Werewolf Handout

Werewolves in the Middle Ages

Hlafdige Arastorm aka V.F.Richards-Taylor©2017

Tales of shape shifters, humans who take the forms of animals, often wolves, go back to ancient times. The term lycanthrope (used in the modern world as a psychiatric description of the delusion that one can physically change into a wolf) comes from the Greek tale of the King of Acadia Lycan, who served the visiting Zeus human flesh to test whether he had god-like discernment. Zeus punished him by turning him into a wolf. Most early transformations from human to animal were performed by gods or magic users to curse the victim, often to make the physical form match the flawed human personality. Saints, from St. Patrick to St. Ossary (illustration), were said to have cursed entire tribes and villages who resisted conversion.

The position of the church has been consistent: it is impossible for humans or the Devil to change a human’s form into that of a wolf. The Devil may, however, convince a human that he has so changed, but he (or she) has not. Stories of shape-shifting into wolves were often attached to witchcraft trials in the 16th and 17th century, along with stories of wolf riding and wolf-charming (wolfssegen). Some believed in physical transformation, and during the witch trials even admitted to it, however people are liable to admit to anything under torture. Some (ie. The Livonian) werewolves claimed to be agents of good, seemingly vestiges of an ancient fertility cult, like the benandanti, who fought witches to preserve the harvests. It has been suggested that there were fewer accusations of werewolves in the English Witch trials because wolves had been wiped out in England by the 16th century.

In the 19th century Folklorists became interested in the trope, and in the 20th the movie industry made its contribution. The idea of the two legged “man-wolf” appears to mainly be a result of the need of portraying a wolf by a fur clothed actor. 1934 film, the Wolfman, introduces the concept of the power of silver and the contagious bite, The association with the full moon is first seen in 1943 Frankenstein meets the Wolfman., There is an instance of a werewolf being killed with a bullet made from a blessed silver chalice in Greifswald in 1640. As with witches, Vampires have been closely associated with werewolves, sometimes a killed werewolf returns as a vampire.

Among modern medical explanations for werewolfery, the medieval position that it is a mental illness, called lycanthropy, continues, especially considering serial killers. Other suggestions include congenital porphyria, are rare disease with symptoms including photosensitivity, reddish teeth and often psychosis, Hypertrichosis- humans who have hair all over, rabies (which may be where the contagious bite comes from. Other suggestions, especially during the Witch Craze, include the conditions of the Little Ice Age, which resulted in poor crops, more wolves attacking, and ergot poisoning from hallucinogenic fugal growth on rye, due to damp weather.

One can identify a werewolf in human form by having a single eyebrow, curved nails, hairy palms, low set ears, in short, reminding you of a wolf. A wolf may be identified as a werewolf by having human eyes, and a stubby or no tail. The condition can be confirmed by an injury gotten in one form being seen on the other. Werewolves are often seen to be weak after transformation.

When it is assumed to be real, some say it is the spirit that is transformed while the body sleeps. The change is the result of being cursed for angering God, the saints or the Devil, being unlucky, or intentionally. To become a werewolf intentionally one usually applies a salve, and or puts on a pelt or a belt of wolf skin. Inadvertently you may drink from a werewolf contaminated spring, eat a special flower, sleep under the full moon, be born on Christmas, be excommunicated, or just be born with a call or hairy, or with a birthmark. The Hounds of God (Livonian werewolves) were said to drink a special beer and speak a charm (then fall asleep and send their spirits out.

To stop being a werewolf, you take off the skin (burn it if it is someone else you are saving), take off the salve by bathing or rolling in the dew, take an antidote (often containing wolfsbane), be exorcised, or cut the wolf 3 times on the head, or on the paws, Or sometimes call them by their Christian name. If it’s a generic curse, it may run it’s course, but the wolf may not have eaten human flesh for the seven years. St Hubert is said to protect from werewolves.

In Scandinavia and Iceland, shamanic practice is more evident in the shape shifting. The magicians lie down, often covered, and go into a trance. An animal bear, wolf, orca, or other appears (with human eyes) and fights for or helps the people, unless the practitioner is woken. They are said to take bird and fish form to travel and gain information (hamfara). Bearserkers and Úlfhednar wore skins of animals, but may not have shape shifted (therianthropy), but simply taken on bear and wolf characteristics- such as resistance to pain and great savagery and strength. This comes closest to the hybrid form of modern gaming and movie images. Norse magick users also seem to have been able to transform people into inanimate objects as well, which may have been a type of glamour or mind control of the viewer. These psychic or shamanic techniques, reported in the sagas, are similar to the only ones demonstrated during the witch trials.

Shape shifting occurs in other cultures, although often with other animals, were hyenas, panthers, foxes, etc. Many examples are seen in mythology, and fairy tales all over the world.


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