
  • Galicia – lobisón
  • Portugal/Brazil – lobisomem
  • Lithuania – vilkolakis, vilkatlakis
  • Latvia – vilkatis, vilkacis
  • Andorra – home llop
  • Estonia – libahunt
  • Argentina – lobizón, hombre lobo
  • Italy – lupo mannaro

People suspected of being a werewolf were often treated much like suspected witches or vampires, especially in the middle ages and if found guilty after a trial, would be put to death in some barbaric fashion, such as being burned at the stake.  In France, especially in the 16th century, the werewolf trials were particularly numerous.  The lubins or lupins as they were known were usually female who were usually considered less aggressive than their male counterpart, the loup-garous

According to one 16th century Prussian bishop, werewolves were much more destructive than “true and natural wolves” and they formed “an accursed college” of those “desirous of innovations contrary to the divine law”.  Not all people believed to be werewolves were punished by death as some were seen as God fearing people who had been cursed by a witch, so were sent to a monastery for help.

The power of transforming others into wolves was not only attributed to the un-Godly but also to Christian saints.  St. Patrick transformed Welsh king Vereticus, into a wolf and St. Natalis cursed an illustrious Irish family so that each of its members was doomed to be a wolf for seven years.

There were varying ways it was believed somebody could become a werewolf besides for being cursed by a Saint or a witch.  In some cases, simply clothing yourself in a wolf’s skin could result in the transformation, “The werewolves,” according to Richard Verstegan in his work, ‘Restitution of Decayed Intelligence’, 1628;

“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 inchaunted 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 said girdle”.

Being born the seventh son of a seventh son was another way, according to some legends.  Such children in Portugal and Brazil were often named Bento after St Benedict meaning Blessed, which was believed to prevent the curse from taking hold.

Modern fiction has added aspects of the legend that were rare or unheard of in ancient folk law.  ‘Satyricon’ written in the year 60 AD by Gaius Petronius refers to the wolf-man’s transformation as happening during the full moon and although medieval chronicler Gervase Tilbury also associated the transformation with the full moon, the connection was rarely made until it became a popular feature in modern writing.

Surviving a bite from such a beast would also lead to the victim becoming a lycanthrope and although this concept is common in modern fiction, it is rare in legend as werewolf attacks seldom left the victim alive to transform.  The idea that a werewolf can be killed with a silver bullet is almost universally accepted by modern writers however it is not found as a feature of the folk-law of the European werewolf.

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Werewolf, William Blake.  Image Source

From ancient times to modern day, the idea of a man or woman transforming into a wolf has excited, entertained and scared people from all walks of life.  The legend of the werewolf continues to grow and what was once a group of stories handed down orally from one generation of European to the next, has more recently been developed by professional writers and has become a part of the global consciousness.

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