Mythical Creatures

A werewolf is a human being who turns into a wolf and later resumes human form. During their episodes as wolves, werewolves savagely attack, kill, and devour animals and people. The word “werewolf,” or “man-wolf,” was first recorded in Old English the 11th century in the Ecclesiastical Ordinances of King Cnut (1017–1037). It was sometimes used to refer to outlaws.

Werewolf lore has existed since antiquity. Early humans may have established strong bonds with wolves—from whom dogs evolved—and there is evidence of various animal cults, in which humans acquired animal powers by donning their skins. The BERSERKIR and EIGI EINHAMIR are examples of later animal cults. Early humans may also have practiced cannibalism. In the earliest religions, gods and goddesses had animal attributes. In ancient Egypt, the images of gods were as were-animals: human bodies with animal heads.

Legends and myths of human transformation into wolves—one of the most feared of all animals—are thousands of years old. The wolf is prominent in Greek stories and in Norse, Scandinavian, Icelandic, and Teutonic lore (see SHAPE-SHIFTING). In some legends, the werewolf is a person born under that curse, who cannot prevent himself from his hellish metamorphosis, which happens on nights of the full MOON. The person, usually a man, but also 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 other tales, the werewolf is a witch who accomplishes the transformation by magical means or with the aid of DEMONS.

In most tales, the werewolf is wounded, and the wound sympathetically carries over to the human form and reveals the identity of the werewolf. The sympathetic wound appeared as evidence later in witch trials. (See AUVERGNE WEREWOLF; FEAST OF TRIMALCHIO.)

Werewolf superstitions may have some basis in lingering practices of primitive cannibalism. As others became more civilized, those who still liked to eat human flesh were increasingly ostracized and demonized.

Werewolf beliefs were particularly strong in parts of Europe where wolves were common and presented dangers. Superstitions and fears of wolves ran high in the Baltic regions (Livonia, Latvia, and Lithuania), France, Germany, Switzerland, and even parts of Spain. Plague epidemics that decimated local populations enabled wolves to flourish. As they lost natural prey to hunters, they turned to livestock, pets, and even humans, though attacks on humans are rare. France was particularly plagued with wolf terrors, the greatest of which was the BEAST OF GEVAUDAN. In England, wolves were exterminated by the 16th century, and so fear of wolves—and consequently stories of werewolves—are less common than in other parts of Europe.

Werewolf sightings and encounters continue into modern times, and mingle with reports of other mysterious creatures such as Bigfoot, CHUPACABRAS, DOGMEN, and the Skunk Ape, as well as with reports of UFO activity (see EXTRATERRESTRIALS). The BEAST OF BRAY ROAD has had numerous sightings and close encounters in Wisconsin.

Werewolves and Ghosts

Whether the werewolves actually live in the physical world or are part of some parallel world that occasionally and temporarily becomes accessible has been debated by researchers. Some encounters seem more like ghosts, suggesting a parallel world or dimension.

ELLIOTT O’DONNELL recorded a case of an apparent werewolf phantom, told to him by the young woman who had the experience. Jean St. Denis was staying at a small farm in Merionethshire, Wales. She would go to the railway station platform to do her sketching. One evening at dusk as she was packing up her equipment, she noticed an odd and indistinct figure sitting on a truck nearby. The figure seemed to be staring at her. At the same time, she became acutely aware that the station was deserted, save for her and the figure, whom she took to be a man. She asked it the time, but it gave no response. St. Denis quickly finished packing and departed. She had to walk to the farm alone in the growing darkness.

Along the way, she realized she was being followed. Looking over her shoulder, she could see the strange figure behind her. With the loneliest and darkest stretch of road ahead of her, she decided to confront it. She was horrified to see that her pursuer was part man and part wolf. It had a naked, gray, man-like body and a hideous wolf’s head with blazing eyes. When she turned her flashlight into its face, it pulled back and put its paw-like hands in front of its eyes. The figure then faded completely away, like a ghost.

O’Donnell relates another werewolf “ghost” case from the Valley of the Doones in Exmoor. A woman walking home alone late one night suddenly saw in front of her a tall gray man with a wolf’s head, stalking a terrified rabbit that was frozen still. Just as the werewolf seemed ready to spring, a stag burst out of the brush and startled it, and the figure abruptly vanished.

More recently, the British parapsychologist Robin Furman reported a phantom werewolf encounter in his home in Grimsby, England. When his daughter complained of a strange, apparitional figure watching her from her bedroom door, Furman switched rooms with her. Once in the room, he felt that he was not alone, and then noticed the figure of a tall wolf-headed man looking in through the doorway. The form faded and then disappeared. Furman felt no hostility or evilness from the figure, but thought that it was more looking at him out of curiosity. The figure was never seen again.

Phantom werewolves angrily looking for their missing bones have been reported, as in the HEBRIDES WEREWOLF and MERIONETHSHIRE WEREWOLF cases. A demonic phantom werewolf manifested in conjunction with the discovery of the stone HEXHAM HEADS in Northumberland, England in 1972.

Werewolves and Witchcraft

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Inquisition was at its peak. Werewolves, like witches, were seen as servants of the devil, and trials of accused witch werewolves increased.

The cases were characterized by murder and cannibalism. In Europe people accused of shape-shifting and other acts of witchcraft were burned. In the Pyrenees alone, some 200 men and women “werewolves” were sent to their deaths.

Demonologists accepted werewolves, but most believed them to be delusional with the aid of the devil, or simply delusional. King James I of England (King James VI of Scotland) wrote in his Demonology (1597) that werewolves, or “ManWoolfes,” were not people under the influence of the devil, but suffered from delusions and melancholia, and imitated wolf behavior.

Some accused werewolves clearly were mentally unstable and deranged people (see GRENIER, JEAN and ROULET, JACQUES). In 1541, a deranged farmer in Pavia who murdered several persons was arrested as a werewolf. One of his claims upheld a popular superstition, that werewolves have their wolf pelts on the inside of their human skins. To verify this, the authorities cut off all his limbs. They found no wolf pelt, of course. They accused, now innocent, unfortunately died several days later.

In many cultures, witches, sorcerers and other magically empowered individuals are able to shift into the forms of wolves or other animals. As werewolves or wereanimals, they are able to move with great speed, become invisible, and use supernatural powers to attack and kill enemies. (See SKINWALKERS.)

Types of Werewolves

In lore there are two general types of werewolves: involuntary and voluntary.

The involuntary werewolf is a person cursed, perhaps because of a sin. The curse might last a few years or a lifetime. For example, an Armenian folk belief holds that a sinful woman is condemned to be a werewolf for seven years. A demon appears to her and commands her to don a wolf skin. When she does so, she assumes the nature of a wolf, devouring her children and then strangers, wandering about at night to wreak havoc and returning to human form in the morning.

The voluntary werewolf is a person who likes to eat human flesh and acquires magical skills that enable transformation into wolf form at will. The transformation is accomplished in various ways:

• By completely disrobing
• By donning a GIRDLE or belt made of wolf skin or human skin
• By rubbing the body with magical OINTMENT
• By drinking rain water out of a wolf’s FOOTPRINTS
• By reciting magical incantations
• By being aided by the devil or his demons

In MONTAGUE SUMMER’s collection of werewolf lore in the British Isles, a self-described werewolf named Calcevayra related that he did his transformations on nights of the full moon. He would go to a distant location, strip off all his clothes and hide them beneath a rock or in a thornbush, and then roll to and fro in the sand until he “rose up in the form of a wolf, raging with a wolf’s fierce appetites.” Calcevayra also said that wolves always run with their mouths open because it helps their speed. If their jaws are closed, they cannot easily unclench their teeth.

Characteristics of both types the werewolf are

• An insatiable desire for the raw flesh and BLOOD of animals and humans
• Insatiable sexual lusts
• Wolfish behavior, such as howling and running about on all fours
• Savage attacks on animals and people
• Exhaustion after werewolf episodes end

In addition, there are lycanthropes, sufferers of LYCANTHROPY,which medicine recognizes as a mental and nervous disorder. Lycanthropes exhibit the same characteristics as the werewolves of lore.

Werewolves and Vampires

In Slavic lore, the werewolf is closely related to the vampire; the name of the Serbo-Croatian VUKODLAK vampire means “wolf’s hair.” VLOKOSLAK,a Serbian term, and VYRKOLAKA, a Greek term, are among the names that are applied to either a vampire or a werewolf. Many European superstitions about vampires hold that they can shape-shift into various animal forms besides wolves. In Greek and Serbian lore, werewolves are doomed to become vampires after death. See also FORTUNE, DION; MAGNUS, OLAUS.


  • Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Werewolves.London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1865.
  • Downes, Jonathan, and Richard Freeman. “Shug Monkeys and Werewolves: The Search for Dog-Headed Men,” in Fortean Studies Vol. 5, Steve Moore, ed. London: John Brown Publishing, 1998.
  • Noll, Richard. Vampires, Werewolves and Demons. New York: Brunner/Mazel, 1992.
  • O’Donnell, Elliott. Great Ghost Stories. London: Foulsham & Co., 1983.
  • Otten, Charlotte F., ed. A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture. New York: Dorset Press, 1989.
  • Sidky, H. Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs and Disease: An Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts. New York: Peter Lang, 1997.
  • Spence, Lewis. Legends and Romances of Brittany. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1997.
  • Summers, Montague. The Werewolf. New York: Bell Publishing, 1966

Werewolves are said to be the product of a human’s involuntary, usually temporary, transformation into a wolf. These beasts have been described in various ways, from looking like an ordinary though unusually ferocious wolf to looking half-wolf, halfhuman. For example, in 1972 several people in Ohio saw a “werewolf” that they described as having an upright, haircovered human body and the head of a wolf, complete with fangs; and in 1991 people in and near Delavan, Wisconsin, saw a creature on four legs that resembled a dog or wolf but had the musculature and arm and leg structure of a man. These sightings took place at night, when werewolves are believed to roam.

Werewolves were first mentioned directly in literature at least as early as the eleventh century A.D., but the concept of the werewolf has existed for much longer. Man-into-wolf transformations appear in ancient mythology, particularly Greek, and in ancient Germany, people believed that the spirits of wolves could enter human beings. At the time, this was considered a positive experience that enhanced the human’s abilities as a hunter and warrior. By medieval times, however, most of Europe associated the idea with demonic possession.

Still, medieval scholars did not automatically accept the notion that man-intowolf transformations were possible. In fact, there were great debates on the subject, until witch hunters managed to convince much of the public that what they called lycanthropy, the process of turning into a wolf, was the product of magic and that witches were capable of performing lycanthropy at will. After this, anyone suspected of being a werewolf was considered a servant of the devil just as witches were, and such a person was quickly put to death.

In at least one case, however, a suspected werewolf was allowed to live. In 1692 in Livonia, near the Baltic Sea, a man named Thiess, on trial for being a werewolf, insisted that he and all other werewolves deserved praise rather than prosecution because they did battle with witches and hated the devil. He described ferocious fights in which the agents of Satan were overcome by bands of werewolves from throughout Europe. Thiess’s unique defense brought him only ten lashes—an extremely light sentence, given that he could have faced imprisonment or execution.

Today some people accept the notion that large groups of werewolves roam about at night, largely unseen by ordinary humans. But these believers disagree on whether the werewolves’ transformation is an involuntary process or the product of intentional magic. Those believers who think that they personally can change into werewolves are said by medical professionals to be suffering from a serious mental illness that they refer to by the witch hunter’s term, lycanthropy. Some doctors also suggest that half-man, half-wolf sightings might be of people afflicted with a condition called porphyria. This illness causes a person’s skin to turn brown and become oddly textured; in addition, the sufferer becomes so sensitive to light that he or she can only comfortably venture outside at night.


  • Demons and the Devil
  • Lycanthropy
  • Witchcraft


The Greenhaven Encyclopedia of Paranormal Phenomena – written by Patricia D. Netzley © 2006 Gale, a part of Cengage Learning