The term “werewolf” comes from the Old English word “wer,” meaning “man,” combined with “wolf.” A werewolf is essentially a human who transforms into a wolf-like creature, either during a full moon, by wearing a special wolf skin, or due to a curse.
There are various ways a person can become a werewolf:
- being cursed.
- being conceived under a new moon.
- consuming certain magical herbs.
- sleeping under a full moon on a Friday.
- drinking water touched by a wolf.
- eating a wolf’s brain (a practice done by sorcerers).
- a person who led a life of bestiality could turn into a werewolf after death.
The condition in which a person transforms into a wolf is known as “lycanthropy.” This term is derived from the Greek words “lykos,” meaning “wolf,” and “anthropos,” meaning “man.”
The belief in werewolves dates back to ancient Greece and Rome.
Romans had their own word for werewolf, which was “versipellis,” meaning “turnskin”.
Becoming a werewolf through curses
The most common way an individual would become a werewolf was through a curse placed upon them by a witch, sorcerer, or other supernatural being.
Below are just a few such examples, although there are plenty more to be found in mythology and folklore:
The Greek Lycaon – the first known werewolf
Lycaon is known as the first werewolf in the classical literature of Greece and Rome, and he was the king of Arcadia. The legend, as recounted by the poet Ovid (43 BC – AD 17) in his work Metamorphoses, tells the tale of a monstrous cannibal who kills his guests while they sleep and feasts on their flesh.
When Zeus, the king of the gods, visits Lycaon to investigate the rumors, Lycaon attempts to test Zeus by serving him human meat. Appalled by this act, Zeus destroys Lycaon’s home and curses him to live forever as a creature that is part man, part wolf. In this form, Lycaon seeks sustenance by preying on passers-by.
The legend of Lycaon inspired the establishment of a cult dedicated to worshipping wolves. Members of this cult donned wolf masks and hunted sacrificial prey, sometimes even humans, through the forests before ultimately destroying them.
At Mount Lykaion, an annual sacrifice was made to a local version of Zeus known as Lykaian Zeus.
The Arcadians, who lived nearby, believed that during this gruesome ceremony, one unlucky worshipper would be transformed into a wolf.
Forced to roam in this form for nine years, the individual could regain their humanity if they managed to refrain from consuming human flesh during this period.
However, if they succumbed to their werewolf instincts and tasted human flesh, they would be condemned to remain a wild beast for eternity.
According to an Armenian folk belief, a woman who has committed sins may be cursed to become a werewolf for seven years.
According to this folk tale, a demon appears before the sinful woman and orders her to wear a wolf skin.
Once she puts on the skin, she takes on the characteristics of a wolf. She is then compelled to devour her own children, followed by strangers, as she roams the night causing destruction. Each morning, she reverts to her human form.
The French name for werewolf is loup garou. According to folk superstition, witches were said to be able to transform human victims into a savage loup garou for whatever reason.
Inheriting the lycanthropy
Inherited lycanthropy refers to the idea that the ability to become a werewolf can be passed down through families or bloodlines.
This can manifest either as a genetic trait or as a family curse. In some stories, this means that individuals with werewolf ancestors may involuntarily transform into werewolves or possess werewolf-like traits, while in other cases, they may have control over their transformations.
Wear a wolf coat
Historically, animism has been the first form of spiritual belief. While there are many variations of animism, the central principle across all forms of animism is that animals and even objects possess spirits within them that exemplify their qualities.
For animists, the wolf was the ultimate hunter, and the animal whose hunting methods most closely resembled that of humans.
For this reason, superstitious ancient hunters would try to summon the spirit of the wolf to help while hunting by wearing various clothing made from wolves such as fur coats, belts, or necklaces with wolf teeth.
As societies developed and moved away from hunter-gathering into farming societies, the wolf coat began to be associated with all that savage in man – the symbolic werewolf.
Forbidden magic and rituals
Throughout mythology there are numerous voluntary methods a person can use to become a werewolf.
Most of these involve forbidden magic, pacts with the devil, or simply rituals that were considered disgusting or abhorrent to people of that time:
1) In ancient Greece, there was a belief that consuming a mixture of wolf and human meat could result in a person’s transformation into a werewolf. This change was thought to be permanent and irreversible.
2) A popular belief in both ancient Greece and Rome was that drinking rain water out of a wolf’s footprints would cause the drinker to develop a wolf-like appearance.
3) In medieval times, werewolves were believed to be sorcerers who, under the guidance of the devil, created a magical ointment and rubbed their bodies with it.
They would then wear a magical belt that transformed them into wolves, both in mind and in body. This transformation lasted for as long as they wore the magical belt.
4) According to medieval beliefs, witches could become werewolves by doing pacts with the devils or by using various magical incantations.
5) Removing one’s clothes in a forest, during a full moon, was also said to attract lycanthropy and turn the person into a werewolf.
This ritual in particular was very symbolic, since it involved the removal of one’s human nature (the clothes), entering the domain of animals (the forest) at a time when the barrier between the magical and physical was at its weakest (a full moon).
6) Magical herbs from away places. According to the Roman poet Virgil, a powerful warlock called Moeris was able to transform himself into a wolf using a mixture of herbs. The passage reads as such:
“Moeris himself gave me these herbs and poisons gathered near the Black Sea, where they grow in abundance,” Simaetha sings. “I have often seen Moeris turn into a wolf by their power and hide in the forest, and often seen him conjure up souls from the depths of their tombs and move crops that have been planted to other fields.”
Virgil evidently recognizes this kind of sorcery as Greek in origin. At the time, Romans still viewed Greece as a place of magical powers that were not yet fully understood.
Some stories describe individuals becoming werewolves after coming into contact with cursed items, such as a wolf skin or a belt made from wolf pelt. When the item is worn, the person transforms into a wolf or a wolf-like creature.
An example of this is the story of Sigmund and Sinfjotli from the Norse mythology Volsung saga.
Sigmund and his son Sinfjotli ventured deep into the woodlands and Scandinavia, where they found a hut with two sleeping men. On each of the two men lay a magical wolf-skin that could transform the wearer into a wolf. The father and son took those wolf-skins for themselves and began to wear, but discovered they could only turn back into human form every tenth half-day.
The full moon and the werewolf
The most popular belief associated with werewolves is that people afflicted with lycanthropy will turn into werewolves during a night with a full moon.
The origin of this myth is complex, and combines many different mythological motiffs as well as real life aspects.
Wolves are active throughout most of the day, but they often reach their peak levels of activity during crepuscular periods such as dawn, dusk or twilight. Because of their more noctural behavior, many mythologies have associated the wolf with night time hunting.
Building upon this further, the moon is the clearest, most notable symbol of the night, especially when it is a full moon.
Combine the wolf’s night time hunting pattern with the full moon, and it become easy to understand why Greek and Roman mythology associated their hunting goddesses, Artemis and Diana, with the moon.
This powerful trio of elements, of full moon, night and wolves, have carried over into the myth of the werewolf.
Thus, for werewolves, the full moon is the period of transformation and hunting when all human inhibitions are lost and the acquisition of food becomes paramount.
In addition, the moon has long been associated with various supernatural and mystical phenomena, including magic, witchcraft, and shape-shifting.
The way the moon changes its shape over the course of a month, from crescent to full moon and back again, connects it to shape-shifting creates such as the werewolf, since they follow the same pattern of periodic transformation.
The full moon, in particular, represents the height of lunar power and is thought to have the greatest effect on supernatural beings and events.
Bites or scratches from other werewolves
The concept of a person transforming into a werewolf after being bitten or scratched by one has gained popularity primarily in modern times. In ancient or medieval eras, the main causes of lycanthropy were attributed to curses, divine intervention, or the use of forbidden magic.
The development of this idea, where werewolves can infect others and turn their victims into werewolves, likely emerged as a result of advances in medical understanding. These advances helped people grasp how certain diseases could be transmitted between individuals through direct physical contact.
The exact mechanisms through which a werewolf can create another werewolf through bites or scratches is different from story to story, but they can be summarized as such:
Contagion: The werewolf bite or scratch is often considered to transmit a sort of supernatural infection or curse to the victim, causing them to become a werewolf.
Curse transmission: In some werewolf legends, werewolves are cursed individuals who must bear the burden of their affliction. The bite or scratch may serve as a mechanism for transferring the curse from one person to another, either intentionally or inadvertently.
Magical or supernatural properties: The werewolf’s bite or scratch may be imbued with magical or supernatural properties that cause the victim to undergo a transformation into a werewolf. This could be related to the werewolf’s inherent mystical nature or the result of a specific enchantment or spell.
Blood connection: Some legends and stories suggest that the exchange of blood between a werewolf and its victim can lead to the transformation. When a werewolf bites or scratches someone, their blood may mix, creating a bond that enables the victim to become a werewolf.
Joining a Wolf-Brotherhood
Berserkers are famous Norse warriors said to go on the battlefield wearing nothing but an (armored) shirt and the spiritual fury of a bear that animates them to great violence and deeds of fury.
While less known, the Norse also believed in the concept of warrior wolf brotherhoods. Bands of warriors that were particularly close knit adopted the symbolism of a wolf pack to describe themselves.
These warriors were fierce in battle even as individuals, but their combat style was to rely on one another in much the same way wolves from the same pack would help each other to complete a hunt or defend their territory.
Just like in primitive animist cultures, these warriors would wear clothing or items taken from dead wolves, such as teeth or pelts, as a way to acquire the animal’s ferocious spirit.
Norse warriors, as soldiers in most cultures, would often rile themselves up before battle with frenetic battle chants, screams, shouts, and so on, both to increase their morale and also to frighten their enemies.
Finally, members of these wolf brotherhoods might have consumed hallucinogenic substances made from mushrooms, henbane, or other plants to diminish inhibition and increase their aggression during combat.
Combine these elements together and one has an interesting Norse version of “warrior werewolves” that had a human appearance, but fought with the ferocity of wolves.
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- The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition by Caroline Taylor Stewart
- Giants, monsters, and dragons by Carol Rose
- Man, Myth & Magic by Richard Cavendish, Cottie Arthur Burland, Brian Innes
- The Beast Within by Adam Douglas
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