It’s a series within a series. Throughout Blogtober, I’m going to be sharing the origin stories of some of the spookiest supernatural figures. Today, I’m kicking this off with werewolves.
From An American Werewolf in London to a bare-chested Taylor Lautner, werewolves have really ranged in their ferocity. Sometimes, they’re terrifying creatures of nightmare and other times, they’re cuddly-looking pups. Where then did the idea of these iconic shapeshifters come from and why have they stood the test of time?
The First Mentions
The very first potential reference to werewolves is found in one of the oldest texts in the world. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, a poem dating possibly as far back as the eighteenth century BC, there is a woman who transformed an ex-lover into a wolf.
Wolves have also played a huge part in myths and legends. From the formidable Fenrir of Norse mythology to the ancient Scythian Neuri tribe who were said to turn themselves into wolves for a portion of the year, there are countless references to wolves and werewolves to be found. One particularly well-known story in the development of werewolf lore comes from ancient Greece and concerns Lycaon of Arcadia. As the myth goes, Lycaon wanted to test whether Zeus truly was all-knowing so he invited the great god for dinner and roasted one of his sons for the feast. Zeus saw through this test and turned Lycaon into a wolf as punishment for his infanticide and cannibalism.
As Western Christianity spread across Europe, stories of humans transforming into wolves continued to terrify believers in the occult. Stories and beliefs about werewolves vary across Europe through the Middle Ages, sometimes werewolfery was even thought to be caused by witches or having some relation to vampire legends circulating at the same time.
There are a lot of possible reasons as to why there was a widespread fear of werewolves across Medieval Europe. The main theory as to why it was wolves people were the most scared of simply comes from the fact that wolves were the biggest predators. Wolves were much more common in Europe then than they are now and considering most people wouldn’t ever travel much further than their home village, the threat of a wolf attacks on livestock (one of their few sources of food and income!) was just as scary as an attack on a human.
People believed in the strange and the mystical a lot more back then and most people didn’t have the means to fact-check anything they were told. If a priest told his congregation they were to obey the teachings of the Bible and avoid witches otherwise they might cross paths with a werewolf, the fear is then placed in the heads’ of all the people in that church.
There’s also the idea that any crime that seems too horrific for a human to have committed could be given a supernatural explanation to make it easier to swallow. Or, perhaps that as it wasn’t always easy to capture and punish wild animals for the havoc wrought upon a village, it was preferable to blame someone. This led to a lot of mass hysteria and wild accusations. An infamous example of this would the case of alleged serial killer, cannibal and werewolf, Peter Stumpp. Under torture, Stumpp confessed to a variety of hideous crimes that he claimed he could carry out by wearing a magical belt, gifted to him by the Devil, which transformed him a wolf. I’m going to spare you the details but Stumpp, his daughter and mistress were tortured and executed in particularly brutal fashion.
More Recent Beasts
Moving on from horrible facts to fiction, let’s look at how we got from then to now. As I’ve said already, werewolves have been popping up in literature and mythology for a long long time but it’s 1933’s The Werewolf of Paris by Guy Endore that is considered to be the seminal work of modern werewolf fiction. This book came along as Hollywood movies were really starting to take off and it’s on the silver screen (silver… lol) that werewolves really howled their way into the hearts and nightmares of contemporary horror fans.
Are you a werewolf fan? Are you just as surprised as I was to discover how far back werewolf legends go? Let me know in the comments.