What are the origins of the Werewolf myth? This strange story of cursed people unable to resist transforming into a wolf at the Full Moon – with the consequent murderous rampage. Why is this monster so enduring and if anything, more popular than ever? It came as a surprise to me to discover a literary genre termed ‘werewolf erotica’ and all that teen-focussed TV content featuring our lupine friends. Werewolves need to be explained so here goes!
Before I continue – do watch this video I’ve just made on the topic with lots of clips from movies and information about the development of the werewolf story in literature. Especially why so many werewolves have been women.
FIND OUT MORE: More examples of werewolves in history
The werewolf in Greek mythology
The first recorded werewolf story I could find – and reassured to include as a werewolf tale – was that of King Lycaon of Arcadia (also spelt Lykson of Arkadia if somebody could clarify the spelling) who served up a dish of human flesh to Zeus when the king of the Gods paid him a visit. Zeus was unamused. So unhappy in fact that he unleashed a flood that destroyed human civilisation and also condemned Lycaon to become a wolf doomed to eat any flesh that crossed his path. Including human of course.
This story is disturbing on many levels. It not only involves lycanthropy – believing you’re a wolf – but human sacrifice and a possible vindication of the global flood story in the Bronze Age that pops up in many myths and the Bible. The tale of Lycaon and his ill-advised hubris is told by the racy Roman poet, Ovid. He delighted in the details of the monarch’s downfall and being reduced to scrabbling around on all fours for meat.
Lycaon had clearly sacrificed a human being – possibly one of his own many sons – in order to provide Zeus with a meal. According to Plato and a later Greek writer, Pausanias, a curious ritual was held annually in the kingdom forever after involving a young noble transforming into a wolf by a lake. There was also the suggestion that human sacrifice was still being practised in this area as late as the 2nd century AD.
Werewolves Explained – Viking Berserkers and Ulfhednar
The Vikings may have had their own variant of werewolf. An elite group of warrior dedicated to the God Odin who went into drug fuelled trances on the battlefield. They seemed to imitate wild animals, shrieking and slaying as they went. The Berserkers wore bear skins while the Ulfhednar went for wolf skin.
Both groups of warriors had such an insatiable appetite for bloodshed that before a battle they were said to bite their shields furiously, attack trees, and even kill a few people on their own side while warming up for the fighting ahead. The famous Lewis chess set – dating back to the Viking period – has a knight who is biting his shield Berserker style.
Some scientists believe the Viking Berserkers were under the influence of magic mushrooms – Amanita Muscaria to be precise. Others believe that the way these Berserkers behaved is in more in line with somebody under the influence of Hyoscyamus Niger or black henbane as it’s better known, which originates from the Mediterranean. So in order to become demented werewolves in battle, it seems the Vikings had to import their drug of choice – or it had been imported to be grown locally for that use.
Werewolves Explained – lycanthropy in the bible?
As I mention in the film here, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar is said to have turned into a wild animal and was sent away from his people during these phases of madness. Whether he actually transformed or believed he was a different creature is not exactly satisfactorily explained in the Book of Daniel. He appears to have suffered from either lycanthropy or ‘boanthropy’, because he’s described as an ox as opposed to a wolf in one verse of scripture.
This is the relevant passage in the bible:
‘While the word was still in the king’s mouth, a voice fell from heaven: “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom has departed from you! And they shall drive you from men, and your dwelling shall be with the beasts of the field. They shall make you eat grass like oxen; and seven times shall pass over you, until you know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, and gives it to whomever He chooses.”
That very hour the word was fulfilled concerning Nebuchadnezzar; he was driven from men and ate grass like oxen; his body was wet with the dew of heaven till his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.‘
The brilliant illustrator William Blake depicted Nebuchadnezzar in his bestial state.
Werewolves Explained – the boy wolves of India
The wolf boy (and girl) phenomenon has been reported for millennia. Right back to the myth of Romulus and Remus, babies suckled by a she-wolf who went on to found the city of Rome. Over the last 150 years, India has become a focal point for these stories. In 1867, a feral boy named Dina Sanichar was found living with wolves in the state of Uttar Pradesh at a time when India was under British colonial rule. His story is often cited as a major influence on the author Rudyard Kipling and his bestselling novel, The Jungle Book – later animated by Walt Disney.
In 1954 and 1976, two other wolf boys were discovered in India – exciting global media interest. The latter child was a baby when found and ended up in an orphanage run by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Shockingly to my view, he died at the age of ten in 1985.