What you always wanted to know about werewolves: Werewolf legends and myths beyond the movies

Woodcut illustration of a werewolf, c. 1512
Woodcut illustration of a werewolf, c. 1512

Shape shifter. Lycanthrope. Loup-garou. It goes by many names, but they all mean the same thing – werewolf.

Stories of people changing into animals exist in almost every culture going back thousands of years, but for westerners, the wolf seems to be the most common legend by far. It's certainly the one that has had the biggest effect on modern pop culture.

The werewolf legend is so old that even the origin of the name is impossible to pinpoint, other than it seems to come from a combination of the words for 'man' and 'wolf.' The word for man is almost identical in many of the old languages – wer in Old English and High German, wair in Gothic, veir in Old Norse. Since the word wolf or wulf also appears across these languages, it would probably be more surprising if the name werewolf didn't seem almost universal.

Of course, far more important than what to call one of these creatures is how to recognize one. Luckily, there are a number of tell-tale signs to help identify werewolves.

Werewolves are fond of eating extremely rare or raw meat, even when in human form. Several werewolf signs can be found by looking at the hands. Suspect a werewolf when the index and middle fingers are the same length, if the fingernails are curved like claws or if there is hair on the palms.

There are other physical signs that point to a werewolf. For instance, it is said that if a werewolf is cut, its fur will be visible within the open wound. According to Russian tradition, bristly fur can be seen under the werewolf's tongue. Unfortunately, identifying a werewolf in this manner might require closer contact than is really desirable.

Modern books and movies are poor sources of information about werewolves. At the very least, popular fiction tends to take liberties with tradition, and often invents its werewolf lore out of whole cloth. Many of our modern notions about werewolves trace back not to ancient traditions, but to the series of Wolfman movies in the 1940s starring Lon Chaney Jr.

In the movies, Chaney plays hapless Larry Talbot, who is bitten by a werewolf, and so turned into a werewolf himself. But involuntary werewolves are rare. Traditionally, a suspicious eye was cast on anyone born during a full moon, on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Someone might become a werewolf as a result of being cursed by a saint, or as a consequence of excommunication, but the 'curse of the werewolf' cannot be passed on with a bite.

German werewolf woodcut, c. 1722
German werewolf woodcut, c. 1722

Putting aside the movie notion of the full moon, most werewolves have control over the transformation. The change is not caused by a full moon, but usually comes about if the person removes his or her clothing and dons a belt made of wolfskin or the pelt itself. The transformation may also be brought about through the use of magic salves or incantations, or drinking from an enchanted stream or a wolf's footprint.

Werewolves don't possess supernatural powers. They don't have super speed or strength, and they aren't affected by religious artifacts, although some legends say that mistletoe, mountain ash or wolfsbane can act as deterrents. In fact, werewolves are no more difficult to kill than any other animal. The much-loved notion of the silver bullet is a modern invention. It was unheard of until the 19th century, and popularized by the movies.

While werewolves can easily be killed, it's debatable whether they can be cured of their affliction. Some stories hold that a werewolf can be cured by hitting it on the forehead with a knife. In medieval Europe, a form of exorcism or de-enchantment was sometimes recommended. The Church, not surprisingly, suggested conversion to Christianity. But in general, it is believed that since werewolves are in complete control of their transformation, they cannot be cured by others.

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Hello, hello, 5 years ago from London, UK

Great research and very interesting information. Thank you. I thoroughly enjoyed reading about these details.

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