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Stories of the merging of man and beast tap into primal fears about our own nature. Though we strive to rise above our animal instincts and become an enlightened species, there is always the danger of slipping back into savagery.
The concept of the werewolf is more ancient than that of the vampire. It's one of the earliest monsters that humanity dreamed up, indicating that our fear of the man-beast predates our fear of the dead rising from the grave.
In this article, we'll take a look at how the legend of the werewolf has evolved throughout history.
Werewolves in Ancient Babylon, Greece and Rome
The first mention of a man transforming into a wolf comes from The Epic of Gilgamesh, which is regarded as the first heroic epic (it dates back to the 2nd millennium BC).
Gilgamesh was a Sumerian warrior-king of a similar mould to later mythological heroes such as Hercules and Samson. In the epic, he rejects the advances of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility and love, out of fear that she would transform him into a wolf as she did a previous admirer.
The Story of King Lycaon (Ancient Greece)
The term "lycan" (humanoid wolf) originates from the character of Lycaon from Greek mythology. Lycaon was a king who had the honour of receiving Zeus, ruler of the gods, as a guest in his palace.
Lycaon thought it would be a good idea to serve Zeus the remains of a sacrificial victim. The king of Olympus didn't take kindly to this abomination and decreed that if Lycaon wished to promote the eating of human flesh, then he should do so in a more appropriate form. Thus, Zeus transformed the king and his sons into wolves.
Herodotus and the Neuri
Ancient Greek historian Herodotus (regarded as the father of history) told of a reclusive Scythian tribe known as the Νευροί (Neuri) that lived near the river Narew (located in present-day Poland).
According to legend, the Neuri transformed into wolves once per year and remained in that form for several days. Herodotus himself did not believe the tales but wrote that the locals swore it was true.
The Full Moon
Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that wolves only howled at a full moon. Of course, this belief has since been disproven, but its influence on the werewolf legend remains.
Werewolves in Medieval Europe
The legend of the werewolf truly comes into its own during the Middle Ages. All across Europe, tales of men transforming into wolves terrified the common folk and sparked witch hunts (or wolf hunts) throughout the land.
Men were accused, put on trial and executed for suspected lycanthropy in much the same way that women suffered from accusations of witchcraft.
Werewolves, like witches, were believed to be in league with Satan. The accused were charged with cannibalism, killing livestock, and the abduction and murder of children.
Almost unbelievably, all that was required for one to be convicted of lycanthropy was often the testimony of multiple neighbours and/or local authorities. This was sometimes the case even when the accused was of noble blood.
Many of those accused were beggars, hermits, or immigrants. So, while the burning of witches reflects medieval society's primitive attitude towards women, the werewolf trials expose its xenophobia and suspicion of loners.
That said, only a fraction of such trials were conducted in relation to lycanthropy; the majority were accusations of witchcraft.
The exception is 17th-century Livonia (current day Latvia and Estonia), where an obsession with werewolves seized hold of the populace. There, accusations of lycanthropy were the most common form of witch trial.
The Bedburg Werewolf
The most famous case of supposed lycanthropy is that of Peter Stubbe, a farmer in 16th-century Bedburg (a town in Germany).
In this case, the accused was indeed guilty of horrific crimes, though his claim that he perpetrated them whilst in the form of a wolf is questionable.
The trial occurred after weeks of disappearances and brutal killings, first of cattle, and later of village folk.
The mutilated corpses of livestock were discovered in the fields, sparking fears that the town was being terrorised by a beast from the depths of hell. Then children and young women went missing.
Townsfolk believed the murderer walked amongst them as a man by day but transformed into a savage beast by night.
Peter Stubbe was a respected member of the community; a wealthy farmer with sons of his own (one of whom he murdered). George Bores wrote in The Damnable Life and Death of Stubbe Peeter:
And sundry times he would go through the streets of Collin, Bedbur, and Cperadt, in comely habit, and very civilly, as one well known to all the inhabitants thereabout, and oftentimes was he saluted of those whose friends and children he had butchered, though nothing suspected for the same.
At his trial, Stubbe claimed that he could transform into a giant wolf by night, with eyes that "sparkled like brands of fire." This power was granted him by a magic belt he discovered at the age of 12, so he said. Such a belt was never found.
In 1589, he was executed by being strapped to a cartwheel, flayed alive, and decapitated. His body was subsequently burnt at the stake.
Hans the Werewolf*
Another well-known story is that of Hans the Werewolf, an 18-year-old who was tried and convicted of lycanthropy in 17th-century Estonia.
At his trial, Hans confessed to hunting whilst in wolf form, claiming that he had become a werewolf two years previously after being bitten by a "man in black."
The judge asked Hans a number of strange questions about his condition, such as whether he felt like a "man or beast" when he transformed. The courts eventually ruled that Hans was guilty of engaging in black magic. He was executed at the tender age of 18, despite there being no evidence of him committing any murders.
It's unclear why Hans did nothing to fight the accusations. Perhaps he feared torture, which he likely would have undergone had he not confessed. Estonia was rife with superstition at the time, and accusations of lycanthropy and witchcraft were common.
* Source: Maia Madar "Estonia I: Werewolves and Poisioners", 257-72 in Bengt Ankarloo, Gustav Henningsen, Early Modern European Witchcraft: Centres and Peripheries (2002)
The Link Between Werewolves and Vampires
These monsters of legend are commonly associated with each other, and this is not solely a modern trend.
The association can be traced at least as far back as Eastern European folklore, where the same word was used to describe both creatures. The words vukodlak (Slavic), vlkodlak (Czech), and vlkoslak (Serbian) all refer to vampire or werewolf interchangeably.
Weirdly, in the first dictionary of the modern Serbian language (published in 1818), the words vukodlak (werewolf) and vampir (vampire) both refer to "a man who returns from his grave for purposes of fornicating with his widow".
Medieval Ignorance of Illness
It's possible that people accused of lycanthropy were suffering from legitimate illnesses that medieval superstition mistook for black magic. After all, medieval medicine was not particularly advanced.
Rabies has been put forward as a candidate. It is spread through animal bites and causes increased aggression, fever, hallucinations and adverse reactions to bright light and water. Spanish neurologist Dr Juan Gomez-Alonso posited that the illness inspired vampire legends as well.
Various forms of mental illness may have caused the afflicted to believe themselves capable of shapeshifting. Psychiatrists actually have a term for this condition: clinical lycanthropy. The majority of the reported cases are the result of schizophrenia, psychotic depression, or mania (bipolar disorder).
So the rich history of the werewolf stretches from ancient Babylon to modern movie screens. All one need to do is look at human history to see why the idea of men who become beasts has so captured the imagination.
Tanika Koosmen, PhD Candidate, University of Newcastle. 2018, 28 October. The ancient origins of werewolves (theconversation.com).
Garry Littman. 2020, 23 October. Switzerland: Where witch trials began and where the last European woman was executed for witchcraft (blogs.letemps.ch).
The University of Melbourne. 2014, 26 October. The virus behind the horror legends (blogs.unimelb.edu.au)
Sélim Benjamin Guessoum; Laelia Benoit; Sevan Minassian; Jasmina Mallet; Marie Rose Moro. 2021, 11 October. Clinical Lycanthropy, Neurobiology, Culture: A Systematic Review (frontiersin.org).
James B. Barnes. 2022, 21 March. 8 Surprising Facts And Lore About Werewolves That Will Make You Leave The Lights On (thoughtcatalog.com).
Stephen Wagner. 2018, 15 July. The Werewolf of Bedburg (liveabout.com).
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.