Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Horrors of Europe II: Vampire

Hello and welcome to The Obscuritan. This week we explore another well-known creature from European Folklore - the Vampire. What we in the modern era consider to be a vampire - the corpse of an evil man, which rises immaculate from the grave to feed upon the blood of the innocent for eternity until it is burned alive by sunlight or impaled with a stake through the heart - is as much a composite of many different local legends as it is a product of romantic fiction. Over the course of this article we shall examine scattered accounts and reports by officials, shed light on creatures from the corners of Europe and the distant past, to answer the question of what the vampire truly is.

[NOTE – There are many, many noteworthy accounts of individual Vampires, any of which would benefit from more in-depth analysis. As with the other articles in this series, we shall come back to the Vampire in more detail, and on a global perspective, once we get more of a hang of this format].

Antecedents of the Vampire

As with the werewolf, the vampire too has its own early strain (though not necessarily origins) in Classical lore. The goddess Hecate was over time associated with many dread titles and commanded various servants and creatures such as creatures known as “the silent watchers of the night” (επωπιδες – [epopides?]), and the spirits Empusa, Mormo and Lamia. Eventually, Lamia and Empusa were demoted to the status of common demons or bogeymen. Empusa was believed to be the daughter of Hecate and Mormo, and fed upon the blood of sleeping people. The meaning of her name was often translated as One-Legged, and she was commonly depicted with one asses’ leg and one of brass. Menippus of Lycia was recorded as having fallen in love with a beautiful woman and planned to wed her in a matter of days until Apollonius, a legendary Greek sage who happened to be at the wedding reception, forced the woman to admit that she was an Empusa who planned to fatten up and devour Menippus after the wedding (Apollonius of Tyana by Flavius Philostratus, book IV).

Originally Lamia was a queen of Lybia (and, incidentally, a granddaughter of Poseidon) who became one of Zeus’ many mistresses, and bore him children. However, as with Zeus’ other mistresses, Hera had her vengeance upon Lamia, forcing her to devour her own children, which gradually drove her out into the wilderness and made her a serpentine monster who reportedly could not close her eyes, all the better to be tormented with visions of her dead children. This slowly fed into popular mythology in Europe, possibly influencing the character of Lilith, first wife of Adam in the Christian Apocrypha, and was often used as a threat against unruly children by their mothers. Surprisingly, she also found a home in the artistic world, being reimagined in Keats’ poem Lamia – which seemed to reflect more the story of the Empusa we discussed – which in turn inspired paintings by Herbert Draper and John William Waterhouse.

Colin de Plancey recorded a case of a man named Polycrites, governor of Aetolia, who died four days after his wedding. When his wife gave birth nine months later, the child was a hermaphrodite, which was considered an ill omen. The local seers believed that such a sign meant that there would soon be a disastrous war with their neighbour-state Locris. Deciding to burn the woman and her child alive in order to appease the gods, the sacrifice was interrupted on the day by an apparition of Polycrites, pale and wearing bloodstained robes, who demanded that the sacrifice not be carried out, for even greater calamities would come to pass. When the crowd made to carry it out anyway, Polycrites’ apparition seized the child and began to tear it apart with his teeth and devour it, leaving only the head before vanishing. Just as the elders were about to send word to Apollo’s oracle at Delphi, the head spoke, proclaiming a series of dark prophecies, all of which presently came to pass. Also associated with undeath was the scandal-ridden emperor Caligula, whose ashes were kept in the Mausoleum of Augustus between his assassination and the time his sisters took them and buried them. Between these events, the mausoleum was said to be exceedingly haunted and the house he was murdered in was burned to the ground. Whether Caligula indeed rose from the grave is of course debatable.

Montague Summers devoted a chapter of his works to possible classical precedents of the European vampire, and argued “that the vampiric idea was present among well-nigh all ancient peoples, the one great difference being that whereas the true vampire is a dead body, the vampires of older superstitions were ghosts or spectres, but ghosts that were sometimes tangible, and spectres who could do very material harm to living people by exhausting their vitality and draining their blood” (The Vampire in Europe pp64). There are a variety of elements to this – blood was indeed commonly used by the living to give strength to the dead in offerings to the spirits of hallowed heroes, and the doctrine of the early Christian Tertullian built upon classical example in claiming that the soul was corporeal. However, the idea of both the predatory ghost and risen corpse – what Montague calls a “true vampire” – are also reflected in examples in Eastern Europe, of which some are included below.

The Predatory Corpse – some case studies

Before examining these case studies, there are a few elements it is worth bearing in mind:

The vampire meets the hunter.

between 1718 and 1739 Areas of Serbia and Walachia were under German control. German officials, such as in the case of Peter Plogojowitz, as well as travelling scholars such as de Tournefort in the case of the Vrykolakas, were the reason that many such vampire cases came to the attention of the wider world in centuries to come, as folklore which is taken for granted is seldom recorded.

The Dead and the Plague

The manner in which a spate of vampirism occurred – one case leading to the gradual spread to many victims over time – mirrored another cause of fear and death that had swept Europe during the 1300s and still occurred in sporadic outbreaks – the Bubonic Plague. The rapid spread of death in the cases of Peter Plogojowitz and of Arnod Paole (see below) occurred in this manner. However, at this time it was still commonly believed that foul odours were the source of disease and the fact that many suspected vampires, once exhumed, do not smell despite sometimes over a month of internment would definitely excite the superstitions of the onlookers. This is reflected in the case of the Vrykolakas (see below), where the corpse possessed a particularly foul odour, and those dissecting it burned large quantities of incense in an (ultimately futile) attempt to mask the smell. Some of the accounts of European Revenants included outbreaks of the plague as following such incidents.

Werewolves, Sorcerers and the dead.

Certain types of people, already numbered among the damned, were considered particularly liable to return from the grave. These included sorcerers and witches, werewolves, heretics and nonbelievers (particularly in England), criminals and suicides. In an interesting comparison, the inhabitants of the Greek Island in which the Vrykolakas case occurred were of the belief that only members of their own Greek Orthodox church could fall victim to vampirism. The connection with werewolves bears noting, and shall be returned to when we discuss the vampire in Romania and Bulgaria. With that, we shall now look at our case studies:

Peter Plogojowitz

1725. Kisilova, Serbia. Within the space of a week, nine people died in their beds after a brief period of wasting away. Those that could speak claimed that they had been visited by the apparition of a man – whom they recognized as Plogojowitz, a man who had died ten weeks prior – who had lain upon them in their bed and throttled them. During the same period, his wife also reported seeing him, claiming that he had come to the door and asked for his shoes. The imperial provisor wished to send off to the capital for official permission, but the villagers claimed that they would simply flee if their request was denied, as by the time such permission returned the whole village could be wiped out. When the body was exhumed there was, aside from some decay to the nose, no rotting nor odour to the body. A layer of skin and one set of nails had peeled off and had regrown. Furthermore, there was fresh blood in the body’s mouth. At this point the mob demanded the body be turned over to them, who promptly staked the corpse, causing fresh blood to pour from the wound (and, curiously, to cause the erection of its member), before burning the remains.

The Shoemaker of Silesia

1591 Breslau, Prussia. A local shoemaker, otherwise well-liked and respected in the town, was found by his wife in the back garden with his throat cut – an apparent suicide. Fearing the social stigma they and the dead man would endure as a result, the man’s wife and sisters decided they would instead claim that he died of a stroke; the body was cleaned and clothed in such a manner that his wound was disguised, the sisters asked any visitors to respect the widow’s privacy, and a priest who happened to call in was shown the body. Since there was no perceived objection, the body was buried in the churchyard with the full service. However, despite the care the women took, rumours began to spread that the man had taken his own life, and as the inconsistencies in the three women’s stories led them to “confess” that he had met with an accident with a lathe, which they had disposed of. As the rumours persisted, however, the widow sued to not have the body disinterred and reburied under any circumstances. Not long after, an apparition of the dead man began to appear to people throughout the village, coming upon them and attempting to suffocate them, and would even make its assaults when there were witnesses guarding the victim. Faced with such a large body of evidence, the body was finally exhumed, and was observed to have not decayed in the least, aside from looking a little more bloated than usual, and the skin on the feet had peeled off and been regrown (as was the case with Plogojowitz). Furthermore, the clothing of the body smelled foul, but the cadaver itself did not, and the gash to the neck was still red. Finally, and surprisingly, upon one of the shoemaker’s feet was a prominent mole, which in the local lore was taken to be the sign of a sorcerer. Having exhumed the corpse, the attacks did not cease, and only gained intensity when the villagers tried laying the corpse under the town gallows. Finally, the man’s wife confessed that her husband had been a suicide, and that the authorities could deal with his corpse in whatever means were necessary. The body had its head, heart, hands and feet removed, all of which were burned along with the body, before the sack of ashes was thrown into the river. Henry More’s account (the first one in English) also stated that the dead man’s maid, who died some time after him, also rose from the grave, and was disposed of in a similar manner.

There are two possible explanations for this particular incident. Given that the man died by suicide, it could be that its being given a church burial (which was denied to suicide victims for precisely this reason) caused the body to react in a violent manner. The fact that the man may have been a sorcerer could also have contributed to this, as they were prone to reanimating themselves and were also denied church burials. However, there was no evidence that the body had physically risen from the grave, nor was there fresh blood within its mouth or belly. Those familiar with ghosts might also take note that none but the wife and sisters of the dead man saw the body until the circumstance of his death had been obscured, the confusion of their stories, and the difficulty of a man being able to cut his own throat. Was it truly the shoemaker who took a life that morning?

The Vrykolakas

Another case witnessed by an outside observer, the botanist Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708), is just as macabre, though for its anatomical detail rather than its supernatural element which is notably somewhat absent. During the travels through Europe which would ultimately claim his life, de Tournefort witnessed the dissection of a peasant man of Mykonos in Greece, where a naturally quarrelsome man had been reported as having appeared in apparition at night, tormenting and playing tricks on many people throughout the island. Deciding to wait until nine days after the burial, Mass was recited before the body was finally disinterred:

The butcher of the town, quite old and very maladroit, began by opening the belly rather than the chest. He rummaged about for a long time in the entrails, without finding what he sought, and finally someone informed him that it was necessary to cut into the diaphragm. The heart was torn out to the admiration of all bystanders. But the body stank so terribly that incense had to be burned, but the smoke, mixed with exhalations of this carrion, did nothing but increase the stench, and it began to inflame the minds of these poor people. Their imagination, struck by the spectacle, filled with visions. They took it into their heads to say that a thick smoke was coming from the body, and we did not dare say that it was incense. People kept calling out nothing but “Vrykolakas!” in the chapel and in the square before it, this being the name they give to these supposed revenants. […] Several of the bystanders claimed that the blood of the of this unfortunate man was quite red, and the butcher swore that the body was still warm, from which they concluded that the deceased had the severe defect of not being quite dead, or, to state it better, to let himself be reanimated by the devil, for hat is exactly the idea they have of a vrykolakas. [Note: De Tournefort notes that it was plain to see that the blood was indeed decayed and stagnant, not fresh. The warmth was most likely due to rotting gases]. They caused this name to resound in an astonishing manner. And then there arrived a crowd of people who professed loudly that they had plainly seen that the corpse had not become stiff, when they carried it from the fields to the church to bury it, and that as a result it was a true vrykolakas. That was the refrain. (Barber, P. Vampires, Burial and Death, pp22-3).

However, this did not end the creature’s mischief, leading the villagers to speculate that the spirit was forewarned by the mass and entrenched itself in (or vacated from) the corpse until the procedure was over. While several people were arrested for causing mischief under cover of the Vrykolakas scare, the apparition continued until the corpse was finally burned upon a nearby uninhabited island, so its spirit could not cross the water home with them. While this story, related by a man of science, has none of the supernatural horror of other accounts, it does usefully reflect the grisly reality of vampire hunting – most of these cases we discuss must simply have been, if possibly unquiet spirits, still corpses rotting in their graves.

Arnod Paole

Possibly the most detailed account of an entire outbreak of Vampirism is in the appropriately titled Visium et Repertum – Seen and Discovered. Five years previously to the incident, a local soldier (haiduk) named Arnod Paole, who had been attacked by a vampire but had apparently staved it off by eating earth from its grave and smearing itself with its blood, had died in his home village of Medvegia, Serbia. About a month afterward, people reported being harassed, and around 4 killed, by Paole. He was exhumed and found to be undecayed, with fresh blood in his mouth and regrown nails and skin (as in Plogojowitz’s case) he was staked, letting out an audible groan, before being burned and his ashes reinterred, as were the four dead who exhibited the same signs. However, at this later date a fresh outbreak took place, where seventeen people died after brief illness over the course of three months, whereupon a medical official was dispatched. When the last victim died, claiming that one of the other dead, a haiduk named Milloe, had been the one preying upon her, the official took the advice of the local gypsies and came to the conclusion that vampirism was involved. The seventeen bodies, all housed in the same graveyard, were exhumed. Found, all in similar states of vampirism, were: An eight-day old child*, the sixteen year old son of a Haiduk and the seventeen year old son of another, a woman with fresh blood in her chest and veins and her eighteen day old child* in a similar condition, a ten year old girl, Milloe, an elderly haiduk, and the wife of another. All had died some time over the previous months and were in little or no stage of decomposition, and most had fresh blood in their bodies. Other bodies were exhumed, but found to be completely decomposed. Those in a state of vampirism were decapitated and burned, and their ashes thrown into the river. The incidents promptly ceased.

*See the last part of this article for more on infant vampires.

Bulgaria and Romania – the Vampiric Werewolf

As we have noted, there is a close relationship between the vampire and werewolf, which commonly extended to a dead werewolf resurrecting as a vampire. The most common name for vampires in Romania is Strigoi, which refers to two closely related creatures – the “true” Strigoi, which is the ghost of an evil man which rises and assumes animal form to terrorize the countryside, and the Strigoi Mort, a vampiric corpse. The powers of the Strigoi and the Romanian werewolf, Vârcolac, are often interchanged, reflected in the Pricolici, which rises from the grave bodily in wolf form. The similarly named Vǎrkolak from Bulgaria is somewhat different. Here, the name denotes an outlaw who, after 40 days in the grave, rises in either in animal form (again most commonly as a wolf, reflecting the predatory nature of the living man) or as a cyclopean ogre-like man who feeds on human flesh. One may also remember the Prussian werewolf mentioned at the end of last month’s article, which rose from the grave after having gnawed through its shroud, ripping open the ground and causing hellfire to spew forth.

The Russian Upir and its regional variations bear mentioning at this point, with a direct quotation of W.R.S Ralston, via Summers’ The Vampire in Europe:

Some of the details are curious. The Little-Russians hold that if a vampire’s hands have grown numb from remaining long crossed in the grave, he makes use of his teeth, which are like steel. When he has gnawed his way with these through all obstacles [the doors of houses] he first destroys the babes he finds in a house, and then the older inmates. If fine salt be scattered on the floor of a room, the vampire’s footsteps may be traced to his grave, in which he will be found resting with rosy cheek and gory mouth. The Kashoubes say that when a Vieszcy, as they call the vampire, wakes from his sleep within the grave, he begins to gnaw his hands and feet; and as he gnaws, one after another, first his relations, then his other neighbours, sicken and die. […] The Lusatian Wends hold that when a corpse chews its shroud or sucks its own breast, all its kin will soon follow it to the grave. (Summers, 288-9.)


Instances of the dead rising for purposes other than predation on the living have also been recorded, though with their varied purposes and characteristics have made less of an impact upon the popular conscious than Vampirism. William of Malmesbury claimed that it was common knowledge that the Devil himself reanimated these bodies, allowing the wicked souls within them a second chance at sinning. The 12thC English historian William of Newburg (1136-1198) included a few prominent cases in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum, but claimed that so many individual cases of this kind existed that “were I to write down all the instances of this kind which I have ascertained to have befallen in our times, the undertaking would be beyond measure laborious and troublesome”. One example of the several he recorded in Book V Chapters XXII-XXIV is as follows:

The man in this case was died and, thanks to the effort of his wife and kinsmen, given an auspicious funeral. Nevertheless, the night after he appeared over his wife as she slept and made to press the life out of her. The second night he tried again, but was repelled by the watchmen who now stood over her. He tried the houses of his kinsmen who, too, were awake and guarded, before finally moving on to the stabled animals. He then took to wandering abroad, choosing to appear to certain people but still clearly visible to any witnesses. The Bishop of Lincholn was approached and, after counsel, declared the best solution was to decapitate and burn the corpse in the manner of a vampire. The local Archdeacon was loathe to do that, however, and instead the Bishop wrote a letter of absolution to the dead man, which was placed upon the (noticeably undisturbed) corpse of the man, before the tomb was closed again, and the attacks thusly ceased.

Walter Map (1140-1210), in his Distinctio Secunda (second book) of De Nugis Curialium (a book of local tales and courtly lore) also recounted several similar tales of undeath. One is of a Knight reclaiming his wife’s soul from the fairies, another – The Enchanted Shoemaker of Constantinople – we shall examine next time, but a few are of bona-fide revenants. Chapter XIV narrates another Knight who sires three children one after another, and each is found the next day with its throat cut. On the fourth attempt, a watch was set up over the crib, and a man who was given shelter for the night at the house joined this watch. Presently finding himself the last one awake, he was startled by a figure breaking in through the window and making for the crib. Seizing it, he and the household found that it was the child’s nanny, a maid well respected in the village. Branding her face with an iron key, the man sent others to her rooms and who presently returned with the maid herself, similarly branded. The impostor was forced to reveal that it was a devil which was given the form of the nanny in order to besmirch her virtuous standing.

In Chapter XXVII, the tale is told of a man complaining to the Bishop that a nonbeliever who died in his home had since come to the door of his home every 3 days and called out the name of one of the household, who would die in the next 48 hours. Though the corpse was decapitated and doused in holy water, it returned again and called out the householder’s name. He, despairing, charged out with a sword and chased the terrified thing back to its grave and decapitated it as soon as it lay down, thus ending its spree for good. As in the case of the Vrykolakas, could this have been a case of the corpse having time to entrench itself in the body before hunters could excise it the first time? Humorously, another reanimated atheist who appears in chapter XVIII lurks in an orchard until a cross is placed over his grave. Returning to it, he jumped back in alarm, and the hunters had to remove the cross and wait for the man to return to his grave before replacing it!

Lich – A Corpse without a Soul

An archaic term for a corpse, the lich has taken on a comparable, though smaller, niche in the modern consciousness. A lich was believed to be, rather than the vampire which never suspected the fate of its body after death, a man who ensured the survival of his soul after death by investing a portion of it into a Phlycatery – a talismanic box similar to those used in orthodox Judaism to house portions of the torah. The most well-known Lich was Koschei, an emaciated man who rampaged across the land in Russia terrorizing people. His soul portion was housed in the eye of a needle, inserted into an egg, placed in the stomach of a duck stuffed into a hare. Only destruction of this needle was said to be able to stop him.

Barrow-Dwellers and Undead Kings

The idea of a sorcerer being able to extend his life into undeath occurs in several of the norse sagas, where such men became draugr, often equated with ghosts and said to occur on land and sea. Several heroes of the Icelandic sagas fought such creatures, who often become haugbui or Barrow-Dwellers that guard the tombs they live on within. In the Saga of Hromund Gripsson, the hero fights the draugr Thrainn:

In previous days Thrainn had been king over Gaul, and he had accomplished everything by sorcery. He did much evil, until he was so old that he no longer wanted to know adversity any longer, so he went alive into the barrow and took much wealth with him.

Hormund comes upon Thrainn in his barrow-tomb, where he finds the former king sitting in his chair over a fire, blue and emaciated. He successfully wrestles Thrainn, who tries to cheat and slash Hormund with his claws. Hormund then takes his magical sword Mistletein and lops off Thrainn’s head and burns his body, claiming Thrainn’s horde of gold and the sword.

In another, The Grettis Saga of Grettir Ásmundarson, the protagonist as a young man also has reason to break into the grave of Kar the Old, who haunts the island where his barrow is set:

"On that headland," said Audun, "there is a howe, wherein lies Kar the Old, the father of Thorfinn. Once upon a time father and son had a farm-property on the island; but ever since Kar died his ghost has been walking and has scared away all the other farmers, so that now the whole island belongs to Thorfinn, and no man who is under Thorfinn's protection suffers any injury."

Grettir too wrestles and defeats this spirit and takes his hoard, though in his case it is what leads to his becoming cursed, eventually being condemned to outlawry.

Damned at Birth

The baptism of children soon after birth served as more than a means of securing the child’s membership of the church (and thus the community as a whole); to many, it was a preventative measure. Should the child die baptized, its soul would be accepted into the bosom of the Lord but without it, particularly if the child was stillborn, its soul had the potential to lurk at the fringes of civilization as a predatory monster just as much as that of an adult. The soul of an infant or child driven to monstrosity has the potential to be just as inhuman as that of an adult revenant, or indeed more so – as it died before experiencing the love of another person, and without being taught to feel emotion or humanity, one could not hold out the illusion that one could appeal to its reason or memories of its life (not that the adult revenant itself would be any more repentant, it must be said). The Strzyga, often used as an interchangeable term for Vampire in Poland, whose human soul has passed on leaving their animalistic soul to prey on humans, also referred to stillborn (and thus unbaptized) children who, if not buried in the manner one disposes of a vampire, would rise and stalk the deep forests and devour the flesh of travellers. The Scandinavian Myling was similar and also lurked in woodlands, but instead had a favourite trick to play on wanderers. The dead child would leap onto the back of a traveller and demand to be carried to holy ground so it could be buried, becoming heavier and heavier as the traveller walked until they collapsed, and the Myling would tear them apart in anger. These children were typically those abandoned by their parents and, without a Christian funeral were denied entrance to heaven.

Finally, as before, a quick preview of next week’s article:

(pp463) Albania swarms with devils and spirits (Ore), magicians and witches (Shtriga). Women in Albania are all born wicked. In some districts probably quite half the women have dealings with the devil. But it is very hard to detect them - Shtrigas can work many wonders, bewitch a man so that he withers and dies, or suffers aches and pains. A Shtriga can make herself quite small like a bee, and get into a house through the keyhole or under the door at night and suck a person's blood so that he fades and dies in time. The best safeguard is hard to get. A Shtriga always vomits the blood she has sucked. You must secretly track a woman you suspect to be a Shtriga when she goes out to vomit the blood. You must scrape some of it up on a silver coin and wear it, and then no Shtriga can harm you. Nothing is too marvellous for a tribesman to believe. (M. Edith Durham - High Albania and its Customs, 1908)

Read more!

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Horrors of Europe I: Werewolves

Hello and welcome to The Obscuritan. For this month’s series of articles, we take a look at the origins and incarnations of three staples of nightmares worldwide – the Werewolf, the Vampire and the Witch. For our first article, given that most of these accounts come from folk-tales, and are scarcely recorded in books in some cases, let alone illustrated, rather than providing the same tired illustrations of Werewolves (or –heaven forbid– contemporary depictions) we have instead provided a plethora of original quotations and sources for one to follow up oneself. Whether we can maintain this quantity as we proceed along the month remains to be seen.

The story most commonly associated with the “origins” of werewolves is Lycaon of Arcadia in Greece. King of that region, he sought to please the god Zeus by making a sacrifice of one of his sons. However, as in the tale of Tantalus, who invited the gods to a banquet and served the flesh of his son, Lycaon was punished, either for the insult that human flesh would appease the gods or for daring to assume the power to take human life as the gods do, by being turned into a wolf. Thus was founded the Lykaia cult, who sought to replicate the process via wild hedonistic ritual, much like the Bacchanals, and worshipped an aspect of Zeus – Lykaios, or “wolf-Zeus” – although in some versions he is the first priest of this cult. However, it is in the North of Europe where the true roots of the Werewolf as we know it can be found.

Vargr and Ulfhednar – Those who wear wolfskin

In Nordic culture, the wolf or Vargr was associated with criminals or evil men, both being dangerous creatures on the outskirts of civilization, to the point of synonymy. Eventually, the title Varg was added to the name of the crime itself – one who committed violence in a temple, for example was Vargr I Veum, or Wolf of the Sacred Space – and a wolf was hanged as a symbolic gesture alongside a hanged criminal. Indeed the name given to the gallows at that time was Varagtreo, or Wolf’s Tree.

A common method of shapeshifting amongst Seidhr, or Norse witches, was to don the skin of an animal for a time, of which the wolf was a popular choice. However it was not only witches who knew this trick; kings and heroes too were recorded as being able to do this, such as Sigmundr and Sinfjotli of the Volsunga Saga, who wore wolfskin nine days out of ten until at last, tiring of their power, burned the furs. Earlier Latin scholars such as Virgil and Hetrodotus noted the existence of such individuals, terming them versipellis, or turnskins (a predecessor of the modern turncoat?) who could wear another creature’s skin. No doubt harking back to the Vargr, in German lore the skin of a hanged man was of equivalent power, and perhaps it was originally the skin of a wolf hanged in this manner which held the power, much like other relics from a hanging such as the Dead Man’s Hand.

The most well-recorded wearers of wolfskin in the Norse Sagas were the Ulfhednar, or Wolf-dressed. Similar to the Berserkergang, who wore bearskins, the Ulfhednar ceremonially donned the skins of wolves and whipped themselves into a state of sacred frenzy in honour of Odin. While a variety of explanations are offered as to how this state was entered (whether a state of trance or induced by mead or hallucinogens) their prowess in battle was legendary.

An illustrative example can be found in the Norwegian poem Hrafnsmal:

Wolf-coats are they called who bear bloody shields in

battle. They redden their spears when they come to the

fight, and then they act all in a body. I doubt not that it

is only upon men of tried valour who fight without

flinching that the wise king will rely on such occasions.

(Kershaw, Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems, pp85)

And, from the Icelandic Ynglinga Saga:

Odin could make his enemies in battle blind, or deaf, or terror-struck, and their weapons so blunt that they could no more but than a willow wand; on the other hand, his men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserker.

Other Explanations


Lewis Spence, in his Encyclopaedia of the Occult, ascribed the origins of the werewolf to early cannibalistic tribes who were shunned by civilization’s ancestors and, like the Tsuchigumo spider-people of Japan, the wolf and the man became conflated into one being. While some might argue that whole tribes of cannibals would have died out too long ago for their existence, even as distorted tales of werewolves, to have survived in the popular consciousness, examples such as that of Sawney Bean and his large extended family of cannibals as recently as the 15-6th century in Galloway shows that this could be entirely possible.

Tribal Identity

Whole races at a time were sometimes thought to have the ability to change their form. Hetrodotus, for example, noted that the Neuri, a tribe dwelling somewhere near Scythia (modern Ukraine), were perceived as wizards for their ability to don wolf-form for a few days each year, though he personally gave this tale little credence. Later scholarship held that these people were forced by the Macedonians upward into Sweden around 400BCE; while this claim may be doubted, it would provide a neat explanation. One might also note at this point that at least one cannibalistic tribe, the nomadic Androphagi, coexisted with them in the same region.


I. Goulart, in his Admirable Histories, quoted several writers at length on the classification of lycanthropy as melancholia, a form of mental disease usually associated with depression and lethargy. The Obscuritan shall leave it to more qualified minds than his to discuss the psychologically classified mental affliction of lycanthropy (one source that may well be of some use is Raj Persaud’s From the Edge of the Couch, in which a chapter is dedicated to this topic) but shall quote a few of these sources as examples.

[Lycanthropy] is a sort of melancholy of a black and dismal nature. Those who are attacked by it leave their homes in the month of February, imitate wolves in almost every particular, and wander all night long among the cemeteries and sepulchres, so that one may observe a marvellous change in the mind and disposition, and above all in the depraved imagination, of the Lycanthrope. – Donat de Hautemer

De Hautemer goes on to mention that the memory of those thus afflicted does not appear to leave them – one patient of his seemed to recognize him while in the midst of an episode, and later asked the doctor if he had been scared by his gruesome appearance.

There was alsoa villager near Paule in the year 1541, who believed himself to be a wolf and assaulted seeral men in the fields, even killing some. Taken at last, he stoutly affirmed that he was a wolf, and that the only way in which he differed from other werewolves was that they wore their hairy coats on the outside, while he wore his between his skin and flesh. Certain persons more inhuman and wolfish than he wished to test the truth of this story, and gashed his arms and legs severely. Then, learning their mistake, they passed him over to the considerations of the surgeons, in whose hands he died some days later. - Job Fincel, On Miracles

[NOTE: Another source placed this occurrence in Padua, and elaborates that these “surgeons” were in fact Inquisitors, and the patient died as they searched more thoroughly for the hair he supposedly wore under his skin]

Those afflicted with this disease are pale, with dark and haggard eyes, seeing only with difficulty; the tongue is dry, and the sufferer very thirsty. Pliny and others write that the brain of a bear excites such bestial imaginations. It is even said that one was given to a Spanish gentleman [involuntarily?] to eat in our times, which so disturbed his mind that, imagining himself to be transformed into a bear, he fled to the mountains and deserts.

This last reference, with its mention of the brain of a Bear seems more akin to the Berserkers we have already mentioned, and the link between eating brains and mental disease has already been established in Human cannibalism at least.

[NOTE: these quotes I have taken from Lewis Spence’s Encyclopedia of the Occult since, unfortunately, Goulart writes in Ye Olde English. Thankfully for anyone seeking the original text online, the spelling of Lycanthropy tends to be pretty standard.]

It is interesting to note that several of these sources mention a particular time or season when werewolf melancholia comes into effect – de Hautemer in particular noted February as being the month, whereas G. Peucer referred to Livonian werewolves changing 12 days after Christmas, which would place it in early January.

One further titbit appeared while on this search – a confused account of a case which seems to combine the above is mentioned in Jacobean dramatist John Webster’s play, The Duchess of Malfi:

In those that are possess'd with't there oreflowes Such mellencholly humour, they imagine themselves to be transformed into wolves, steale forth to church-yards in the dead of night, and dig dead bodies up: as two nights since One met the duke, 'bout midnight in a lane behind St. Markes church, with the leg of a man upon his shoulder; and he howl'd fearefully: Said he was a woolffe: onely the difference was, a woolffes skinne was hairy on the outside, his on the in-side.


Sometimes this outcome came as a direct punishment for sinful activity – in Armenia, women (particularly the adulterous) would sometimes be visited by a mysterious stranger, who would give them a pelt of wolfskin and command them to wear it, whereupon they would be compelled to seek and devour children until sunrise, and to repeat the process themselves for another seven years. Several sources also allude to two Saints were also said to have turned sinners into werewolves: Saint Patrick, after his attempts at conversion were rebuffed, cursed the court of King Vereticus to transform into werewolves (either every seven years or for seven consecutive ones), and Saint Natalis cursed a family in Ireland to change every seven years. Other saints who had power over wolves were Saint Herve, who chastised the wolf who slew his cart-ox so convincingly that the wolf offered itself as a substitute (a story also attributed to St Fillan), St Francis of Assisi who talked another wolf into giving up hunting humans, St Ailbhe who was breastfed by a wolf, St Vaast & St Blaise who both rescued livestock from wolves, and St Columban, who prevented a pack of wolves from attacking him by standing still and declaring “Deus in Adjutorium” (god in assistance).

Garments and spells

As noted, the Girdle was often used as a substitute for a full pelt of wolfskin, and since tales often describe the burning of such a pelt as being the best way to end a werewolf’s rampage, it makes for a practical solution. Curiously, some tales also describe the shift to wolf form being when one takes off a girdle of human skin – most likely harking back to the Germanic Vargr – which begs the question; could some werewolves be wolves masquerading as humans?

There are a vast number of means by which humans have been recorded as turning into wolves, enough to make a recantation of them all herein a tedious, unnecessary formality. Many of these come from individual folk-tales with no other precedent, leading one to suspect that these are, like Lycaon of Arcadia, individual transformations rather than a reliable spell. One tale (The Wolf of Magdenburg, which is mentioned more thoroughly under Other Wolves) suggests drinking water from a forest brook, upon the bed of which a hole leads deep underground**, another from the footprint of a wolf. Sleeping outside under the full moon was another, although rolling in the morning dew was recorded in other sources as a potential cure. Some are even more abstract – the Latvian Vilkacis, while most commonly transformed by the skin of a wolf, could also achieve this transformation by walking under a tree which has bent over into an arch.

Many cases, particularly in France, included the visit of a mysterious dark individual, which either taught the spell or gave the garment to the potential werewolf. Jean Bodin, a particularly fervent witch hunter of the late 1500s dedicated a whole chapter of his work Demonomanie des Sorciers to witches’ ability to shapeshift, and proclaimed that this figure was invariably the Devil, and lycanthropy was a gift given by the devil similar to the powers given to witches at a sabbat. This tendency can be noted in the cases below. Richard Verstegan, on the other hand, argued in his tract Restitution of Decayed Intelligence (1628) that such werewolves:

are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle.

** Why should such a hole to the underworld be found at the bed of a river? Consider the source at the very end of this article for a possible explanation…

Loups-Garou and the Werewolf Trials

Particularly in France and Estonia towards the end of the Middle Ages, several highly-publicized trials of werewolves and witches with lycanthropic powers took place, a few of which are listed below (dates are approximate):

Gilles Garnier (1572)

Originally a hermit who lived out in the wilderness outside of Dole in France, Garnier was visited by a “spectre” who gave him a magic ointment that allowed him to change his form, a power he used to hunt down and kill nine young children, devouring all but a few which were interrupted by the arrival of the authorities. Eventually he was caught, confessed, and burned at the stake.

Jean Grenier (1603)

Landes, France. Arrested after boasting of his powers to a girl who he shepherded with, Grenier confessed to having met on two occasions with a mysterious “Lord of the Forest”. Upon the second meeting, he had sworn fealty to this being, who had in turn marked him with a sigil and given him a wolf-pelt to wear, which he used to prowl the countryside devouring many young children. Though his claims were corroborated by relatives of the victims, given Grenier’s youth and obvious imbalance, he was permanently incarcerated in an asylum.

Michael Verdun (1521)

A man out travelling in Poligny, France found himself attacked by a wolf, whom he was able to fend off by wounding. Following its trail, he found Michael Verdun, wounded and in the arms of his wife. At trial, he declared that he was indeed a werewolf, and indicated two others, Philibert montot and Pierre Bourgot, as his accomplices. Bourgot corroborated his account, and claimed further that Verdun had brought him to a sabbat attended by many others and led by a man claiming to be a servant of the Devil, under the promise that it would help solve his everyday problems. Verdun smeared Bourgot with a salve which allowed him to assume wolf-form. Between the three of them, they confessed to a string of horrific crimes in the region, and all three were executed.

Peter Stumpp / Stubbe (1573)

Cologne, Germany. A case particularly notable for its gruesomeness, both in the spree of the werewolf himself and in his eventual punishment, Stumpp was, to outside appearances, simply a wealthy and influential farmer in the region. However, in a complicated series of circumstances mostly relating to a spate of civil war in the region and the rapid ascension of a new leader of the region whom Stumpp had opposed, he was apprehended as a werewolf. Tellingly, although the soldiers who captured him claimed to have found him in the act of slipping off a wolfskin belt, no such garment was found, and the authorities merely claimed that the Devil had reclaimed it in the confusion. Over a long period of torture, Stumpp eventually confessed to a killing spree spanning over 25 years and 16 victims, in the form of a wolf, derived from a belt given by the Devil which also gave him such a voracious sexual appetite that he had had affairs with several mistresses, his own daughter, and even a Succubus. His execution involved having the flesh pulled off his bones with heated pincers, having his limbs broken with an axe, before finally being beheaded, and burned alongside his daughter and one mistress.

The Estonian Trials

In this region, Christianity mixed on the popular level with pagan ceremonies and belief, including the existence of werewolves, for whom accusations and trials were more common than those of witchcraft perhaps as a result. Trials of witches and werewolves often ran together, with the presence of a “man in black” or other figure who taught the skill of transformation used as evidence of witchcraft in werewolf trials, as in the trial of Hans in 1651. Over the course of 18 trials, 13 men and 18 women confessed to wearing wolfskins (a more common method in this region than the use of ointments). The number of women found guilty is unusually high, given that lycanthropy is almost universally considered exclusive to males – no doubt these women were witches accused of lycanthropy, as opposed to those werewolves whose link to a “man in black” or other diabolical figure was used to accuse them of witchcraft.

A Curious Case: The Hounds of God

During the late 16th Century, the Inquisition’s attentions were drawn to the cult of the Benandanti. This cult was a remnant of an early fertility cult, which practiced rituals akin to Shamanism. The Inquisition had been struggling for the past century to link the Benandanti to the Witches' Sabbats, but had found little to go on, as the cults had strong support from the local population and professed their innocence – their name literally meant “Good-Walkers” or those who walk the path of good. Finally, the Inquisition happened to find vital evidence for their case in the testimony of a man named Theiss, who was arrested and tried as a werewolf in Livonia (the region now split between Estonia and Latvia) in 1692. Over the course of his lengthy confession, he told the court that he was a Benandanti, and could indeed assume wolf form, as could his fellow cultists, but stoutly denied any link to Satanism. As he described it, the Benandanti’s spirits left their bodies and assumed the form of wolves, which descended into the underworld to battle Malandanti (evildoers) or Strigoni [Possibly akin to the Strigoi we shall look at next month]. It seems the Benandanti were a branch of a wider European cult, and the factors of the cult Theiss described agreed with those of the Italian Benandanti. By this point however the latter’s practices had become corrupted, and their local support evaporated, until, after some encouragement from the inquisition, most had come to "realize" that they were heretics. It is likely therefore that Theiss was simply a particularly devout adherent to the Latvian branch. Eventually, with little else to go on, Theiss was given a lashing for superstition, but avoided the stake and gallows. It is not known whether Theiss named the other members what happened to them.

Other Wolves


Cases involving werewolves in particular (even if one does not include similar legends of transformations into other creatures) spread far across Europe, and even further. In 1542 for example, Constantinople was so plagued by werewolves that the emperor at the time, Suleman the Magnificent, had to ride out with his retinue to hunt them, slaying 150 of them in one hunt.

The Wolf of Magdeburg

The city of Magdeburg in Germany (formerly Prussia) was often plagued with packs of wolves who in winter would be driven down from the mountains into the streets in the Wolf-Monat (wolf-month) of January in order to scavenge and occasionally feed upon the unwary. In the winter of 1890, a spate of such killings were committed, notably particularly bold as the apparent wolves were breaking into the homes of people and snatching their children, leading the magistrate Breber to patrol the streets with a team of men to hunt for the wolf. As the weeks continued and more people were taken, Breber was eventually reduced to patrolling the streets alone. On one such evening, he followed a tramp who he found wandering the streets murmuring “The night has teeth. The night has claws and I have found them.” She led him to a hunting lodge where he found the wolf about to devour yet another infant and, upon slaying the wolf, found that its body transformed to that of his wife. The cause of the wife’s transformation was later traced to her having drunk from a mountain stream, in the bed of which a hole led into the earth that enchanted the water.

Courtard (Bobtail) and the Wolves of Paris

In a similar case to Magdeburg, during the winter of 1450 one pack of wolves, driven by hunger, entered the city of Paris and killed around 40 people, until they were led onto the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral and stoned to death.

The Beasts of Gevaudan

In the space of just under a century, France bore witness to a series of horrific rampages, committed by a single wolf each time, which left hundreds of people dead. The first such spate was in Benais in 1693, when a single creature killed over a hundred people. Between 1809 and 1813 another 21 people were killed by another wolf in Vivaris. However, the rampage best known out of those in this period took place between 1764 and 1765 in the region of Gevaudan. The wolf that was involved –the titular “Beast”– was singularly massive, said to be the size of a reasonably mature calf or small cow, and was easily capable of carrying a young child in its maw. The beast was also notable for its unusually large mouths and tails, as well as a foul odor. The Beast in question is believed, if all the reported attacks were indeed the same beast, to be responsible for around 113 deaths and 98 injuries, mostly children and women. The army eventually hunted the first beast down in 1765, but a second appeared soon after and continued to kill people from 1765 up until its death in 1767.

Finally, to give you a little taster of our next topic, here is an excerpt from Walter Kelly’s Curiosities of Indo-European tradition and folk-lore (1863):

[pp260] Distinct from the ordinary werewolf which we have hitherto been considering is another kind which is near akin to the vampyre, for it is not a transformed living man but a corpse that has risen from the grave in the form of a wolf. The belief in this kind of werewolf still prevails in Prussia, as it did formerly in Normandy. In that province, down to the close of the last century, a change of this nature not uncommonly befell the remains of one who had died in mortal sin. First the corpse began to gnaw and tear the cloth that covered its face. Then fearful sounds were heard issuing out of the ground, the coffin was burst open, the earth that lay upon it was rent, and flames of hell broke forth. Whenever the watchful priest of the parish became aware of these well-known tokens, he [pp261] had the corpse dug up, and then cut off its head with the sexton's spade, and bidding defiance to the hell-hounds that strove against him, he carried the head to the nearest stream and cast it in. It sank at once, but this was not all, for, weighted with its doom, it pierced the bottom of the river, and pressed slowly downwards through the earth to the place of its everlasting torments.

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