Werewolves, Lycanthropes, Shape-Shifters….
Since the dawn of human memory, we have been aware that a strange phenomenon accompanies our existence in this troubling and beautiful world. Today,
we often entertain ourselves with the notion, barely recognizing how deeply it is still ingrained in our collective psyche. Commonly, we call it
. But its roots run deeper and farther back than many realize. Anthropologists
claim hints of the belief are present in ancient cave art; which means this myth of transformation into a wild beast has been a global and timeless
Once we began writing books and sharing ideas freely it became clear to scholars that shape shifting is not a run-of-the-mill local myth; (in fact, it
is still believed to happen to this day.) This phenomenon spanned continents.
Science classifies the phenomenon, “clinical lycanthropy”
, from the perspective of
the sufferer, considering it a delusion, and usually designating any corroborative witness testimony as flawed in some way. Psychological academia
seems to accept that sufferers are expressing a complication of some underlying psychosis or condition, such as schizophrenia.
Witnesses claim seeing feats of inexplicable strength and bestial dexterity undertaken by the werewolf. Historical accounts also speak of a single
werewolf engaging and defeating a dozen men. The animal rage and cruelty displayed by werewolves was so astonishing to some, they created graphic
illustrations to lend credence to their stories.
Werewolf-ism, or Lycanthropy, is actually considered a ‘type’ of an illness to medical science. In June 1954 the 26th volume of the Yale Journal
of Biology and Medicine was published including a scholarly work entitled; “Encyclopedia of Aberrations.” In it, the scientist author describes
something more all-encompassing in its scope: Therianthropy
Therianthropy describes the belief in which the human undergoes a metamorphosis into animal form. The myth merits study, considering that this
archetype of phenomenon seems permanently connected to our common history. But in no way does any form of shape shifting compare with the current
prominence or popularity of the werewolf, which specifically calls attention to itself on nearly every continent, in nearly every period of human
It is important to distinguish between a “theriomorph” – a person who chooses to surrender themselves to an animal form, and a "lycanthrope",
who seems incapable of arresting the change. While lycanthropes have been said to appear differently, sometimes as anthropomorphic men or women, with
wolf-like features; theriomorphs appears as normal animals, generally indistinguishable from the real thing.
Starting with the foundation, as all enduring ideas are; let’s begin with some considered conjecture.
Among the first things to consider is the lengthy history that humans have with canines. Wolves are the largest among canines and they appear to be
untamable. Their distinctive howl can be heard from miles away. I envision primitive hunters admiring their cunning, and their cooperative manners.
Humans must have seen that the success of wolves in the wild had something to do with their coordinated behavior and demonstrable respect for rank
within the group.
As hunters though, wolves compete with us for food, and are known to turn to us as prey given the right circumstances. Unlike our friends the dogs,
wolves keep their tails low for the most part, the dominance of the male pack leader is supreme and his mate clearly shares the role. In
pre-history, wolves ran across the entire northern hemisphere, North America, Asia, Europe.
Imagine if you will, the mind of the early human, trying to understand why this one kind of ‘super’ dog refuses to conform to the human pack. Why
do they dare to challenge us, even kill us, if we should confront them? It’s as if they would not be enslaved to our will, they were more free, and
to be feared and respected, unlike their smaller subservient cousins. Even wolf pups raised by humans consistently retain their wild heritage and
often return to the wild never to be seen again.
(In the southern hemisphere, lacking wolves, the inhabitants instead see were-tigers, were-hyenas, and were-jaguars. Their mythology tracks that of
their northern counterparts without missing a beat. As most claims of theriantropic phenomena seem to center on shape-shifting into some predator, or
beastly killer of men.)
As mankind migrated and established new centers of life, he brought with him thousands of years of collected folklore and legend regarding
shape-shifting, and for the most part, the uncontrollable wolf. Shamans and witch-doctors sought the power of this independent and resilient
creature. Hunters wore their skins, but perhaps for more than warmth, maybe even to affect the taking of the wolves’ perceived power to intimidate
by strength and disposition.
As humans began to exercise what they believed to be the sympathetic spiritual magic of the wild, the blessing of the wolf’s attributes given to
some, proved to be the curse of the wolf to their victims. Perspective engenders the conceptualization of good and evil, and all things being equal,
for those said not to be in control of their lives, the ‘curse’ of the werewolf is born.
Amassing knowledge of the beast.
Eventually, the world of humans became increasingly intelligible. People began to rely on more than verbally-transmitted folklore and writing and
illustrating became a way to disseminate ideas and knowledge.
We look back at the history we have managed to save this way, and we see Lycanthropes everywhere, and every ‘when’…. Always on the periphery of
acceptance; but never lost from sight.
An early scholarly book about werewolves is “The Book of Were-Wolves
,” by Sabine
Baring-Gould, . It represents an early, serious effort to accumulate the folklore and legend of the werewolf, although it has typical gaps
corresponding to the general lack of global knowledge prevalent at the time in western writing. Nevertheless the book points out some interesting
Marcellus Sidetes, a Roman citizen of what is now Turkey, wrote in the early to mid-first century BCE that there had been encounters with hyena-men,
and similarly Virgil wrote that certain sorcerers could transform themselves into wolf-men. Ovid, in his "Metamorphoses," of Lycaon, spoke of when
the king of Arcadia, was entertaining the god Jupiter one day, and upon presenting him a portion of human flesh, Jupiter proved his godliness by
transforming him into a wolf.
The ancient Greek domain of Arcadia was apparently considered the center of all Lycanthropy, which was further evidenced by an account of Pliny, who
tells that during the festival of Jupiter Lycæus, one of the families of Antæus was randomly chosen, and taken to the shore of the Arcadian lake. He
then stripped and jumped into the water; “whereupon he was transformed into a wolf. Nine years after, if he had not tasted human flesh, he was at
liberty to swim back and resume his former shape…
But werewolves were not particular to the south of Europe, and it appears that long before, the people of the North were said to be plagued by the
werewolf problem. The Norse knew lycanthropy as pertaining to the "skin-changing men", and there were several ways they changed form, mostly it was
accomplished by ritual. For all the benefits of taking on the form of the wolf, the salient fact was that the beast form would rule the person's
mind; which of course, led to bloody ends.
Viking “berserkers” were possibly lycanthropes, as they used the transformation to overwhelm their enemies and prey despite the rage, suffering,
and sometimes even death they brought their own people.
In France, the werewolf story acquires new aspects. Unlike earlier accounts, it was now said to be possible to become “infected” with lycanthropy
by suffering a wound from a werewolf, or drinking rain water collected from the imprint of a wolf's paw. It is there that the idea of werewolves not
having a ‘choice’ in their affliction became first propagated, where all other cultures and background indicates that to be a shape-shifter one
must undergo a specific ritual or trial; and that such a thing is more or less an aspiration of the person; not some accidental ‘disease.’
In North America, the wolf along with his generally less honorable cousin the coyote, are both subjects of Therianthropy. In the majority of cases,
the action of transforming oneself was considered evil magic, contrary to the natural beauty of life. Thus all “skin walkers” are considered evil
witches and sorcerers; whereas true men of medicine do not engage in such things.
Asia had its share of theriantropic phenomenon as well, aside from were-wolves, which were closely associated with the Mongol hordes, there were
dragon men, and any number of other forms, all considered monstrous. Russian folklore speaks of a recipe for becoming an “oborot”, a werewolf.
Observations of the changing mythos
Many are no longer – generally speaking - afraid of werewolves. We don’t see them as automatically evil and wildly bestial creatures that hunt
and eat whatever they can, with no hesitation if the prey should happen to be human.
In the past, such creatures were hunted and destroyed. The allegation of being a werewolf was a death sentence.
Europe had a great deal of werewolf cases; some 30,000 were reported between 1520 and 1630. Oddly, many recorded cases in official hearings talk of
"eating children," and most people destined for a horrible death would confess their regret for having rubbed the magical salve on their skin, which
made them change shape, or they would deny remembering anything, but not that they were guilty.
As time passed, we begin to see stories of the association with the moon, the restraint of the affliction to nighttime only, and the idea that certain
metals can repel, kill, or even cure a lycanthrope. Many of the changes in the myth began their appearances once the infamous inquisition had begun
to spread across Christendom. It was at that moment in time it seems, that brigands and thieves, using wolves pelts as scary disguises realized the
risk was too high to persist in the practice. Perhaps then too, other ne’er-do-wells realized that the pretense of being a lycanthrope was
We remain with a lengthy list of what causes lycanthropy, aside from a delusion of the mind; magical spells, salves, or rituals might make you 'turn';
deals with demons and the demonic; evil deeds endlessly repeated by an unrepentant person were often cited as the means to this terrible end. To
this, we add that being bitten by a lycanthrope might leave you cursed with the disease.
Was it, or could it be a choice, or an affliction? Medicine opts for a mental affliction (although there is at
least one modern study
which shows strange brain patterns expressed in the scans of
those believing themselves to be undergoing the change.)
Some romantically think that the werewolf ‘people’ went into hiding, which contradicts the idea that their affliction leaves them incapable of
resisting their animal impulses. If this is so lycanthropes, or some lycanthropes, are actuality the aforementioned theriantropic individuals, in
which case, one might surmise, there could be another kind of hidden community among the nations of the world.
The recently turned werewolf must contend with a new reality that must be both frightening and terrible in its depth. Imagine the sudden realization
that you are not 'you' at certain times. That whatever you become is beyond your ability to comprehend, let alone control. At first, the lycanthrope
has to piece together the missing time, and may have to accept the real possibility that the thing he or she becomes may kill cruelly and without
cause. The intense anxiety of an oncoming transformation may hasten the change, and the power to recall what has happened may be slow and painful.
If lycanthropes can then learn to not only to recall what happened, but to assert their will over the new creature they have become, then perhaps
there is hope that they can live along side humans with little difficulty. But how long does such a journey take? Do lycanthropes mentor each other
through the process, or do they, like humans, use each other to their own advantage? How does the concept of dominance play into relationships, and
can there be a 'good' werewolf out there? This kind of scenario seems to challenge the desperation of powerlessness.
But are they victims? Or are they truly another species? We have seen countless entertainment efforts using the werewolf as a central theme. Most
of them are not really about werewolves, but instead about their victims. Perhaps a new look will prove interesting, because should lycanthropes walk
among us – there is one thing that is certain – we still really have a lot to learn about them.
Often, a well-researched and produced show can make us consider these questions and engage our imaginations in a way that can lead us to some possible
answers. I am looking forward to the efforts of producers Jeff Davis
and Russel Mulcahy
, (who also directs,) with their new show
" (which is a serious effort, unlike the well-received tongue-in-cheek comedy featuring
Michael J. Fox.)
This show (I believe it debuts on
on June 5th and 6th) explores a young man's world-shattering discovery that he has become a werewolf. His trials and life-lessons will be
very interesting to watch unfold.
edit on 6-6-2011 by SkepticOverlord because: (no reason given)