Shapeshifters are a constant in human culture, especially the belief in humans with the ability to transform into animals. The most popular of these is the werewolf.
But how far back into history does the belief in werewolves go? Where did this idea originate? And what does the idea of the werewolf say about us?
Let’s start with the etymology. Most of the terms we associate with this creature are essentially compound words. The word werewolf is derived from the Old English werwulf, which is in turn related to the Middle High German werewulf. The “were-” prefix simply means “man”; the term can be literally translated as “man-wolf”. This template appears in Old Frankish as wariwulf, in Anglo-Norman as garwulf and in Old Norse as varúlfur. Another commonly-used term follows the same structure. The word lycanthrope comes from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος (lukánthropos), again meaning “wolf-man”. Lycanthropy can refer to the act of transformation or the ability itself.
In Histories, the Greek writer Herodotus recorded that a tribe of men with the ability to turn into wolves roamed Scythia, and in Satyricon (a work of prose dating from circa 60AD) by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, the character Niceros tells the story of his friend who became a wolf. They were walking in the woods when his friend had the sudden compulsion to remove all his clothes, urinate in a circle around the pile of garments and then flee into the woods in the form of a wolf. However, many early werewolf tales of the Classical world had a recurring theme – the consumption of human flesh and the consequent punishment for such a transgression. In the myth of Lycaon, the king of Arcadia has his own son killed, cooked and served to Zeus, in order to test the god’s omniscience. To punish Lycaon for the crimes of murder and cannibalism, Zeus turns Lycaon into a wolf. The Roman author Pliny the Elder also writes of a man who turned into a wolf after tasting the entrails of a child, but returned to human form ten years later.
Perhaps the association between werewolves and great cultural taboos, like cannibalism or infanticide, is what made alleged werewolves such prime victims for early modern moral panics in Europe. Before the fourteenth century, the belief in werewolves was not widespread, but in the wake of the witch trials, so-called “werewolf panic” took root and “werewolfism” became a common accusation in witch trials. Furthermore, werewolves were deeply entrenched in the pagan traditions of Scandinavia and Germany; you might be familiar with the Viking berserkers, warriors who wore animal skins in order to take on the fierce traits of the creature, channeling the animal’s spirit. Early Germanic tribes had their equivalent, the Tierkrieger – literally “animal warriors”. What better way for the church to inspire loyalty in the flock all across Europe than by portraying a physical manifestation of the old pagan ways as the ultimate enemy?
The best known examples of werewolf trials took place in France and Germany during the 16th and 17th centuries. Gilles Garnier was a reclusive hermit living in Dole, France. In his testimony, he said he had recently married and found it difficult to provide for his new wife. While out hunting in the forest, a spectre had materialised and given him an ointment which would turn him into a wolf to make it easier to hunt. At trial, he confessed to having murdered and eaten four children between the ages of 9 and 12. He was arrested after a group of workers witnessed him eating the body of a dead child. Garnier was burned at the stake in 1573, following the testimonies of more than 50 witnesses. A later French example – that of Jean Grenier – took place at the turn of the 17th century. In 1603, 14-year-old Grenier was accused of kidnapping and murdering infants, and claimed to have been initiated into devil worship by his friend. A young woman had been assaulted by a creature in the woods; Grenier claimed to have taken the form of a wolf in order to maul her. Seven years later, he was visited in prison by the demonologist Pierre de Lancre who said Grenier had grown long, sharp teeth, could only howl like a wolf and would eat his own filth.
One of the better documented German werewolf trials was that of Peter Stumpp (or Stumpf), a farmer accused of witchcraft and lycanthropy. Known as the Werewolf of Bedburg, Stumpp stated under torture that he had practised witchcraft since he was twelve and had been given a magic belt as a gift from the Devil. He believed that the belt enabled him to become a wolf. He confessed to killing and eating fourteen children and two pregnant women, as well as the women’s fetuses. One of the children was his own son. In 1589, Stumpp was executed by having all his limbs broken on the wheel and then being beheaded, along with his daughter and his mistress who were both flayed. Stumpp’s story was the inspiration for the song “The Werewolf of Bedburg” by Macabre, and he is referred to in The Exorcist: “Well, there’s William Stumpf, for example. Or Peter. I can’t remember. Anyway, a German in the sixteenth century who thought he was a werewolf”.
It makes sense that our ancestors’ fears should manifest as a wolf, as wolves were far more numerous across Europe in the past. The wolves of England were hunted to extinction during the reign of Henry VII, but the last wolf in Scotland is believed to have been killed in 1680. However, the wolf population of mainland Europe continues to grow; excluding Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, there are 12,000 grey wolves across 28 European countries (relevant study here). The difference is that we now understand the behaviour of wolves and modern lifestyles mean we are far less likely to clash with local wolf populations.
The werewolf of today has been relegated to the realm of fiction, but for our ancestors it was believed to pose a very real threat – not just to their physical safety, but their spiritual and moral integrity too.
My sources, where you can find out more:
- Gilles Garnier: The Werewolf of Dole, werewolves.com
- Les Loups-Garous, la Vraie Histoire (The Werewolf: the True Story), Mindshadow
- Old Time Farm Crime: The Werewolf Farmer of Bedburg, Modern Farmer
- Peter Stumpp, Horrorpedia
- Werewolves: Lore, Legend and Lycanthropy, Live Science