The word conjures up all sorts of images. Blood-thirsty beasts. Slashings. Mangled corpses and full moons. Sparkly vampires and nemesis-turned-allies. London. Lycanthropy. But where did the stories of these legendary mythical creatures get started?
No one is completely sure where these terrifying beasts made their entrance into society and into the collective societal fear. According to History.com, some scholars believe that the first written tales of werewolves were in The Epic of Gilgamesh (at least 7th century BC according to www.britanica.com), but werewolves also make an appearance in early Greek mythology with The Legend of Lycaon. The Saga of the Vosungs from Nordic histories again provides mythic evidence of these monsters of the darkness (www.history.com). One could travel up the Nile and see many references to Anubis with his jackal’s head—also notably an Egyptian god of death.
The interesting thing here is that multiple advanced cultures the world over have legends of werewolves—whether they are shifters who can assume the form of a wolf at will, or who only turn under the watchful eye of the full moon, or who are akin to demons sent as a scourge upon mankind.
What led ancient man to his rivalry with the werewolf? There are several possibilities. The first possibility, of course, is that werewolves are real, and have walked among us for centuries (the documentary, The Bray Road Beast, makes a compelling case). Another possibility is that as people were bitten by rabid animals, wolves in particular, the consequent infections caused people to think the afflicted was turning into the creature that had bitten them. Werewolves could be a response to brutal serial killings that looked similar to animal maulings (www.historicmysteries.com).
Arguably the most famous werewolf account took place in Gevaudan, France in 1764. It was a miserable time in France. The Seven Year’s War, in which France had suffered heavily at the hands of Britain and Prussia, was facing economic hardship and censorship in the press. Because of all the political censoring, the press turned to the sensational to garner more subscriptions. This is where the beast got its vast notoriety, even drawing hunters from far away Normandy (who were unsuccessful). Witnesses described a giant beast with features like a wolf, only much larger and much more terrifying. After 30-35 deaths, at last the great beast was brought down in June of 1767—so it was assumed, as the death rate decreased (www.smithsonianmag.com). At any rate, the large amount of deaths, the publicity of the press, and the terror of the villagers led to the creation of this particular beast and gave credence to the popularity of the werewolf.
It would be remiss to discuss werewolves without a nod to “legitimate lycanthropy” (Webster’s modern definition states lycanthropy is the belief that one can change into a wolf). Medically termed hypertrichosis, it is a condition in which a person is covered in excess hair all over their bodies (www.dictionary.com). This, too, could be fodder for the myths surrounding the werewolf.
Whatever the case, this undying piece of lore has fitted itself into the fabric of mainstream society worldwide and continues to capture imaginations everywhere.
Creative Writing Prompts:
Mist rose in the dark night like tendrils of hair floating in water. Suspended against the black night, a ripe moon rose and cast its watery light upon the silver hair of a creature poised on a rocky outcropping. With a toss of its magnificent head, a lone howl could be heard all throughout the valley below. Terror lodged in the heart of the villagers as…
Are werewolves real creatures that have perhaps been hunted to extinction, or that survive in the shadows of today’s society, or are they a complete work of fiction? Why or why not?
The shriek pierced the night as the great beast took chase after…
You have been turned into a werewolf. Recount the day you received that fateful bite.
Recommended books for ages 16 and up:
April White’s series: Immortal Descendants
Melissa Haag’s series: Judgement of the Six
“Werewolves of London”