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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