Among all the shapeshifting mythological creatures, the werewolf is perhaps the best known. Werewolf legends are predominantly found in folklore prevalent across Europe. Thanks to Vlad Tepes III, the myth of Dracula has a source point, though far from validated. But no one can say with certainty at what point in history the myth of the werewolf originated.
Historians typically point out that Greek mythology is the source of this myth. But Montague Summers, in his 1928’s widely acclaimed book The Werewolf, mentioned that the Greeks might have adopted the idea of lycanthropy from the ancient Phoenician cult.
The cult originated in 1200 BC and had existed until 539 BC. With Summer’s claim and the cult’s age, taken together, we find the origin of the werewolf myth traces back a few thousand years. Origins aside, what’s more unique is how every culture has its own take on the werewolf legend. This mythological creature truly is an international historical mystery.
International Werewolf Legends
Norway and Iceland
Despite being 1,472 km apart, Norway and Iceland share a common mythology, known as Norse mythology. This is because the Norse people colonized Iceland during the Viking age. And at the time of colonization, their Aesir religion left elements of Norse mythology in Icelandic literature.
Norse mythology is comprised of sagas. When it comes to werewolfism, the Volsunga Saga from the thirteenth century particularly stands apart. This is because werewolf related stories have a prominent presence in this saga.
The most famous werewolf story in the Volsunga Saga is the story of father and son, Sigmund and Sinfjotli. While wandering in the woods, Sigmund and Sinfjotli come upon a hut where they find two spellbound wolf pelts. If put on, either pelt will turn a man into a wolf and will possess the power, cunningness, and valor of wolves. But the pelt can only be taken off every tenth day. Having put on the pelts, Sigmund and Sinfjotli turn into wolves and begin wandering about the forest together. Before they split up, they agreed to howl to each other if either of them encounters seven men to fight at a time.
Sinfjotli, the son, breaches the agreement and kills 11 men at one time. Angered, Sigmund fatally injures his son. But then a raven, the messenger of Odin, brings a healing leaf to place on Sinfjotli’s wound. After Sinfjotli is healed from his wound, he and his father take off the enchanted wolf pelts as the tenth day arrived. They burned the pelts to ashes and freed themselves from the curse of lycanthropy.
The Luison, or el lobizon, or lobizon, is the South American werewolf. Its description has already been covered in another article on Listverse. Before we begin digging into its origin, lets talk a little more about the luison. The myth of the luison mainly prevails in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. It was believed that the seventh son of a family of all boys would turn into a lusion on the night of a full moon, especially if it fell on a Friday. The belief was especially strong in Argentina. So strong was this belief that the Argentine President, Juan Domingo Perón, decreed that all seventh sons of a family must be baptized.
The origin of the lusion legend is found in Guarani mythology. The Guarani are the indigenous people of Paraguay whose mythology stated there were seven monsters. Of the seven monsters, the last one, known as lusion, was horrendously deformed in appearance (but had no apparent resemblance with a wolf) and came to known as the God of Death.
When the Europeans colonized South America, luison’s association with death began to wane over time. The lusion myth eventually mixed with European werewolf legends. Now the luison is seen as a creature that is half man and half wolf.
Werewolves in Mexico are known as the Nahual or Nagaul. Both are pronounced Na’wal. Even though Mexico was a colony of Spain for 300 years, the werewolf legend prevalent in the country did not commingle with the European werewolf legend. The legend remains in its original form to this day. That being said, the belief in Mexican werewolfism or nagualism varies from region to region. It is believed by some Mesoamerican Indians that the nahual is a guardian spirit that resides in an animal, such as deer, jaguar, eagle, bobcat, mountain lion, and so on.
In other regions, and in a more ominous version of nagualism, it is believed that powerful men can transform themselves into an animal to cause harm. A relationship exists between the latter belief and the word ‘nahual’, which originated from the word ‘nahualli’, meaning “disguise”. This refers to the sorcery by which magicians change their physical forms into that of an animal.
Perhaps no other country has played more of an influential role than the United States in creating and propagating the werewolf phenomena, especially in the ’80s, and among the horror aficionados. Back then the werewolf phenomenon was an element of pop culture (and it’s still now). Thanks to makeup artist Rick Baker, who provided the most realistic werewolf transformations ever to be depicted on screen. Films like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller are among his seminal works.
But when it comes to real-world werewolf legends in America, they are mainly borrowed from the European settlers. When these pioneers began settling North America (known then as the New World), they noticed a considerable population of wolves – real wolves. When their legends mixed with those of Native American werewolf legends – already in existence before the European arrivals, America created the werewolf myth we see today.
Let me explain:
Typically, the French werewolf or loup-garou has human reasoning within it, hence it attempts to free itself from the lycanthropic curse. It was placed under the curse by someone’s witchcraft, whereas the Wendigo, a werewolf-like creature in the Native American folklore, is characterized by malevolence and cannibalism. When the characteristics of these two creatures were combined, we found a new kind of loup-garou legend which is still present in Canada, the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, and upstate New York. All three places were once French colonies.
There is something else we should discuss about American werewolf legends. Does loup-garou rhyme with rougarou? Pronounced lu-ga-ru and ru-ga-ru respectively, they rhyme with each other because rougarou is the variant of French loup-garou. The rougarou, most commonly described as a bayou-dwelling werewolf, appears in Louisiana folklore.16) The legend of the rougarou is common across French Louisiana, also once a French colony.
In the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, it is not the Little Red Cap (also known as the Little Red Riding Hood) that includes werewolfism. Rather, it’s another tale.
Here’s the story:
A soldier stated this story happened to his own grandfather. His grandfather went into the forest to cut wood with a friend and a third man. There was something strange about the third man, but the grandfather couldn’t tell for sure what it was. After they had done their job and had become tired, the third man recommended they take a nap. Accordingly, the three men lay down on the ground and closed their eyes.
The grandfather pretended to fall asleep but actually kept his eyes slightly open. He was keen to find the reason behind the third man’s strange behavior. The third man looked to see if the other two men were sleeping. When he was certain they were, he put on (or took off) a belt and became a wolf. But he didn’t resemble a natural wolf. He looked rather different. He quickly ran off to a nearby field where he ambushed a pregnant female horse and devoured it completely. The man came back, took off (or put on) his belt, and lay down again in human form near the others. While returning to town, the third man complained about having a stomach ache. As they entered the town gate, the grandfather whispered into the man’s ear, “When one devours a whole horse…” But before he could finish his sentence, the third man interrupted, “Had you said this to me in the forest, you would not be able to say this now.”
The story, published in the second half of the nineteenth century, is one of the oldest and most popular werewolf legends in Germany. 17) If you are caught in the ‘put on/took off’ befuddlement, then let me tell you that the confusion arose because the story is a mixture of more than two different accounts. The presence of werewolfism in some stories from the Grimms’ Fairy Tales is not solely responsible for Germanic lycanthropy. Fairy tales aside, a documented gruesome execution of a ‘real-life werewolf’ in Germany has existed for 425 years.
Peter Stumpp (or Stubbe Peeter), also known as ‘The Werewolf of Bedburg’, was executed on October 31, 1589 (Halloween), on the charge of witchery, rape, murder, cannibalism, incest, and livestock mutilation. After he had been apprehended, and fearing torturous execution, he confessed to all the crimes he had committed over a span of 25 years. He further confessed that Satan had given him a ‘girdle’ which could transform him into a wolf. When asked about the girdle, he said that he had hidden it in a valley before he was apprehended. When the magistrate sent people to retrieve it, they returned empty-handed and reported that no girdle could be found.
The gruesome execution of Peter Stumpp is another story. You can read it at the cited link.
As mentioned earlier, a werewolf in France is known as the loup-garou. Exactly at what point in time the myth of loup-garou originated is not known. But from our investigation, we can say that the whole of France was plagued with lycanthropic terror in the 16th century. From the 16th century until the first quarter of the 17th century – over the course of 100 years, more than 30,000 people were killed for suspected werewolfism.
After further research into the loup-garou, we found the following two events that predate this widespread werewolf terror in the land, which only confirms that the lycanthropic phenomena had been alive well in France long before the 16th century. In 1198 Marie de France wrote Bisclavret, in which she tells the story of a hapless baron who gets trapped in wolfish form because of his wife’s treachery.
The earliest documented instance on French lycanthropy was found in 1214. In a report, Gervaise of Tilbury told Emperor Otto IV that people in Auvergne, France were seen to transform into wolves during the full moon.
Here’s a werewolf story from the 12th-century Irish folklore:
A priest, accompanied by a boy, was traveling from Ulster to Meath. One night in the woods, a wolf approached the priest. As it came nearer, it began speaking of God. The priest became terrified and couldn’t believe what he was seeing and hearing. The trembling priest asked the wolf what kind of creature was he that had the shape of a wolf but the words of a man. The wolf then told the priest that there was only one other creature like him and it was his wife. They were the native people of Ossory, who had been cursed by a saint named Natalis for some ancient sin. The curse compelled two Ossory people, a man, and a woman, to be chosen at random to take the wolf form and remain in that form every seven years. After that period, two new people would take their place, and the prior two would return to human form.
The wolf then told the priest that his wife was very sick and dying. He was there to seek the priest’s help in his wife’s absolution – after all, they are just normal human beings under the wolf skin. Baffled and still terrified, the priest reluctantly followed the wolf. When they came near the ailing wolf, it thanked the priest for agreeing to administer the viaticum. But sensing hesitation in the priest and to assure him he wouldn’t commit blasphemy by giving the dying wolf viaticum, the male wolf peeled the skin of his ailing companion from the head down to the belly with his claw. Seeing a weak old woman underneath the hanging wolf-skin, the priest gave her the viaticum. Upon concluding the viaticum, the male wolf rolled the wolf-skin back over his wife’s body. The old woman returned to her wolf form.
What is unique about this story is that it was documented as an instance rather than a mere myth. It was indexed in Topographia Hibernica, a treatise on Irish geography and folklore. The treatise was written by Giraud de Barri (Gerald of Wales), toward the end of the 12th century, around 1188.
Eastern Europe and Slavic Countries
Interestingly, the myth of the vampire and werewolf is a closely related subject in Eastern European countries such as Romania, the Czech Republic and the Slavic countries, such as Serbia and Croatia. Vukodlak (Slavic), vlkodlak (Czech), vlkoslak (Serbian), vrykolaka (Greece) all refer to either a werewolf or a vampire, but etymologically they all mean ‘wolf’s fur’ or ‘wolf’s hair’. All these words derived from the Indo-European language. The myth of the werewolf and vampire developed in these regions at the same time and proven by a strong linguistic kinship between them.
The Greek origin of the werewolf legend has many variants. One of the earliest and best-known iterations is found in the Roman poet Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses, which was published in 8 AD. According to Ovid: King Lycaon was the tyrant of Arcadia. One day Zeus came to Lycaon’s palace masquerading as an ordinary man. After Zeus had revealed his true identity, the king clandestinely devised a plan to test whether he actually was a god. King Lycaon killed one of his hostages named Epirus, boiled and roasted the victim’s flesh, and served it to Zeus. Zeus did not eat it. Utterly enraged (and somewhat disgusted), he set the king’s palace on fire and killed his 50 sons with lighting bolts, cursed the king, and sent him into the wild where he transformed into a howling wolf.
The question is: Why a wolf? Why not any other animal?
Because King Lycaon’s savagery and lust for human-flesh was identical to that of wolves, explained David Gallagher in his book Metamorphosis: Transformations of the body and the influence of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on Germanic literature of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
In the Roman version of the story, Jupiter takes the place of Zeus – not surprising, considering they are etymologically similar. Zeus is the father of the Gods in the ancient Greek religion, whereas Jupiter is the king of the Gods in Roman mythology.
The English ‘lycanthrope’ or werewolf originated from the Greek ‘lukanthrōpos’ or wolfman, which in turn originated from the king’s name, Lycaon.
One of the earliest mentions of the werewolf, predating Greek lycanthropy, was found in the Roman poet Virgil’s Eclogue 8, written in 37 BCE. He wrote that a man named Moeris could change himself into a werewolf using herbs and poisons, and could call ghosts from the graves.
Another early instance of werewolfism is found in the satirical novel Satyricon, written in the first century by the Roman courtier and novelist Gaius Petronius.
Here’s the story:
A servant, named Niceros, narrates:
One day he was on a walk with his host. When they came upon a graveyard, the host suddenly took off his clothes, urinated around them in a circle, and transformed into a wolf. Immediately after, the host (now a wolf) ran off to the countryside toward a flock of grazing sheep. Niceros could hardly believe his own eyes until a sheep owner said to him that his servant had injured a wolf with a pitch-fork. The next day, Niceros noticed a wound on the neck of his host. The wound mark on his neck was in the exact position where the pitchfork injured the wolf.
So, here are the 10 werewolf legends that work into aggregating this mythological shapeshifter’s origins. Have you got werewolf stories to tell? Share it with us.
Additional literature references used for this article
The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werwolves, and Other Monsters, by Rosemary Guiley (on Amazon)
Encyclopedia of Russian and Slavic Myth and Legend, by Mike Dixon-Kennedy (on Amazon)
The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings, by Brad Steiger