Werewolves are one of the most feared and fascinating creatures in fiction and folklore (especially on dark nights, at the end of my garden, during a full moon). They have intrigued for centuries, and have inspired countless stories, movies, and games. But where did the idea of werewolves come from, and how did they evolve over time? Dive into the werewolf hole -the more I read that, the wronger it sounds- I did some research for my TikTok vids and figured I’d share the history, traits, powers, and folklore here that I didn’t share there. The videos are more about the monsters in Noctisbellum, after all.
What are werewolves?
A werewolf is a mythical creature that can transform from a human into a wolf or a wolf-like hybrid, usually during a full moon. We also know werewolves as lycanthropes, from the Greek words lykos (wolf) and anthropos (human). Werewolves are often depicted as savage, powerful, and bloodthirsty beasts that prey on humans and animals. With fur, claws, fangs, and glowing eyes, they can heal quickly from wounds. They are also said to have superhuman strength, speed, and senses, and some can communicate telepathically or control the weather. However, werewolves also have weaknesses, such as silver, wolfsbane, fire, or a severed head (same for everyone really).
Where did the idea of werewolves come from?
The idea of werewolves dates back to ancient times, when people believed in spirits and magic that could alter the shape and nature of humans and animals. One of the earliest accounts of werewolves is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known Western prose, when Gilgamesh rejected the goddess Ishtar because she had turned her previous lover into a wolf. Werewolves also appeared in Greek mythology, such as the legend of Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus as a punishment for serving him human flesh, or the story of Arcas, who was almost killed by his mother Callisto, who had been transformed into a bear by Hera.
Other cultures also have their own versions of werewolves, such as the Norse ulfhednar (wolf warriors), the Celtic faoladh (wolf guardians), the Native American skinwalkers (evil shapeshifters), the African bouda (hyena men), and the Asian kitsune (fox spirits). Some of these creatures are not necessarily evil, but rather protectors, healers, or tricksters. Some of these creatures can also change into other animals, such as bears, cats, or birds.
Werewolves in Europe
Werewolves became more widespread in Europe during the Middle Ages, when superstition, religion, and fear dominated the society. People often blamed werewolves for the mysterious deaths of livestock, crops, or humans, and accused them of being in league with the devil. Many legends and stories emerged, such as the tale of Bisclavret, a nobleman who turned into a wolf every week and was betrayed by his wife, or the saga of the Werewolf of Poligny, a hermit who confessed to being a werewolf and was burned at the stake.
One of the most famous examples of werewolves in Europe is the case of the Beast of Gévaudan, a large wolf-like creature that terrorized the province of Gévaudan in France between 1764 and 1767. The beast killed over 100 people, and was hunted by thousands of soldiers, hunters, and volunteers. A hunter named Jean Chastel, who used a silver bullet, eventually killed the beast. The identity and nature of the beast remain a mystery.
Werewolves in Literature and Media
The first literary work that featured a werewolf was the Latin poem Satyricon (c. 1st century AD) by Petronius, which included a scene where a soldier named Niceros witnessed his friend transform into a wolf and back. The first English work that mentioned a werewolf was the poem Bisclavret (c. 12th century) by Marie de France, which was based on the Breton legend of the same name. And the first modern novel that focused on werewolves was The Werewolf of Paris (1933) by Guy Endore, which was a historical fiction that incorporated the events of the French Revolution and the Commune of Paris.
Werewolves also became popular in movies, especially in the horror genre. Some of the most notable movies that feature werewolves are The Wolf Man (1941), a film by George Waggner, which starred Lon Chaney Jr. as the tragic Larry Talbot, who was bitten by a werewolf and became one himself; An American Werewolf in London (1981), a film by John Landis, which starred David Naughton as a tourist attacked by a werewolf and turned into one, while being haunted by the ghost of his friend (and we all know this is the source of my weird fear of werewolves); The Howling (1981), a film by Joe Dante, which starred Dee Wallace as a reporter stalked by a serial killer who was also a werewolf; and The Twilight Saga (2008-2012), a series of films based on the novels by Stephenie Meyer, which starred Taylor Lautner as Jacob Black, a werewolf who was in love with a human girl.
Some of the most popular and original works that feature werewolves are The Wolfen (1978) by Whitley Strieber, which was a novel that introduced the concept of a secret race of intelligent and ancient wolves that lived among humans; The Company of Wolves (1984), a film by Neil Jordan, which was a dark and erotic adaptation of the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, with werewolves as a metaphor for sexuality and puberty; Bitten (2001) by Kelley Armstrong, which was the first novel in the Women of the Otherworld series, which followed the adventures of Elena Michaels, the only female werewolf in the world; and The Wolf Among Us (2013), a video game by Telltale Games, which was a prequel to the comic book series Fables by Bill Willingham, which featured werewolves and other fairy tale characters living in a secret community in New York.
Facts and myths
They’re up for debate, obviously:
- Fact: Werewolves are not real. There is no scientific or historical evidence that proves the existence of werewolves. However, there are some medical conditions that can cause werewolf-like symptoms, such as hypertrichosis, which is a rare disease that causes excessive hair growth all over the body; or clinical lycanthropy, which is a psychological disorder that makes people believe they are animals.
- Myth: Werewolves can only transform during a full moon. This is a common misconception that stems from the association of the moon with madness and magic. However, not all legends and stories link werewolves to the lunar cycle, and some werewolves can change at will or under other circumstances, such as a curse, a potion, or a ritual.
- Fact: Werewolves have different names and characteristics in different cultures. As mentioned earlier, there are many variations of werewolves in different myths and folklore, and each one has its own name and traits.
- Myth: Werewolves are vulnerable to silver. This is another common misconception that stems from the legend of the Beast of Gévaudan, who was supposedly killed by a silver bullet. However, not all legends and stories mention silver as a weakness for werewolves, and other means can kill some werewolves.
Werewolves have captivated and scared people for centuries. Including mine, if you hadn’t noticed, and was a large part of the reason I wrote Moon. Although my werewolves are very closely linked with a certain Romanian vampire.
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Horror and Fantasy Author – Also writing as K.T. McQueen. Love Western Horror, cowboy boots, my cactus Collin, & my Demon Cat.
Moths – I hate moths, the way they flutter at your face!