|"His eyes are eager, his teeth are keen
As he slips at night through the brush like a snake
Crouching and cringing straight into the wind
To leap with a grin on the fawn in the break"
- Hamlin Garland
The moment mankind decided it was no longer part of the animal kingdom, the Werewolf was born. And not just the Werewolf, but a whole host of other Were-animals. Around the world, stories of man-beasts took root, combining the now denied viciousness of man's animal nature with the physical attributes of the region's most feared predator. Were-tigers and Were-bears roamed Asia, Were-hyenas prowled Africa, Were-coyotes hunted in Central America and Were-lizards slithered across New Zealand. Were-leopard traditions in West Africa centre around the leopard-men societies, whose members dress in leopard skins, arm themselves with iron claws, and mutilate their enemies in emulation of the beasts into whose likeness they claim the ability to transform themselves. Belief in Were-hyenas is so entrenched within the traditional lore of the Bornu people of north-eastern Nigeria that their language even contains a special word 'bultungin' which translates as ' I change myself into a hyena.' Assam and Myanmar, meanwhile, are home to tiger-men cults, parallelling Africa's leopardine counterparts.
The abundance of Werewolf reports in medieval Europe no doubt stemmed from the vast number of features by which, according to folklore, a person could be unmasked as a Werewolf. Tell-tale traits to look out for when staring into the face of a suspected Werewolf in human form included small pointed ears, protruding teeth, and broad eyebrows that joined on the bridge of the nose. Shaking a suspect's hand offered a good opportunity to check for more clues, such as hairy palms, long curved fingernails tinged with red, and an unusually long third finger.
Ironically, most of the several hundred Native American cultures failed to jump onto this bandwagon, possibly because their beliefs were still firmly entwined with their natural surroundings. You could put it down to a more harmonious relationship with the animal kingdom, or a greater ability to confront honestly the dark side of human nature, but one way or another there didn't seem to be a cultural need for the Werewolf. And there was - and still is - the interspecies mingling provided by the shape-shifters.
The traditional shape-shifter is usually a mystic who changes into an animal or spirit for the good of the tribe, and is said to be able to travel not only the physical plane, but the spiritual as well. If someone is suffering from 'feeling scattered', a shape-shifter can be brought in to roam the spiritual realm and help regroup the patients spiritual self. In cases of food being scarce, a shape-shifter could help to lead a hunt. With the aid of talisman, consisting of a piece of fur or a claw of the animal they wish to become, the shape-shifter physically transforms. Typically if the band is tracking deer, the shape-shifter will become a deer to better lead the hunters to the prey.
A 'bad' shape-shifter, on the other hand, is a sorcerer who has borrowed the body of an animal for nefarious purposes - usually in order to spy on, curse or just spook their enemies. The transformation is made by going into a trance, slipping out-of-body and spiritually diving into the body of an animal. This form of 'borrowing' is a common transglobal concept turning up everywhere from the fictional antics of Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, to genuinely percived reality in the rural villages of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.
To be fair to the puzzeled white man , the legend of the shape-shifter is an intricate and many-faceted one, and there are a handful of areas which overlap the Werewolf lore. The Westerner had brought with them some serious cultural prejudices against people who, for whatever reason, changed into animals. Shape-shifters became Werewolves, themselves identified in Europe with the Devil, and that was the end of the shape-shifter's heretofore pristine reputation.
Why was the Werewolf myth so ingrained in the European psyche that they had to find a local version of the story to claim when they arrived in North America?
For millennia, Werewolves have skulked around the edge of European cultural consciousness. In Pliny's Historia Naturalis there is an account of Werewolves, one of the earilest which Pliny himself passes with skepticism. About a family called Anthus in Arcadia, Greece, one of whose members is chosen by lot every nine years "abrie in deserta transfigurarique in lupum" - to go away into a deserted place and be transformed into a wolf. (There is a similar tale concerning the town of Ossory in Ireland. The people where cursed by Saint Natalis and every seven years two people had to don wolf skins and live as wolves) Around 2,400 years ago, Herodotus wrote about groups of people living in what is now Lithuania and Poland who claimed to turn into wolves for a couple of days a year. Being a progressive type of guy, he, of course, did not really believe it, but many of his less enlightened compatriots certainly did. To understand the European dread of Werewolves, it helps to get a handle on the pre-20th century European dread of normal wolves. In Europe and North Asia, wolves were considered the most dangerous animal to man and his livestock. In France, there were special government institutions for wolf control from at least the regin of Charlemagne (768-814 AD) which remained in place well into the 20th century. Single wolves gained the kind of notoriety reserved these days for serial-killers - the 'Beast of Gevaudan' who roamed the South of Auvergne from 1764 to 1767 and killed at least 60 people. Packs were even more feared and alarming. In 1439, during civil war between the followers of the Count of Armagnac and those of the Duke of Burgundy, opportunistic and hungry wolves roamed right into Paris and proceeded to kill and eat 14 people in as many days.
And those were resonably normal, if slightly Machiavellian wolves. Rabid wolves were even worse. A single bite from one of these fearless and insane animals was your one way ticket to a slow, horrific death.
Given all this, it's not surprising that wolves had a bad reputation in Europe. The fear of wolves pervaded many different aspects of regional cultures. In the first canto of Dante's Inferno in the Commedia the wolf appears in one of the oldest and most durable associations in its history as a symbol of greed and fraud. In the eighth circle of Hell, Dante finds those condemned for "sins of the wolf": seducers and hypocrites, magicians, thieves and liars. In Norse mythology, Fenrir the wolf was the bad guy, eventual slayer of Odin. In the laws of the Franks, the Normans, Cnut, Edward the Confesser and Henry I, 'wolf' or 'wolf's head' meant 'outlaw'. Occasionally in medieval Europe, a wolf would hang next to a condemed criminal on the gallows. And after Cromwell's 1649 campaign in Ireland, wolves were such a serious problem that there was a five pound bounty on wolf heads, the same princely sum being offered for Catholic priests. So there we have it: wolves were not popular. They were seen as clever and evil animals. They dared to take on man, occasionally winning, and in doing so, were attributed with seeming almost human, manifesting some of out worst fears about our suppressed animal instincts.
But how did one become a Werewolf in the first place? Ancient legends provided a variety of possibilities. Quite apart from the deliberate activities such as wearing magical cloaks of wolf skin or participating in magical rituals, there were many ways in which the unwary could fall victim to this malign metamorphosis. Anyone drinking water from the puddles formed in wolves' tracks of from streams frequented by wolves, would surely become a Werewolf. So too, might a person hungry enough to eat the flesh or brains of a wolf, or even the fleash of a sheep killed by a wolf. No doubt medieval Europeans took heart from the claim that Werewolves could be kept at bay by the presence of a sprig of wolfsbane over the door of a house. Also, these creatures were believed to be mortal, and could be killed if shot with a blessed bullet.
A major influence in the Werewolf concept's evolution and often wrongly assumed to be synonymous with werewolfism is lycanthropy (translating as 'the wolf-man condition'). Yet whereas 'genuine' werewolves are confined to the realms of folklore, lycanthropy is a real, abnormal psychological condition, and was recognized as long ago as the 2nd century AD by the scholar Marcellus Sidetes.
A person so afflicted (termed a lycanthrope) suffers from the delusion that he is a wolf or that he can turn himself into one. Depending upon the severity of the case, lycantropes will rip apart raw meat with their teeth, howl and shriek at the full moon, and attack other people with ravaging bloodlust, tearing at their victims' throats in an uncontrollable frenzy.
Also there is the tragic, inherited disease called congenital porphyria. The skin or porphyria sufferers, often yellow and hairy, can be extremely sensitive to light, forcing them to go out mainly at night or risk tissue damage. Ulcers may cause their hands to become deformed and paw-like. Red pigments can appear in their teeth and urine. Their behaviour might become erratic. Sound familar?
In 1990, Werewolf researcher Hugh H. Trotti offered a highly original explanation of the Werewolf myth. He noted that the ancient Egyptian cult of Anubis, whose priests wore a wolf-like mask representing this jackal-headed god of death, eventually became established in Rome where Anubis became known as Hermanubis. By the 1st century AD, moreover, many statues of jackal-headed humans representing Hermanubis had been erected there.
Accordingly, as suggested by Trootti, Germanic troops recruited into the Roman armies who saw preists of Hermanubis wearing their lupine masks, and who also observed the jackal-headed statues would certainly have remembered and referred to them long after the fall of the Roman empire. In turn, it would not be difficult for distorted accounts of these preists and statues to give rise in time to stories of men who could transform into wolves.
Once the Werewolf was a hideous, diabloical creature of dread. Today, thanks to images created by Hollywood, it has its place in popular culture. Like the movie vampire, the Werewolf of the wide screen is increasingly slick suave and sexually charged. From nigthmarish monster of the past to the enduring megastar of the present, and probably the future, the lore of the wolf has undergone a transformation as dramatic as any accomplished by the Werewolf in bygone eras.
Sources and further reading
The Rural Six Nations Traditionalist Belief System 1870-1914
Denis P. Foley
From: Man on the Northeast 1977
Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico
Edited by Fredrick Webb Hodge, Government Printing Office, Washington, 1907
The Way of the Sacred
F. Huxley, Aldus-Jupiter, London, 1974
The Social Biology of Totemism
From Biology and Human Affairs 41
W.M.S. Russell and Claire Russell, 1976
The Social Biology of Werewolves
W.M.S. Russell and Claire Russell
From: Animals in Folklore
J.R. Porter and W.M.S Russell, Editors
D.S. Brewer Ltd; Ipswich and Cambridge 1978
The Wolves of Heaven: Cheyenne Shamanism, Ceremonies, and Prehistoric Origins
Karl H. Schlesier, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 1987
The Werewolf (University Books edn.)
Montague Summers, Universtiy Books, New York, 1966
Paper, Journals & Newspapers
The Iroquoian Concept of the Soul
John N. B. Hewitt
Paper read at the 6th Annual Meeting of the American Folk-Lore Society, Washington, 1894
Witchcraft, Psychopathology and Hallucinations
From: British Journal of Psychiatry III
B. Barnett, 1965
On Pophyria and the Aetiology of Werewolves
Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine 57, 1964