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. Werewolf legends have sprung up independently or spread to virtually every area of the Earth. It is also one of the oldest tales of human monsters in recorded history. Stories of lycanthropes are common in folklore prevalent across Europe.
Where did Werewolf Legends Originate?
Thanks to Vlad Tepes III, the Dracula myth has a source point, though far from validated. But no one can say with certainty at what point in history the mythological history of the werewolf originated.
The origin of the werewolf’s legend can only be guessed by what recorded history remains. Their other name, lycanthrope, may also point to the source of this myth.
International Lycanthrope Legends
Throughout history, there are records of the trials of confessed or accused werewolves. They were hunted, questioned, and executed in much the same way witches were, because witches were often accused of being lycanthropes. These so-called “werewolf trials” give us a historical glimpse at rampant human belief in werewolves.
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Villagers arrested some of the accused because they needed someone to blame for dead livestock or other explainable occurrences. Still, others were accused because of actions far more sinister and less likely to be contrived.
The Greek origin of the lycanthrope has many variants. One of the earliest and best-known iterations is found in the Roman poet Ovid’s poem Metamorphoses, 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 revealed his true identity, the king clandestinely devised a plan to test whether he 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 English lycanthrope originated from the Greek lukanthrōpos or wolfman, derived from the king’s name, Lycaon.
The question is: Why a wolf? Why not any other animal?
David Gallagher, in his book, explains that it is because King Lycaon’s savagery and lust for human-flesh was identical to that of wolves.
One of the earliest mentions of the werewolf, predating Greek lycanthropy, is 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 call ghosts from the graves.
Another early instance of werewolfism is in the satirical novel Satyricon. Roman courtier and novelist Gaius Petronius wrote it in the first century.
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 pitchfork. 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.
In the Roman version of the Lycaon 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. In contrast, Jupiter is the king of the Gods in Roman mythology.
Norway and Iceland
Despite being 1,472 km apart, Norway and Iceland share a common mythology, known as Norse mythology. The reason is that 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 composed of sagas. When it comes to werewolfism, the Volsunga Saga from the thirteenth century particularly stands apart. Werewolf related stories have a prominent presence in this saga.
The most famous werewolf story in the Volsunga Saga is about a 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 the person will possess the power, cunningness, and valor of wolves. But once on, the pelt can only be removed on the 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 becomes healed from his injury, 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.
South America (Lobizon)
The Luison, also written as el lobizon, or lobizon, is the South American werewolf. The myth of the luison mainly prevails in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. It stems from the Portuguese belief that the seventh son of a family of all boys would turn into a luison on the night of a full moon, especially if it fell on a Friday. The myth is especially prevalent in Argentina. Even the Argentine President, Juan Domingo Perón, strongly believes in this myth.
The origin of the luison legend is 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 luison, had a horrendous appearance (but had no apparent resemblance with a wolf) and became known as the God of Death.
When Europeans colonized South America, luison’s association with death began to wane over time. The luison myth eventually mixed with European werewolf legends. The Lobizon morphed into a half man and half wolf.
Werewolves in Mexico are known as the Nahual or Nagual. Both are pronounced Na’wal. Even though Mexico was a Spanish colony for 300 years, the Nahual myth did not co-mingle with the European legend of the werewolf. The tale remains in its original form to this day.
The belief in Mexican werewolfism or nagualism varies from region to region. Some Mesoamerican Indians believe that the nagual is a guardian spirit that resides in an animal, such as deer, jaguar, eagle, bobcat, mountain lion, and so on.
In other regions and 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.” The name pertains 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 1980s, and among the horror fans. Back then, the werewolf phenomenon was an element of pop culture (and still is now).
Thanks to makeup artist Rick Baker, who provided the most realistic werewolf transformations ever depicted on screen. Films like The Howling, An American Werewolf in London, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller are among his seminal works.
The legend of the werewolf in America mainly comes from European settlers. When these pioneers began settling in North America, they noticed a considerable wolf population – real wolves. When their legends mixed with Native American werewolf legends – already in existence before the European arrivals, America created the werewolf myth we see today.
– French Influence
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.
As these two creatures’ characteristics combined, we found a new kind of loup-garou legend still present in Canada, the upper and lower peninsulas of Michigan, and upstate New York. All three places once being French colonies.
There is something else we should discuss regarding the American lycanthrope. Does loup-garou rhyme with rougarou? Pronounced lu-ga-ru and ru-ga-ru, respectively. These words 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. 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 (Little Red Riding Hood) that includes werewolfism. Instead, it’s another tale.
– The story
A soldier stated this story happened to his 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 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. After feeling confident that both men were asleep, he put on (or took off) a belt and became a wolf. But he didn’t resemble a natural wolf. He looked somewhat 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 legend of the werewolf in Germany. Werewolfism in 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
Peter Stumpp (also written as Peter Stubbe or Stubbe Peeter), was ‘The Werewolf of Bedburg,’ executed on October 31, 1589 (Halloween). They charged him with witchery, rape, murder, cannibalism, incest, and livestock mutilation.
After becoming apprehended, and fearing torturous execution, Stumpp confessed to all the crimes he committed for over 25 years. He further admitted that Satan gave him a ‘girdle’ which could transform him into a wolf. When asked about the girdle, he said that he hid it in a valley prior to apprehension. When the magistrate sent people to retrieve it, they returned empty-handed and reported no girdle was found.
As previously discussed, the French call the lycanthrope a loup-garou. Its origin is unknown. But from our investigation, we can say that all of France was plagued with lycanthropic terror in the 16th century. From the 16th century until the first quarter of the 17th century, the French killed more than 30,000 people for suspected werewolfism.
In 1521, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were executed as werewolves. Historical records indicate that they were a serial killer team.
In 1573, Gilles Garnier, otherwise known as the “Werewolf of Dole” was executed for being a werewolf. He was a confessed serial killer.
After further research into the loup-garou, we found the following two events that predate this widespread werewolf terror in the land. These events confirm that the lycanthropic phenomena was 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 becomes trapped in wolfish form because of his wife’s treachery.
The earliest documented instance on French lycanthropy is in 1214. In a report, Gervaise of Tilbury told Emperor Otto IV that people in Auvergne, France, were observed transforming 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 told the priest there was only one other creature like him, and it was his wife. They were the native people of Ossory, cursed by a saint named Natalis for some ancient sin. The curse compelled two Ossory people, a man, and a woman, 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 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 ordinary 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.
-Recorded as fact
What is unique about this story is that it is recorded as an instance rather than a mere myth. It became indexed in Topographia Hibernica, a treatise on Irish geography and folklore. Giraud de Barri (Gerald of Wales) wrote the treatise toward the end of the 12th century, around 1188.
Eastern Europe and Slavic Countries
Interestingly, the vampire and werewolf myth 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), and vrykolakas (Greece), all refer to either a werewolf or a vampire. Etymologically, they all mean ‘wolf’s fur’ or ‘wolf’s hair.’ All these words originate from the Indo-European language.
The werewolf and vampire myths developed simultaneously in these regions and share a strong linguistic kinship.
These are the ten werewolf legends that aggregated this mythological shapeshifter’s origins. Do you have werewolf stories to tell? Could you share it with us?
Author Shelly Barclay contributed to this article.
Recommended literature referenced in this article.
The Encyclopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, 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 (on Amazon)
Historic Mysteries may earn an Affiliate Commission if you purchase something through recommended links in this article.