Creatures of the Night


Unlike the vampire, werewolves are not members of the undead who promise everlasting life in exchange for a little bite on the neck. When werewolves are in their human form, they can walk about tranquil forest paths or bustling city streets appearing as ordinary as anyone on his or her way to work or shopping. They needn't fear the scorching rays of the rising sun. They have no use for a coffin in which to sleep during the daylight hours. They have no dread of mirrors that may not show their reflection. Crucifixes don't distress them in the least, and they themselves would probably use garlic for seasoning.

Contrary to the legend popularized by Hollywood horror films, one does not undergo a painful transformation into a wolf after being bitten or scratched by a werewolf. According to the ancient traditions, those who became werewolves were generally of two types: 1) Power-hungry sorcerers who deliberately sought the ability to shapeshift into the form of a wolf through an application of black magic so that they might more effectively rob or attack their victims. Those who became werewolves through incantations, potions, or spells took evil delight in their savage strength and their ability to strike fear into the hearts of all those whom they encountered. 2) Innocent men or women who ran afoul of a sorcerer who had vengefully placed a curse of lupine transformation upon them. Those innocents who had become werewolves against their will may have been filled with disgust at their acts of slashing, ripping, and often ingesting the flesh of their human victims, but they were powerless to resist such gruesome and murderous desires while they remained under the spell that had been placed upon them.

According to a number of ancient magical texts, one of the methods by which one might willingly become a werewolf was to disrobe and to rub completely over one's naked body an ointment made of the fat of a freshly killed animal and a special mixture of herbs. The person who wished to accomplish the lupine transformation should also wear a belt made of human or wolf skin around the waist, then cover his or her body with the pelt of a wolf. To accelerate the process of shapeshifting, the apprentice werewolf should drink beer mixed with blood and recite an ancient magical incantation.

The prefix were in Old English means "man," so coupled with wolf, it designates a creature that can alter its appearance from human to beast and become a "man wolf." In French, the werewolf is known asloup garou; in Spanish, hombre lobo; Italian, lupo manaro; Portuguese, lobizon or lobo home; Polish, wilkolak; Russian, olkolka or volkulaku; and in Greek, brukolakas.

Native American tribes tell of bear-people, wolf-people, fox-people, and so forth, and state that in the beginning of things, humans were as animals and animals as humans. Stories of women who gave birth to werecreatures are common among the North American tribal myths. Early cultures throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa formed totem clans and often worshipped minor deities that were half-human, half-animal. Norse legends tell about hairy, humanlike beings that live in the underworld caves and come out at night to feast on the flesh of unfortunate surface dwellers. To the people of the Middle Ages, there was little question that such creatures as werewolves truly existed, and the Inquisition was certain to include these demonic entities in their arrests.

Switzerland can lay claim to the first official execution of werewolves, when in 1407,

A werewolf from the 1980 film "The Howling." (THE KOBAL COLLECTION)
A werewolf from the 1980 film "The Howling." (
several individuals so accused were tortured and burned in Basel; but the inquisitors in France have the dubious distinction of recording the most cases of werewolfism in all of Europe—30,000 between 1520 and 1630. The werewolf trials began at Poligny in 1521 when, after enduring the torture chamber, three men admitted to consorting with she-wolves and demons in order to gain the power to transform themselves into wolves—then they confessed to having killed and devoured many small children over a 19-year period. They were summarily burned at the stake.

The famous case of Gilles Garnier, who was executed as a werewolf at Dole, France, in 1573, provides grim details of attacks on numerous children, in which Garnier used his hands and teeth to kill and to cannibalize his young victims. In view of the heinous crimes and Garnier's confession that he was a werewolf, the court was quick to decree that he should be executed and his body burned and reduced to ashes.

The infamous werewolf Peter Stubbe of Cologne revealed that he possessed a magic belt that could instantly transform him into a wolf. To return to human form, he had but to remove the belt. Although the authorities never found his magical werewolf belt, they beheaded him for his crimes in 1589.

According to testimony in the case against Jacques Roulet in 1598, a group of hunters came upon two wolves devouring the body of a 15-year-old boy. Since they were well-armed, the men pursued the wolves and were astonished to see the pawprints slowly becoming more humanlike. At last, they tracked down and apprehended a tall, gaunt man with long matted hair and beard, barely clothed in filthy rags, his hands red with blood and his long nails clotted with human flesh. The loathsome creature identified himself as a vagabond named Jacques Roulet, who with his brother and a cousin possessed a salve that enabled them to assume the form of wolves. Together, the three werewolves claimed to have attacked, killed, and eaten many children in various parts of the countryside.

Sometimes it becomes difficult to establish the line of demarcation that separates legendary accounts of werewolves and other wereanimals devouring human victims from the early historical records of savage human predators ambushing their victims by night. In the Middle Ages, large bands of beggars and brigands roamed the European countrysides after dark, often dressed in wolfskins and howling like a pack of wolves on the hunt. In the rural areas of France, Germany, Lower Hungary, Estonia, and other countries, these nocturnal marauders were called "werewolves." The old Norwegian counterpart to werewolf is vargulf, literally translated as "rogue wolf," referring to an outlaw who separates himself from society. In addition to these human wolf packs that preyed upon isolated farmers and small villages, historical records are replete with illustrations of ancient warriors who went into battle wearing the skins of wild animals, hoping that the ferocity and strength of the beasts would magically rub off on them. Most often, in the Northern European tribes, the fierce animal of choice was the wolf or the bear.

In ancient Scandinavia, the Norse words ulfhedhnar ("wolf-clothed") and berwerker refer to the wolf or bear skins worn by the fierce Viking warriors when they went "berserk," war-mad, and fought with the fury of vicious animals against opponents. In the Slavonic languages, the werewolf is called vlukodlak, which translates to "wolf-haired" or "wolfskinned," once again suggesting the magical transference desired from wearing the skin of a brave animal into battle.

Interestingly, the popular conception that one becomes a werewolf after having been bitten or scratched by such a creature of the night originated not in ancient tradition but in the motion picture The Wolf Man (1941). Such werewolf deterrents as sprigs of garlic, wolf bane, and the deadly silver bullet were also created for classic werewolf stories from Frankenstein Meets the Werewolf (1943) to An American Werewolf in Paris (1997). Even the ancient "gyspy folklore" repeated by Ankers, the heroine in The Wolf Man, was created by Siodmak: "Even a man who's pure in heart and says his prayers at night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright."

Just as certain humans imagine themselves to be vampires, others believe themselves to shapeshift into wolves. Psychologists recognize a werewolf psychosis (lycanthropy or lupinomanis) in which persons so afflicted may believe that they change into a wolf at the full moon. Those who are so disturbed may actually "feel" their fur growing, their fingernails becoming claws, their jaw lengthening, their canine teeth elongating. In their paper "A Case of Lycanthropy," published in the American Journal of Psychiatry in 1977, psychiatrist Harvey Rosenstock and psychologist Kenneth Vincent discussed the case history of a 49-year-old woman who received daily psychotherapy and antipsychotic drugs and who still perceived herself as a wolfwoman with claws, teeth, and fangs. Medical personnel would manage to get the woman under control until the next full moon—when she would snarl, howl, and resume her wolflike behavior. Rosenstock and Vincent stated that the woman was eventually discharged and provided with antipsychotic medication, but she declared that she would haunt graveyards until she had found the male werewolf of her dreams.

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Creatures of the Night forum