Myths & Legends

The History of the Werewolf Legend

Werewolves, also known as lycanthropes, are legendary shape-shifting humans. As the name suggests, the shape these creatures take on is that of a wolf. The history of the werewolf legend has sprung up independently or spread to virtually every area of the Earth. It is also one of the oldest legends of human monsters in recorded history. Where the legend originated can only be guessed by what humans have taken care to record. Their other name, lycanthrope, may also be a hint at the origin of this myth.

Throughout history there are records of the trials of confessed or accused werewolves. In fact, they were hunted, questioned and executed in much the same way witches were, because often witches were accused of also being werewolves. These so-called “werewolf trials” give us a historical glimpse at rampant human belief in werewolves. Some of the accused were arrested because villagers needed someone to blame for dead livestock or some other explainable occurrence, but others were accused because of actions far more sinister and less likely to be contrived.

history of the werewolf

King Lycaon being turned into a wolf

In 1521, a Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were executed as werewolves. Historical records indicate that they were a serial killer team. In 1573, again in France, another “werewolf” was executed. His name was Gilles Garnier, otherwise known as the “Werewolf of Dole.” He was a confessed serial killer. There are numerous accounts such as these, mostly in Europe. Interestingly, real wolves were plentiful in Europe at this time. Could people have simply been associating the carnivorous animal with people who behaved like animals?

A more infamous case of werewolf execution is that of a German man named Peter Stumpp (or Stubbe). Peter was supposedly caught by his neighbors in his wolf form. They witnessed him taking off his “wolf girdle” (more on that later) when they closed in on him. At which time, he re-assumed his human form. Peter confessed to murder, rape and cannibalism. His mistress and daughter were tortuously executed immediately after he was. The reason they were executed? For having knowledge of his crimes and sex with him. Yes, his daughter was executed for being raped by her father. What is worse? Her father had killed her brother and eaten his brains before he was captured.

While all of these instances are proof of a long-standing belief in werewolves, they are not the first descriptions of werewolves in history. What appears to be the oldest story of a werewolf is not a gruesome group of serial killings followed by an execution, but an Ancient Roman myth. Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses in 1 A.D. In it, he told the tale of King Lycaon (the origin of the word Lycanthrope) who offended the gods by serving human meat to them at dinner. Jupiter punished this transgression by transforming Lycaon into a werewolf. In his werewolf form, he could continue his abomination of eating human flesh with less offense.

We know from Ovid that legends of werewolves go back to at least 1 A.D. We also know that since that time, the legend of the werewolf has evolved. There are werewolf legends that are obviously separate from one another and others that seem to build off the original concept. For example, the full moon had nothing to do with Ovid’s werewolf and other early werewolf legends. Werewolves changed shape at whim. Other legends associate werewolves with a sort of belt or “wolf girdle” that, upon donning, would transform them.

Religion has had an obvious impact on the werewolf myth. In areas where Christianity was prevalent, being a werewolf was associated with witchcraft and the devil. Even the wolf girdle found a place in this Christian belief in werewolves. They believed that the belt was furnished by the devil for use by his minions. Even Ovid’s tale was based on religion in the sense that his form was a punishment from the gods. Does this mean that religion is the source of the werewolf myth? It probably is not. It is more likely that religion has simply influenced a belief that manifested in human history for one of two reasons. Either werewolves were thought up to explain something horrible or they are real.

Several reasons for the appearance of the werewolf myth have been postulated. It is possible that real wolf attacks were the cause and superstition led people to fear the worst. Suspects were subsequently tortured into confession and voila, you have “proof” cementing the belief in werewolves. There is also the possibility that the werewolf myth was created to explain rabies. Humans do get rabies from being bitten by rabid animals, after all.

One possible cause for the werewolf myth aligns very well with historical werewolf hunts and that is that people were trying to explain serial killers. The vampire myth can be traced back to royals who had a particular taste for bloodshed, like Vlad the Impaler. However, the vampire myth only explains a lust for blood, not human flesh. History tells us that cannibalism is a trait that not all serial killers possess, but some do. Therefore, another explanation may have been needed – enter the werewolf myth. Wolves eat humans (not so much nowadays, but if they could get to us, they would more often). There is no denying that serial killers like Albert Fish and Jeffrey Dahmer do behave like animals.

How the werewolf myth came to be will never be known. Ovid could very well be the originator, but it may also have existed in oral history before Ovid. Any of the above causes is plausible. However, we cannot possibly know unless we find conclusive evidence that werewolves have or have never existed. If we find one, that answers the question. We are much less likely to find an answer if there were no werewolves. It is doubtful that we will find a little postscript from Ovid reading, “I made it all up.” However, one might say that could be assumed.

Related Articles:
History of Zombies
Dogheaded Men

Ovid, Metamorphoses, retrieved 3/12/11,
Origin of the Werewolf Legend, retrieved 3/12/11
Werewolves-Lycanthrope, retrieved 3/12/11 – (sound warning).

Shelly Barclay writes on a variety of topics from animal facts to mysteries in history. Her main focus is military and political history. She is a writer for the Boston History Examiner, Military History Examiner and the Boston American Revolution History Examiner. She also writes for a local historical society newsletter. Shelly was a professional cook for 10 years and still has a passion for food. She cooks and writes about cooking nearly every day. She produces a wide variety of content, on top of her niches. Shelly is a stepmother, a former military, current veteran wife, sister of four and aunt of seven (so far).

  • Adam Hardin

    Because these creatures are good at staying hidden and in France’s history there was a body of a werwolfz but the mayor order the hunter to bury it and no part of the animal was preserved

    • lewis cockhammer

      No child, we took our own from them and we still do to present to “stay hidden”…

      • j money

        I am writing a book myself id be interested in talkin to you

  • lewis cockhammer

    Terrific article about these terrible monsters. Wait our time will come maybe not in your generation life span but your blood shall meet to become blood drunk once again.

  • Pepper White

    One rule of thumb, cannibalism practice constitutes an animal. The time period of 1 A.D. proves to me about how far back to when man strived to separate from some of the many shared attributes between human and animal by show of a civil, moral, and value of greater mind. Human law states a constitution to divide the line of similarity.

  • akpan joy

    I have heard different stories, watched different movies and read different books on werewolves but I do not belief in it. I think it is some mere imagination, as long as there is no prove.

    • Truman Wrone

      Do you believe in god a farce that has no body that Can’t be seen there is no physical evidence of him but people still have faith in him anything that the mind can have faith in is a possibility so likely to Change shape is a play on words to change is a spiritual change or opening of the mind from man to beast it is a basis of belief in ones animal instinct that is the werewolfs persona not a man clad in fur and fangs but a man or woman clad in the animal spirit and the heart for the wildlife that is around them

      • Billy Ramey

        Aye, that is true. Look at the Nordic Berserkers. They put themselves in a trance, built up a rage inside themselves, in order to improve their fighting capabilities and pain tolerance. Could the same thing not apply to werewolves?

  • Subaru sakamaki

    well theres always gunna be a secret side of history 🙂

  • George Lara

    can someone who is ill with a disease be cured from it, if they got turned into a werewolf ?

    • Mgooeye

      How the hell should the author know? There is no proof of werewolves and it is most likely that they do not exist. Seeing as nobody has ever found proof of a werewolf; how do you expect anybody to be able to answer your question?

      • wolfie

        There is no proof we exist because we don’t want you to know about us and because a lot of humans want us dead!!! I am a werewolf and yes I just exposed myself and some of my kind expose themselves online because 98 percent of humans will not believe us!! And we don’t care if you don’t believe us! we can only say we are werewolves because we cant show you our wolf side unless you want to die, dead men tell no tales.

    • wolfie

      Yes, I am a werewolf we can be cured but its not a disease and we aren’t ill, the people with all the facial hair and hair all over their bodies have an illness but we are either born or bitten. I was born a werewolf my father is an Alpha and my real mother is a human, I’m a half blood and I have alpha blood in me because of my father. there is a cure for us that some humans will use on us if they kindly let us live, its called wolfs bane. The plant is real and is dangerous to us, humans use it to kill us. But if used a specific way it can be used to cure us. But because we were born this way we will never let a human cure us. Its who we are and if any human tried to cure me… they would be dead. And we can only be cured the night of a full moon and with wolfs bane but there is a specific moon it must be done under but I’m not saying the moon phase. I’m adopted my family is human and don’t know what I am and can never know.

      • Brian Cheriyil

        How long have you been watching teen wolf sir?

    • wolfie

      Yeah only if you got turned if you were born one then no. If you got bit get a witch to turn you back wolfsbane is the only cure if used properly otherwise you’ll end up killing yourself with it, that’s why you want a witch to help you. I don’t trust witches though but if you were bitten and want to be human again go to a witch go luck

  • Don

    Thank you for this. It is a nice read, very well written and now I will have to buy the metamorphosis to further indulge my curiosity of the origin of these tales.

Historic Mysteries