Werewolves: Myths and Legends

One of my favorite films is American Werewolf in London. It’s essentially a movie about two college dudes who go on a walkabout in Britain and are attacked by a werewolf that nobody they encounter will admit exists. It’s written and directed by John Landis and contains some pretty fantastic makeup and prosthetic work. It took an average of 5 hours to get it applied. My father tried to make me a werewolf for Halloween one year and I looked like I’d run into a wig shop covered in crazy glue. Trust me, it was bad. Think more along the lines of Cousin Itt. And the Spirit Gum…oh! It was awful…but anyway, here’s a brief synopsis that writer John Vogel did for IMDB.

“Two American college students are on a walking tour of Britain and are attacked by a werewolf. One is killed, the other is mauled. The werewolf is killed but reverts to its human form, and the local townspeople are unwilling to acknowledge its existence. The surviving student begins to have nightmares of hunting on four feet at first but then finds that his friend and other recent victims appear to him, demanding that he commit suicide to release them from their curse, being trapped between worlds because of their unnatural deaths.”

I was little more than 7 months old when the movie hit the theaters in August of 1981 and it grossed over 30 million worldwide. Clearly, audiences were interested in werewolves, their lore, and their tortured lives. But stories about werewolves didn’t originate with American Werewolf in London. They actually originated in one of the oldest known pieces of Western prose The Epic of Gilgamesh when Gilgamesh jilts a potential lover because she’d turned her previous mate into a wolf. A total deal-breaker for ‘ol Gilge. In Greek mythology, we are presented with the Legend of Lycaon (Lycan is a term you might have heard used in the Underworld movies, but it’s far older than that) who “angered the god Zeus when he served him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. As punishment, the enraged Zeus turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves.” Werewolves are also spoken about in Nordic folklore in the Saga of the Volsungs. The story tells of “a father and son who discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. The father-son duo donned the pelts, transformed into wolves and went on a killing rampage in the forest. Their rampage ended when the father attacked his son, causing a lethal wound. The son only survived because a kind raven gave the father a leaf with healing powers.” (history.com)

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Serial Killer or Werewolf?

In the early 1500s, a time when flicking a Bic lighter would have sent the average townsperson into a panicked frenzy, two men, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, were accused of being werewolves. It all began when Burgot was assailed by three men in black who told him that if he didn’t denounce God they would do something terrible to him. If he did denounce God, they guaranteed the safety of the flock of sheep he was transporting and riches beyond his wildest imaginings. Of course, Burgot agreed because why not. When Verdun (one of the men in black—no not THOSE men in black) told Burgot that they would go together to meet a group of warlocks, things start to get a little weird. Verdun tells Bergot that he should strip down naked and the two began applying some sort of salve or mixture all over their bodies. Burgot and Verdun (according to Burgot) began to immediately grow coarse fur and their hands and feet became clawed. The two then took to the French countryside to murder and eat small children. You know, just a guy’s night out.

Of course, Burgot and Verdun’s rampages came to an end when they were found guilty of mass murder and burned alive (one of the only ways that were considered logical to kill a werewolf in the 1500s.) The witch trials were in full swing during this time so burning at the stake was pretty much a catchall punishment for ungodly acts. Verdun and Burgot are seen by some as serial killers who preyed on the most innocent of humanity while others still believe that the men were indeed werewolves. (https://www.encyclopedia.com/science/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/burgot-pierre-d-1521)

Another man by the name of Peter Stubbe who was a fifteenth-century farmer in Bedburg, Germany was supposedly a werewolf. Folklore tales tell of Stubbe transforming into a wolf-like creature and devouring any poor villager who might cross his path. Stubbe was cornered one evening by a group of hunters who claimed to have seen him transform from human to wolf and Stubbe confessed to the crimes. He was subjected to gruesome torture for his crimes. He claimed under duress that he owned a belt that was enchanted with the power to turn him into a wolf, but the belt was never found. Some believe that Stubbe was the victim of a witch hunt, but at this point in history there were fears of such creatures and it would have been difficult to find a person who did not believe that werewolves were on the prowl.

There are many logical explanations for werewolf lore and the visage/behaviors that go along with it. For example, lycanthropy is a rare psychological condition that causes people to believe they’re changing into a wolf or some other animal. Rabies can cause even the most “normal” of individuals to go batty. Hypertrichosis, a rare genetic disorder that causes excessive hair growth, could be another affliction that could cause panic. The ingestion of hallucinogenic herbs could be to blame. There are absolutely reasonable explanations out there to explain away the werewolf and its wolfy-ness, but perhaps it’s just more fun to believe that there is more to this world we live in than meets the eye.

 

Shapeshifting

In many cultures, it is believed that a human being can shapeshift into the form of a wolf because a curse has been placed upon that person. Perhaps they’ve been bitten or scratched by a wolf, another cursed human who is doomed to stalk the earth as a creature of the night. Folklore tells us that enchanted sashes, cloaks, or belts are to blame. In many werewolf stories, the person only turns into a wolf when the moon is full.

Even a man who is pure in heart
And says his prayers by night
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.

You might recognize this poem from the 1941 film The Wolf Man featuring Lon Cheney Jr. It seems like every time someone brings up the subject of werewolves, the townspeople chime in with this little rhyme. This Wolfman is the image that many people associate with film representations of werewolves. But this is not the case in every culture. In Navajo culture, tales of Skinwalkers are often told. Translated, yee naaldooshii translates to “by means of it, it goes on all fours.” From Wikipedia,

“Animals associated with witchcraft usually include tricksters such as the coyote, but can include other creatures, usually those associated with death or bad omens. They might also possess living animals or people and walk around in their bodies by locking eyes with them. Skin-walkers may be male or female. Skin-walker stories told among Navajo children may be complete life and death struggles that end in either skin-walker or Navajo killing the other or partial encounter stories that end in a stalemate. Encounter stories may be composed as Navajo victory stories, with the skin-walkers approaching a Hogan (the traditional dwelling of Navajo people) and being scared away

Non-Native interpretations of skin-walker stories typically take the form of partial encounter stories on the road, where the protagonist is temporarily vulnerable, but then escapes from the skin-walker in a way not traditionally seen in Navajo stories that take place away from home. Sometimes Navajo children take European folk stories and substitute skin-walkers for generic killers like The Hook. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skin-walker)

These creatures will knock on windows and bang on walls in an effort to lure their victims outside. Skinwalkers have the ability to steal the faces of people you know and, if you accidentally lock eyes with one, they have the ability to absorb themselves into your body and take control of you. Most Skinwalkers are said to resemble “hollowed out dogs” (not sure what that means, but it sure as hell sounds horrifying) and you can apparently defeat a Skinwalker if you call them by their true (human) name.

I found one particularly horrifying encounter with a Skinwalker on Thought Catalogue. There is a bunch to look through there.

THEY RAN AWAY ON THEIR BACK LEGS

“So this happened about twelve years ago. My family owns a farm in the heart of an Indian reservation. One Winter I was home for Christmas taking care of the farm while my parents were away Christmas shopping. As I was home by myself, way late in the night and I hear all our cows freaking out. I knew it had to be the wild dogs that are rampant in the area. So I throw on some boots, grab a shotgun, load it up, and head out to the field. This was a perfect scenario for a horror movie, it was cloudy but there was a full moon, and it was breaking through the clouds just right to light up all the snow.

I ran out into the middle of the field, and just in time I see two dogs, they were standing up facing each other and fighting. I think “perfect two for one.” So I pump a shell into the chamber of Mr. 12 gauge and then it happened. The two dogs heard the rack, they both stopped, looked over at me, and ran away, ON THEIR BACK LEGS. Immediately I froze, and every ghost story about Skinwalkers and all the other Native legends I grew up with flew through my mind. Keep in mind I am a white guy, and up until then, these were all just boogie man stories the Native kids like to tell to scare us. That night, they became real to me.” (https://thoughtcatalog.com/jacob-geers/2016/10/14-facts-about-skinwalkers-that-will-100-scare-the-shit-out-of-you/)

American Werewolf in London, The Wolf Man, Skinwalkers…these are all just fantastical tales that tickle the imagination and serve to creep us out, right? All I can say is, if you hop in your car and drive to Holy Hill Road in Washington County, WI, and hang out for a bit, you might see something you can’t explain. Reports of werewolf sightings in that area go back to the 1930s and they show no signs of slowing down. Steve Krueger, a DNR worker, has encountered a werewolf first hand. When picking up carcasses in the Holy Hill area, Krueger claims he saw a beast that had pointed ears on top of its head. It was stocky, covered in coarse hair, and came in at roughly 6 to 7’ in height. Apparently, there have been many sightings over the years of giant wolves stalking the area. Linda Godfrey, an author, and journalist, has been stalking the werewolf legend in that area for 17 years. She lives in Elkhorn and has received hundreds of reports of sightings, many just miles from her home. A documentary, The Beast of Bray Road is available on Amazon Prime for those of you with access and there are some pretty spooky tales about these creatures. Godfrey has written eight books about The Beast and now she’s getting stories of encounters from all over the world. In an interview with NBC15, Godfrey said, “Whatever it is, there is more than one. It seems to be more of a scavenger that wants to frighten people. Maybe it’s territorial. It seems to want people to leave it alone.” (https://www.nbc15.com/home/headlines/70005732.html)

Godfrey believes it might be a timber wolf that has evolved or adapted to walk on its hind legs, but she’s not ready to rule out the supernatural.

Cures

According to livescience.com (https://www.livescience.com/24412-werewolves.html), there are several ways in which an individual could be purged of the werewolf curse. You see, lycanthropy was often seen as a curse and the afflicted was often seen as a monster AND a victim.  Ian Woodward, the author of The Werewolf Delusion, states that werewolves could be cured medicinally and surgically. The afflicted might be exorcized or shot with a silver bullet. For “medicinal and surgical cures” please read “bloodletting, forced vomiting, and vinegar drinking.” At least the “cures” didn’t involve poop as they most often did way back when. I can’t make this stuff up. And luckily, I don’t have to because it’s all written down in historical medical texts! Of course, many victims who were suspected of or believed themselves to be werewolves died while trying these “cures.”

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