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Thoroughly Modern Monster: A History of Werewolves

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Given the magnificent Blood Moon that graced our skies early this morning, a post on werewolves seems appropriate. However, their history may surprise you. Werewolves are not as old as you might think, and the kind we’re familiar with today with bestial, half-human forms, who change at the full moon and can only be hurt by silver, is a thoroughly modern invention.

Let’s start from the beginning.

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Antiquity

In ancient times there were some stories about men becoming wolves, but these fell almost entirely into two categories: curses and witchcraft. Ancient legends abound of men and women who were turned into wolves as a punishment by the gods for some slight or another. Other cultures have stories of witches and sorcerers who, among their many magic abilities, could take the form of an animal. However this is far from the werewolf as we understand it today. After all, Sirius Black from the Harry Potter books could turn himself into a wolf (well, a big dog) by magic yet we would not consider him a werewolf but merely a wizard with magic powers. And modern werewolves are not impious pagans who were cursed to take the form of a wolf because they cheesed off a deity, especially since the legends indicate that such punishments were permanent transformations, not temporary or reoccurring. With that in mind it’s safe to say that these ancient legends are only tangentially related to werewolves as we think of them.

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The Middle Ages Of course after the pagans came the Catholics. What did Medieval peasants think about werewolves? You might think that here is where the werewolf legend began, among those superstitious, ignorant, and unscientific Medievals. However the truth is that your average Medieval peasant didn’t believe in werewolves. Heck, they didn’t even believe in witches! It was the official position of the Medieval Catholic church that witches, sorcerers, warlocks, and other supernatural types were pure pagan superstition. To be sure you could still find some of the old legends of witchcraft related wolf transformations, but only in the pagan pockets of northern and eastern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Lithuania where Christianity had yet to arrive in force. Stories of men transforming into wolves were for ignorant pagans: good Christians knew better than to believe such rot. “Now Mark,” you may be asking, “How can this be? After all, weren’t the Medievals notorious for burning witches at the stake? It’s in Monty Python and everything!” Well that brings us to the next stage of the history of werewolves, and were things really get started…

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The Age of Superstition (Better known as the Renaissance)

Though we typically think of the Middle Ages as a time of ignorance and superstition that ended with the re-arrival of reason and logic with the onset of the Renaissance, the fact is that the Renaissance could be easily be renamed “The Age of Superstition.” The period between the 15th and early 18th centuries was characterized by a mania involving all things occult, magical, or supernatural. It was during this period that the famous witch burnings of Europe occurred, as well as the majority of the notable witch trials (including America’s most famous one in Salem). It was no coincidence the interest in Alchemy and Astrology had its height during this period as well. No longer were magic circles, curses, hexes, and animal transformations dismissed as superstition. Books were published about how to identify witches, and with them treatises on the nature of werewolves. It is during this period that we begin to see the beginnings of werewolves as we know them today. Many during this period seriously believed that some men could transform themselves into the form of a wolf, and would set themselves upon their fellow men, ripping and devouring. There were actual werewolf trials were individuals were convicted of being werewolves, but most of these convictions came down alongside general convictions of witchcraft. That’s because these werewolves were still not the ones we know today. While modern werewolves acquire their curse by being bit by another werewolf, the lycanthropy of this period had to be sought out. People supposedly had to actively try to become a werewolf, and there were a variety of possible methods: rubbing the body with magic ointments, making a belt or coat out of a wolves skin and putting it on, drinking water out of a wolf’s footprint, or making a pact with demons in exchange for power. Of course there were stories of people who became werewolves against their will, but not from being bitten. Instead it was said that if a child was too harshly abused by their parents they might run away to the woods and become wild werewolves, or that those who died in mortal sin might rise from their graves in the form of a wolf: a strange cross between a werewolf and a vampire, though we’ll get to the history of the latter another time. Werewolves were different from modern ones in a few other key aspects: for one, they all became wolves instead of half-wolf half men monstrosities like we see today, it was said you could tell a werewolf from a regular wolf because a werewolf had no tail, and some believed that if you cut a werewolf in his human form you would find fur poking out of the wound, as if the person’s skin was merely a covering for the wolf that lived within. However belief in werewolves began to die down by the onset of the 1700s, along with belief in witches, sorcerers, alchemy, and the rest of the baggage of the “Age of Superstition.” The Enlightenment was coming, and there would be little room for such silly beliefs in the years to come, though a few scattered werewolf trials continued in rural parts of Eastern Europe for some time. From there werewolves would be forgotten until the mid-19th century where they, like vampires, would start to feature vaguely in Victorian horror literature. Which brings us to the werewolf’s final chapter:

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The Modern Period to Today

Most of what we know about modern werewolves comes from 20th century horror movies. Turns into a wolf under the full moon? Hollywood. Werewolves are half-man half-wolf creatures that walk on two legs? Made up so that makeup and special effects would be cheaper. Werewolves can only be killed by silver? Not seen in any account of werewolves before the 20th century. The curse being spread by bite? There may be some legends that had elements of this, but it didn’t become the primary method until quite recently.

The funny thing about all this is that most of us might assume that the werewolf is a very old monster, going back to ancient legends like the vampire. But we find that it isn’t so. For hundreds of years the werewolf was simply a particular kind of witchcraft, not a proper monster in its own right at all. In many ways the werewolf is a thoroughly modern monster, a horror that was invented in the last hundred years or so.

Still, the full moon can give you a bit of a chill when the night is right; and when the forest rings with the sound of howling, who am I to say that werewolves are too young to be real monsters?

Happy blood moon.