Hello and welcome to the second part of this new series on the various myths and legends throughout history.
This time around I’m focusing on another popular legend, a legend that has stood the test of time remarkably well and remains both a cinematic and supernatural horror novel staple to this day: Werewolves. This article will roughly follow the same style as the previous look at Vampires and I hope that it is easy-ish to follow.
Much like their Vampiric counterparts Werewolves owe their origins to the world of Ancient Greece, more specifically to the legend of Lycaon. Lycaon was one of the kings of Arcadia, a kingdom located on the southern tip of Greece which neighbors the famous kingdom of Sparta. Despite being a king Lycaon was anything but noble. Arrogance and ambition is a terrible mixture in any situation but in the pages of Greek Mythology it is a spell for absolute disaster. Lycaon wanted to see if the king of the gods, Zeus, was actually a god so he slaughtered his own son and tried to serve him in a dish to him. Unsurprisingly Zeus was not fooled and was mortified that a father could do such a thing to his own flesh and blood. Enraged, he cursed Lycaon by turning him into a wolf and struck down his remaining sons so that his family line would be ended. However, in an uncommon act of pity Zeus had a change of heart. Zeus spoke with his brother Hades, lord of the underworld, and had the son slaughtered by Lycaon brought back to life to continue the family line. In addition to this being the first ever case of a man-to-wolf transformation this legend also gave rise to the term “Lycanthrope”, which as you can probably see gleans its’ name from Lycaon.
Another legend from Ancient Greece, this time from the quill of Herodotus, tells the story of the Neuri, a tribe of nomads located to the north-east of Scythia. The Neuri, as penance for incurring the wrath of the gods, would all be transformed into wolves once every year for several days, and then changed back to human shape. A few mentions to lycanthropic behavior can be found throughout the works of Virgil but Werewolves do not make a return to prominence until the Viking Age.
It is in the Völsunga saga that readers encounter the fearsome Úlfhednar loyal to Harald I of Norway. The Úlfhednar were a band of dreaded fighters very similar to the legendary ‘berserkers’ found in Germanic legends. The Úlfhednar shunned battle armor and dressed in wolf hides, and were reputed to utilize shamanistic rituals to channel the spirits of wolves they wore to enhance their strength in battle. According to the accounts of the battles in the saga the Úlfhednar were extremely resistant to pain and injury and fought like feral animals. It is implied that the only way to stop an Úlfhednar is to decapitate him with a strike fierce enough to break through his supernatural resilience. After the Viking Age the belief of Werewolves and lycanthropy faded out of the minds of many, never reaching the fever-pitch hysteria that can be seen with Vampires. Although wolf attacks in both Europe and America were common between the 16th and 18th centuries scholars have suggested that it was because of this that wolves, being the most and practically only natural predator of man, were projected into the folklore of evil shapeshifters.
Contracting, Enduring, and Curing the Condition
Popular legends suggest that a person contracts lycanthropy through one of two ways. The first is being cursed by either a witch or a god and the second is by being attacked but not killed by another Werewolf. What it means to be a Werewolf is widely known: To shapeshift in a monstrous human-wolf hybrid each month when the full moon rises but lose your sanity in the process of the transformation. Whilst in this form the victim wanders the wilds for one night in search of prey, human or otherwise.
When it comes to curing the condition a number of methods have been employed by many societies across history. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans believed that subjecting a suspected Werewolf to long periods of physical activity would cure a victim of the condition. Medieval societies on the other hand believed that exorcism and the application of the “Wolfsbane” herb to the victim would cure them.
Werewolves have a considerable arsenal of strengths present even when they are not in their wolfish form but greatly enhanced when they are. Werewolves possess incredible physical strength that far surpasses that of humans and wild animals. Their claws are capable of tearing through almost any shield or armor known to man. Werewolves also have extremely resilient skin which blunts the attacks from almost any form of weaponry and possess a healing ability which can not only regrow lost limbs but protects them from a myriad of diseases and grants them eternal life. Whilst in their wolfish forms Werewolves have near limitless stamina and possess breathtaking agility and speed. Adding to this incredible arsenal of hunting and fighting tools Werewolves are also blessed with greatly enhanced senses ranging from excellent vision and hearing to a keen sense of smell. To top this all off Werewolves, unlike their Vampire counterparts, have complete liberty to walk in the sunlight and show very few signs of their true nature when they are in human form. This enables them to easily hide in plain sight and move from town to town with relative ease.
Despite that laundry list of benefits Werewolves actually suffer very few weaknesses. Werewolves apparently have an allergy to the metal silver, which is alleged to have properties which neutralize a Werewolf’s healing abilities in the region in which it is struck. Although they are able to regenerate lost limbs a Werewolf cannot survive decapitation by any means. They also seem to have an adversion to the Wolfsbane herb which severely cripples them enough to be subdued. It is often shown that transformation into a Werewolf at the full moon is excruiatling painful.
When it comes to modern day depictions Werewolves have come off better than Vampires. Many movies and novels have explored the benefits and downsides to the condition and more often than not a character suffering from lycanthropy is often depicted as being a tragic hero or villain. As like before, although many interpretations exist I will settle on two recent characters to draw a comparison between the good and the bad.
First: The Bad
Yes, I know I’m using another example from Twilight but it really is justified. The problem with Jacob Black’s character is not that he is dull or bland (although that doesn’t help either), it is that he exhibits very few traits associated with what he claims to be. Sure, he transforms into a wolf every now and then but when he does he not only transforms into an actual wolf rather than a human-wolf hybrid but he is able to do so seemingly at will. He does seem to acknowledge that he has immense power but just doesn’t show it, he could probably flay seven shades of red out of any other character in his world but all he does is pose.
Second: The Good
Remember what I just said about Werewolves being cast as tragic characters? Well, I would say that Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter series is not only a prime example of that trope but is himself a fantastic interpretation of a Werewolf. For those of you who have not read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I will fill you in on who Lupin is. Remus Lupin is introduced to our protagonists as a gentle, thoughtful, and kind professor who steps in to teach students defense against the dark arts. However as the story moves along we begin to suspect that something isn’t quite right with him, he is clearly troubled and his health and appearance roller-coasters each month. It doesn’t take too long for the bright Hermione to discern that their teacher is actually a Werewolf but decides to keep his secret just that because she respects him as a person and as a fantastic teacher. After Lupin unwillingly attacks and nearly infects Harry and his friends he decides to resign his post and goes into hiding. This juxaposition of character really highlights the perils of being a Werewolf as we see in one minute the unwilling transformation of a kind and gentle man into a savage killing machine with no grasp on his sanity. Lupin returns in the Order of the Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and in The Deathly Hallows as a supporting character and his character is delved into in greater detail. I will not spoil any further but suffice to say his story is nothing short of tragic, however he does all he can to move forward despite overwhelming prejudice and opposition.
How’s this for an interesting take on a Werewolf?