allegory, anarchy, Berserkers, bitten, classics, criminal, curse, delinquency, Devil, film, folk lore, folktales, forest, full moon, fury, God, hallucinogens, Herodotus, hooliganism, hypertrichosis, infection, literature, Luna, Lupa, lycanthrope, lycanthropy, Madness, menstruation, metamorphosis, Norse, Ovid, Pausanius, pentagram, Petronius, Pliny the Elder, pornography, prostitute, psychiatric illness, puberty, scratched, sexual, symbolism, transformation, tranvestitism, Viking, Virgil, werecats, werejaguars, werelions, weretigers, werewolves, witches
Werewolves! Where does one start?! These supernatural creatures have as vast and varied a history as vampires, probably even more so. Early tales of transformation from man to wolf, can be read in the classical literature of Herodotus, Pausanius, Ovid, Virgil, Pliny the Elder and Petronius.
Depending on which part of the world you live in, the curse of the werewolf is either given by God or the Devil. Also, depending on which part of the world you live in, humans may metamorphose into any number of creatures. In Europe, and subsequently Canada via Viking migration, America via European migration, Haiti via French migration etc, wolves are the most likely were-animal. Were-cats are also mentioned in the texts. In Europe they are mostly associated with witches, whereas in Africa and Asia they are mostly associated with big cats – weretigers and werelions. Werejaguars are also mentioned in the Americas. In Thailand, there are even folk tales of werecrocodiles!
There seems to generally be a big difference between werewolves of film and werewolves of literature. For example, in film werewolves are most often infected or cursed from being bitten or scratched by another werewolf. In literature, they are cursed through a pact with the Devil, parentage or because they have a psychiatric illness (lycanthropy); also, in literature, religious symbols are usually no protection whereas, for example, a pentagram was used in the film An American Werewolf in London. Traditionally used as a symbol for protection, it is often misunderstood to mean something Satanic. In later (20th century) literature, the silver bullet was added as a means of killing a werewolf. Prior to that, wolfsbane and exorcism were often tried on people believed to be lycanthropes.
From the original texts to current visual storytelling, it should by now be obvious that werewolves represent many varied things, and I’m not going to get too arsy about the differences because as I see it, most stories evolve and metamorphose themselves in the process. Plus, films have to be written by someone before being put on the screen….
It has been suggested that rabies is one origin of werewolf beliefs. It’s a great hypothesis, and there are several aspects of infection and symptom that would suggest this theory is correct. Even though being bitten and infected was a later addition, and not present in origin myths and legends, the infection does curse the victim to a state of madness and is also often associated with canines.
Another possibility for the origins of the werewolf legends lies with the medical condition hypertrichosis. This condition is caused by a genetic mutation of chromosomes, as well as various diseases such as cancer and anorexia. In the most severe cases, the face and body are covered in thick hair, giving a very animalistic appearance. In days gone by, people who suffered from this condition often ended up in circus shows, labelled with such names as “Wolf Man”.
Thirdly, The Berserkers, were Viking warriors described in Old Norse literature who dressed in wolf and bear skins. They were said to enter an almost uncontrollable, trance-like fury, thought by some historians to be induced by drugs. In one saga, they are described as being “tasters of blood”. Their fit of madness is described here:
This fury, which was called berserkergang, occurred not only in the heat of battle, but also during laborious work. Men who were thus seized performed things which otherwise seemed impossible for human power. This condition is said to have begun with shivering, chattering of the teeth, and chill in the body, and then the face swelled and changed its colour. With this was connected a great hot-headedness, which at last gave over into a great rage, under which they howled as wild animals, bit the edge of their shields, and cut down everything they met without discriminating between friend or foe. When this condition ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days.(1)
This is interesting, in that not only do the Berserkers transform in the same way as werewolves do, but they are also weak when the effects wear off, in the same way that werewolves appear to be weak when they transform back to their human form. The state of going ‘berserk’ is explored in Finding Delphi, when one of the protagonists is forced to confront his past and the guilt that remains with him because of his actions. The effects of a hallucinogen experienced by him and other protagonists in the story, cause him to shapeshift into various animals, including a wolf.
The werewolf, in storytelling, has to be some part of the human being – a part of us which is deep-rooted and potentially accessible. In some cases, it could be madness, and we have the full moon symbolism to thank for the association with the lunatic. The word luna is Latin for moon and the goddess of the moon. It is also, incidentally, the alchemical name for silver! The full moon has long been associated with psychiatric illness. It has never been proven to be anything more than a mythical link, although there is no accounting for the effect belief has on a subject. In American Werewolf in London, the unfortunate David Kessler suffers psychologically through nightmares and supposed hallucinations, after straying off the path onto the moors, disregarding the full moon and being attacked by a werewolf which kills his friend, Jack, and turns David into a werewolf. His reign of terror throughout the streets of London seems to be linked to delinquency and hooliganism, with some transvestism, anarchy and porn thrown in for comic effect. In this case, the werewolf is the parts of an eighties society that London was either uncomfortable with or did not take very seriously, possibly both. Certainly it represents the ‘Other’ in that society.
As well as furious, strange and criminal behaviour, the werewolf represents our most base instincts; our untamed wildness. It represents the animal side of our nature. It is really what is going on, or what we have the potential for, underneath our civilised exterior. Of course, this includes our sexual nature which seems to have been demonised some couple of thousand years ago…. In very ancient times, the wolf was associated with prostitution, and this is one theory for the background story of the wolf that raised Romulus and Remus, the founding brothers of Rome – that is, that Lupa may in fact have been a prostitute.
Folk tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, are full of amazing allegory, warning unsuspecting adolescent girls of the dangers of not sticking to “the path”. In the original fairytale there is a clear distinction between the safety of the village and the dangers of the forest. The tale is symbolic of an innocent female victim being lured by a dangerous male criminal from a place of safety to a place of isolation. Charles Perrault, writer of the earliest version (1697) explicitly explained the meaning of the story at the end:
From this story one learns that children, especially young lasses, pretty, courteous and well-bred, do very wrong to listen to strangers, And it is not an unheard thing if the Wolf is thereby provided with his dinner. I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous!
There is no doubt in my mind that Little Red Riding Hood is a warning to pubescent girls on the awakening of sexual maturity, the red cloak symbolising the blood of menstruation; the wolf, therefore, a sexual predator.
The literary tale was beautifully brought to life in Company of Wolves, which was an absolute dream for the discerning symbologist (yes, I know it’s a made up title – please don’t write in!). Unlike the fairytale the charismatic wolf is first encountered as a Prince Charming, later metamorphosing into a wolf. Throughout the story there are several transformations from human to wolf, introduced through other folk tales within the story. The main point, according to the old-fashioned thinking of her grandmother’s generation, is for Rosaleen (Red Riding Hood) to be wary of wandering off the path (of righteousness) as there are wicked men ready to take advantage of her. However, Rosaleen’s mother has a different attitude. Nowadays it’s okay to run off with the man (or werewolf!) you love.
I leave you with one of my favourite quotes, and the moral of the story, from Charles Perrault’s Little Red Riding Hood:
Little girls, this seems to say,
Never stop upon your way,
Never trust a stranger-friend;
No one knows how it will end.
As you’re pretty so be wise;
Wolves may lurk in every guise.
Handsome they may be, and kind,
Gay, and charming – never mind!
Now, as then, ‘tis simple truth –
Sweetest tongue has sharpest tooth!
Until next week, stick to the path and beware the moon! Your friend, A.D.
(1) Fabing, Howard D. (1956) On Going Berserk: A Neurochemical Inquiry in Scientific Monthly 83 [Nov.] 234.