Werewolves. Are they just creatures with anger management issues, or are they simply misunderstood? Werewolves are second only to vampires in the lexicon of horror when it comes to capturing the imagination of the masses. With vampires in the forefront of book and film fantasy at the moment I thought I’d even the playing field a bit by discussing lycanthropy.
The history of the werewolf is generally considered to be of western origin, specifically European, though the myth spread throughout the world eventually, and the first known western story of a man-wolf comes from Greek mythology and concerns the tale of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who tried to disprove Zeus’ divinity by attempting to serve him a dish of a slaughtered and dismembered child. For his efforts Zeus turned him into a wolf and killed his children with lightening bolts. Cultures everywhere have tales of shape-shifters, indeed vampires are shape-shifters; though the proper term for that transformation is actually Therianthropy, or sometimes Zoanthropy. Only in Europe was the wolf the animal that afflicted humans turned into. Native American tribes had many shape-shifting myths, but always it was other animals and birds that humans turned into, and they generally didn’t commit mayhem when they did. That is a uniquely European tale.
It is commonly held that the word werewolf derives from Old English or Norse. Norse seems more likely given that Vargulf was the word used for a wolf that developed the habit of slaughtering large numbers of a herd or flock but eating little or none of the kill. In Norse society a criminal was sometimes called a Vargr, or wolf. The word lycanthropy is of Greek origin and denotes the actual transformation from man into beast.
Lycanthropy is also a term used in psychiatry for a patient who believes they have turned into an animal and behaves accordingly, though the condition is usually referred to as clinical lycanthropy. I think I’ve actually met a few of these people. I imagine many of us have, but there you go. At any rate, the term lycanthropy is used in this sense for animals of any type, not just people who think they are wolves.
As with vampires, werewolves are said to be subject to adverse affects, including death, from certain objects. The most common being silver in any form, but especially bullets. Other things they are said to be vulnerable to are mistletoe, wolf’s bane (obviously), and mountain ash. The silver bullet idea was unheard of before the 19th century and its exact origin is unknown, though it was probably introduced to add a new dimension to the myth by a writer or oral storyteller.
It is generally held that there are two types of werewolves. Voluntary werewolves, people who made a pact with the devil to allow them to transform and commit mayhem, and those who were born under a bad sign, as it were. In some cultures those born at the new moon, or born with epilepsy were deemed likely to be or become werewolves. The idea that one could become one by being bitten or scratched by a werewolf is a product of modern horror movies, and is very rare in cultural mythology.
So how does one get cured of being a lycanthrope? The ancient Greeks and Romans believe in the power of exhaustion. Suspected victims were made to endure many long hours of physical activity in the belief that it would rid them of the malady. It’s thought this came about from the idea that werewolves were physically exhausted by a night of rampage and were then at their most vulnerable. In medieval times there were three methods that were deemed to work. Medicine, surgery and exorcism. Unfortunately the cure was usually fatal, so it couldn’t be proven that it had actually worked in any sense other than that a dead werewolf is one that won’t be a problem any longer. Conversion to Christianity was also thought to be a cure. Yeah, right.
So there you have a short history of lycanthropy, along with a sage piece of advice. The last thing you should ever say to a werewolf is, “oh, bite me.”