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A werewolf in mythology is a person who changes into a wolf, either by purposefully using magic in some manner or by being placed under a curse. In later legends and fictional treatments this transformation is said to take place at full moon, either for a few nights every month or permanently. The name has been thought to derive from either Latin vir (or German: we(h)r, we(h)ren (Abwehr, Feuerwehr, Bundeswehr: defense group of men, Old Prussian: wirs: meaning men and Old English wer) meaning man, man-wolf or weri (to wear), wearer of the wolf skin. however it is most probably 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 the Hobbit by Tolkien) and it was used as well for what would now be called a serial killer. The Greek term lycanthrope (wolf-man) is also commonly used. The general term for the metamorphosis of people into animals is turnskin[?] or turncoat (Latin: versipellis, Russian : oboroten, O. Norse : hamrammr).

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History of the Werewolf

Many European countries and cultures have stories of werewolves, including Greece (lycanthropos), Russia (volkodlak), England (werwolf), Germany (Werwolf), and France (loup-garou). 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.

Shapeshifters similar to werewolves are common in myths from all over the world, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves. See lycanthropy for a more general treatment of this phenomenon.

In Greek mythology the story of Lycaon supplies one of the earliest examples of a werwolf 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 (Hist. Nat. 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 of eastern Europe, were annually transformed for a few days, and Virgil (Ecl. viii. 98) is familiar with transformation of human beings into wolves. 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 werwolves 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-Christianic position of being simply a "man-wolf-fiend." In 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 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 werwolves 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 Marchen of the Aryan nations generally. 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, was the dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas[?]. St. Patrick transformed Vereticus[?], king of 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.

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. 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 werwolf, 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 devill, 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.

Scientific background

A recent theory has been proposed to explain werewolf episodes in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ergot[?], which causes a form of food poisoning, 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. Ergot has also been suggested as a cause for the "bewitchings" and mass hysteria leading to the Salem witch trials.

Like most attempts to use modern science explain away religious beliefs and folklore, this theory is somewhat controversial. For example, it does not explain why attacks 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 for most of them.

There is also a (rare) mental disorder called Lycanthropy, in which the afflicted person believes him- or herself to be a werewolf.

Werewolves in Modern Fiction

The process of transmogrification is widely supposed in both film and 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 legends almost exclusively involve lycanthropy being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like a disease by the bite of another werewolf.

Werewolves have been dealt with 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."

More recently, the portrayal of werewolves has taken a significantly positive 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 Streiber[?] 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 Wolven[?] (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).

Werewolves still continue to be popular as monsters in movies and literature, however. The recent film Ginger Snaps[?] made use of lycanthropy as an analogue to puberty, portraying the unsettling physical and emotional changes of human adolescence through the device of lycanthropic transformation.

The novel Howling Mad by Peter David takes the novel approach of featuring a wolf who has been bitten by a werewolf, becoming a "were-human" as a result. The werehuman provides the reader with a unique perspective on human civilization.

Select films featuring werewolves:

Select novels featuring werewolves:

Other uses of the term "werewolf"

  • German author Hermann Löns[?] wrote a book called "Der Wehrwolf" (available online at [1] (http://gutenberg.aol.de/loens/wehrwolf/wehrwolf.htm), in German), describing an uprising of farmers against oppression by the state.
  • When Germany was on the verge of defeat by allied forces at the end of World War II, the remaining Nazis planned a "resistance movement" named Wehrwolf. It is doubtful that such a group ever existed, though.

See also : vampire, lycanthropy, werewolf novels, werewolf films[?]

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