Werewolves are perhaps one of the most popular modern-day mythical creatures, alongside vampires, and many teen films and television shows now feature both creatures. I have already written a post about the historical origins of vampires, and what medieval people believed to be true about these monsters, so I thought it was time to look into their counterparts.
In modern media, such as Twilight and the Vampire Diaries, werewolves are seen as the opposites to vampires, and often are portrayed as having the sole purpose of fighting evil vampires. Vampires are burnt by the sun, whilst werewolves find their strength in the full moon. Werewolves, however, have a very long history in legend, although their core essence has stayed true over hundreds of years.
The first references to werewolves are thousands of years old. Some argue that the earliest mention of a werewolf comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, a piece of writing from 1800 BC which is considered the earliest surviving great work of literature and the second oldest religious text to have survived. In the text, a woman was said to have turned a previous lover into a wolf. However, turning a man into a wolf is not necessarily the same as making him a werewolf, and so many instead consider the earliest reference to werewolves to come from ancient Greece.
In the 5th century BC, a Greek historian named Herodotus described a nomadic group of people called the Neuri. Herodotus said that these people would transform into wolves for several days of the year. The ancient Greeks also had the first proper origin legend for werewolves. It was said that one day the king of the gods, Zeus, visited Lycaon who was King of Arcadia. Lycaon wanted to test whether Zeus really was omniscient, and so for dinner he served Zeus the roasted flesh of his own son. Zeus was furious, and in a rage he turned Lycaon into a werewolf and brought back Lycaon’s son from the dead. In the version of the legend recounted by Roman poet Ovid, Lycaon’s transformation is evocatively described, as “he tried to speak, but his voice broke into an echoing howl” and “his garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms into legs”. The transformation from man into wolf is still a popular scene in modern-day tellings of the creatures.
Despite the legend of Lycaon’s transformation into a werewolf showing Zeus’ displeasure at the king’s consumption of human flesh, a Lycaon cult seems to have developed at Mount Lykaion who participated in human sacrifice. Ancient writers told how this group would mix human meat with animal meat, and thus turn into werewolves themselves. Four years ago, the remains of a teenager who died 3,000 years ago was found at the site, leading some to cautiously suggest this was evidence that these ancient writers were telling the truth about the practice. The Ancient Greeks, and later the Romans, continued to develop the legend of werewolves, saying that men could turn into wolves by wearing wolf pelts.
The idea that wearing a wolf pelt could turn a man into a werewolf is also found in Norse culture, such as in the Saga of the Volsungs, a late 13th-century Icelandic saga. In the story two men, Sigmund and Sinfjotli, come across a house of two sleeping men who had wolf pelts hung above their beds. When Sigmund and Sinfjotli put the pelts on, they found themselves turned into wolves and they were cursed to roam the countryside killing men. One time the two werewolves had a fight with each other where Sigmund nearly killed Sinfjolti who was his son. Luckily, a raven was flying by and saw what happened and gave Sigmund a magic leaf which healed Sinfjolti’s wounds. Not long after, the two men were able to remove their wolf skins and turn back into humans, and they promptly burnt the pelts on a fire.
Wolves were a widespread predator across Europe in the ancient world and into the medieval period, and this most likely fuelled the prevalence of stories of werewolves. Although people were used to livestock being killed by wolves, a spate of particularly vicious attacks combined with the deaths of some local people often led to the idea that something stronger than a wolf must be responsible. As time went on, legend turned into specific accusations, and there are numerous records of medieval and early modern people being accused of being werewolves.
In 16th century Germany, a man named Peter Stumpp or Stubbe met a grisly end after being accused of being a werewolf. In 1589, Peter confessed to being a werewolf and partaking in witchcraft. He said that the devil had given him a magic belt which allowed him to turn into a wolf, whereupon he would eat animals and people alike. He confessed to killing over a dozen people, including two pregnant women and their babies, and even his own son. He also said that he had an incestuous relationship with his daughter.
Peter had a horrific execution for his crimes: he was placed upon a wheel and flayed with red-hot pincers, his limbs were broken, and he was beheaded. His head was then placed in a public place above the figure of a wolf, whilst his body was burnt. His daughter and his mistress were also executed alongside him. Whilst some have said that Peter must have been a serial killer, others have questioned his confession as he was heavily tortured to extract his wild stories. Peter became known as the Werewolf of Bedburg.
Another German story of a real werewolf comes from nearly a century later in the town of Ansbach. In 1685, a wolf (or possibly a pack of wolves) was terrorising the town. After the deaths of livestock, several young children were killed. Under such upsetting circumstances, the locals turned to the idea that a werewolf must be responsible, and they knew who the culprit must be. Recently, a local magistrate who had been hated by the citizens of Ansbach had died. The people of Ansbach believed the wolf to be a reincarnation of this magistrate, particularly after the wolf was seen near the man’s property. The town banded together to form a large hunt and they managed to find a wolf and chase it into a well. Trapped, the animal was slain and the townspeople were freed from the curse. The wolf’s body was paraded through the town and in a somewhat macabre turn of events they cut off its muzzle, dressed it in men’s clothes and a wig and beard and hung it from a gibbet in the centre of town for all to see the werewolf.
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Stories of werewolves were not always terrifying and horrific, however. As time went on, people became more curious about these stories and this was fuelled by instances of ‘wild’ people. One of the most famous examples from Western Europe was Peter the Wild Boy. Peter was found in a forest in Hanover in 1725 when he was possibly around 13 years old. He walked on all fours and could not speak, and seemed closer to beast than man. Peter was found by King George I of Great Britain and Ireland, and the following year Peter was brought to London upon the request of the Princess of Wales. Princess Caroline tried to teach Peter how to speak, read, and write, but he was incapable of doing so.
Peter became a curiosity of the court, but was eventually moved to Hertfordshire for a quieter life. He never learned to speak, only being able to say his name and “King George”, but he reportedly was able to understand what people were saying. He lived until he was around 70 years old. He is now thought to have suffered from Pitt–Hopkins syndrome, as a portrait of him at Kensington Palace matches features of the condition.
As the Early Modern period progressed, stories of real werewolves died down, although there were still some cases of killers claiming to be werewolves, such as Manuel Blanco Romasanta in the mid-19th century who is considered Spain’s first recorded serial killer. Stories of werewolves moved into legend, and as horror and fantasy stories became more popular in the growing literary world the idea of werewolves became one of fancy rather than reality. Stories of werewolves still capture the popular imagination today, and similar creatures can be found in many cultures outside of Europe. With their prominence in popular culture, they are not going anywhere anytime soon.
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