On the set of The Howling, based on the novel by Gary Brandner, and directed by Joe Dante. (Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)
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Introduction

The werewolf is a mythological animal and the subject of many stories throughout the world—and more than a few nightmares. Werewolves are, according to some legends, people who morph into vicious, powerful wolves. Others are a mutant combination of human and wolf. But all are bloodthirsty beasts who cannot control their lust for killing people and animals.

It’s unclear exactly when and where the werewolf legend originated. Some scholars believe the werewolf made its debut in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known Western prose, when Gilgamesh jilted a potential lover because she had turned her previous mate into a wolf.

Werewolves made another early appearance in Greek mythology with the Legend of Lycaon. According to the legend, Lycaon, the son of Pelasgus, angered the god Zeus when he served him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. As punishment, the enraged Zeus turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves.

Werewolves also emerged in early Nordic folklore. The Saga of the Volsungs tells the story of a father and son who discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. The father-son duo donned the pelts, transformed into wolves and went on a killing rampage in the forest. Their rampage ended when the father attacked his son, causing a lethal wound. The son only survived because a kind raven gave the father a leaf with healing powers.

Many so-called werewolves from centuries ago were in fact serial killers, and France had its fair share. In 1521, Frenchmen Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun allegedly swore allegiance to the devil and claimed to have an ointment that turned them into wolves. After confessing to brutally murdering several children, they were both burned to death at the stake. (Burning was thought to be one of the few ways to kill a werewolf.)

Giles Garnier, known as the “Werewolf of Dole,” was another sixteenth-century Frenchman whose claim to fame was also an ointment with wolf-morphing abilities. According to legend, as a wolf he viciously killed children and ate them. He too was burned to death at the stake for his monstrous crimes.

Whether Burgot, Verdun or Garnier were mentally ill, acted under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance or were simply cold-blooded killers is up for debate. But it likely didn’t matter to superstitious Europeans during the 16th century. To them, such heinous crimes could only be committed by a horrific beast such as the werewolf.

Peter Stubbe, a wealthy, fifteenth-century farmer in Bedburg, Germany, may be the most notorious werewolf of them all. According to folklore, he turned into a wolf-like creature at night and devoured many citizens of Bedburg.

Peter was eventually blamed for the gruesome killings after being cornered by hunters who claimed they saw him shape-shift from wolf to human form. He experienced a grisly execution after confessing under torture to savagely killing animals, men, women and children—and eating their remains. He also declared he owned an enchanted belt that gave him the power to transform into a wolf at will. Not surprisingly, the belt was never found.

Peter’s guilt is controversial since some people believe he wasn’t a killer but the victim of a political witch hunt—or perhaps a werewolf-hunt. Either way, the circumstances surrounding his life and death stoked rampant fears at the time that werewolves were on the loose.

Some legends maintain werewolves shape-shifted at will due to a curse. Others state they transformed with the help of an enchanted sash or a cloak made of wolf pelt. Still others claim people became wolves after being scratched or bit by a werewolf.

In many werewolf stories, a person only turns into a wolf when there’s a full moon—and that theory may not be far-fetched. According to a study conducted at Australia’s Calvary Mater Newcastle hospital, a full moon brings out the “beast” in many humans. The study found that of the 91 violent, acute behavior incidents at the hospital between August 2008 and July 2009, 23 percent happened during a full moon.

Patients attacked staff and displayed wolf-like behaviors such as biting, spitting and scratching. Although many were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time, it’s unclear why they became intensely violent when the moon was full.

The werewolf phenomenon may have a medical explanation. Take Peter the Wild Boy, for instance. In 1725, he was found wandering naked on all fours through a German forest. Many thought he was a werewolf or at least raised by wolves.

Peter ate with his hands and couldn’t speak. He was eventually adopted by the courts of King George I and King George II, and lived out his days as their “pet” in England.

Research has shown Peter likely had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a condition discovered in 1978 that causes lack of speech, seizures, distinct facial features, difficulty breathing and intellectual challenges.

Other medical conditions that may have encouraged werewolf-mania throughout history are:

  • lycanthropy (a rare, psychological condition that causes people to believe they’re changing into a wolf or other animal)
  • food poisoning
  • hypertrichosis (a rare, genetic disorder causing excessive hair growth)
  • rabies
  • hallucination, possibly caused by hallucinogenic herbs

Throughout the centuries, people have used werewolves and other mythic beasts to explain the unexplainable. In modern times, however, most believe werewolves are nothing more than pop culture horror icons, made famous thanks to Hollywood’s 1941 flick, The Wolf Man.

Still, werewolves have a cult following, werewolf sightings are reported each year, and werewolf legends will likely continue to haunt the dreams of people throughout the world.

The Saga of the Volsungs. D. L. Ashliman, University of Pittsburgh.
Burgot and Verdun: Werewolves or hallucinating murderers. Monstrum Athenaeum.
Real-life werewolves: Psychiatry re-examines rare delusion. LiveScience.com.
Hospital study shows full moon werewolf effect. Sydney Morning Herald.
Peter the Wild Boy’s condition revealed 20 years after his death. The Guardian.
Gilgamesh. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Hypertrichosis. DermNet New Zealand.
Lycaon. Encyclopedia Mythica.
The Werewolf of Bedburg. ThoughtCo.com.
What is Pitt Hopkins syndrome? Pitt Hopkins Research Foundation.