Werewolf legends have been around for a lot longer than I thought. They appear in recorded history as far back as 2600 BC. Stories of werewolves and other similar creatures exists in cultures all over the world, from Norse mythology to Native American stories all the way to Argentinian myths as well. Many of the stories are horrifying, and they’re all really interesting.
Many cultures view the wolf as evil or at least in a negative light. This is likely due to many people groups relying very heavily on agriculture, and wolves killing and eating your herds would make you lose money and threaten your survival and that of your loved ones. As a result, many myths and legends of evil wolves have sprung up over the centuries. Let’s take a look at some ancient stories about wolves from both a positive and negative point of view, and then we’ll get into the meat of the werewolf idea. “meat” lol.
One of the most well-known wolf stories is that of Fenrir, the great wolf of Norse mythology.
Fenrir was born the son of Loki and a giant, and while his terrible siblings Jormongandr and Hel could be sent away to other places to avoid their becoming problematic to the gods, Fenrir grew too fast. So the gods of Asgard decided they would have to bind him in order to protect themselves from him. Their first two attempts failed, and while the third was successful for much longer than the first two, it didn’t last forever. With the shaking of the rocks during Ragnarok, the stones that held his tether in place fell apart, releasing him. He was so big that he not only ate Odin, but swallowed the sun and moon as well.
Not a very positive outlook on wolves at all.
The name “Fenrir” means “he who dwells in the marshes.” Marshes are usually symbols of losing one’s way or being lost in the dark—even more negative connotation.
The Wolf of Zhongshan is kind of a weird story from ancient China. An injured wolf was on the run from some hunters, and he met a scholar on the road and asked to hide in the his bookbag. The man agreed, and when the hunters reached them, pointed them in the wrong direction. Once they were far away, the wolf emerged, but instead of thanking the man for saving his life, he informed the man he wanted to eat him. The scholar convinced the wolf to wait until they could consult with three other individuals to hear their ruling on the subject.
They asked an aprticot tree and an Ox, both of whom took the wolf’s side because they were prejudiced against humans due to negative treatment by their masters. But they came across a man on the road and he asked the wolf to prove that he could actually fit in the bookbag. The wolf obliged, and the man quickly tied him in and advised the scholar to kill him while he was restrained in order to save his own life.
I think the moral of the story is not to be ungrateful for help. Interestingly, wolves have frequently been used in many stories to teach a lesson, especially to warn children away from behaving badly or getting into a dangerous situation.
In Little Red Riding Hood, a story with countless different versions, the big bad wolf is a sneaky character that connived and tricked the grandmother and the granddaughter into a situation in which he could eat them. Many versions of the tale are cautionary against children disobeying their parents by doing things such as wandering off the path or letting strangers into the house.
Another story with associations to the Brother’s Grimm is that of the Three Little Pigs.
In this story, a mother pig sends her three sons out into the world to seek their fortunes. One builds his house of straw, and a wolf comes along and destroys the house and eats him. Same for the second pig, who built his house of sticks.
But the third pig built his house of bricks, a feat that took more time and expense, but paid off in the end. The wolf couldn’t break down the house or trick the pig into coming out. When he tried sneaking in through the chimney, the third pig caught the wolf in a pot of boiling water and ate him.
Another tale to warn children not to open the door to strangers, perhaps as well to teach them to build things to last and provide real protection.
Despite all the negative characteristics associated with wolves, some cultures saw them in a more positive light. It is likely that cultures who relied more heavily on hunting than breeding their own livestock admired the wolf’s hunting prowess and thought highly of the creatures as a result.
In nearly all Native American cultures, the wolf is associated with medicine, courage, successful hunting skills and loyalty.
Chibiabos, for example, is a great wolf-spirit in Algonquin mythology. His name means “ghost rabbit” but he was a wolf spirit, usually in the physical form of a wolf. When he was unjustly murdered by water spirits, he became the ruler of the land of the dead and was considered a kind and fair ruler.
Did you know that Sirius Black is actually named after a star? Which happens to be the brightest star in the sky, and the dominant star in the Canis Major constellation? This, in fact, was all news to me. Am I the only person who didn’t know that “Sirius” is the name of the brightest star in the Great Dog constellation? I’m feeling a bit behind the times!
Anyway, Sirius is also the white direction star, and the Pawnee people, who valued wolves most highly, called the Milky Way the Wolf Road. They believed that the Milky Way was a spirit road walked by the dead. They were also one of the few tribes to pay more attention to the stars rather than the sun and moon.
Going back a little further, another example of a wolf seen in a positive light is the wolf who partially raised Romulus and Remus. Legend has it that their mother was forbidden to have children lest she birth rivals to the throne, but she had two children fathered by the war god, Mars, anyway.
They were sentenced to be drowned, but instead of sinking, the basket they were laid in floated down the river and was found by a wolf and a woodpecker. They worked together to feed the children until they were found by a shepherd who raised them from then on.
So we’ve seen wolves in both a negative and positive light in different cultures, now onto the werewolf legends, and what—if any—truth we can filter out of them.
Possibly the very earliest recorded story of a human being turned into a wolf comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which supposedly took place around 2600 BC. In this particular story, a goddess was in love with the hero, Gilgamesh, and tried to flirt with him. But he rejected her advances because of how she treated other suitors.
One such man was a shepherd who left her many gifts on a shrine on a beautiful mountainside. At first she lead him on and encouraged him, but then she grew bored of his attentions and turned him into a wolf, and his own hounds tore him apart.
An ancient Greek myth speaks of Zeus turning Lyceaon into a werewolf. The story goes that Lyceaon threw a party and wanted to be sure that Zeus was really who he claimed to be. So he had a man killed and his flesh served to Zeus, in order to see if he was god enough to notice. Well, he was. And he was quite offended. So because of Lyceaon’s wolf-like actions of killing a man and proposing that his flesh be eaten, he turned him into a werewolf. And it is from the name “Lyceaon” that we get the name “lycanthrope.”
Perhaps the next oldest story, going all the way back to 39BC, is recorded by Virgil in his Alphesiboeus. He wrote that a man named Moeris could turn himself into a wolf using herbs and poisons.
“These herbs, these poisons, that were culled in Pontus, it was Moeris
Himself that gave them me. Such herbs are common weeds in Pontus.
Oft by their sorcery I have seen Moeris turn wolf and hide
Within the woods, oft call forth spirits from their deep-dug graves,
And charm away to other fields whole harvests of sown corn.”
In this case, the man could turn himself into a wolf, rather than being forced to turn into a wolf by someone else.
A Native American example of a possible werewolf comes from Guarani mythology. When an evil spirit named Tao took on a human form in order to marry a beautiful woman, Kerana, he incurred the wrath of the high goddess Arasy, who cursed the seven sons they produced. Each one had a different monstrous form and some were used as scary stories to make children nap during their siestas, lest they be lured by one of the monsters, and as an excuse for adulterous women who mysteriously became pregnant.
The last of the seven sons was named Luison, and he had the appearance of a sick wolf-like creature. He was half human, half wolf, not necessarily something that transformed between the two. He smelled like death and decay and hung around graveyards. To be touched by the Lusion was a sign of impending death. As a result, it is considered unlucky to be the seventh son, and some believe that all seventh sons become werewolve-like creatures.
Another more recent werewolf incident was that of Peter Stubbe, a serial killer. Throughout the sixteenth century, Stubbe was accused of being a werewolf, practicing witchcraft, and giving into his cannibalistic tendencies. When he was caught, he claimed that the devil himself gave him a belt of wolf fur that would transform him into a werewolf when he wore it. The horrible crimes he committed, including the murder of many women and children and livestock, were likely the result of a mental disorder rather than an ability to change form.
Instead of considering how one might go back and forth from human to wolf, let’s take a look at what might look like a wolf-man if seen in the dark.
Hypertrichosis, an overgrowth of hair all over the body, has been referred to as “werewolf syndrome” for decades. Excessive amounts of hair may or may not be present at birth, but a significant amount of hair in unwanted places such as the face can continue to grow throughout life.
Another well-known deformity is elephantiasis, the disease afflicting the elephant man, Joseph Merrick. There is some speculation over whether it was elephantiasis or another genetic deformity, but others besides Mr. Merrick have suffered similar diseases and may have looked like a wolf-man to an onlooker. Some may rather have been known as an intimidating wolf instead of a deformed human.
Along the same lines of misunderstandings over actual werewolves, think about how difficult it would be for a body to make so many changes. For the skeleton to extend and many of the bones to change shape; for the hearing to quadruple and the sense of smell to become one hundred times as effective as a human’s; for the eyes to develop a tapetum lucidum (the layer behind the retina that produces eyeshine and makes it easier to see in the dark); and not only to change once, but to change back and forth, whether with the moon cycle or at will. That would be a lot of stress on a body and if such a thing were somehow accomplished, it would take a lot of time and would cause an early death for sure, not an extended life.
As for me, I’d like to think that people started believing in werewolves because wolves used to be able to talk (and maybe some still can!). Talking wolves. That would be cool.
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Of course, there is the good old Twilight Saga. There is a lot of controversy around this one. It has many lovers and many haters. Personally, I enjoyed the story and listened to the audio book several times. But besides the point. Werewolves. And I found out during the research for this post that the Quileute people from her book were not made up, but were an actual tribe and they and the Kwakiutl people really did believe that their ancestors transformed into humans from their original wolf form. Which is pretty cool. I kind of wish I was descended from wolves!
What other books have you read with werewolves in them? Or were-anything? I like the werecats in the Eragon series. I’d love to find out about other stories with were-animals of any kind!
How to get creative with werewolves…they have been done a few times before. What about a story with a pack of wolves, and one of it’s members can turn into a human?
I’m also into this were-animal thing. What about wereturtles? Or weretigers? Wereostriches? Weregriffins! What animal would you turn into, if you could be a were-anything?