The historical basis of Lycanthropism or: where do Werewolves come from?

The historical basis of Lycanthropism or: where do Werewolves come from?

Martin Wettstein

Published Online (2003)


Werewolves, Lycanthropes or Man-Wolves appear in many German, French and Scandinavian stories. Nowadays there exists an image of these creatures, which combines almost all the aspects of the werewolf-myths around the world, that was brought to us by Hollywood. By means of the legendary disinterest and the demonstrative ignorance towards European culture and folklore there was created an image of a dangerous monster in the dreamfactory of California.

The modern werewolf is a man which was either bitten by a werewolf or has an ancestor with this disease. Werewolves live among us and change into wolves at full moon. They are stronger and faster than any man, are covered with fur and their teeth and fingernails elongate during these nights just to get back to normal when the night is over. These werewolves hunt men and celebrate feasts in full moon nights at which they eat men they have tricked to their cave. The only thing that can stop such a werewolf is a silver bullet. All other weapons are of no use.

Together with vampires and mummies the werewolves had many appearances in cheap horror flicks since this genre was born. But this image of a werewolf is quite new and has its roots partly in legends that have been told in Germany and France since the Medieval. In this essay I would like to give an account of the stories which led to the invention of such a monster.

Shape shifters have a long tradition in most peoples around the world. Even in the first epic, as it is often called, the epic of Gilgamesh of ancient Babylon, Gilgamesh, a king of Uruk blames the goddess Ishtar of having changed a shepherd into a wolf. Though this is most likely to be a metaphor, it clearly contains the changing into a wolf: You loved the Shepherd, the Master Herder, who continually presented you with bread baked in embers, and who daily slaughtered for you a kid. Yet you struck him, and turned him into a wolf, so his own shepherds now chase him and his own dogs snap at his shins. (Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet VI)

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See also How the Byzantines dealt with Werewolves

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