The Halloween History of Werewolves
Werewolves occupy another central place in Halloween lore.
The idea of a half-man, half-beast, or of a person who can turn into a beast is pretty much universal. Every culture seems to have its beastmen, from the Rakshasa (weretigers) of India, to the Kitsune (werefox) of Japan, the boudas (werehyena) of North Africa, and the skinwalkers of the American southwest.
But for European cultures, the beast that most held the imagination was the wolf. In medieval times, the wolf was the most deadly predator on the European continent (aside from man himself), and single animals - let alone packs - were greatly feared. Wolves are smart, and often would exhibit human-like behavior, laying a trap for their victims, tending to their wounded, and choosing a single mate for life.
There are stories of entire Russian villages being held in their homes for the winter while wolves prowled hungrily outside. To understand the power that the wolf held over the European mind, you need go no further than the Three Little Pigs, Red Riding Hood and Peter and the Wolf.
So if wolves often exhibited human-like characteristics, it would not take too much of an imaginative leap to suppose that - just maybe - the smartest of them were actually humans in wolf’s guise.
There are various explanations for the term werewolf, but the two most common are that it is derived from the Old English weri and wolf, meaning “wearer of the wolf skin.”, or from the Norse var and wulf, meaning “man wolf.”
Lycanthropy is from the Greek Lykos (wolf) and Anthropos (man). Greek mythology tells the story of Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf after serving human flesh to Zeus.
The Norse probably had a large hand in spreading the werewolf myth throughout Europe. Feared by nearly everyone for their lightening raids and ruthlessness, the Vikings had a class of particularly fierce warriors known as Berserkers. These men wore wolf or bears skins into battle (and little else).
Fear of werewolves seem to have been particularly strong in France and Austria, where a large number of werewolf hunts and trials were held starting in the 1500s. It is said that there were 20,000 werewolf trials during that time in France alone. The French scare seems to have ended when it was decided that the supposed werewolves were merely victims of mental illness. In Austria, the scare ended following a ban on witch hunts and the like by the enlightened Empress Maria Theresa.
One historical incident that always piques the interest of folklorists involved a series of well-documented attacks by a mysterious wolf-like creature in the Gevaudan region of France beginning in 1764. The beast, thought to be a large wolf, attacked both cattle and humans before reportedly being killed by a hermit.
Much of what passes for Halloween werewolf lore today is simply an invention of Hollywood. The 1941 movie starring Lon Chaney as the Wolf Man set the tone for much of what people today “know” about werewolves. Silver bullets, fortune tellers and pentagrams all seem to have come from the minds of Hollywood screenwriters. Curt Siodmak, screenwriter for The Wolf Man even invented the lines that have become so famous: Even a man who is kind at heart and says his prayers at night might become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon shines full and bright.
Wearing a wolf skin, in combination with certain magic rituals, or potions was the favored method of becoming a werewolf. Most of the legends involve people turning into wolves voluntarily. Turning into one after being bitten seems to be pure Hollywood and Halloween legend.
One current explanation for outbreaks of werewolf sightings involves hallucinations caused by eating rye infected with the ergot mold. The Ergot mold, it turns out, can cause hallucinations and mass hysteria (it is possible to derive LSD from ergot). Rye is a grain more commonly found in northern Europe where reports of werewolves were more common.
Others believe that the source of the werewolf legends lies in various diseases or mental illnesses. Rabies, for example can cause behavior changes, light sensitivity and drooling.
Porphyria, which has been said to be a source of the Vampire legends also has been cited as being behind the werewolf legends. A rare disease called hypertrichosis, which causes excessive hair growth over the entire body is yet another culprit.
Finally, modern psychiatry has identified several mental illnesses in which the unfortunate actually believes himself to be transforming into an animal. It’s called Clinical lycanthropy, although it does not always involve wolves.
Copyright 2005 by John Retzer. All Rights Reserved.