Last year, I wrote about the first vampire. After that, I thought that I was going to look into the werewolves, but I totally forgot, until I recently saw that one of my favorite werewolf movies was going to be available on Blu-ray–I’m talking about the movie Dog Soldiers with Kevin McKidd. So now, I’m back here, finally looking into:
What are the origins of the First Werewolf?
First of all, what are we talking about? Not a real werewolf of course, but of the mythical creature with the ability to transform from a human into a wolf. Did you know that word “werewolf” has its origins in Old English and Old High German?
The name derives from the Old English words “wer(e),” which means “man” or “adult male,” and “wulf,” which means “wolf.” In the same way, “wer” in Old High German denotes “man” or “human,” while “wolf” denotes “wolf.”
The words “werewolf” and “werwolf,” which roughly translate to “man-wolf” or “human-wolf,” were combined with the words “wer” and “wulf” in both languages. This phrase was used to designate a legendary being or folklore motif that may be found in many different cultures, especially in European folklore.
The Oldest Werewolf
The Werewolf is apparently a bit older than the Vampire. The earliest surviving example of man-to-wolf transformation can be found in the Mesopotamian poem “The Epic of Gilgamesh” from around 2,100 BC.
However, it is in ancient Greece and Rome that the werewolf as we now know it first appeared in ethnographic, poetic, and philosophical texts. These stories, often rooted in mythology, were influenced by local histories, religions, and cults.
Greek historian Herodotus, in 425 BC, described the Neuri, a nomadic tribe from Scythia (now part of Russia), who were said to transform into wolf shapes for several days each year. It seems that this was due to their use of wolf skins for warmth in the harsh climate. Herodotus referred to this practice as “transformation,” hinting at the early association of humans with wolf-like characteristics.
The werewolf myth became intertwined with the local history of Arcadia, a region in Greece where Zeus was worshipped as Lycaean Zeus, meaning “Wolf Zeus.” The Greek philosopher Plato mentioned a story in “The Republic” (380 BC) about a protector-turned-tyrant of the shrine of Lycaean Zeus. According to the tale, those who consumed human entrails as part of a ritual sacrifice were transformed into wolves.
Literary evidence suggests that cult members in Arcadia mixed human flesh into their ritual sacrifice to Zeus. The story of Lycaon, expanded upon in Latin texts by authors like Hyginus and Ovid, highlights immoral behavior, murder, and cannibalism. Lycaon and his sons attempted to trick Zeus into eating the flesh of their youngest brother, resulting in Zeus transforming Lycaon into a wolf. This tale represents the core elements of the modern werewolf, including physical transformation tied to prior immoral behavior.
The belief in werewolves continued into medieval Europe, with mentions in law codes, religious writings, and folklore. Medieval authors, influenced by the works of Augustine of Hippo, discussed werewolves and their physical metamorphosis. Gerald of Wales and Gervase of Tilbury documented the widespread belief in werewolves across Europe, noting specific instances in England and Ireland.
From Mythical Werewolves to Real Serial Killers
During the 16th century in France, several cases emerged where individuals were accused of being werewolves due to their involvement in heinous crimes. Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, Frenchmen from 1521, allegedly confessed to brutally murdering numerous children after swearing allegiance to the devil and using an ointment that purportedly transformed them into wolves. Both were burned at the stake, as burning was believed to be one of the few ways to kill a werewolf.
Another infamous case was that of Giles Garnier, known as the “Werewolf of Dole.” Also in the 16th century, Garnier claimed to possess an ointment that allowed him to transform into a wolf. Legend tells of his vicious acts of killing and eating children. He, too, suffered the fate of being burned at the stake for his monstrous crimes.
Peter Stubbe, a wealthy farmer from Bedburg, Germany, in the 15th century, is perhaps the most notorious werewolf figure. Folklore suggests that he turned into a wolf-like creature and terrorized the town, devouring numerous citizens. Hunters eventually cornered him, claiming to witness his transformation from wolf to human. Under torture, Stubbe confessed to savage killings, cannibalism, and the ownership of an enchanted belt that enabled him to transform at will. However, the belt was never found, and debates persist over his guilt, with some suggesting he was a victim of political or supernatural persecution.
Werewolf legends often depict transformation occurring through curses, enchanted items such as belts or cloaks, or being bitten or scratched by a werewolf. Some tales associate the transformation specifically with the full moon, a concept that may not be entirely far-fetched. Studies have shown a correlation between the full moon and increased violent behavior in humans, potentially explaining the werewolf myth’s link to lunar cycles.
In some cases, medical conditions have been associated with werewolf-like characteristics, adding a scientific perspective to the legends. Peter the Wild Boy, discovered in 1725 wandering through a German forest, was believed by many to be a werewolf or raised by wolves. However, research suggests that he likely had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a condition causing speech impairments, seizures, distinctive facial features, and intellectual challenges. Peter’s case demonstrates how medical conditions can give rise to myths and legends.
But like with vampires, movies, horror books, and TV Shows introduced a lot of twists into the legends about werewolves. But that’s a subject for another article. So, what’s your favorite werewolf story?