Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Werewolf: Legend, Myth and Movies

“He who is pure at heart and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright”

This is a poem told in the great movie, “The Wolf Man” (1941) staring Lon Chaney Jr.  As a movie, it is one of the best dealing with werewolves; unfortunately, it also infused many misconceptions about the werewolf into our society.

Although skin changers, or lycanthropy, is present in many cultures around the world, we will be concentrating on the European version.  This is mostly because our movies are centered around these legends and they are immersed in popular culture. Of course even the werewolf legend itself is different in parts of Europe.

In the above-named movie, and numerous other that followed, a person became a werewolf when bitten by another werewolf. This origin story was conceived in the movies as a way to portray the werewolf as a victim, someone who was not responsible for their actions. Werewolves do not go around biting people, they kill and eat people.

In legend, the role of victim is misplaced upon the werewolf.  In most European legends, to become a werewolf you practiced black magic, or made a deal with a witch or the devil himself. Also, the transformation was not totally without some effort, the person either had to magical rub oil on their skin, or to wear an enchanted werewolf belt, or put on the fur of a wolf. Even with these there are some exceptions, there are legends of people who became wolves by sleeping in the woods without a roof, or blanket, and other legends where someone drank water from an enchanted pool of water. These exceptions were however rare.

Another misconception about werewolves promoted by the movies is their transformation only during a full-moon.  Many people actually believe this is the basis of people showing eradicate behavior during a full moon.  In legend, there is no correlation between a werewolf and the full moon.  A person could transform into a wolf, at any time, and the moon did not influence this transformation.  When you do think about this, being able to transform only during a full moon, would make a werewolf a lesser threat; once a month, during the full moon, you would need only stay inside to avoid him.

Another myth deals with silver and the killing of a werewolf.  Needing silver to kill a werewolf is another myth that can be attributed to the movie “The Wolf Man”.  In legend, a werewolf has the abilities and weaknesses of a large wolf. Any means capable of killing a 200-lb. wolf, can kill a werewolf.

There is one historical exception to the above statement. This was the case of the Beast of Gévaudan. This was a so-called werewolf (which may have been a dog wolf hybrid or even a stripped hyena) which was shot by a silver bullet by hunter Jean Chastel in 1767.  The “Beast” had been accredited to over 113 deaths and numerous others injured.

The concept of the werewolf was unknown in Europe in the early middle ages.  There were of course legends in Greece, Rome and even Scandinavia, but there dealt with people turning into wolves by acts of deities.  The acknowledgement of the werewolf, and the rise of their persecution, corresponds to the rise of the witch-hunt.

As with the witch, the Catholic Church did not recognize that werewolves existed.  This changed with the rising of the reformation. There were many other factors, such as the church the failures of the crusades, and the inability for the church to protect citizens against the plague, but for argument in this article we will continue with the reformation.  The church considered itself the spokesperson on earth for God. If anyone opposed it (such as protestants), then they must be against God, and hence a heretic.

If, according to the church, you are a heretic, then you must have some powerful alliance with the Devil, which means you could have been given special powers (such as being able to be turned into a werewolf, or be able to practice magic).  This reason is why there was an increase of trials for both witchcraft and werewolfery (yes that is a real word) during the later middle ages and renaissance.
Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne. This media file is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1923

Many of the werewolf trials were conducted in what is now Switzerland and France. Perhaps, the most famous was that of Peter Stumpp.  He was put on the rack, and suffered other tortures until he confessed to being a werewolf and practicing black magic. He was convicted and was executed in one of the most brutal descriptions in history, which included ripping off the flesh of hot pincers, his arms and legs ripped off and finally being beheaded and his body burned.  Local authorities erected a pole with the wheel he had been tortured on with the head of a wolf attached to the top as a warning to its citizens.

Historically, there were several factors going on at this time which have attributed to Peter Stumpp being executed for other reasons than being a werewolf.

Peter Stumpp was a converted protestant.  There were Catholic mercenaries who had recently defeated the protestant armies. Bedburg Castle, where Peter Stumpp was tried and executed (his nickname was the Werewolf of Bedbug), was trying to establish itself as the new stronghold for the reestablishment of the Catholic faith.  There could be made an argument that Peter Stumpp’s trial and conviction had more to do with trying to quench the protestant religion, than it did with werewolves.

If one was found to be a werewolf, they were executed as with Peter Stumpp.  However, there were certain cures that might remove the wolf spirit from the person.  In ancient Greece and Roman era, you had to make the person run, or work until they were so exhausted, the wolf spirit then would leave their body.  During the medieval period, one option was medically; this was normally administering the victim with Wolfbane, this is a very poison plant which usually resulted in the accused werewolf’s death.  Another was by exorcism, this would be done by a priest or someone dedicated in removing demons in cases of possession. In terms of exorcism, it was usually accompanied by a sword and dagger being placed together to form a cross, and then being touched upon the forehead three times.

I hope my description of the legend of the European werewolf has removed some of the erroneous myths which were created by Hollywood in their creation of movies.

W.A. Rusho is a historian, author and professional wrestler. You can contact him via his email, or by visiting his website.

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  1. I've always found werewolf movies fascinating, so thank you for adding a significant amount of knowledge to that history!

  2. Personally loved werewolf movies when I was young but lost my fascination for them as I grew older.

  3. I steer well away from any form of horror film these days. In my youth I watched the American Weirwolf in London - a black comedy which was rather frightening.

  4. What a great post - I love learning the history and origins of these types of mythology. I had no idea so much of werewolf culture was actually created by Hollywood!

  5. An excellent post, particularly as we slide into Halloween. I knew that Hollywood had created many of our common werewolf myths, but I didn't realize that werewolves, like witches were part of a hunted group. Its amazing how creative we are when we want to demonize someone.

  6. I prefer vampires as my ghoul of choice, but loved Lon Chaney's werewolf--fun to read about the history of behind the stuff Hollywood feeds us.

  7. The only werewolf/vampire movies I've seen are the Twilight saga, which probably don't really count haha.. it's certainly very interesting stuff you've written here William. I love myths and legends, and werewolves are definitely one of those mythical creatures that intrigue me. Thanks for sharing!

    1. You're right, those movies don't count. lol

  8. Very interesting post, William, about the werewolf trials. I used to love the old TV show about the Teen Werewolf!