A human temporarily or permanently transformed into a
wolf, from the Anglo-Saxon wer (man) and wulf (wolf). It is a
term used in the phenomenon of lycanthropy, which in ancient
and medieval times was of very frequent occurrence. It
was in Europe, where the wolf was one of the largest carnivorous
animals, that the superstition became prevalent. Similar
tales in other countries usually introduced bears, tigers, leopards,
or other animals.
The belief in werewolves may be a relic of early cannibalism.
Communities of semicivilized people would begin to shun
those who devoured human flesh, ostracizing them and classifying
them as wild beasts. The idea that they had something in
common with animals would grow, and the concept that they
were able to transform themselves into veritable animals would
More likely, however, the belief derives from early ritual
practices in the Balkan area. For example, the Dacians, an ancient
people who had the wolf as their totem animal, annually
turned their young men into wolves during a ritual in which
they wore wolf skins and imitated the animal. The wolf was
much respected in the area as a hunter. The ritual transformation
into a wolf survives today in the Greek word vrkolaka (and
its Slavic equivalents), derived from the old Slavic word for
wolf-pelt, though the term is now applied to a form of vampire.
It has been suggested that as the people settled into an agricultural
life, the wolf lost its positive associations and became the
outlaw animal many still consider it today. Thus the vrkolaka
became the werewolf. Werewolf itself is an Old English term
meaning shape-shifter, probably derived from older Germanic
The oldest account of a man changing into a wolf came from
Greek writings. Lycaon (from whom the term lycanthropy is derived)
was changed into a wolf by Zeus, whom the unfortunate
Lycaon had displeased.
The Nature of the Werewolf
There were two kinds of werewolves voluntary and involuntary.
The voluntary were, as has been said, persons who, because
of their taste for human flesh, had withdrawn from association
with other people.
They possessed a reputation for the magic power to transform
themselves into the animal shape at will. This they effected
by merely disrobingby taking off a girdle made of human
skin, or putting on a belt of wolf skin, obviously a substitute for
an entire wolf skin. There were also cases in which they donned
the entire skin. In other instances, the body was rubbed with a
magic ointment, or water was drunk from a wolfs footprint.
The brains of the animal were also eaten. Olaus Magnus
(14901558) stated that the werewolves of Livonia drained a
cup of beer on initiation, and repeated certain magic words.
In order to throw off the wolf shape, the animal girdle was
removed, or else the magician merely muttered a certain formula.
In some instances, the transformation was supposed to
be the work of Satan.
The superstition regarding werewolves seems to have been
exceedingly prevalent in France during the sixteenth century,
as is evidenced by numerous trials, in some of which murder
and cannibalism took place. Self-hallucination may have acWenzl,
Aloys Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed.
counted for some of these cases, the supposed werewolves admitting
that they had transformed themselves and had slain
numerous persons, but at the beginning of the seventeenth
century such confessions were not believed. Self-hallucination
does not cover a number of cases in which werewolves were seen
by witnesses, however. In Teutonic and Slavonic countries, men
of learning complained that werewolves did more damage than
real criminals, and a regular college or institution for the
practice of the art of animal transformation was attributed to
Involuntary werewolves were often said to be persons transformed
into animals because of the commission of sin, and condemned
to pass a certain number of years in that form. Certain
saints were said to metamorphose sinners into wolves. In Armenia
it was thought that sinful women were condemned to pass
seven years in the form of a wolf. To such a woman a demon
appeared, bringing a wolf skin. He commanded her to don it,
and from that moment she became a wolf, with all the nature
of a wild beast, devouring her own children and those of strangers;
wandering at night, undeterred by locks, bolts, or bars; returning
only in the morning to resume her human form.
French romance literature often mentions werewolves, and
there are complete romances on the theme, such as the Lais du
Bisclavret of Marie de France and the Guillaume de Palerne
(known as William and the Werewolf) of the twelfth century. However,
in such romances the werewolf was the innocent victim of
magic, rather than a dangerous cannibal.
Many werewolves were said to be innocent persons suffering
through the witchcraft of others. To regain their true form it
was necessary for them to kneel in one spot for a hundred
years, to lose three drops of blood, to be hailed as a werewolf,
to have the sign of the cross made on their bodies, to be addressed
thrice by their baptismal names, or to be struck thrice
on the forehead with a knife.
According to Donat de Hautemer, quoted by Simon Goulart
(15431628), There are some lycanthropes who are so dominated
by their melancholy humour that they really believe
themselves to be transformed into wolves. This malady . . . is
a sort of melancholy, of a black and dismal nature. Those who
are attacked by it leave their homes in the months of February,
imitate wolves in almost every particular, and wander all night
long among the cemeteries and sepulchres, so that one may observe
a marvelous change in the mind and disposition, and,
above all in the depraved imagination, of the lycanthrope. The
memory, however, is still vigorous, as I have remarked in one
of these lycanthropic melancholiacs whom we call werewolves.
For one who was well acquainted with me was one day seized
with his affliction, and on meeting him I withdrew a little, fearing
that he might injure me. He, having glanced at me for a
moment, passed on followed by a crowd of people. On his
shoulder he carried the entire leg and thigh of a corpse. Having
received careful medical treatment, he was cured of this
malady. On meeting me on another occasion he asked me if I
had not been afraid when he met me at such and such a place,
which made me think that his memory was not hurt by the vehemence
of his disease, though his imagination was so greatly
Guillaume de Brabant, in the narrative of Wier, repeated by
Goulart, writes in his History that a certain sensible man was so
tormented by the evil spirit that at a particular season of the
year he would think himself a ravening wolf and would run
through the woods, caves, and deserts chasing little children.
It was said that this man was often found running in the deserts
like a man out of his mind, and that at last by the grace of God
he came to himself and was healed. Job Fincel, in the book On
Miracles, relates that a villager near Paule in the year 1541 believed
himself to be a wolf and assaulted several men in the
fields, killing some. Captured at last, though not without great
difficulty, he strongly affirmed that he was a wolf, and that the
only way in which he differed from other wolves was that they
wore their hairy coats on the outside, while he wore his between
his skin and his flesh. Certain persons, more inhuman and
wolfish than he, wished to test the truth of this story, and
gashed his arms and legs severely. Learning of their mistake
and of the innocence of the melancholiac, they passed him on
to the surgeons, in whose hands he died some days later.
Those afflicted with lycanthropy are pale, with dark and
haggard eyes, seeing only with difficulty; the tongue is dry, and
the sufferer very thirsty.
Speaking of lycanthropy, Gaspar Peucer (15251602) stated
As for me I had formerly regarded as ridiculous and fabulous
the stories I had often heard concerning the transformation
of men into wolves; but I have learnt from reliable sources,
and from the testimony of trustworthy witnesses, that such
things are not at all doubtful or incredible, since they tell of
such transformations taking place twelve days after Christmas
in Livonia and the adjacent countries; as they have been proved
to be true by the confessions of those who have been imprisoned
and tortured for such crimes.
Here is the manner in which it is done. Immediately after
Christmas day is past, a lame boy goes round the country calling
these slaves of the devil, of which there are a great number,
and enjoining them to follow him. If they procrastinate or go
too slowly, there immediately appears a tall man with a whip
whose thongs are made of iron chains, with which he urges
them onwards, and sometimes lashes the poor wretches so cruelly,
that the marks of the whip remain on their bodies till long
afterwards, and cause them the greatest pain. As soon as they
have set out on their road, they are all changed into
wolves. . . .
They travel in thousands, having for their conductor the
bearer of the whip, after whom they march. When they reach
the fields, they rush upon the cattle they find there, tearing and
carrying away all they can, and doing much other damage; but
they are not permitted to touch or wound persons. When they
approach any rivers, their guide separates the waters with his
whip, so that they seem to open up and leave a dry space by
which to cross. At the end of twelve days the whole band scatters,
and everyone returns to his home, having regained his
own proper form. This transformation, they say, comes about
in this wise. The victims fall suddenly on the ground as though
they were taken with sudden illness, and remain motionless
and extended like corpses, deprived of all feeling, for they neither
stir, nor move from one place to another, nor are in any
wise transformed into wolves, thus resembling carrion, for although
they are rolled or shaken, they give no sign of life.
Jean Bodin (15291596) related several cases of lycanthropy
and of men changed into beasts, including the following
Pierre Mamot, in a little treatise he has written on sorcerers,
says that he has observed this changing of men into wolves,
he being in Savoy at the time. Henry of Cologne in his treatise
de Lamiis regards the transformation as beyond doubt. And Ulrich
in a little book dedicated to the emperor Sigismund, writes
of the dispute before the emperor, and says that it was agreed,
both on the ground of reason, and of the experience of innumerable
examples, that such transformation was a fact; and he
adds that he himself had seen a lycanthrope at Constance, who
was accused, convicted, condemned, and finally executed after
his confession. And several books published in Germany say
that one of the greatest kings of Christendom, who is not long
dead, and who had the reputation of being one of the greatest
sorcerers in the world, often changed into a wolf.
I remember that the attorney-general of the King,
Bourdin, has narrated to me another which was sent to him
from the Low Countries, with the whole trial signed by the
judge and the clerks, of a wolf, which was struck by an arrow on
the thigh, and afterwards found himself in bed, with the arrow
(which he had torn out), on regaining his human shape, and
the arrow was recognised by him who had fired itthe time
and place testified by the confession of the person.
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Werewolf
Garnier, tried and condemned by the parliament of Dole,
being in the shape of a werewolf, caught a girl of ten or twelve
years in a vineyard of Chastenoy, a quarter of a league from
Dole, and having slain her with his teeth and claw-like hands,
he ate part of her flesh and carried the rest to his wife. A month
later, in the same form, he took another girl, and would have
eaten her also, had he not, as he himself confessed, been prevented
by three persons who happened to be passing by; and
a fortnight after he strangled a boy of ten in the vineyard of
Gredisans, and ate his flesh; and in the form of a man and not
of a wolf, he killed another boy of twelve or thirteen years in
a wood of the village of Porouse with the intention of eating
him, but was again prevented. He was condemned to be burnt,
and the sentence was executed.
At the parliament of Bezançon, the accused were Pierre
Burgot and Michel Verdun, who confessed to having renounced
God, and sworn to serve the devil. And Michel Verdun
led Burgot to the Bard du Chastel Charlon where everyone carried
a candle of green wax which shone with a blue flame.
There they danced and offered sacrifices to the devil. Then
after being anointed they were turned into wolves, running
with incredible swiftness, then they were changed again into
men, and suddenly transformed back to wolves, when they enjoyed
the society of female wolves as much as they had done
that of their wives. They confessed also that Burgot had killed
a boy of seven years with his wolf-claws and teeth, intending to
eat him, but the peasants gave chase, and prevented him. Burgot
and Verdun had eaten four girls between them; and they
had caused people to die by the touch of a certain power.
Some cases of lycanthropy may have been a cover for a perverse
appetite for drinking blood or eating human flesh, but it
is also possible that there were cases of psychic transformations,
in which the astral double of a lycanthrope was projected in the
form of a beast, similar to other stories of witches and wizards
attacking their victims in an astral form.
Modern attempts to understand the werewolf have opted for
a psychological approach, one exception being Robert Eisler,
who has explained it in terms of the cycles of human violence
that have been a part of social existence since time began. Richard
Noll has gathered a variety of reports of modern werewolves,
whom psychologists see as people under the delusion
that she has been transformed into an animal.
Another aspect of lycanthropy is the Romulus and Remus
theme of abandoned children reared by wolves. One classic
case of such feral children, as they are termed, is that of the
two wolf girls of Midnapore, India, who were rescued by the
Reverend J. A. L. Singh in 1942. This case is discussed in detail
by Charles Maclean in his book The Wolf Children (1978). (See
In the middle of the nineteenth century, as other forms of
modern horror fiction were emerging, three werewolf novels
appeared Hughes the Wer-wolf, by Sutherland Mnzies (a serial
published in installment in the 1850s); The Wolf-Leader (1857);
and Wagner the Wehrwolf, by George W. M. Reynold (1857). The
latter is considered the fountainhead of modern werewolf fiction,
and it was not until 1934 that another noteworthy werewolf
novel was published.
Guy Endores The Werewolf of Paris was bought by Universal
Studios, who wanted to produce a cinematic version. The
screenplay changes the location of the movie, which appeared
in 1935 as The Werewolf of London. The story was inspired by the
true story of Francis Bertrand, a French noncommissioned officer
who in 1848 was convicted of breaking into several Paris
graveyards, and consuming the flesh of several recently buried
bodies. His ghoulish activity was transformed into the story of
Bertrand Caullet, the son born as a result of a brief affair between
his mother and a priest. He discovered that he was a
werewolf when shot with a silver bullet. (The now-standard association
of werewolves and silver is derived from a Scottish belief
in the efficacy of silver in killing witches.)
The Werewolf of London was followed by its more famous sequel,
The Wolf Man, starring Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney reappeared
in several movies with other Universal monsters, but
made his next notable appearance in the 1961 remake, The
Curse of the Werewolf. The werewolf became a television star as
a character in the early 1960s in the vampire television soap
opera Dark Shadows.
Since the 1970s the werewolf has become an integral part of
a horror genre that has grown spectacularly. While not approaching
the popularity of the vampire, new werewolf novels
have appeared annually and some, such as Whitney Streibers
Wolfen have become popular movies. Gary Brandners The
Howling led to no less than five sequels, most of which were
made into movies. The lycanthropyshape-shifting theme also
was prominent in movies like the Cat People, which features a
woman able to transform into a panther.
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Cooper, Basil. The Werewolf in Legend, Fact and Art. New
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Douglas, Adam. The Beast Within Man, Myths and Werewolves.
London Chapmans, 1992. Reprint. London Orion, 1993.
Dunn, Charles W. The Foundling and the Werewolf A LiteraryHistorical
Study of Guillaume de Palerne. Toronto University of
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Eisler, Robert. Man into Wolf An Anthropological Interpretation
of Sadism, Masochism, and Lycanthropy. Santa Barbara, Calif.
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