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An Overview of European Werewolf Folklore

Updated on December 11, 2016
Woodcutting of a werewolf attack, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1512.
Woodcutting of a werewolf attack, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1512. | Source

Werewolves, people cursed with the ability to take on the form of wolves, have a long established tradition in modern fiction. As a part of popular culture, they are as instantly recognisable as vampires. Like with vampires, though, werewolves also have a long-running history that stretches back hundreds of years.

There seems to be a long-running tradition in many cultures around the world for particularly dangerous animals of that region to find their way into common folklore and local mythology. The most feared predators of a particular region will slowly, but surely, work their way into the tales and stories of that location. The danger they represent to the people there, and the uncertainty that the people may have about these animals, taking on an element of the supernatural. Often, too, they will be presented as taking on the form of monstrous combinations of the animals themselves, and of men - taking on the worst aspects of each, and typically displaying a malicious savagery that is uncommon among natural animals.

It seems an unlikely coincidence, after all, that myths and stories concerning werewolves, meaning anyone with the ability to transform into a true wolf or an anthropomorphised wolf-like creature, have traditionally only been told in areas were wolves themselves were a recognised and dangerous predator, and where the threat of wolf attack is very real. Similarly, it seems an unlikely coincidence that, in areas where wolves are uncommon or completely nonexistent, it is possible to find surprisingly similar stories concerning surprisingly similar creatures - the common fear of the region's most dangerous predator being, once more, projected into the local folklore. For example, stories concerning were-hyenas can be found in certain African tribes, while folklore concerning were-cats can be found across areas of Africa and Asia. The were-tiger, to provide a particular example, has a proud tradition in the folklore of India.

Regarding werewolves in particular though, there is a great deal of variation from one culture to another, despite the overt similarities that they all seem to possess. The name itself comes from the Old English words 'wer', for man, and 'wulf', for wolf – also, the German 'wehrwolf', which translates to the same. In French, the term for the creatures in folklore is 'loup-garou' – though, once again, it has the same meaning. Many similar phrases, for similar creatures, can be found in a variety of cultures across Europe. The term 'lycanthropy', which is often associated with werewolves in modern fiction, was originally derived from Ancient Greek.

There was just as much variation in the ways in which it was thought possible to become a werewolf. One common belief was that wearing a 'wolf-belt', a belt made out of wolf-skin, would allow the wearer to transform – something which seems to be an evolution of earlier tales focused on Viking 'Beserkers', who went into battle wearing the full skin of a wolf or a bear, and were thought to be able to take on aspects of those animals. It was the savagery displayed by these early Viking warriors that is believed, by some, to be an early influence on the development of werewolf folklore across Europe.

There was variation here, too, however. In some tales, possession, and use of, a wolf-belt was thought to be voluntary, while in others it was a part of a curse placed on the wearer. In some tales, the transformation was triggered at night, against the will of the wearer of the wolf-belt, while in others the transformations were entirely under the control of the wearer. Other folklore may place the cause on something else, such as drinking water from a cursed stream. And, in others, the ability to transform was believed to be hereditary, and able to be used at will.

Of particular interest though, is the fact that lycanthropy as a contagious disease that can be transmitted through a bite or scratch, which is how it is most often presented in any modern use, seems to have never had any real place in traditional folklore. It would seem more likely that this particular aspect is a much later addition to the lore, and is perhaps an addition brought about by very real concerns regarding the rabies virus.

When not transformed, it was commonly believed that there were physical cues that would allow a werewolf to be recognised. Eyebrows that meet in the middle, and curved nails, were believed to be common indicators. It was also thought that, if you were to cut a werewolf, it was possible to find traces of fur beneath the skin. In their transformed state, werewolves were most often portrayed as appearing similar to regular wolves, distinguishable only in the fact that they were larger and did not have tails. The bipedal hybrid form of creature, while occasionally used in traditional folklore, is another aspect that became more popular due to modern fiction.

Naturally, given the amount of variation in all other aspects of werewolf folklore, there was just as much to be found in possible cures. Medicinal cures, in the form of wolfs-bane, were a common feature of the folklore – as was the possibility of a surgical cure or exorcism. It should be noted, though, that whenever any of these 'cures' was attempted on a suspected werewolf, it most often resulted in death. In other traditions, it was thought possible to cure a werewolf simply by addressing them by their Christian name three times. Once again though, the aversion to silver that is often used in modern fiction seems to be a more recent invention.

Tales and folklore concerning werewolves is not limited simply to European countries though. As well as the surprisingly similar tales that have sprung up in other cultures, including those mentioned above, there is also the fact that the European tales themselves have spread out to other parts of the world. European settlers in North America and Canada, for example, brought their folklore with them, and often shared these tales with their neighbours, eventually establishing new traditions of their own. Loup-Garou tales, for example, have cropped up in areas across America and Canada that have traditionally had a strong French presence.

The one surprising commonality that can be found in all of the varied folklore concerning werewolves, though, is how little they seem to resemble the creatures of modern fiction.

© 2016 Dallas Matier

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