From Ancient Greek and Hindu mythology to the Vikings and medieval France and down to modern times – werewolves have enjoyed a long history. The idea of these half-human/half-wolf creatures that are capable of tearing innocent people to pieces. Transforming themselves, shape shifting from an ordinary person to a lupine monster.
So what is a werewolf? Well, somebody transformed into a werewolf still has the intelligence of a human being but combined lethally with the ferocity of a wolf and the strength of a demon. In other words, a werewolf isn’t just any old wolf. But something especially dangerous.
There’s a long standing fear in European culture of wolves attacking humans, which we can see in the cautionary fairy story: Little Red Riding Hood. Yet the evidence suggests that attacks on humans by wolves are exceedingly rare. Some argue, almost non-existent unless the wolf has contracted rabies.
What has most likely happened throughout history is that wolves have been found scavenging the corpse of somebody who has died of other causes – heart attack, murder, etc. And the sight of a wolf or wolves ripping apart a dead body has excited all the wrong conclusions.
Yet the stories of werewolf attacks have been surprisingly persistent.
DISCOVER: A real-life werewolf in England
Sabine Baring-Gould and the history of werewolves
In 1865, the Anglican cleric and author Sabine Baring-Gould published a very comprehensive history of these horrific creatures: The Book of Werewolves. Baring-Gould was a prolific writer whose output went from mainstream Christianity to the occult. Aside from his book about werewolves, he also penned the hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers.
Herodotus and the Neurians
In his acclaimed work on werewolves, the unassuming vicar gathered a ghoulish collection of werewolf stories from across history. He referenced an account by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus who claimed that the Neuri people – believed to have lived in north-eastern Europe 2,500 years ago – were said to become wolves once a year.
Baring-Gold also mentioned the Rākṣasa – a kind of lupine demon in Hindu mythology that shape shifts between human, wolf and other forms. These demi-gods could be a force for good or evil – though evil seems to have been their forte. Duplicity was also a typical characteristic of the Rākṣasa.
The Saxon Wolfhead
In Saxon England, somebody declared to be an outlaw became a ‘wolfhead’: “He shall be driven away as a wolf, and chased so far as men chase wolves farthest”. An outlaw was placed outside of society and it was the duty of all law-abiding subjects of the kingdom to catch or kill that person. They had forfeited all the rights of an ordinary human being. If you want, they were reduced legally to the status of a wild animal.
Baring-Gould described the way in which warriors would wear animals skins in order to absorb the strength of a bear or a wolf. The Vikings in particular warmed to this idea. But in the medieval period, while the idea of wearing a skin to become an animal persisted, so did the curious notion that some people had what I can only describe as inside-out skins. Put another way, they were growing hair internally while presenting a smooth skin surface most of the time.
But at a whim, their skin turned inside out and suddenly you were presented with a werewolf!
The Werewolf of Chalons – and other French werewolves
If any country has been prone to werewolf manias, then it has to be France. Between the years 1520 and 1630, there is a French Werewolf Epidemic. For example, the so-called Werewolf of Châlons. He was a local tailor accused of murdering fifty children. He strenuously denied the charges though barrels full of small human bones were found at his workplace along with shallow graves in the backyard.
While in custody he experienced episodes of foaming at the mouth, which of course was interpreted as lycanthropy. It seems possible that the man was a deranged serial killer of children and the evidence – if true – would be very compelling today. But this being the year 1598, his ability to become a wolf had to also be proven. Fortunately for the authorities, at least one witness came forward to state they’d definitely seen the tailor transform into a wolf. He was then burned to death as a witch.
As late as the mid-18th century, France experienced The Beast of Gévaudan – a werewolf that accounted for several fatalities and serious injuries. King Louis XV sent one of his best hunters to go and kill the wolf. He brought back an impressive carcass of some wild animals which was stuffed and put on show at the royal palace at Versailles. Sadly the killings started once more, so that exhibit was discreetly thrown away. Eventually, a large wolf-like animal was killed and when cut open, was found to have human remains in its stomach.
Nazi Werewolves at the end of World War Two
At the end of World War Two as the Third Reich was crumbling and the Nazis faced defeat – an order was issued to support pro-Hitler units in parts of Germany that had fallen to Allied forces. These guerrilla units were referred to as ‘werewolves’. In April 1945, the Nazi-controlled Trans-Ocean news agency described werewolves as “wild beings who hide in the forest and pounce on all God’s creatures”.
The analogy to these informal Nazi units was obvious. But just in case anybody didn’t get the point, Trans-Ocean’s press release to global media continued: “Werewolves are the standard bearers of a fanatical struggle which must be waged with fanatical resolution. The werewolves must become the symbol of the struggle for liberation from the foreign invaders.” The “childish rules of so-called decent bourgeois warfare” were to be jettisoned by the werewolves.
Well – the werewolves failed. The Third Reich was toppled. And Hitler blew his brains out.
Do wolves attack humans?
The simple is that yes they do. But very rarely. And in the majority of cases, the reasons can be divided up into: Rabies – where diseased wolves have gone on the rampage. Habituation – where wolves have lost their fear of humans and even regarded them as a food source. Provocation – where a wolf has felt cornered or under threat.
Shortage of food can possibly lead wolves to attack humans – such as children working on the land. Wolves also have been known to attack and kill domestic dogs and a human might be savaged defending his beloved pet.
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