And where would we start but at the beginning?
Although werewolves are by far the most prevailing shapeshifter in our culture today, they are by no means the only, or even the most common, especially in other regions. In India and the Asian islands the tiger is the most common form represented; in Northern Europe, the bear; in Japan, the fox and raccoon dog; in Africa, the leopard, hyena, or lion; and in South America, the jaguar. Other, more unusual cases feature deer, rabbits, sharks and crocodiles. The animals chosen are – with a few exceptions – the dominant predator in that region. Why?
Well, although the shapeshifter was being discussed in psychiatric literature as early as the fifth century, its roots stretch back far further than that. The first thing we can look at is which modern day beliefs still persist, and whether we can explain their origin.
Aside from the full moon, witchcraft and horrific transformation of westernised werewolves, there are some more unusual shapeshifter beliefs that persist, and which have remained largely unchanged from the prehistoric period to today. The Banyang people of West Cameroon believe that their reality is paralleled by another, the everyday lives and social actions being influenced by a hidden world of inner strength and duality, which appears as an animal infested bush. This dual reality is mirrored by their belief in the duality of people, where it is believed an individual may have one or a number of were-animals known as babu. The Banyang speak of babu not as familiars, but as projections or aspects of the ‘owner’. The babu are not uniformly evil, whilst some cause problems in their nightly explorations, it is generally understood that they have the potential for both good and bad as their owner does.
Damage to a babu can be transferred to the owner through ‘sympathetic magic’, a theme common in other werewolf and shapeshifter myths. A severe cough in the human, for example, is seen to be caused by a relentless running of the leopard babu, the most common were-animal in this society.
Are there explanations for other parts of shapeshifter mythology? To understand modern day beliefs, we must look to their beginning, the dawn of humanity.
At the earliest stage, animals were completely superior to humans – and infinitely greater in their physical capabilities. Despite humanity’s greater mental abilities in planning, creating tools, and using fire, they were almost always at a disadvantage when it came to hunting and surviving. And there arose another problem; humans are, quite simply, inadequately designed to kill, physically and emotionally. Most recoil in shock from violence or bloodshed, and on the whole we suffer an inconveniently squeamish predisposition. In order to overcome this, a largely male hunting group emerged from prehistoric society, using secrecy, fearsome initiations and adoption of animal characteristics in order to distinguish themselves from the larger social grouping.
Here lies the origin of tribal societies like the leopard men of Africa, who dressed in leopard skins and took upon themselves the animal’s strength and aggression. They had a fearsome reputation for ferocity, and even cannibalism, well into the twentieth century. However the first recording of leopard societies would be in 6000 BC, where a cave painting in Anatolia depicts a group of hunters dressed in leopard skins swarming around a stag and a boar.
Cave paintings provide other details of a prehistoric animal orientated society. The Sorcerer of Trois Frères was created around 13,000 BC, and depicts a shaman or medicine man. He has antlers, bear paws, and a wolf’s tail. The awkward position of the painting, on the wall of a cave that can only be reached by crawling for some 40 or 50 yards, suggest a spiritual or religious significance.
The earliest human altars found, dating back to 75,000 BC were used for a bear-cult, where the ritually slaughtered animals are seen as spiritual messengers, bridging the gap between humanity and the afterlife. The bears are seen as more powerful, and more capable of delivering these messages than any human messenger, and were worshipped in life and death.
Most ancient religions, such as the Egyptians, were largely theriomorphic and worshipped gods in animal shape almost exclusively until 3000 BC. Canines, and wolves is particular, were almost always associated with death. There’s Anubis, the jackal-headed god of death in Egyptian mythology, or Charon, the ferryman of the dead in Greek mythology, who is depicted with wolf ears, for example, while Soranus, the Sabine god of death, was served by hirpi priests, or wolves. Greek poets often refer to Athena and Hera as ‘owl-faced’ and ‘cow-faced’, hinting that they were once worshipped in animal form.
It’s also within this prehistoric period that the connection between shapeshifting, and the full moon was made. The lunar cycle acted not only as a convenient natural clock, but was often associated with hunting, and the culmination of group rituals required to overcome the previously mentioned squeamish disposition. This can also be seen in the connection between the moon goddesses of ancient cultures and hunting, with Artemis being the personification of the moon and the goddess of the hunt, and in some interpretations, also symbolic of a bear goddess, with her maids and serving girls as bears. Her later form, Hecate, is often shown as having three heads, generally wolf or dog heads. Hecate was the goddess of the underworld, reaffirming the link between death and wolves.
It is in this complex array of ideas, from the prehistoric association of a killing fury arising from a human deliberately taking on the characteristics of a wild animal, to the full moon acting as the trigger, that the werewolf legend has its ultimate basis.
With the beginning of the written word we begin to see stories revolving around shapeshifters, mythology being written down and passed through generations, rather than through the previously rather unreliable method of word of mouth.
In 2000 BC the epic of Gilgamesh gives the first literary account of werewolves. In 500 BC, the Scythions are recorded as believing the Neuri to be werewolves. In 100 BC the first voluntary transformation is recorded in Virgil’s eight eclogue. Virgil was appointed by Augustus as part of a political campaign to crush all forms of witchcraft, although his lycanthropic warlock Moeris, who has both telekinetic and necromantic powers, merely hides in the woods during his transformations, and is a rather sympathetic character.
Although the Epic of Gilgamesh gives the first brief story of a man turned into a wolf, the earliest descriptive passage referring to a werewolf is found in Trimalchio’s Banquet by Petronius in first century AD. A freed slave by the name of Niceros is asked to tell a story at a banquet. He goes on to tell of a time when he walked through the woods at night in order to visit his mistress. He persuaded a soldier to accompany him along the route, however, when they stopped to rest among tombstones, the soldier stripped off his clothes and transformed into a wolf. Terrified, he continued on alone, but when he reached his mistresses house, she told him that there had been a wolf, chasing the sheep, but the slave managed to stab him in the neck with a spear. When Niceros returned to his master’s house the next day, he said he found the soldier lying in bed, with a doctor looking after his neck, and knew then that the soldier was a ‘versipellum’, a turn-skin, or werewolf.
The origin of the word lycanthropy itself comes from the Greek myth of King Lykaon, as written by Ovid in 8th Century AD. Lykaon was a king of Arcadia, who tested Zeus by serving him a dish of his slaughtered and dismembered son in order to see whether Zeus was truly omniscient. In return for these gruesome deeds Zeus transformed Lykaon into the form of a wolf, and killed Lykaon's fifty sons with lightning bolts. The Arcadian people believed that at their annual religious ceremony a single, unlucky participant would be transformed into a wolf for nine years, and that if he could refrain from consuming human flesh in that time, he would be allowed to return to his natural form. In 400 BC, the Arcadian boxer Damarchus is recorded as winning a medal at the Olympics, supposedly after having returned from his wolf form, being one of the unlucky Arcadians to transform into a wolf at the festival.
Walter Burkart has suggested that the sacrifices offered on Mount Lykaion during the annual festival were originally part of the rituals of a wolf brotherhood among the hunting ancestors of the Arcadians, and may once have been a terrifying initiation ceremony designed to impress on young men joining the ‘wolf-pack’ the importance of their calling. They may have even been expected to live in the wild like a wolf for part of their training, a similar exercise to those incorporated into the Spartan’s long military education a little further to the south.
There is another Arcadian version of the werewolf legend that the Greeks are recorded as believing. The story is told by Pliny, and in this version, the members of the family of Antaeus regularly drew lots in order to determine which young man of the family should undergo the ordeal. The chosen man was led to the edge of a lake in Arcadia. He would take off his clothes, hang them on a tree, and then swim across the lake. Upon reaching the other side he would become a wolf for eight years, and would only return to his natural form if he did not taste human flesh.
Stories are numerous, in Book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey, for instance, he writes about the beautiful Circe, on whose island Odysseus and his men land their ship. Odysseus sends out a search party to survey the island, and they come across Circe’s house. It is surrounded by wolves and lions, tamed by Circe’s sorcery, who greet Odysseus’ men like large affectionate dogs, standing on their hind legs and wagging their tails. Circe invites the terrified men inside, and upon feeding them and offering them something to drink, they begin to transform. ‘They had the head, the voice, and bristles, and the shape of a pig, but their minds were the same as before.’ Circe strikes them with her wand and drives them into her pig pens, where she feeds them acorns and chestnuts until Odysseus, protected by a herb given to him by Hermes, comes to the house to rescue them.
It has recently become common to see Circe as a goddess of a former religion or a priestess of a Mother Earth cult, who by the time she features in Greek Mythology, has become dangerous and evil. She has many attributes of ancient animal goddesses, her house is guarded by them, and like the Mesopotamian Ishtar and the Greek Artemis she has the power of transforming men into animals.
Another example is given around 150 AD, when the work Metamorphosis was published by Apuleius. In this he tells the story of the young hero Lucius travelling to Thessaly to study witchcraft. He befriends a girl there named Photis, who works as a maid for a local witch called Pamphile. One night Photis tells Lucius that Pamphile is going to transform herself into a bird in order to fly and see her lover. Peeping from behind a curtain, they watch her rub herself with ointment. As she does so, feathers and wings sprout, her nose becomes crooked and horn-like, and her nails take on the shape of talons. She is transformed into an owl. Lucius begs to use some of the ointment after Pamphile has left, but he finds himself using the wrong one, and is transformed into a donkey.
Metamorphosis is probably intentionally comic, but even so, it does portray the shapeshifter in a less malicious light. Pamphile wasn’t transformed due to a curse or because she had offended the gods, but because she harmlessly intended to visit her lover.
The early Roman world was steeped in the traditions of magic, shapeshifting and animal transformation. Yet, by Apuleius’ time it was a subject fit for comedy. The work of both him and Petronius satisfy the rich storytelling and mythology, as well as providing humour for the sophisticated; after all, Niceros opens his story by announcing that his tale will be pure fun, and that some of the smarter guests will probably laugh at it. Later ages would prove incapable of balancing between humour and horror.
The Norse Volsungasaga describes the heroic actions of the Volsung family, tracing their origins back to the god Odin himself. The first of the heroes to be given an extensive story is Sigmund, the eldest son of Volsung. His son, Sinfjotli, who was conceived by Sigmund’s union with his own twin sister, joins him in the forest where they roam, searching for men to kill.
“Now once on a certain occasion Sigmund and Sinfjotli ranged farther than ever into the woods to get riches for themselves; they found a hut and two men with heavy gold rings asleep inside the hut. They had been bewitched, because there were wolf-skins hanging over them, and only on every tenth half day could they come out of those skins; they were both the sons of kings. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put on those wolf-skins, and could not come out of them to resume their human shapes and natures, until the time described before. Now they uttered wolf howls, yet they could distinguish each other’s voices. They betook themselves into the forest, each of them going his own way. They had agreed between themselves, however, that they would attack though there were seven against them, but no more, for then he who was being attacked should utter his wolf howl.”
Sinfjotli, however, takes on eleven men alone and defeats them all, despite being exhausted by the process. Enraged, Sigmund attacks him for his arrogance, slashing his windpipe open. Healing Sinfjotli using leaves, the two heroes then return to their wolf lair, and wait until they can take off their wolf skins. When they can, they burn the skins.
It is added that ‘in their wolf shape they has done many a heroic deed in King Siggeir’s realm’, the tantalising details left untold.
And so, in the thirteenth century version of the Volsungasaga, the werewolf emerges from the mist of pre-history, and into the light of civilized Western Europe, little changed from its form in Arcadian Greece.
The Celts were perhaps the nearest thing to a pan-European people the continent has ever known, and the remnants of them were those who resisted the most against the incoming Christian religion. The Celts had a distinct society of their own, which exhibited a number of features similar to the Palaeolithic hunting societies that had largely disappeared further south. Their economy centred around nomadic pastoralism, and their relative closeness to the hunting way of life is evident in their deities forms: Cernunnos with his stag antlers, Epona with her horse, and the mythical boar Baco.
The Romans largely allowed Celtic deities to survive, often combining them with their own when parallels existed. Yet, there was one area of pagan beliefs that the Romans were not prepared to allow – human sacrifice. However the reports of sacrifice by shooting with arrows, stabbing in the back, or the infamous Wicker man maybe have simply been propaganda efforts on behalf of the Roman writers.
Nevertheless, classical writers were virtually unanimous in attributing human sacrifice to the Celts. And there is another practice often assigned to them; that of severed heads. A number of small, Celtic stone-built sanctuaries exhibit human skulls, and the idea that Celtic chieftains would keep the heads from bodies they had slain in battle as trophies is also common, in both classical and modern work.
Naturally, it doesn’t actually matter if the Celts actually practiced human sacrifice or head hunting, it only matters that they were believed to do so. Unlike the Mediterranean world, where religious ceremonies were largely conducted in churches and cathedrals, Celts practised their rituals amongst forests and mountains. In the first century AD Tacitus wrote of the annual sacrifices held in a Germanic sacred wood and seven centuries later Abbot Pirimin spoke out against the rites of prayer and magic still carried out by the Alamanni in the same forest clearing. The Greek and roman writers consistently expressed fear and awe of the hidden world, and western Christianity allowed it to colour their own theological ideas, Hell imagined as ‘surrounded by very thick woods’ in the 11th century. Supernatural creatures were said to thrive in the forests, occasionally feasting on some unlucky child wandering off the beaten path. As the Arcadian highlands stood as the last place for ancient practices in classical Greece, the uncleared forests of Europe harboured similar ideas.
The Volsungasaga is not the only story of werewolves and shapeshifters in continental Europe. One of the most notable expressions in both Germanic and Scandinavian tradition are the berserkers, the uncontrollable warriors who, according to Snorri Sturluson in his Ynglinga Saga, ‘went without their mail-coats and were mad as hounds or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or bulls. They slew men, and neither fire nor iron had any effect on them. This is called berserkergang [going berserk]’. The origin of the word berserk is usually held to arise from ber (bear) and sekr (shirt), the implication being that the warriors wore bearskins instead of chain mail.
In the Hrolfs Saga Kraka more information is given on Berserkers. One of the king’s champions in Bodvar Biarki, whose father Biorn had been transformed into a bear by a witch. When resuming human shape at night he had been visited by a woman, who bore him three children, the first was half man, half elk, the second had dog’s feet yet the third, Bodvar Biarki, was outwardly normal.
Hrolf’s army is hopelessly outnumbered, and Biarki at last shows his true therianthropic nature. In the midst of the battle a great bear suddenly appears, lashing out at the kings opponents, impervious to the weapons raised against him. The tide begins to turn in the king’s favour, but meanwhile, Biarki’s friend has set out looking for him. He finds him alone in his tent, and begins to berate him for abandoning his duty, until at last; Biarki rises and leaves the tent, saying that now he will be able to do less for his king than if he had remained undisturbed. Sure enough, when he reaches the battleground the bear is gone, and they inevitably lose the fight.
An old theory had it that the word berserk actually dervies from berr (bare, naked) rather than ber, and points out that Snorri does not mention bear-skins only that they fought without mail coats. The argument against this is that within the berserkers, a sub-divison was contained, the ulfhednar, or ‘wolf-coats’. The Icelandic Vatnsdoela Saga makes it clear that the ulfhednar are a type of berserker, saying that ‘those berserks who were called ulfhednar wore wolf shirts for mail coats’. The same poem contrasts the two, stating that ‘the berserker bayed’, while ‘the wolf-coats howled’. Some have deduced from the characters that the berserk was a lone fighter, assuming the solitary fierceness of a bear, while the wolf coats on the other hand were pack animals like their lupine counterparts, bringing down their enemies through ferocity and numbers.
We can assume that the berserks and wolf coats did not fight entirely in their animals pelts, which would offer too much of a hindrance in battle, but more likely a small token of it, perhaps a belt of animal skin, as the leopard hunters of Catal Huyuk has done seven thousand years earlier.
Their Gods also had the power of changing shape. Odin, for example, ‘could change himself. His body then lay as if sleeping or dead, but he became a bird or a wild beast, a fish or a dragon, and journeyed in the twinkling of an eye to far off lands, on his own errands or those of other men.’ The trickster-god, Loki was reported to change into a mare to lure away a giant’s stallion, and as a result of this coupling, he gave birth to Slipnir, a supernatural eight legged horse Odin often rode on his journeys to the underworld. In stories, Loki is endlessly transforming, in order to steal apples, he becomes a bird, at various other times he is a flea, a fly or a seal. The goddess Freyja is described several times as having a feather, or falcon shape.
There is a well documented pre-Christian craft known as seidr. This was a form of witchcraft linked to the goddess Freja, who was said to be first to pass on the secret knowledge. The rituals necessary involved the construction of a raised platform and seat, in which a female practitioner sat, dressed in animal skins. A sacrificial meal is eaten. Upon singing and spells, she would fall into a shamanistic trance, to bring back messages from the spirit world.
Thus, two very different figures were emerging, even underneath the wave of Christianity. The mostly female practitioners took upon themselves the role of prophecy and divination, whilst the male dominated berserkers and wolf coats used the shamanistic trance to gain strength and ferocity. This division among gender foreshadows the later breakdown in gender of the victims of the continental witch craze, with the overwhelming majority of people accused of witchcraft being female, and practically all of the alleged werewolves men.
Although the previous video covered a violent, aggressive, even murderous aspect of the shifter legend, it did have a specific social place in the time period. The berserk rage helped win battles. However, a new system was on its way, and the Christian church, wishing to spread its message of universal benevolence and love, had no place for such a figure from pagan beliefs.
This new religion was very far removed from the previous beliefs. Yet, at the heart was the symbol of the dying god, killed in order for mankind to be granted eternal life – a human sacrifice, in fact. The most important ritual was the holding of a sacrificial feast, where the devotees would share amongst themselves the body of their god, drinking his blood and eating his flesh. Both these ideas, the killing of a god and the eating of his flesh is also found in previous cults, with the gods Attis, Adonis and Osiris respectively.
Rather than create forced converts, the Christian church largely combined the current practices into their own religion, which at first led to some rather shaky believers. The old pagan gods were hard to eradicate. By the beginning of the twelfth century, Christianity was widespread, yet beliefs in shapeshifters persisted throughout Europe, such as the feast of the January calends, where people dressed themselves as animals. Other phenomena such as the Wild Hunt were celebrated, reminiscent of the lunar hunting deities of old.
Meanwhile, the forests were growing back. Many areas had been deforested, but with the oncoming plague epidemics and massive population decline, the environment around them recovered. And with the return of the forests came the return of the wolves. Wolf hunting edicts had been halted. Although the English campaign succeeded, largely because England is an island, in most of Europe the wolves rapidly returned.
At this stage in medieval Europe it seems as though there is no widespread belief in werewolves and shapeshifters. In order to reintroduce that idea, two things were needed, the acceptance that man and animal could be blurred, especially in relation to Satan and sin, and fear of this happening. Both led to the formation of the stereotypical modern werewolf.
Stories of monstrous races circled widely throughout the Middle Ages, yet these mostly originated a small collection of classical sources. The lack of travel was still enough at the time that these creatures could be believed in, and they were only reinforced by the far removed habits and cultures of the tribes which the few well-travelled Europeans encountered. Humankind comes in so many forms that examples can be found to explain away most of the monsters; the distended lips of the Amycyrae and the huge ears of the Panotii could be facial decorations and self mutilations found among some cultures, the Sciopod using his foot as an umbrella could come from the contortions of a yoga practitioner. The monsters were usually seen as vile, barbarous, deformed, unclothed and speechless humans, commonly said to have descended from Cain, the biblical murderer and outcast.
The Cynocephali are one of the best known of these creatures, a Latin name which translates as ‘Dog-Head’, and they were creatures with the bodies of men and the heads of dogs. They could not talk, only bark, and they wore animal skins, living in caves and hunting in groups. In other sources they have enormous teeth and breath fire. There are many works of art showing Christ preaching to Dog Headed men, and St Christopher is also occasionally shown in Eastern Christianity as being born a pagan dog-head called Reprobus. His conversion to Christianity allows him to regain his human nature. Unfortunately, the nature of Cynocephali meant they were often identified with Muslims and Jews, as heretics of Christ’s nature.
One of the travellers who recorded legends of monsters in other lands was Giraldus, who wrote his book on the history of Ireland around 1185 BC. The first of his modern accounts of monsters tells of a priest and his travelling companion, and young boy, who were approached by a wolf at night. The wolf spoke to them, and told them not to be afraid. However, understandably, the priest was terrified, and questioned the wolf closely, being relieved to hear Catholic answers to any questions he gave. At length, the facts were established, the wolf was a man, one of a pair of people who’s village had been cursed by a saint. As such, two random members were transformed into a wolf every seven years, and then exiled. If they survived the seven years, they were allowed to return, but two others must take their place.
Yet, the werewolf’s wife would not make the seven years. She was dying, and the werewolf begged the priest to come and administer her last rites. The priest followed him, and they found the she-werewolf groaning in the hollow of a tree. The priest, erring on the side of caution at giving possibly evil creatures holy rites, administered everything except the final communion. But the werewolf saw what was happening, and came closer, Using his paw, he gently peeled back the pelt of his wife, revealing the shape of an old woman. The priest, finally convinced, completed the rites and the she-werewolf died.
These are sympathetic werewolves, devoutly Christian, accepting of their fate, and suffering a curse not through any deed of their own. Much of the same moral attitude can be found in other texts, such as Marie de France’s lai of bisclavret, which opens by explaining that bisclavret is the Breton name for the werewolf. Marie was a close contemporary of Giraldus, and their books were composed around the same time.
The hero of the story is a brave knight, loved by the king, who marries a beautiful women. Yet, for three days each week he goes missing, and his wife eventually demanded an explanation. He reveals the truth to her. ‘I become Bisclavret. I enter the forest and live on prey and plunder. I run naked as a beast.’ ‘What do you do with your clothes?’ ‘I cannot tell you that. If I should lose them, or even if anyone were to catch me in the act of undressing, I would be doomed to wander as a werewolf forever.’
However, his wife insists on knowing, demanding that he show his faith in her, and so he eventually reveals the hollow stone in the heart of the woods in which he hides them. She is secretly horrified, and begins to discuss with her lover on how he can be removed.
A year passed, and the knight had not been seen. The woods had been searched, but he was not found. His wife remarried. And the king set out on a hunt, dogs sniffing through the undergrowth in the same forest the knight lurked in wolf form. Chased from dawn to dusk, eventually he was cornered, and the king came over to see the kill. However, he begged the king for his life, and the king, amazed by the display of humanity, proposed to bring the wolf back to the castle. The werewolf settled into the castle life, earning the trust and affection of those around him by his good nature. He was even invited to regularly have a place in the King’s chamber. Yet, one day the King hosted a feast, and among the guests was the husband of the werewolf’s former wife. Unable to contain himself, he attacked the man, three times throughout the feast. The company, endeared to the werewolf, began to suspect the knight of some misdeed. The feast ended, and the treacherous knight left unharmed.
Sometime later the King was once again hunting in the forest, the faithful werewolf trotting by his side. As the day wore on they found the need to rest in a local lodge. When the surrounding nobility came to pay their respects, the werewolf former wife entered, and he attacked her, biting off her nose. The company went to restrain or kill the werewolf but a wise counsellor intervened, pointing out the relationship between the two people the werewolf had attacked. The King decided to look into the matter further, and the wife and her husband were questioned, upon which she admitted the whole story. The clothes were returned, the werewolf regained his human form, and the former wife and her lover were banished from the kingdom.
This werewolf is again treated as sympathetic, although a little less so than Giraldus’. Despite being the hero of the tale, this werewolf is a horrible creature, which hides in the woods by night, seeking to devour human flesh.
There are several other werewolf stories found in this period, such as the fourteenth century manuscript which gives a Latin version of the Welsh tale called Arthur and Gorlagon, which is very similar to the Lai of Bisclavret, aside from the focus on King Arthur. Another is that of Guillaume, a French prose printed in 1552, which, to briefly summarise, involves a cursed werewolf prince, who rescues another prince child, Guillaume. The rescued child is recognised by the Emperor of Rome for his obvious nobility, and in being taken to his palace, falls in love with his daughter. The werewolf helps the lovers elope, and eventually returns to human form and marries Guillaume’s sister.
Giraldus often mention other animal-human combinations, which he treated with less sympathy. His half man, half ox is killed by the Irish on the account of accusations of bestiality, on which Giraldus reflects was ‘a fate he did not deserve’. However Giraldus follows up the story with that of a man-calf, who he declares was born to a female cow in an act of bestiality, and in this, he declares it sinful, quoting Leviticus ‘If a woman approaches any beast to have intercourse with him, ye shall kill the woman, and let the beast die the death.’
In 1580 an eight year old Shrewsbury boy is rumoured to be the product of bestiality due to his feet and right hands being cloven. In 1647, the dead body of another were-sheep is nailed to a church door, to remind all church goers of the grisly consequences.
Monsters were no longer a cause of mild amusement, spiritual practice or curiosity, but had become signs of a disorder or sinfulness. As religious controversy tore at the fabric of medieval Europe, the heretic became stigmatized as a monster. And so, we find with these attitudes, that western Christianity found itself in a frenzy of monster hunting.
1598 was another cold, wet year in a sequence of cold, wet years. Even in harvest time, the people of France were starving. The poor littered the streets, and priests distributing bread were becoming used to seeing deaths among the frantic, pushing crowd. Famine was accompanied by epidemic, and the hungry hordes fell upon other sources of food, on dead horses and carrion.
There is, however, worse sources for food than carrion. A soldier and some peasants were walking through a field in Angers, North West France, when they came across a beggar, crouched half naked in the bushes. Blood was smeared across his hands and face and shreds of flesh had collected underneath his nails. Nearby lay the corpse of a fifteen year old boy.
His court hearing went as follows:
Judge Hérault: What is your name and what is your estate?
Roulet: My name is Jacques Roulet, my age 35; I am poor and a beggar.
Judge: What are you accused of having done?
Roulet: Of being a thief, of having offended God. My parents gave me an ointment, I do not know its composition.
Judge: When rubbed with this ointment, do you become a wolf?
Roulet: No. But for all that, I killed and ate the child Cornier. I was a wolf.
Judge: Were you dressed as a wolf?
Roulet: I was dressed as I am now. I had my hands and face bloody, because I had been eating the flesh of the said child.
Judge: Do your hands and feet become paws of a wolf?
Roulet: Yes, they do.
Judge: Does your head become that of a wolf – your mouth become larger?
Roulet: I do not know how my head was at the time, I used my teeth. My head was as it is today. I have wounded and eaten many other children. I have also been to the sabbat.
The plague seemed to be followed by an epidemic of lycanthropy, because in the same year a tailor of Châlons was also found to have committed cannibalistic horrors, he attacked children, either at his place of work or wandering through the woods. Like Jacques Roulet, he was sentenced to death for lycanthropy, and the court records ordered burnt, so vile were the details of his crimes.
Earlier the same year a family of werewolves were found in Franche-Comte. Perrenette Gandillon was the first to be discovered. A sixteen year old boy was picking fruit with his younger sister when a tailless wolf attacked her. Leaping down to defend his sister, the boy saw the wolf had human hands beneath the fur. The wolf grabbed the boy’s knife and slit his throat. The wolf fled and nearby peasants who had heard the commotion rushed to the scene, where the boy passed on the details about the wolf’s hands before dying. Perrenette was found wandering the area and the enraged mob tore her to pieces.
Soon after, her family were similarly accused. Her sister Antoinette was accused of being a werewolf, attending sabbat and copulating with the devil. Her brother, Pierre, awoke from an unconscious state talking about attending a sabbat of werewolves, and was soon too accused of being a werewolf. He told of how ‘Satan clothed them in a wolf’s skin which completely covered them, and that they went on all fours, and run about the country, chasing now a person and now an animal, according to the guidance of their appetite.’
Pierre’s son, Georges also confessed to using salve to turn into a wolf, and with the company of his aunts, kill two goats.
The three surviving Gandillions were brought to court and examined by the famous lawyer Henri Boguet, who claimed in later writings to be responsible for 600 executions throughout a period of 18 years. He talks in the second edition of his book, published 1602, about visiting the Gandillions. He said, ‘I have seen those I have named go on all fours in a room just as they did when they were in the fields, but they said it was impossible for them to turn themselves into wolves since they had no more ointment, by being imprisoned. I have further noted that they were all scratched on the face and hands and legs; and that Pierre Gandillion was so disfigured in this way that he bore hardly any resemblance to a man, and struck with horror those who looked at him.’ Boguet noted that they were all convicted and burnt.
These were not the only werewolves in Jura, for three werewolves had been discovered seventy years previously at nearby Poligny. The leader of this trio was Michel Verdung, whose transformation had come to light after a traveller was attacked by a wolf. The traveller wounded the wolf and tracked it to a hut, where he found a woman bathing Verdung’s wounds.
Under torture, Verdung admitted his friend Pierre Bourgot was also a werewolf, and in turn, Bourgot told of how he had become a werewolf. Twenty years earlier, he said, a fierce storm scattered his flocks and he had set out to search for them, only to encounter three black horsemen. Bourgot told them of his troubles, and one of them promised to aid him if he would agree to serve the horsemen as his lord and master. Bourgot promptly accepted and was reunited with his lost sheep. A few days later, he met the black horsemen again, who revealed themselves to be servants of the devil and made Bourgot renounce Christianity and take an oath of loyalty.
Yet, as time passed, Bourgot found himself being more and more drawn back to Christianity, and so Michel Verdung was sent out by the devil to enforce his beliefs. Verdung promised gold to Bourgot if he would attend the sabbat with him. At the sabbat, Verdung made Bourgot strip and apply a magic ointment which transformed him into a wolf, only to turn back again when a second ointment was applied. During his transformations he would commit numerous crimes which he then confessed to. As he told the Inquisitor-General, he had attacked a seven year old boy, eaten the flesh of a four year old girl and broken the neck of a nine year old and eaten her. Both Bourgot and Verdung claimed to have copulated with real wolves.
This wasn’t the first case of werewolves on trial in Franche-Comte. In the early 1570’s attacks on children were occurring increasingly frequently, and several witnesses claimed they had seen the children carried off by a werewolf. Responding to the stories, the local parlement issued the local people, ‘to assemble with pikes, halberds, arquebuses , and sticks, to chase and to pursue the said werewolf in every place where they may find or seize him; to tie and kill, without incurring any pains or penalties.’ The locals soon found their werewolf; in November 1573, only two months after the order was issued, a badly bitten little girl was rescued from a wolf. The people that saved her spoke of the wolf having human features. Some were sure it was the same man as Gilles Garnier, a misanthropic recluse who lived with his wife in poverty. Six days later another child went missing, and he and his wife were quickly arrested.
Garnier’s confession was detailed. He had strangled a boy whilst in the shape of a wolf and tore off one of his legs with his fangs; he had killed another boy in a pear orchard, and also a girl, whose flesh he had enjoyed so much that he took some home to his wife.
The usual practice in Europe at this time was to burn werewolves under the conviction of sorcery.
But Garnier was not the most famous werewolf, that title lies with Peter Stubb (variously spelt Stump, Stumpf or Stube) whose trial took place in 1589. Pamphlets detailing his crimes were created in various languages, allowing his case to be known throughout Europe.
He was said to transform into a wolf through the use of a magic belt, a ‘greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like brands of fire; a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth; a huge body and mighty paws.’ Stubb would supposedly attack all people who strayed into the countryside, preying on lambs and kids if there was none. He was reckoned to have murdered thirteen young children and attacked two pregnant women. He was also accused of incest with his sister and daughter, and of murdering his own son and consuming his brains.
Stubb’s fate was sealed when a wolf was set upon by a pack of dogs in the fields. According to the witnesses, this was Stubb in wolf shape. When he realized he could not outrun the dogs he had taken his girdle off and become a man, they said. The men said they had never taken their eyes off their prey and saw the whole transformation, and so, Stubb was taken to court. The girdle was searched for but not found. He was placed on the rack, at which point he confessed to everything.
Peter Stubb had perhaps the more gruesome execution of any werewolf. He was strapped to a wheel, where chunks of flesh were torn from bone in ten places with red hot pincers. Whilst still conscious, his arms and legs were then smashed with a wooden axe, after which he was finally killed with the removal of his head and his body burnt. His mistress and daughter were also burnt alongside him. The wheel his body was broken on was fastened at the top of a pole, above that a wooden wolf and on the top of the stake Stubb’s head was placed. Around the wheel sixteen pieces of wood were placed, to match the sixteen murders.
With these stories passed on through local legend, the people at the time had strong reason to believe in the existence of werewolves. However, from a modern perspective, it is hard to discern anything which may be fact, and almost impossible to tell if those accused were guilty of any crime at all. Confessions to murder may be lies or fantasies created under the pressure of torture, which was always recommend in cases involving werewolves because of their satanical nature. It is natural that those charging him, upon hearing details of grotesque and inhuman crimes, would prefer to think of them as committed be a werewolf, a true monster, rather than an ordinary person.
Also, the opinions of the interrogators often influenced the verdict, and this we see clearly in the case of Jacques Roulet. The judge seems to have more as to what has happened than Roulet does.
It’s also notable that not all that many werewolves were ever brought to trial during the witch craze in Europe. The number of executions in Europe for witchcraft between 1570 and 1670 lies in the thousands, but most areas only managed to muster a single werewolf.
It’s interesting also to note the opinions on the cause of werewolves throughout this time. Many people would agree that there was a physical transformation, yet some differed on the matter, Henri Boguet devoted a chapter of his book on demonology to the subject of werewolves, and said that, ‘it has always been my opinion that lycanthropy is an illusion, and that the metamorphosis of man into beast is impossible.’ His argument for this is theological and concerns the idea that a human soul could not possibly be contained in a beast, and that Satan of course could not have the power to juggle souls in such a way, so transformation is impossible. He instead believed that Satan tricks the person into falling asleep, commits crimes in a wolf form whilst making them believe that they themselves have performed it. He also argued that perhaps the person runs about killing, only believing themselves to be transformed.
The first sign of any change in the legal system surrounding werewolves is that Jacques Roulet’s death sentence was appealed, and he was instead sent to an insane asylum for two years.
But the case that seems to have ended the werewolf trials for good is that of Jean Grenier, whose case was recorded by Pierre de Lancre.
Grenier was a fourteen year old boy when he stood accused. He claimed a man had given him a wolf skin cape, which when combined with ointment, could transform him for an hour every other day at dusk. He would boats of killing animal and girls to his other childhood friends, and one girl claimed he had attacked her in wolf form. She said it was smaller than a normal wolf, it’s tail a stump and it’s hair red like Jean’s.
Grenier, surprisingly, agreed that he had committed this and declared of doing many other similar things. A number of children had gone missing in the area, so he was listened to. He was sentenced to be hanged and burnt in June 1603. But, later in the year, his case went under review. The charges against his father were dismissed when it became apparent the boy was neglected and merely attempting to implicate him. The verdict said that taking ‘into account the young age and imbecility of this boy, who is so stupid and idiotic that children of seven and eight years old normally show more intelligence, who has been ill fed in every respect and is so dwarfed that he is not as tall as a ten year old . . . here is a young lad abandoned and driven out by his father, who has a cruel stepmother instead of a real mother, who wanders over fields [etc] . . . and whom the devil made his prey.’ The court sentenced him to life imprisonment in a local monastery.
The court, whilst allowing that it was the Devil who had tempted Grenier, came to the conclusion that he was merely hallucinating, with shape changing only occurring in the mind of the insane. This marked a change in dealing with lycanthropy in court; as an illness, it was now treated, rather than punished. Although the idea hung around, the age when courts of France took seriously claims of magic salves and physical transformation had passed.
But the idea did cling on a little longer. 100 years after the Jean Grenier case, on the other side of Europe, an eighty-year-old man named Theiss was interrogated on the charge of being a werewolf. It was the year of 1692 in Livonia and Theiss’ confession was remarkably different to any before it.
Theiss said that he and the other Livonian and Russian werewolves, both male and female, went out three nights of the year to visit hell. The werewolves were the dog’s of god, he said, and armed with iron whips, battled the devil and sorcerers, preventing famine from sweeping the land.
Another similar werewolf was found in the area, and interrogated by a Livonian professor called Whitekind. This werewolf laughed and skipped inside his cell. He said that he had escaped from prison the night before Easter, only returning because his master wished him to do so. When the interrogators attempted to convince him that his master was evil, the werewolf replied that if they could tell him of a better master, he would follow him.
These Baltic werewolves hint that the survival of the Celtic werewolves, the good werewolves. Treatises of the same era include similar ideas, Casper Peucer writing that Livonian werewolves boast of fighting witches, and being unable to attack humans.
Other, more obscure examples can be found. In north eastern Italy a fertility cult was recorded by Carlo Ginzburg. Some of the local men and women there called themselves benandanti. The believed they were marked out at birth as different, and that on four nights of the year they would go out in spirit to battle against witches. The spirits left their bodies, sometimes in the shape of a mouse or butterfly, sometimes riding on cats or hares, and they would fight to prevent famine, like the Livonian werewolves. Ginzburg makes clear that it took some fifty years before the benandanti began to make grudging changes according to the wishes of the inquisitors.
It’s possible these could be two local and unrelated phenomena, coincidental, if it were not for the same beliefs elsewhere. Men, and occasionally women, across cultures were marked out at birth to fight in spirit on behalf of the community. In Istria, Solvenia and Croatia there are the kresnik, in Bosnia, Montenegro and Herzegovina the zduhac, in Southern Dalmatia the negromanat and in Northern Croatia, the mogut.
In the east, these men were destined to fight witches and vampires, often on fixed days of the year. These fights usually took the form of clashes between the spirits of the opposing forces, with many taking animal forms; boars, dogs, oxen, horses, and distinguishable by colour, black for witches, white or dappled for the chosen men.
Not all alleged werewolves were men, but female werewolves often occurred later in the trials and were much rare, one example being two witches in 1610 at Liege who were condemned for having changed themselves into wolves and killed and eaten children. When women were on trial for witchcraft, any animal involvement was usually that of their familiars, not a physical transformation.