Lycanthropy is defined as the delusion that one has become a wolf. Alternately, it is defined as assuming the form and characteristics of a wolf through witchcraft or magic. The word lycanthropy itself, however, comes from the Greek words lykos, meaning "wolf," and anthrōpos, meaning "human being." Similarly, therianthropy is the ability of a human to metamorphose into other animals through shapeshifting though lycanthropy is the most well-known form of this ability. The werewolf is considered a mythological animal. It is portrayed as the subject of stories throughout the world, and the cause of a few nightmares. Werewolves, according to legends, are people who shapeshift into vicious, formidable wolves. Others are a mutant combination of human and wolf. However, all are considered bloodthirsty beasts that cannot control their lust for killing people and animals. Werewolf myths are typically associated with the phases of the moon as the animal nature of the werewolf is believed to take over when the moon is full. Some scholars believe the werewolf made its debut in the Mesopotamian The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known Western prose (2100-1200 BCE), when Gilgamesh jilted a potential lover because she had turned her previous mate into a wolf.
King Lycaon – The Wolf King
Werewolves made another early appearance in Greek mythology with the Legend of Lycaon. According to the legend, King Lycaon of Arcadia, the son of Pelasgus, angered the god Zeus when he served him a meal made from the remains of his own son. As punishment, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf and killed his children. Further, Zeus brought the sacrificed son back to life.Arcadia is a region plagued by wolves. King Lycaon established a cult of the Wolf-Zeus, or Lycaeus-Zeus. Further, Mount Lycaeus was the scene of a yearly festival in which it is rumored that priests prepared a sacrificial feast that included human flesh. According to legend, whoever tasted it became a wolf and could not turn back into a man unless he abstained from human flesh for nine years.
Wolf Clans of the Vikings
Werewolves also emerged in early Nordic folklore. As one of the oldest and most popular stories, the Saga of the Volsungs tells the story of a Sigmund and his son, Sinfjötli, who discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. The men put on the pelts and transformed into wolves. They went on a killing rampage in the forest and howled at the moon. Legend states that 13 men died between the two werewolves. Only when none was left did the father attack his son. He sank his fangs into Sinfjötli’s neck causing a lethal wound. The son only survived because a kind raven gave the father a leaf with healing powers. Once they transformed back into men, they burned the stolen pelts. While this is the most popular of Viking werewolf tales, it is estimated that there are over 50 different werewolf stories in Viking lore. Wolves are woven into Viking oral tradition and play a significant part in their symbology and culture.
Beware the Werehyena
In some cultures, similar myths involve human transformation into other equally feared animals: hyenas and leopards in Africa, for example, and tigers in Asia. In Africa exists a deep-rooted belief in witchcraft. Yet, without wolves, lycanthropic beliefs in Africa vary somewhat from other cultures. African folklore dictates that unlike other werecreatures this monster is an animal that disguises itself in human form. By day it walks the earth nearly indistinguishable from humans, but at night it returns to its true hyena shape. According to legend, werehyenas have long plagued places like Atuga around the Horn of Africa: Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan. Kids who wander away after dark are at risk. Strangers passing through town are subject to suspicion. That sound that you could swear was a human voice calling your name from a distance. Werehyena. Unlike their folkloric werewolf cousins, werehyenas can be either human-born or hyenas disguising themselves as humans. Also, unlike werewolves, werehyenas are believed to be capable of transforming at will with the help of a magic stick or a sprinkling of ash. Sometimes the smell of human flesh alone could be enough to trigger a transformation.
“I saw werewolf with a Chinese menu in his hand walking through the streets of SoHo in the rain..” Werewolves of London by Warren Zevon
European werewolf legends are so ingrained in modern culture that songs have been written about them and movies have been made around their legends. Honestly, you have to hand it to those early Europeans, they knew how to scare the pants off of one another. Some of today’s greatest legends and stories come from Old World immigrants. Wolves are widespread in Europe and well feared. Through the same years as the witch trials 1500-1700’s, Europe also saw werewolf trials. Just like witches, those accused were often beggars, hermits, and outsiders. Interestingly, folklore of the Middle Ages portrays werewolves as victims. Humans who were turned against their will and wanted nothing more than to return to human form. However, by the time of the witch trials, werewolves were ferocious creatures out for blood. It was common for witch and werewolf trials to be held concurrently and accusations were cast for the same cultural, religious, and political reasons. It wasn’t until those wonderful gothic Victorians came along that the werewolf found its rightful place with the creatures of the night.
Skinwalkers and Rugarus
Skinwalker or shapeshifter beliefs run deep within tribal tradition. The Navajo word is yeenadlooshi, or one who goes on all fours. In their human form, these shapeshifters have large glowing eyes and legend states that if one were to look into those eyes, the shapeshifter would absorb his skin. Lore relates that it is through dark forces, curses, or black magic that one is transformed into a skinwalker. Only dark and immoral acts could attract so much darkness as to turn one into such a creature. While in animal form, the werewolf loses all sense of humanity and animal instincts take over. This is but one Native American legend. Each tribe has their own wolf legends. The Rugaru is another such legend and many from the Louisiana will resonate with this tale as they have a similar beast called the Rougarou. Such Rugaru legends are a combination of French wolf man legends and the Algonquian Windigo legends.
Folklore out of South America tells the story of the Lobisomem. Brazilians see it as a werewolf but in other areas it is a giant pig or a ball of fire. As a human, it looks fairly normal with the exception of slightly pointed ears and yellowish skin, perhaps looking a little jaundiced. As a werewolf, it looks like all other werewolves. The term Cumacanga is alternatively used in parts of the Amazon. It is also believed that the seventh son turns into a werewolf. According to legend, on the Friday following the son’s 13th birthday, he will turn into a demon at midnight and at every full moon afterward. He will hunt and kill before returning to human form. By the 1700’s citizens feared this legend so fiercely that they would murder the seventh child. In 1907, in an effort to end this practice, the Argentinian president began to adopt seventh children, sons and daughters. Eventually these children earned a full scholarship and a gold medal. Now, far from being a curse, a seventh child is seen as a blessing.
Has the world been so steeped in superstition that cultures around the globe all created their own version of werewolves? Or is there a seed of truth? Modern cryptozoologists claim that such creatures do exist. There is no end to the claims of visual sightings. On the famous Skin Walker Ranch, people claim to have encountered such creatures in modern times. If you have a werewolf story to sighting, you’d like to share, please add it to our Modern Legends page! Thanks for reading and keep an eye out on the next full moon. Who know what may be lurking.