Werewolves explained – a terrifying history!

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.

infant saints

Infant saints with magical powers

I recently came across a Saxon infant saint called Rumwold of Buckingham who only lived for three days. But before this poor baby died, he was able to display what can only be described as magical powers. Rumwold asked to be baptised and immediately after, preached a sermon on the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.

FIND OUT MORE: Top five weird saints in the Catholic church

Apparently, the very precocious baby was able to reference heavy theological sources such as the Athanasian Creed. Not bad for somebody who hadn’t been alive for a week yet. The sermon concluded with Rumwold predicting his own death and outlining the funeral arrangements. His short life took place in the village of King’s Sutton in what is now the English county of Northamptonshire. And the chatty baby was the scion of a noble Saxon family with both pagan and Christian relatives. He died in the year 662.

There are plenty of infant saints aside from Rumwold but one that I find morbidly fascinating is Sicarius of Bethlehem. This infant saint was one of the Holy Innocents killed by King Herod, as recounted in the Nativity story. Now – I hear you ask – how could any of the Holy Innocents have died a Christian when Christ himself had only just been born? Put another way – there was no Christianity when Herod gave his notorious order so how does a baby at that time become a Christian saint?

Well, details, details. None of these inconvenient points stopped early medieval France getting very enthusiastic about his cult. From the time of Charlemagne, Sicarius was worshipped fervently and his remains were kept at an abbey in the Dordogne. How were they discovered? You ask too many questions!

DISCOVER: The history of Exorcism!

Though not a saint, Ellen Organ (1903-1908) was an Irish child whose apparent holiness was so overwhelming that Pope Pius X lowered the age for first Holy Communion from 12 to 7 years of age. “Little Nellie of Holy God” was another infant who rather implausibly was able to recite big chunks of scripture despite being obviously very young. The sickly child died of a variety of dreadful diseases from TB to whooping cough.

She was exhumed by the nuns looking after her a year following death and – of course – showed no signs of corruption. In 2015, there was some controversy over a call from a local bishop to exhume her yet again and move the body to a place where she could be venerated more easily by the faithful.

werewolf England

A real-life werewolf in England

Just after the Second World War, England experienced a series of grisly murders carried out by a man who came to be known as the Moon Killer. Showing all the characteristic traits of a werewolf, he claimed that the lunar cycles influenced his behaviour and turned him into a homicidal maniac.

Allan Whitcomb Dennis was found guilty of a series of murders after telling police that “the moon does strange things to me“. He was eventually linked to three killings in the city of Birmingham over a seventeen year period. The press dubbed him the “Moon Killer”.

A werewolf in England strikes for the first time

His first crime was on Friday, 10 March, 1933. Aged only 17, he later confessed to the murder of his own baby niece. But at the time, he escaped conviction even though the baby’s mother – his sister – accused Whitcomb Dennis of slaying her child. One account claims that at the time, a medical report asserted the child had died of an epileptic fit.

But ten years later in 1943, Whitcomb Dennis told all to a police officer while doing military service during World War Two. Incredibly, he wasn’t believed and instead was discharged from the army on psychiatric grounds and committed for a while to a mental hospital in south Wales.

Two more deaths linked to this werewolf in England

In 1948, he struck again. Now released from the mental hospital, he murdered an elderly lady, Harriet Mills, who lived a few doors down from his family home. There was a thumbprint sized bruise on her neck and evidence of having been hit by a blunt instrument. Somehow, the jury returned a verdict of accidental death.

It took another killing eighteen months later to finally reveal the Moon Killer. On Thursday 30 March 1950, Ivy Watkins was murdered. Unlike the Mills case, there was clear evidence of a break in – through the coal cellar – and the victim had a pillow over her face and streaks of dried blood across her head. Again, there were bruises on this victim’s throat, as with Mills, but also bite marks.

DISCOVER: Were the lunar landings really faked?

The police carried out routine investigations and questioned Allan Whitcomb Dennis. He had difficulty explaining why there were scratches on his face and all over his arms. Clearly, Ivy Watkins had not expired without a good fight. Although eventually, sadly, succumbing to the werewolf.

At his trial, both Whitcomb Dennis and his sister, the mother of the child he had killed, ascribed his violence to the moon. A psychologist told the court that he was aware of cases where lunar cycles influenced the behaviour of certain people. The jury found him guilty of murder but insane. He was committed to Broadmoor, one of the most fearsome psychiatric institutions in Britain.

FIND OUT MORE: The real Jack the Ripper

Old Stinker – a new werewolf in England

In 2016, there was something of a werewolf scare in the north of England with sightings of a beast dubbed ‘Old Stinker’. Also referred to in the local media as The Beast of Barmston Drain.

As in the United States, England is occasionally gripped by alleged sightings of huge mammals that it’s claimed pose a real threat to people, especially those who are weaker such as children and the elderly. In this case, people around the city of Hull claimed to have seen an eight-foot high half man/half dog creature carrying off its prey.

An American Werewolf in London

In 1981, the movie An American Werewolf in London was released in cinemas. It included a dramatic transformation scene that shocked audiences at the time. And of course it went on to be used by Michael Jackson a couple of years later in the video for Thriller.

metal detector

Metal detector treasure hunting comeback!

The metal detector is making a comeback with treasure hunting enthusiasts back out again looking for ancient loot. But in the United Kingdom, this has led the government to rethink the law on ancient artefacts dug up by amateur enthusiasts.

Changes are being made to the 1996 Treasure Act (yes, such a piece of legislation exists!) that will re-define metal detector finds as treasure. That’s if they are of major historical or cultural significance. Which means, you can’t make off with them so easily. Or at least, that’s the idea.

The normal definition is that a find has to be over 300 years old, made of gold or silver or found alongside artefacts made of precious metals. In 2014, a Roman figure of a man nearly left Britain for a private collector because it didn’t meet these criteria. The export was stopped at the last minute.

DISCOVER: My quest for Templar treasure with the History channel

Roman statues cast in bronze have slipped through the net and disappeared, which is very sad. New rules mean that will no longer happen. Or at least, if it does – it’ll be illegal.

I was given a metal detector back in the 1970s when I was about 11 years of age. Epping Forest was at the top of my road and I got hopelessly addicted. Those beeps and whines of the machine were great fun. Unfortunately, despite the huge amount of history in the area where I grew up – Roman, Saxon and medieval treasure eluded me.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Paris with work. And I’m very aware that many metal detector enthusiasts make their way to the battlefields of the two World Wars looking for artefacts. I suppose because my father was alive during the last War I’m a bit queasy about this.

So are the French authorities. At the Gare du Nord rail station in Paris there are placards held up by employees warning Eurostar travellers that if they smuggle stuff out then there will be consequences.