They have passed through time like they pass through darkness: strong, swift, and with a ferocious yet curious nature that have many of us transfixed. They scare us, tantalize us, and often have us shuddering in the middle of the night when we hear that lonely, yet unmistakeable howl that serenades the full moon. Does your heart skip a beat? Do you start to sweat? Are you scared? Werewolves have become part of our popular culture — a mysterious, yet appealing mix of strength, brawn, horror, and fierce animal nature leads to questions of its beginnings in history and its evolution in literature. The whole mystery that surrounds the werewolf, and shape-shifting in general, has become a staple in urban fantasy. It offers us a momentary dance with our animal nature and the ability to contemplate the inner workings of the animal psyche and our own.
The legends and stories of humans shape-shifting into animals can be tracked over time, spans numerous continents, and is embedded in countless cultures. From the werewolf’s deep beginnings in Indo-European mythology where warriors were depicted wearing the fur of the wolf to early modern history where wolf transformations are triggered by vampires, one of the earliest accounts of the werewolf was mentioned in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written around 8 A.D. As the story goes, Jupiter (popularly known as Zeus) decides to make an unannounced visit to Earth to check out a rumour of evil doings. King Lycaon, suspicious at the god’s arrival and angered at his peoples’ quickness to worship the visitor, devises a plan to prove whether Jupiter is a true god. Thinking he will have the upper hand, he makes the mistake of serving Jupiter a meal of human flesh, a deeply abhorred practice. Enraged, Jupiter changes the King into a wolf, although he still had some of his human traits. Though cannibalism was a practice that cut to the core of social custom, Jupiter chose the wolf form thinking that if Lycaon wanted to partake in this despicable deviation, he could do so looking like the wolf, a more palatable creature, so to speak, to be dining on human flesh. Thus from Ovid and King Lycaon, the word Lycanthrope is derived: a human able to don the form of the wolf or wolf-like creature either on purpose or as the result of an affliction, curse, or punishment.
The present idea of the werewolf we hold today — of one which changes with the cycles of the moon — is a more recent development from the late Middle Ages and is directly connected to colonialism, the influx in Christianity, and witchcraft. During this time, witches were being burned at the stake and on occasion people thought to be werewolves would also find their place on the pyre. Perhaps one of the most `notable’ werewolves to suffer this fate was Peter Stubbe of Bedburg in the Electorate of Cologne (Bedburg, Germany). After a lengthy and severe torture of being put on the rack and stretched and having his flesh ripped from his body with hot pincers as well as his arms and legs broken, he made many confessions regarding a 25-year killing spree that involved despicable acts such as eating women, infants, and children. Stubbe also admitted to devouring the brain of his son. Claiming that the devil had gifted him a magic girdle, Stubbe said that it was the girdle itself that allowed his transformation into a wolf. His body decapitated and placed at the stake, Stubbe was burned along with his daughter and mistress on October 31st, 1589.
But the girdle was not the only way to become a werewolf. The transformation through history has been attributed to many things, from eating the meat of the wolf to making a deal with the devil. Some said the ability was divine punishment, the curse of an affliction, or in some cases, wearing the fur of the animal. But despite all these possibilities of what might change a person into a wolf, the question that is begging to be asked is, are there any medical conditions for these transgressions? Could there possibly be some explanation regarding wolf-like behaviour that would explain the presence of the werewolf throughout history?
The answer: Yes.
The first condition, and perhaps maybe one of the most obvious, is rabies. Rabies is a virus that attacks the central nervous system of warm-blooded animals. In humans, rabies comes in the symptoms of fever, sore throat, a cough, but then is shortly followed by more progressive symptoms such as seizures and hallucinations. Although when medical resources and knowledge weren’t as advanced, these symptoms could have been attributed to moderate illness, or perhaps the ‘onset of the transformation into a werewolf’. However, you take the rabies virus and put it into a wolf’s body, and you have an entirely different set of symptoms altogether.
During the rise of the werewolf, world Canis lupus populations were quite high and there are many reasons to believe that rabies would have been prevalent as well. Some say there were nearly 7,600 documented fatal attacks in France between people and wolves during the period of 1200 and. In wolves, rabies can cause a manic level, in which the wolf becomes highly agitated, significantly erratic, and very likely to attack and bite at random. Pair that with the strength, size, and physical prowess of these animals and it would make for a very scary and compelling argument for a terrifying monster. Enter in the onset signs of the infection in humans, and it leads one to wonder if the rabies virus may have helped to fuel the notion of the werewolf.
Another and perhaps less obvious condition is Hypertrichosis, in which the afflicted sprouts copious amounts of hair all over the body (also known as werewolf syndrome), or Porphyria, a sensitivity to light which leads to the eventual decay of facial features over time. There is also a clinical condition called Lycanthropy, when a person believes themselves to be a certain animal. It is no wonder with these medical conditions why people would believe in werewolves.
The werewolf has become a complex binary character that enables the reader to delve into the mysteries of the unknown. The beauty, allure, and most importantly, the sheer simplicity of being able to experience life as an animal — to do as an animal does, and perhaps to take some guilty pleasure in it — makes us appreciate the great literary character the werewolf has become. The ability to escape, to function as an animal, to contemplate our choices from the perspective of an animal probes the question: what would you do? In the werewolf’s animal nature, we are fundamentally exploring out deep-rooted desires of what becoming an animal involves, throwing away our obligations and morals, and embracing the nature of the beast.