Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Where Wolf? There Wolf. The History of the Werewolf by L. A. Kelley

Where Wolf? There Wolf. The History of the Werewolf.

Everyone knows the origin story of the werewolf. Some poor schlub is bitten by what he or she thinks is a large dog but then during the next full moon voila, a monster is born. That’s the movie version. After the release of Universal’s The Wolfman in 1941 everyone assumed the story was based on an old legend, but it all spilled from the imagination of screenwriter, Curt Siodmak. The curse transferred by a bite? Transformation only under the light of a full moon? Death by a silver bullet? Not an ancient legend. It was all Curt and, in my opinion, he did a darn fine job.

Before 1941, the wolfman wasn’t part of popular culture. However, there are countless myths and fables about animal transformation, including wolves. Some are punishment, but some transform willingly. The ancient Babylonians sat around the campfire swapping tales from the Epic of Gilgamesh in about 2100 BC. The hero Gilgamesh, in a fit of pique jilted a potential lover because she had turned her previous mate into a wolf. There’s no evidence he didn’t enjoy it. The Greek historian, Herodotus wrote about the Neuri, a nomadic tribe of magical men who changed into wolf shapes for several days of the year, but not necessarily during the full moon. They weren’t savages, just different, and happy to be that way. The first description of a man into wolf was written by the scholar Ovid. A man, Lycaon, angered Zeus and was turned into a wolf as a punishment.

He tried to speak, but his voice broke into

an echoing howl. His ravening soul infected his jaws;

his murderous longings were turned on the cattle; he still was possessed

by bloodlust. His garments were changed to a shaggy coat and his arms

into legs. He was now transformed into a wolf. 

Wolf transformation stories appeared where wolves were plentiful such as the Norse lands and Baltic regions but it wasn’t all bad. In the Saga of the Volsungs, a father and son discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. (No full moon required.) After transforming, they went on a killing rampage in the forest. The father attacked his son, causing a lethal wound, but the son survived because a kind raven gave the father a magic feather. All’s well. No silver bullet needed.

Since the werewolf’s condition is often associated with a curse, the poor werewolf was often thought to be as much a victim as a villain. Many of the legends of people turning savage were no doubt due to mental illness. Without the knowledge brought by modern medicine and psychiatry, a sudden onslaught of violence and  irrational behavior was often attributed to demons, a curse, or other forms of magic, but there are rational explanations. Hypertrichosis is a rare, genetic disorder that causes excessive hair growth. While diseases such as rabies or ingestion of certain plants can cause hallucinations and violent behavior. Doctors in the Middle Ages would offer cures to people who thought they were afflicted. Often the emetics, bloodletting, and vile concoctions patients ingested caused more problems rather than helping.

Expect a werewolf problem in your neighborhood on Halloween? Try the following. The Greeks and Romans believed in the power of exhaustion. The victim would be subjected to long periods of physical activity, while the ancient Danes believed merely scolding a werewolf, cured the affliction. So run that puppy around the block a few times and give it a “Bad dog” or two. 

L. A. Kelley writes science fiction and fantasy novels with humor, romance and a touch of sass. With no need for a silver bullet, she made it into a tasteful necklace.

1 comment:

Diane Burton said...

What fascinating information! I love learning about the origins for what we think of as paranormal or fantasy characters. That screenwriter sure had a great imagination.