So a few introduced me to a podcast a few weeks ago–called Lore–that takes something from folklore and explores it and its effect on society and our culture (They’re pretty interesting, go check them out). I listened to one like two weeks ago I think that talked about werewolves. And it just made me realize how messed up people really are…but I wanted to explore it further. And I thought here would be a good place to do it!
So let’s talk about the werewolf. Though not explicitly in most fairy tales, the werewolf is present in folklore throughout the centuries. So let’s take it through history and then to present popular culture.
History of the Werewolf
The mythology of the werewolf doesn’t have any one origin. Almost every culture has its own werewolf history. One of the earliest written records of a werewolf comes all the way back in 440BC, where Herodotus describes a tribe of people in Scythia transforming into wolves.
About 500 years later, we see werewolves appear in Ancient Greece. Ovid tells the story of King Lycaeon. Zeus came to visit Lycaeon, but the King didn’t believe it was actually the god coming. He decided to feed his guests human flesh, thinking that if they were really gods, they would be able to discern what was before them. Zeus saw through the ruse and was, understandably, a bit upset. He transformed Lycaeon into a werewolf…since, you know, he already serves human flesh, he must like to eat it, too.
There are Armenian legends of women who, having committed deadly sins, were forced to become a wolf every night for seven years. A spirit would come and bring her the skin of the wolf. Once she put it on, she became the wolf, killing her children and family before moving on to strangers.
These stories continued to spread throughout the world. It seemed, though, that there were two common factors: werewolves were evil and they ate human flesh. The full moon theory didn’t come until much later.
In the 16th century, France seemed to be overrun by werewolves–at least it would appear that way in the courtroom. There were many around this time claiming they were attacked by werewolves…and so many were taken to trial. A lot of these cases included evidence of murder and cannibalism but not that they actually transformed into wolves.
It seemed that in many different places, werewolf attacks were actually just the workings of a deranged serial killer. One of the most prominent is Peter Stumpp from Germany, also known as the Werewolf of Bedburg. The investigation into many werewolf attacks in the area led straight to Stumpp, who admitted to it. He claimed he made a deal with the devil and has spent the last twenty years killing and eating children (including his son) and livestock, among other grisly things like raping his own daughter and sister repeatedly. He claims the devil let him change into a fierce wolf to do these things (you’d think if this was true, he would turn into a wolf and not let himself be caught…). Seriously, this guy was messed up. But the town retaliated and killed him…not very humanely either, but I won’t get into that. There are many cases of serial killers who people said were werewolves…I think it’s an easier explanation that an animal commits these heinous acts than a human. Some examples are Gilles Garnier, Pierre Burgot, and Michel Verdun.
Werewolves are found all over in today’s modern culture. The first feature-film about a werewolf was in 1935 in “Werewolf in London” and has continued since then. Through this process, the werewolf has changed from an inherently evil being into a hero or an anti-hero of sorts, people trying to fight with their darker side and using their wolf-abilities to protect, rather than harm. Now they also often feature attractive men who enjoy taking their shirt off *ahem*. We see them in Twilight, Harry Potter, Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf, Van Helsing, Once Upon a Time, and so much more. Here’s a pretty good list I found of movies and TV shows with werewolves.