Having discussed vampires in my last post, let’s move on to werewolves. There are plenty of other werecreatures out there, and I’ll get to them in my next post. For now, however, I’d like to look specifically at humans who turn into wolves.
One thing to note up front is that certain aspects of werewolf-lore don’t go back any further than the 1940s and Lon Chaney, Jr. The idea that werewolves only transform at the full moon, for example, does not seem to be rooted in any actual folk beliefs that I have been able to track down. The whole silver bullet thing is obviously no older than the invention of firearms (although many cultures say that silver is effective in repelling evil.)
What we do find in world mythology is a great variety in terms of how a person transforms into a wolf and whether such people should be looked upon with fear or reverence—or perhaps a mixture of both.
One form of werewolf coming from German and Polish folklore involves the use of a magical wolf-skin belt or pelt (sometimes known as a “wolf-strap”). Anyone, it is said, could become a werewolf by fastening such a strap around him- or herself, but the artifact is sometimes associated specifically with witches. In addition to belts of wolf-skin, the skin of a hanged man might also work to effect the transformation from human to wolf.
The wolf-strap is the product of evil magic, however. In fact, it is seen as a gift from the devil himself. Those who possess such a strap couldn’t get rid of it no matter how much they wanted to.
The use of an animal pelt is also common in some Native American cultures. Among the Navajo, for example, evil “skin walkers” are sometimes said to take on animal form by donning the appropriate pelt.
According to Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir, there are two types of werewolves in medieval Icelandic literature. In one, a person undergoes a physical transformation; in the other, the soul or spirit enters into an animal’s body (“The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature,” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 106/3 [Jul 2007] 281–82).
The most familiar example of the first type is the berserker, a warrior who is supernaturally endowed with the strength and ferocity of a wild animal, usually a wolf or bear. The wolf-warrior was called an úlfheðinn or vargstakkr, both roughly translated “wolf-coat.” As Guðmundsdóttir explains,
One of the most recognizable attributes of the berserks is that they fall into a “berserk frenzy.” They run wild in battle, become crazed, and roar or howl. No weapons can harm them and they tolerate wounds better than other men. The berserk frenzy is actually closely related to shape-shifting, for in both cases men acquire the attributes of animals. The main difference resides, perhaps, in the fact that with shape-shifting it is assumed that either the soul is transported to another body, that is, into an animal’s body (and thus people are described as eigi einhamir, “not restricted to one form”), or that the body undergoes a transformation, whereas in the berserk frenzy men acquire the attributes of wild animals; one could thus say that the berserk is a wild animal in the shape of a man. The condition is therefore psychological in the case of the berserk, but physical in the case of werewolves and other shape-shifters.
Thus, a “berserk” undergoes a psychological change were a “wolf-coat” undergoes an actual physical change. But, of course, this distinction is not always clear-cut and is sometimes a matter of how specific texts are interpreted.
Böðvarr Bjarki and Úlfr Bjálfason
The other form of Norse were-creature, in which a human soul or spirit departs from the body and takes on the form of an animal, is found in the story of Böðvarr bjarki in a text called Hrólfs saga kraka.
In this story, Böðvarr bjarki attacks his opponents in the form of a bear while his body remains asleep, sitting still at some distance from the battlefield. This is said to be an innate ability inherited from his father, not based on any kind of spell or magical device.
Although this is the story of a werebear, werewolves of this sort were also apparently possible. In Egils saga, a shapeshifter named Úlfr Bjálfason, more commonly called Kveld-Úlfr or “night-wolf,” is said to have become ill-tempered as evening approached. Guðmundsdóttir explains, “He had a tendency to sleep in the evening, which has been seen as suggesting that his soul left his body when he slept and entered a wolf’s shape” (278 n. 5).
What is not clear (at least to me) is where the animal form comes from. Does this sort of shapeshifter “hijack” a passing animal and inhabit its body? Or is he able to conjure up an animal’s body out of his own psychic reserves? Either way, this is a type of werecreature I don’t think I’ve ever seen depicted in popular media.
Not all werewolves are evil. Some, in fact, are revered members of the community. This is the case of Turkic kurtadams, who through long and grueling ritual processes achieved an altered state of consciousness in order to experience a psychological transformation from human to wolf.
Frank Joseph describes this phenomenon as
a man or woman achiev[ing] an altered state of consciousness to spiritually identify with the soul of a non-human animal. In Turkish, for example, the Kurtadam is not only a werewolf, but also a shaman. In fact, the totemic ancestor of the Turks is the wolf. (Unlocking the Prehistory of America [Rosen, 2014] 255)
According to some legends, this transformation was physical as well as psychological, resulting in an upright-walking humanoid wolf-creature.
From the same general region, Herodotus speaks of a Scythian tribe called the Neuri “who annually transformed themselves into werewolves during a cultic warrior festival” (Joseph, 254)
Hounds of God
Finally, there is an account of certain werewolves in Livonia in the Baltic region, one of whom claimed in 1692 to have been given their power of shapeshifting in order to battle the forces of evil.
Carlo Ginzburg offers this account of the proceedings:
In 1692 at Jurgensburg in Livonia an eighty-year-old man named Thiess, whom the townsmen considered an idolater, confessed to the judges interrogating him that he was a werewolf. Three times a year, he said, on St Lucy’s Night before Christmas, the night of St John, and of the Pentecost, the werewolves of Livonia go into hell, “at the end of the sea” (he later corrected himself: “underground”), to fight with the devil and the sorcerers. Women also fight with the werewolves: but not young girls. The German werewolves go to a separate hell. Similar to dogs (they are the dogs of God, Thiess said), and armed with iron whips, the werewolves pursue the devil and sorcerers, who are armed with broomsticks wrapped in horse tails. Many years before, Thiess explained, a sorcerer (a peasant named Skeistan, now dead) had broken his nose. At stake in the battles was the fertility of the fields: the sorcerers steal the shoots of the grain, and if they cannot be wrested from there will be famine. However, that year the Livonian and the Russian werewolves had both won. The harvest of barley and of rye was going to be abundant. There was also going to be enough fish for everyone. In vain the judges tried to induce the old man to admit that he had made a pact with the devil. Thiess obstinately continued to repeat that the worst enemies of the devil and the sorcerers were werewolves like himself: after death, they would go to paradise.