Werewolves explained – from ancient legends to Hollywood!

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 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 Beserkers and Ulfhednar

Not surprising that if imitating wild animals while shrieking and slaying was the order of the day – then the Vikings were almost bound to be involved. Beserkers wore bear skins and Ulfhednar opted 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 Beserker style – so this may be an accurate claim!

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.

Top Roman movies of all time!

The Roman Empire at the movies has often been great box office. Think Spartacus or Gladiator. Though there have been some box office stinkers too!

From the silent movie era to the CGI laden epics of modern cinema, the Roman Empire has always provided great material for film makers. Rome has gone in and out of fashion but the lure of sword and sandals means it’s always coming back again like a cinematic boomerang.

So – from the early days to our own time – here are the classic Roman movies!

ROMAN MOVIES: The silent era

In the early days of cinema, the Romans on the silver screen were voiceless. The talkies had yet to arrive so there was no audible clash of swords or trundling of chariot wheels. Nevertheless, Rome still gripped audiences. It was always good box office!

The Italian film industry got in early with The Last Days of Pompeii in 1913 – a feature length love story that ends with an erupting Neapolitan volcano. Italian directors never needed a second invitation to make movies about ancient Rome. And the Cinecitta movie studio built under the Mussolini dictatorship has provided convincing Roman backdrops for decades.

The 1913 movie is all about the final days of the Roman city of Pompeii, before the buildings and people of that ancient metropolis were incinerated by spewing lava and fumes from mount Vesuvius in AD 79.  The plot is quite operatic and of course the audience realise that many of the characters will be toast in about 90 minutes. But for its time – a compelling piece of cinema.

Ben Hur – a story written over 130 years ago – has gone through five movie versions of varying quality.  It’s based on a 19th century novel by the US civil war Union general Lew Wallace. The story’s hero is Judah Ben Hur who falls out with his boyhood Roman friend Messala who allows his Jewish buddy to be framed for a crime he didn’t commit.

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Ben Hur eventually gets his revenge by defeating Messala in a chariot race that leaves the nasty Roman mangled and dying. Redemption and happiness returns to Ben Hur when he accepts Christ – who he sees being crucified.

There are two amazing movie versions that I thoroughly recommend. The 1925 silent movie with Ramon Novarro in the lead is beautiful. It’s like art deco meeting ancient Rome.

Charlton Heston took the main role in the subsequent 1959 classic that was deservedly showered with Oscars and is still stunning today. In marked contrast, the 2016 movie is a gigantic turkey that should be avoided at all costs.

ROMAN MOVIES: Golden age of sword and sandals

The 1940s and 1950s were a golden age for sword and sandals biblical epics and ancient Rome featured heavily. 1951 saw Quo Vadis  – setting meek and mild Christian heroes against the capricious and evil emperor Nero. It assumed an audience steeped in the kind of Sunday school bible learning that you wouldn’t find in our more secular times – as well as an awareness of the finer details of Roman history.

Then there was Spartacus – a superior example of the genre directed by the legendary Stanley Kubrick. It tells the story of a huge slave revolt that really happened in the closing years of the Roman Republic – before it became the Empire.

The cast includes Kirk Douglas as the slave hero. Tony Curtis as his sidekick. Laurence Olivier as the Roman general Crassus. And Charles Laughton as Gracchus.

In this scene below, Crassus has defeated the rebel slave army. He asks which of the slaves is Spartacus so that he can punish the audacious rebel. In a very moving scene, one slave after another claims to be Spartacus. Watch and weep!

By the mid-1960s, the sword and sandals bubble finally burst. The movie Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton soared over budget. The scenes were opulent and jaw dropping with vast numbers of extras and gargantuan studio sets – but the returns to the studio were too thin. Rome had got too bloated for its own good.

ROMAN MOVIES: The Empire Strikes Back!

For the next 35 years, the Romans were put up on a high shelf and sort of forgotten. As far as Hollywood was concerned, the Roman Empire was past its sell-by date. But then in 2000, UK director Ridley Scott bravely resurrected the imperial glory with his movie Gladiator.

For those of us yearning for some swords and some sandals on the big screen again, this was a miracle. When it premiered, I went to see it three times without being bored once. It’s still a remarkably watchable movie. Tightly scripted and with inspired casting. Russell Crowe’s brooding Antipodean growling suited the lead character. And I loved the campy performance from the late Oliver Reed.

It’s a genuinely good film and you can tell because there are so many memorable lines.