Howlingly good: Werewolves

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A typical werewolf illustration, from a 1941 edition of “Weird Tales” magazine (via Wikimedia Commons)

April’s North Clare article. 

Werewolves refuse to die in popular culture. In recent years, werewolf fiction has attempted to move on from the tired old monster who awakes at each full moon. Or, if you want to put it another way, it’s going back to its roots.

Belief in shapeshifters is global. Where no wolves existed, there were other were-animals, such as tigers, bears or even alligators. One story from Liberia concerns a woman who could transform into a leopard at will; her lazy husband asked her to do so to save him the bother of hunting. When she transformed she terrified him, and he never skipped his hunting duties again.

As the above story illustrates, therianthropy (the ability to transform into an animal) was not always seen as a bad skill to have. For the Turkic people of Central Asia, the wolf was a sacred animal. They believed they themselves descended from wolves, and that their shamans learned the ability to transform into wolves as part of their training.

The Vikings had an ambivalent relationship with wolves; Fenrir was a monstrous wolf who would kill Odin at the end of the world, but they respected their ferocity and pack loyalty. Certain Norse warriors, similar to the berserkers (soldiers who would literally “go berserk” during battle) believed they could transform into wolves, and wore wolfskins.

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The real thing (Tracy Brooks, US Fish and Wildlife Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Ireland, wolves roamed until the late 18th century. They were driven to extinction by the fur trade, and a bounty first offered by Cromwell’s government. Prior to this, the Irish people lived in relative harmony with the wolf. This is reflected in the Irish name for the wolf, mac tíre, or “son of the countryside”. Irish werewolves were a lot gentler than their continental equivalents. Irish lycanthropy was a genetic condition that afflicted certain families (the surnames Whelan and Phelan come from faolan, the Irish term for a werewolf). Gerald of Wales wrote of a family of werewolves in Ossory (today Offaly/Kilkenny) who were cursed to live as werewolves for a seven-year period. This went in rotation per married couple (presumably, marrying into the family meant you, too, became a werewolf). They were not violent and could converse like humans. A priest was approached by one of the men during his term as a werewolf; his wife was dying, and she needed the last rites. This the priest performed, and although the woman died, the husband lived out the remainder of his life in peace.

Our cousins the Scots also had decent werewolves. The wulver was a charming creature from the Shetland Islands. A man with the head of a wolf, he lived peaceably, and could often be seen fishing for his supper. The wulver would leave any spare fish on the poor families’ windowsills.

In France, werewolves’ tempers depended on gender. A male werewolf was known as a loup-garou and was a monster, but female werewolves (lubins) were more retiring.

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A German illustration of a werewolf, circa 1685 (via Wikimedia Commons)

St Patrick is said to have turned a Welsh king into a wolf, and the faolan is said to have been cursed by St Natalis. In the movies, you always get lycanthropy from a werewolf bite, but some of the older methods are far more interesting. You could simply wear a wolfskin while naked. It could be punishment from God for eating human flesh, or being excommunicated from the Catholic Church. Being the seventh son of a seventh son meant you were destined to be a werewolf in Portugal. In Italy, sleeping outside under a full moon on a Wednesday or a Friday would do it. Or you could just enter a pact with Satan.

There was a divide between Eastern and Western Europe; in the east, werewolves were likely to be undead, like vampires; but in the west they were associated more with witchcraft. There is also a theory that werewolves were used an explanation for serial murders.

In the era of the infamous witch trials, werewolf trials also took place. Witches were sometimes also charged with lycanthropy. In 17th century Bavaria, people were charged with wolfssegen, or wolf-charming. One elderly man admitted to inciting wolves to attack cattle. (As was usual with these trials, he’d been tortured beforehand).

One of the more interesting examples comes from Latvia. In 1692, an 80-year-old man named Thiess admitted that he was a werewolf, but he was a “hound of God” and went to hell three times a year to battle Satan. The standard death sentence was commuted in this case, and Thiess merely got a whipping.

Today we would say that poor Thiess, and Peter Stumpff, a German who also admitted he was a werewolf, were suffering from a mental illness. Indeed in modern psychiatry, a person who thinks they can transform into an animal is diagnosed with clinical lycanthropy. The werewolf myth is here to stay.

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One thought on “Howlingly good: Werewolves

  1. Hi, it’s interesting that you note “faolan” as “the Irish term for werewolf” as the usual term in Irish (generally the only termlisted in dictionaries) is conriocht (con/hound +riocht/shape).

    Faolán I’ve only ever seen translated as “little wolf”, never werewolf but I’m not a folklorist or Irish-language expert (though I am fluent). I’m wondering if maybe faolán used for werewolf is an older term that was later supplanted by conriocht as the main term?

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