Werewolves exist in almost every culture and have been present in almost every time down through recorded history. They have been there for our nightmares and our fantasies. They are our predators, protectors, and our excuse for bad behavior. Who are these beasts and where did they come from?
Back when Homo sapiens were competing with the other hominids for survival, a strange thing happened. We discovered that a relationship with canines would be the extra edge we needed. We provided food, shelter, and companionship to the highly social animal and they provided us with a hunting advantage, protection, and companionship. We assumed the position of alpha, and they happily followed. This was the beginning of the domestication of dogs. As dogs became more domesticated and genetically separated from wild wolves, the chasm between human and wolf grew as well. The cultural evolution of humans also caused problems for the nature of the wolf.
When wolves hunt as a pack, they serve a very important function. As predators, they cull the sick and elderly members of a herd to keep them healthy and vibrant. They decide which animals to attack by responding to the prey’s behavior. They choose very particular animals that give clues they are sick or are slowing the herd down. The Inuit of North America call this exchange the “conversation of death”.
As humans domesticated herd animals such as sheep and goats, the process bred many wild behaviors out of them. Now, when a wolf initiates this “conversation” with their livestock prey they are met with ignorance. The wolf’s reaction to this is to try to cull the entire herd. They kill more than they can eat and their attacks become a frenzy of fury and violence. Humans seemingly were behind the circumstances for the wolf’s reputation to be feared and demonized.
Over time, wolves became more and more misunderstood and reviled. Entire populations were wiped out in the effort to stop this beast from affecting our lives. The wolves ran. They hid from us. We no longer meant shelter, food or companionship to them. However, when humans needed explanations as to why good people did bad things, the wolf was still there to take the blame.
Wolves and humans have long been intertwined in the form of the shapeshifting creature, the werewolf. The earliest recorded legend of werewolves began with Ancient Greek mythology. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Lycaon, the King of Arcadia, is visited by Jupiter who reveals himself to be a god. Lycaon doesn’t believe this claim. He decides to test whether Jupiter was god or mere mortal by serving him the flesh of a human. Jupiter was wise to his antics, and transformed Lycaon into a wolf as punishment. This tale of King Lycaon gave us the word lycanthropy.
Could werewolves really exist? Even during times of belief, the consensus of historical scientists has been that it would be impossible for a man to turn into a wolf. Human bones just couldn’t make that kind of transformation. It takes weeks to months for a broken bone to heal. How could a bone transform its shape in just moments? As always, the skeptics were in the minority. Believers weren’t going to let go of their scape-wolf for the sake of reason.
According to folklore, there were many ways to become a werewolf. One could be born as a werewolf, scratched or bitten by a werewolf, or placed under a curse. Some people intentionally sought out ways to become a werewolf. They would visit a witch who would cast a spell, or they would perform a ritual with a salve and a wolf skin belt. The werewolf could be under the influence of poisonous plants or fungus, or a source of water from which a werewolf had taken a drink. Of course, possession by a demon wolf was always a possibility too.
Transformation was another story. Most often the change from human all the way to wolf took place in a matter of moments. In other cases, the transformation resulted in a hybrid creature that was half-man and half-wolf. In some stories, a man falls asleep under a bush while a wolf goes out and does his bidding. In others, being a werewolf did not result in any obvious physical change. Only behavioral changes pointed to lycanthropy.
Werewolves also have a strong connection to witches. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that werewolves were the victims of a witch’s curse. In other lore, witches and werewolves worked together, or the wolf might be the witch’s familiar. Alternatively, a witch could shapeshift into a werewolf. In the Navajo language, another word for wolf is “mai coh”, which also means witch.
Just as there were witch trials, there were werewolf trials. In medieval Europe there was a strong belief in werewolves, and lycanthropy was a crime punishable by death. The term lycanthropy originally meant “the disease of being a werewolf” and later clinical lycanthropy became “the disease of believing you are a werewolf”. Mental illness was actually used as an excuse in some of these early trials, but was a defense that rarely won.
In stark contrast to their status as savage beasts, wolves also have the reputation of being nurturing. From Roman mythology, we have the story of orphaned twin boys Romulus and Remus who were raised by a she-wolf. In stories of “wolf-children”, the wolves didn’t attack or eat these children, but instead cared for them as their own. However, when Peter Stumpp was convicted of being a werewolf in 1589, one of his crimes was devouring babies, including his own son. This was considered “wolfish” behavior.
Finally, in the latter part of the twentieth century, we started to see the error of our ways. A cultural shift took place and we began to see the nobility, intelligence, and importance of the wolf. Conservation programs began efforts to protect and restore them. Many regions started wolf recovery efforts in areas where their populations were in decline, such as the Yellowstone project that reintroduced the grey wolf to restore balance to the park’s ecosystem.
Hollywood has helped rehabilitate the wolf’s image. The documentary-style movie Never Cry Wolf raised awareness of the plight of the wolf. The French movie, Brotherhood of the Wolf, shows the savagery and fear surrounding the historical Beast of Gévaudan while expressing disappointment in the blaming and slaughtering of wolves. Even the perception of werewolves has changed in popular culture. In the movie Underworld, the Twilight series and the TV show Being Human, werewolves are portrayed as honorable, ethical, and even sexy.
In Native American culture, the wolf has always represented courage, strength and loyalty. Native American folklore tells stories of the connection between wolves and humans. Wolves are seen as powerful creatures that are a source of inspiration. Native people have a deep respect for the wolf. Perhaps they have had it right all along. If we all had that kind of respect for the noble animal, there would be a lot more werewolves popping up this time of year.