The World of the Werewolf

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.

WeirdTalesv36n2pg038_The_Werewolf_Howls-624x723

“The Werewolf Howls”, Mont Sudbury (published in “Weird Tales”, 1941)

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?

berserker woodcut from 1872

Copy of a woodcut depicting a berserker (1872)

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”.

werewolf attack woodcut lucas cranach elder 1512

Woodcut of a werewolf attack, Lucas Cranach the Elder (1512)

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:

Lunar Files #2: The Cannock Chase Werewolf

This is the second installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of werewolf (or wolf-like  creature) cases.

Cannock Chase is an area of dense woodland and countryside in Staffordshire, England. A designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it encompasses 26 square miles of land.

I’ve visited on several occasions and I can testify to its beauty. However, if local folklore is to be believed, Cannock Chase is home to more than just flora and fauna.

Stories of a werewolf lurking in the vast expanse of forest have circulated since at least the 1970s. In 1975, a group of paranormal investigators witnessed a “snarling beast” rearing up on its hind legs before heading into the bushes out of sight. According to a supernatural survey, the Fringe Weird report, the Chase has been the setting for 20 encounters with an unknown wolf-like creature.

Over three decades later, the Stafford Post published an article in April 2007 with the input of the West Midlands Ghost Club. WM Ghost Club stated that they had received dozens of calls from people with strange stories and spooky sightings of the beast. An early report was that of a local postman, who saw what he believed to be a werewolf near the German War Cemetery on the site. At first, he assumed it was a large dog, but as he got closer, it stood up on its hind legs and fled. A second report from a scout master detailed a similar incident. He also witnessed some sort of canid prowling near the bushes; he too thought it was a peculiarly big dog. When he got into his car and slammed the door, the creature rose to its full height on two legs and ran into the trees: “It just looked like a huge dog… it must have been about six to seven feet tall. I know it sounds absolutely mad, but I know what I saw.”

According to the Stoke Sentinel, in June 2006, a lupine creature was seen dodging traffic on the M6, a main motorway here in England. More chilling is a tale related by the unnamed journalist: a 17-year-old in Eccleshall allegedly sold his soul to the Devil via a ouija board in order to gain the ability to transform into a werewolf. He later committed suicide by stabbing himself to death. This was in 1975, coinciding with the first werewolf sighting. Unfortunately, the reporter did not disclose a source.

Among the reports from residents in the vicinity of Cannock Chase, the war cemetery is a recurring location of sightings, leading some investigators to suggest a supernatural connection. On the other hand, there are multiple proponents of an alternative theory, based on the geography of the Chase and past cases of animal mutilations, that the so-called werewolves are a subterranean species emerging from the old and disused mines in the area and surviving by hunting deer and small wildlife.

Whatever you believe about the alleged werewolf of Cannock Chase, you might join me in vowing not to go wandering through the woods alone, under a full moon.

Further reading:

Lunar Files #1: The Michigan Dogman

This is the first installment of The Lunar Files, a series of articles based upon my research of reported werewolf (or wolf-like creature) cases.

Wexford County in Northern Michigan has a population of around 35,000 people, but it seems that one inhabitant – the focus of a legend which dates back at least 130 years – is more sinister than you might expect. Said to tower at seven feet tall, the creature is a terrifying combination of man and canine. It has the head and claws of a canid but the torso of a man. It gazes upon its prey through amber eyes and howls a piercing human scream. According to the myth, which is said by some to date back to early Odawa settlements in the Manistee area, the Dogman is a creature of habit that hunts in ten year cycles.

The first recorded Dogman sighting took place in 1887, when lumberjacks working in rural Wexford County caught sight of a bizarre creature with the body of a man and the head of a dog. In the following decades, more and more witnesses reported seeing something unnatural out in the woods along the Manistee River. In 1938, in the township of Paris, a young man called Robert Fortney was attacked by five wild dogs while fishing. The horrific part of his testimony was that one of the dogs stood up on two legs to maul him. The creature – or creatures – was seen by witnesses throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

It is easy to get caught up and carried away with these sinister sightings, but it’s worth noting that much of the publicity and continued media interest the Dogman receives today should be attributed to The Legend, a song recorded by local DJ Steve Cook of WTCM Radio in 1987 – the centenary of that first account. It was intended as an April Fools’ prank, a treat for his loyal listeners, and he has stated that the beast in the song “was kind of an amalgamation of all these creatures I’d heard as a kid and heard stories about.” However, what began as a joke became a sensation. The radio station received dozens of calls from people claiming to have encountered a creature like the one described in the song. It was then that Cook decided to investigate further and realised just how far back into history the stories went.

In 2007, a film, widely referred to as The Gable Film, surfaced. Upon first viewing, it appears to be a home movie, featuring clips of a man chopping wood, a dog running in the woods and a child playing. However, the final 20 seconds show a strange lumbering creature on all fours approach the cameraman. The beast appears to collide with the cameraman and a flash of teeth is shown, then the video cuts out.

The film was eventually discovered to be a hoax. On a TV series called Monster Quest, Steve Cook explained how the film was made, adding that the supposed creature was actually an actor in a Ghillie suit.

In a way, the popular image of the Michigan Dogman as it exists today belongs to Steve Cook. Those reports and accounts, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries, might never have been connected without him. He considers himself a sceptic, because he’s seen the legend evolve – people have taken the tale inherent in the song and, perhaps, blown it out of proportion. Maybe the fame of the song has caused some bias among alleged witnesses.

Then again, Cook accepts that the legend is “an avenue” for people to explain sightings that they might not otherwise understand. There is still a lingering sense of fear in interviews with witnesses, as seen on documentaries like Monsters and Mysteries in America. The terror that people felt – whether or not they truly faced the Dogman – makes the final line of The Legend especially eerie. What if there is some truth behind Steve Cook’s simple tune about a local myth?

And somewhere in the northwoods darkness a creature walks upright
And the best advice you may ever get …
Is don’t go out at night.

 

For more about the Dogman: