So, it’s time once again to do another one of these genre write-ups, and this one is about one of the finest monsters to grace the silver screen, the werewolf. This is one of my personal favorite genres and is one that has a lot to talk about whether it be in the cinematic realm or historical one, as this is one of the rare times where a film/genre has a connection to actual history. Now, this is one of the most convoluted and twisting turns to wrap around, so up-front I’ll say that this one will be two separate posts, so this one will be covering the history of the werewolf in history with the second one coming up later will be about the creature on film.
Immediately, going into actual history, we come across a small piece that needs to be explained first. There’s the small matter of where the name comes from, and a little digging unveils a small bit about the origins of the term. The main root here is a combination of Old English and Greek, as the early term comes from the word lycanthropy, a Greek combination that comes from the combination of the words lykánthropos for "wolf" and anthrōpos for "human," so literally a wolf-human. Throughout the years, the phrase was adopted and altered, going from the German variant “weriuuolf” that eventually became altered in “wariwolf,” while Anglo-Norman sources credit the creature as “garwolf,” and Scandinavian sources name it first as “varúlfur” before later using the term “ulfhéðinn” (meaning ‘one in wolf-skin’) and in modern Scandinavian also has "kveldulf," or 'evening-wolf,' after Kveldulf Bjalfason, a historical berserker of the 9th century who figures in the Icelandic sagas.
So, with that accomplished, let’s move on to another facet to be accomplished: what is a werewolf? A werewolf is a mythological or folkloric human with the ability to shapeshift into a wolf or a hybrid wolf-like creature, either purposely or after being placed under a curse or affliction that has usually come via a bite or scratch from another werewolf. While some of these have come and gone over the years, these are the commonly-associated terms to be found throughout history in regards to how the curse is passed on.
In more common terms, the term lycanthropy has a connection to a historical figure in Greek mythology. According to legend, the term is traced back to King Lycaon who ruled the kingdom of Arcadia in ancient Greece. There are numerous variations of the legend concerning his transformation into a wolf, yet the most commonly told version pertains Lycaon tempting Zeus, ruler of the Greek Gods, with the roasted flesh of his own son in order to determine whether Zeus was truly omniscient. Upon knowing of the ruse, Zeus vented his wrath upon Lycaon by turning him and his sons into the form of a wolf. As mentioned, there are numerous variations which range from utilizing a random stranger for the cursed meal to featuring a mutilated child of one of his kids, while others make mention of a mocking sacrifice to Zeus where he butchers a child on a sacred altar, but regardless of the method the common outcome is still the same.
Another rather common connection traces itself back to the Norse legends of the Berserker. In Old-Norse writings, the word comes off as “ber-skjaldaðr,” which means ‘bare of shield,’ a common tactic of Viking warfare of entering battle adorned in animal skins rather than traditional armor favored and utilized by armies of their contemporaries. Although commonly utilized with the wearing of bear-skins, the concept of wearing the outer skin of an animal in order to harness the power of the chosen animal is a common trope associated with later forms of lycanthropy in history.
Throughout history, the werewolf has been a widespread concept in European folklore, existing in many variants related by a common development of a Christian interpretation of underlying European folklore developed during the medieval period, which lasted from the 5th to the 15th Century. Belief in werewolves developed in parallel to the belief in witches, in the course of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Like the witchcraft trials as a whole, the trial of supposed werewolves emerged in what is now Switzerland, especially the Valais and Vaud, in the early 15th century and spread throughout Europe in the 16th, peaking in the 17th and subsiding by the 18th century. The persecution of werewolves and the associated folklore is an integral part of the "witch-hunt" phenomenon, albeit a marginal one, accusations of werewolf activity being involved in only a small fraction of witchcraft trials. From the early modern period (or from around 1500 to about 1800), werewolf beliefs also spread to the New World with colonialism in North America.
During the early period, accusations of lycanthropy (transformation into a wolf) were mixed with accusations of wolf-riding or wolf-charming. One of the most significant efforts during this time was the case of Peter Stumpp in 1589, a serial killer and cannibal from Germany nicknamed "The Werewolf of Bedburg" who claimed under torture to having killed not only goats, sheep and lambs but supposedly fourteen men, women and children over a twenty-five year period, and in turn led to a significant peak of both interest in and persecution of supposed werewolves, primarily in French and German-speaking Europe. The phenomenon persisted longest in Bavaria and Austria, with the persecution of wolf-charmers recorded until well after 1650, the final cases taking place in the early 18th century in Carinthia and Styria. Other cases involving werewolves, including Gilles Garnier in France or Manuel Blanco Romasanta of Spain, figure prominently in the history of the genre though mentioning more will turn this into a far longer piece than intended.
One of the key aspects of many of these instances is their ability to transform into a wolf. Many of these supposed trials were conducted under the idea that these people were transformed into wolves through the use of magical wolf-skin pelts, worn by their intended victim and that transforms them into a wolf. This has a great deal to do with the berserker legend of Norse mythology, and even the fact that there’s never been a confirm recovery of one of these wolf-pelts didn’t stop the persecutions from continuing. A large amount of these cases, for example, have recently been taken into account as a physical condition known as of congenital porphyria, stating how the symptoms of photosensitivity, reddish teeth and psychosis could have been grounds for accusing a sufferer of being a werewolf. Though greatly debated, the possibility exists of this as a possible contender for the origins of this particular myth.
Outside the scope of Europe, there isn’t a great deal of work to be had here which manages to restrict this to a few small, isolated cases. Mainland Asia associates the legend with werecats, where the afflicted usually become tigers. In India, the weretiger is often a dangerous sorcerer portrayed as a menace to livestock who might at any time turn to eating man. These tales traveled through the rest of India and into Persia through travelers who encountered the royal Bengal tigers of India and then further west. Chinese legends often describe weretigers as the victims of either a hereditary curse or a vindictive ghost as ancient teachings held that every race except the Han Chinese were really animals in disguise so that there was nothing extraordinary about some of these false humans reverting to their true natures. Alternatively, the ghosts of people who had been killed by tigers could become a malevolent supernatural being known as "Chang", devoting all their energy to making sure that tigers killed more humans. Some of these ghosts were responsible for transforming ordinary humans into man-eating weretigers.
Also, in Japanese folklore, there are creatures called bakeneko, a type of Japanese yōkai that are similar to “kitsune” (or ‘fox spirits’) and “tanuki” (‘raccoon dogs’). In Thailand, a tiger that eats many humans may become a weretiger while there are other types of weretigers, such as sorcerers with great powers who can change their form to become animals. In Thailand, however, the were-crocodile is more famous than any other werebeast. In the folk tale “Krai-thong,” for example, the titular hero defeats Chalawan the Giant, who could take the form of a crocodile with diamond teeth. Chalawan was nearly invulnerable and could use magic as well; however, all of these will be covered at length in later dates.
In both Indonesia and Malaysia, there is another kind of weretiger, known as Harimau jadian. The power of transformation is regarded as due to inheritance, to the use of spells, to fasting and willpower, to the use of charms, etc. Save when it is hungry or has just cause for revenge, it is not hostile to man; in fact, it is said to take its animal form only at night and to guard the plantations from wild pigs. Variants of this belief assert that the shapeshifter does not recognize his friends unless they call him by name, or that he goes out as a mendicant and transforms himself to take vengeance on those who refuse him alms. Somewhat similar is the belief of the Khonds, as for them the tiger is friendly, and he reserves his wrath for their enemies. A man is said to take the form of a tiger in order to wreak a just or sound vengeance. Also in Malaysia, Bajangs have been described as vampiric or demonic werecats, although that tends to blur the lines of what we're attempting here and again will be covered in detail at a later time.
Finally, we end up in America and find our focus on a specific creature that ties back into European folklore. Known in some quarters as the loup-garou, the more prominent spelling and pronunciation is the Cajun variant, the Rougarou. A shapeshifter from the swamps of Louisiana primarily, the rougarou most often is described as a creature with a human body and the head of a wolf or dog, similar to the werewolf legend. It's most often used to instill fear and obedience into young children with numerous sightings and rumors tying the creature into the areas's native superstitions concerning the holiday Lent, where in some areas it's said that the method for turning into the creature is for an individual to bring the rules of Lent for seven years in a row. Being a shapeshifter, the creature is not always concerned with being a dog-like creature and in some instances has been said to be anything from rabbits to insects and all manner of small animals living deep in the swamplands with a slight difference found in the change by being able to control their transformation into the beast either on regimented days or can be done at will.
Now, with that out of the way, what’s the particular connection between the historical connection and their film counterparts? Well, you’ll have to wait for that part next time.