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.

The Green Children of Wulpet

Medieval England saw many strange incidents. Unexplained visitations that creeped out villagers who knew nothing about science or reason. One such incident was the sudden arrival of two children with green skin at the village of Wulpet. Who and what were they? The mystery is one well worth revisiting.

The strange green children of Wulpet

This is one of those stories that confirms the view of folk in the Middle Ages being…well…not the sharpest pencils in the box.  It’s a strange tale.  We must go back to the stormy reign of King Stephen, a Norman king who sat precariously on his throne fighting an insurgency from a rival claimant to his crown – the Empress Matilda.  The Anglo-Saxon chronicle claims these were miserable times for England when God himself had turned his face away from the country.

It’s in troubled periods like this that odd events seem to happen – mysterious occurrences with no rational explanation.  Maybe a product of mass hysteria – people driven out of their wits by daily strife.  And what happened in the village of Wulpit in Suffolk was, frankly, out of the ordinary. It was recorded by one William of Newburgh in 1150.  He adopts a cynical tone but says so many witnesses claimed what they saw was true that he feels compelled to repeat it.

Green children emerge from the “wolf pits” – known as Wulpet

Four or five miles from Bury St Edmunds – the shrine to a Saxon king shot through with arrows – was Wulpit….named after “ancient cavities” called Wolfpittes or ‘pits for wolves’.  While the reapers were in the fields working, two children emerged from these holes in the ground.  A boy and a girl.  Nothing untoward about that – except for their appearance.  William of Newburgh explains:

“…a boy and girl, completely green in their persons, and clad in garments of a strange colour, and unknown materials, emerged from these excavations…”

Their skin was completely green!  Well, the reapers were startled and grabbed the kids taking them to Wulpit.  The villagers gawped at them for ages, trying to feed them but the children would not take what they were offered – until somebody offered them beans from their pods.  And they gobbled them down.

Their green skin of the children of Wulpet fades!

Over time, they were taught to eat bread and learned English and then something unexpected happened – their green colour started to fade.  With this development, it was decided to baptise the boy and girl.  This proved fatal with the boy who subsequently died.  The girl survived and “differed not in the least from the women of our own country”.  She even got married.

All of which begs the question – who were these children?  This was their own explanation recorded by William of Newburgh:

‘…we only remember this, that on a certain day, when we were feeding our father’s flocks in the fields, we heard a great sound, such as we are now accustomed to hear at St Edmund’s when the bells are chiming; and whilst listening to the sound in admiration, we became on a sudden, as it were entranced, and found ourselves among you in the fields, where you were reaping’.

Wulpet green children: from the ‘land of St Martin’

They claimed to be from the ‘land of St Martin’ – a place where this saint was hugely venerated.  Did they believe in Christ in their homeland? Yes. Did the sun rise like it did in Wulpit? No.

‘The sun does not rise upon our countrymen; our land is little cheered by its beams; we are contented with that twilight, which, among you, precedes the sunrise, or, follows the sunset.’

So they lived in a permanently dark realm though, bizarrely, they could see in the distance a ‘certain luminous country’.  But they couldn’t get to it because there was a great river in between.

DISCOVER: Secrets of the Lost Gospels of Jesus

There are a large number of theories as to what or who these children were – ranging from aliens to fairies to Flemish refugees, etc, etc.  It’s not atypical of other stories in the Middle Ages detailing strange visitations to isolated villages.

One such story I like is of the villagers in a church who heard a great thump in the graveyard and found a massive anchor had dropped from the sky…and up above was a floating ship…and down the anchor chain came a sailor.  In one version of this story he was grabbed by the villagers and ‘drowned’, exploding like a being made of water.

Sounds like something from X Men!