Lycanthropy is the transformation of a human being into a wolf. There are two types of lycanthropy: a mania in which a person imagines himself to be a wolf and exhibits a craving for blood; and the magical-ecstatic transformation of a person into a werewolf (“man-wolf,” from the Old English wer, man, plus wolf), usually accomplished with ointments or magical charm (see charms).
Werewolf lore has existed since antiquity. In some legends, the werewolf is a person born under a Curse, who cannot prevent himself from his hellish metamorphosis, which happens on nights of the full moon. The person, usually a man, but sometimes a woman or a child, acquires the shape of a wolf and all its attributes, and roams about the countryside attacking and eating victims. In most tales, the werewolf is wounded, and the wound sympathetically carries over to the human form and reveals the identity of the werewolf.
In other legends, the werewolf is a sorcerer or witch who deliberately transforms himself at will to do evil and lay waste to his enemies. In South America, shamans, like sorcerers, turn into werewolves and attack and drink the blood of their enemies. Sorcerers also turn into other were-animals (man-animals), including serpents, leopards, panthers, jackals, bear, coyotes, owls, foxes and other feared creatures. But it is the wolf who elicits the most universal fear and is the most dangerous of were-animals. Navajo lore holds that witches become werewolves and other were-animals by donning animal skins, which enables them to travel about at night at great speed. Were-animal witches are said to meet in caves at night, where they initiate new members, plan ritual killings-at-a-distance, practice necrophilia with the corpses of women and eat their victims (see Shamanism; sorcery; Witchcraft).
Werewolf beliefs were strong in medieval times in Europe and the Baltic countries. Later, in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was believed that werewolves, like witches, became servants of the Devil by diabolic pacts (see Devil’s Pact), and trials of accused werewolves increased. The cases were characterized by murder and cannibalism. In 1573 in Dole, France, Gilles Garnier was tried and convicted for the murder of several children. He confessed that he killed one victim, a 10-year-old girl, with his teeth and claws, then stripped off her clothing and ate part of her. He took the rest of her flesh home to his wife. He strangled a 10-year-old boy (he did not specify how a wolf can strangle), then bit off a leg and ate the boy’s thighs and belly. He was identified when he attacked another victim but was interrupted by several peasants, who thought they recognized Garnier’s face, despite his wolf form. He was sentenced to be burned alive.
One of the most celebrated werewolf trials was that of Peter Stubb (also Stube or Stumpf) in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne. Put on the rack and threatened with torture, Stubb made a lurid confession. He said that he had practiced the “wicked arts” from the age of 12 years and that the Devil had given him a magic belt that enabled him to change into a “devouring wolf.” By taking the belt off, he returned to the shape of a man.
For 25 years, Stubb terrorized the countryside at night, stalking children, women, men, lambs, sheep and goats. He was an “insatiable bloodsucker,” taking great pleasure in killing. He killed his own son and ate his brains. He killed lambs, kids and other livestock, “feeding on the same most usually raw and bloody.” He murdered 13 young children and two pregnant women. He confessed to incest with his daughter, Beell (Bell) and sexual escapades with various mistresses, including a “gossip,” Katherine Trompin. His lust remained unsated, so the Devil sent him a succubus.
Stubb was finally exposed when some hunters chased him down in wolf form, and he slipped off his belt and was recognized.
In his trial, his daughter and Trompin were judged accessories in some of the murders. Like many condemned witches in Germany, Stubb was sentenced to torture and execution.
One unusual werewolf case resembles that of the benandanti of northern Italy: the werewolves were men who left their bodies and in spirit assumed the shapes of wolves, descending into the underworld to battle the witches. The case was tried in 1692 in Jurgensburg, Livonia, an area east of the Baltic Sea steeped in werewolf lore, and involved an 80-year-old man named Thiess.
Thiess freely confessed to being a werewolf. He testified that his nose had been broken by a man named Skeistan, a witch who was dead at the time he struck Thiess. His story of how it happened was this: Skeistan and other witches prevented crops from growing by carrying seed grain into hell. Thiess was a werewolf, who, with other werewolves, attempted to protect the crops by descending into hell and fighting with the witches to recover what was stolen. Three times a year, on the nights of St. Lucia, Pentecost and St. John (seasonal changes), the battles took place. If the werewolves delayed their descent, the witches barred the gates of hell, and the crops and livestock, even the fish catch, suffered. The werewolves carried iron bars as weapons, and the witches carried broom handles. Skeistan had broken Thiess’s nose with a broom handle wrapped in a horse’s tail.
The judges, naturally, were shocked to hear that werewolves, who were supposed to be agents of the Devil, could not tolerate the Devil and fought against witches. Asked what happened to werewolves at death, Thiess replied that they were buried like ordinary folk, and their souls went to heaven—another shock for the judges. Thiess insisted that the werewolves were the “hounds of God” who served mankind, preventing the Devil from carrying off the abundance of the earth. If not for them, everyone would suffer. He said werewolves in Germany and Russia likewise fought the witches in their own hells.
Thiess refused to confess that he had signed a pact with the Devil, despite the efforts of the judges. Even the parish priest, summoned to chastise him for his evil ways, failed to sway Thiess. The old man angrily said he was a better man than the priest and that he was neither the first, nor would be the last, werewolf to fight the witches. The judges sentenced him to 10 lashes for acts of idolatry and superstitious beliefs.
- Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Werewolves. New York: Causeway Books, 1973.
- Devlin, Judith. The Superstitious Mind: French Peasants and the Supernatural in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
- O’Donnell, Elliott. Werewolves. New York: Longvue Press, 1965.
- Summers, Montague. The Werewolf. 1933. reprint, New York: Bell Publishing, 1967.