Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The Curious Ancient Legends of Were-Wolves

Were-Wolves In Ancient Writings

Of all extraordinary stories connected with the Wolf the most astounding, is the belief which existed for many centuries, (and in some parts of France still does exist, under the form of the “Loup-garou,”) and which is mentioned by many classical authors—Marcellus Sidetes, Virgil, Herodotus, Pomponius Mela, Ovid, Pliny, Petronius, &c.—of men being able to change themselves into wolves. This was called Lycanthropy, from two Greek words signifying wolf, and man, and those who were thus gifted, were dignified by the name of Versipellis, or able to change the skin. It must be said, however, for Pliny, amongst classical authors, that although he panders sufficiently to popular superstition to mention Lycanthropy, and quotes from others some instances of it, yet he writes:—“It is really wonderful to what a length the credulity of the Greeks will go! There is no falsehood, if ever so barefaced, to which some of them cannot be found to bear testimony.”

This curious belief is to be found in Eastern writings, and it was especially at home with the Scandinavian and Teutonic nations. It is frequently mentioned in the Northern Sagas—but space here forbids more than just saying that the best account of these eigi einhamir (not of one skin) is to be found in The Book of Were-Wolves, by the Rev. S. Baring-Gould.

The name of Were Wolf, or Wehr Wolf, is derived thus, according to Mr. Gould:—“Vargr is the same as u-argr, restless; argr being the same as the Anglo-Saxon earg. Vargr had its double signification in Norse. It signified a Wolf, and also a godless man. This vargr is the English were, in the word were-wolf, and the garou or varou in French. The Danish word for were-wolf is var-ulf the Gothic, vaira-ulf.” Lycanthropy was a widespread belief, but it gradually dwindled down in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to those eigi einhamir, the witches who would change themselves into hares, &c.

Olaus Magnus tells us Of the Fiercenesse of Men who by Charms are turned into Wolves:—“In the Feast of Christ’s Nativity, in the night, at a certain place, that they are resolved upon amongst themselves, there is gathered together such a huge multitude of Wolves changed from men, that dwell in divers places, which afterwards the same night doth so rage with wonderfull fiercenesse, both against mankind, and other creatures that are not fierce by nature, that the Inhabitants of that country suffer more hurt from them than ever they do from the true natural Wolves. For as it is proved, they set upon the houses of men that are in the Woods, with wonderfull fiercenesse, and labour to break down the doors, whereby they may destroy both men and other creatures that remain there.

“They go into the Beer-Cellars, and there they drink out some Tuns of Beer or Mede, and they heap al the empty vessels one upon another in the midst of the Cellar, and so leave them: wherein they differ from natural and true Wolves. But the place, where, by chance they stayd that night, the Inhabitants of those Countries think to be prophetical: Because, if any ill successe befall a Man in that place; as, if his Cart overturn, and he be thrown down in the Snow, they are fully perswaded that man must die that year, as they have for many years proved it by experience. Between Lituania, Samogetia, and Curonia, there is a certain wall left, of a Castle that was thrown down; to this, at a set time, some thousands of them come together, that each of them may try his nimblenesse in leaping. He that cannot leap over this wall, as commonly the fat ones cannot, are beaten with whips by their Captains.

“And it is constantly affirmed that amongst that multitude there are the great men, and chiefest Nobility of the Land. The reason of this metamorphosis, that is exceeding contrary to Nature, is given by one skilled in this witchcraft, by drinking to one in a Cup of Ale, and by mumbling certain words at the same time, so that he who is to be admitted into that unlawful Society, do accept it. Then, when he pleaseth, he may change his humane form, into the form of a Wolf entirely, going into some private Cellar, or secret Wood. Again, he can, after some time put off the same shape he took upon him, and resume the form he had before at his pleasure....

“But for to come to examples; When a certain Nobleman took a long journey through the Woods, and had many servile Country-fellows in his Company, that were acquainted with this witchcraft, (as there are many such found in those parts) the day was almost spent; wherefore he must lie in the Woods, for there was no Inne neare that place; and withall they were sore pinched with hunger and want. Last of all, one of the Company propounded a seasonable proposall, that the rest must be quiet, and if they saw any thing they must make no tumulte; that he saw afar off a flock of sheep feeding; he would take care that, without much labor, they should have one of them to rost for Supper. Presently he goes into a thick Wood that no man might see him, and there he changed his humane shape like to that of a Wolf. After this he fell upon the flock of sheep with all his might, and he took one of them that was running back to the Wood, and then he came to the Chariot in the form of a Wolf, and brought the sheep to them. His companions being conscious how he stole it, receive it with grateful mind, and hide it close in the Chariot; but he that had changed himself into a Wolf, went into the Wood again, and became a Man.

“Also in Livonia not many years since, it fell out that there was a dispute between a Nobleman’s wife and his servant, (of which they have plenty more in that Country, than in any Christian Land) that men could not be turned into Wolves; whereupon he brake forth into this speech, that he would presently shew her an example of that businesse, so he might do it with her permission: he goes alone into the cellar, and, presently after, he came forth in the form of a Wolf. The dogs ran after him through the fields to the wood, and they bit out one of his eyes, though he defended himself stoutly enough. The next day he came with one eye to his Lady. Lastly, as is yet fresh in memory, how the Duke of Prussia, giving small credit to such a Witchcraft, compelled one who was cunning in this Sorcery, whom he held in chains, to change himself into a Wolf; and he did so. Yet that he might not go unpunished for this Idolatry, he afterwards caused him to be burnt. For such heinous offences are severely punished both by Divine and Humane Laws.”

Zahn, on the authority of Trithemius, who wrote in 1335, says that men having the spine elongated after the manner of a tail were Were-wolves. Topsell takes a more sensible view of the matter:—“There is a certaine territorie in Ireland (whereof M. Cambden writeth) that the inhabitants which live till they be past fifty yeare old, are foolishly reported to be turned into wolves, the true cause whereof he conjectureth to be, because for the most part they are vexed with the disease called Lycanthropia, which is a kind of melancholy, causing the persons so affected, about the moneth of February, to forsake their owne dwelling or houses, and to run out into the woodes, or neare the graves and sepulchers of men, howling and barking like Dogs and Wolves. The true signes of this disease are thus described by Marcellus: those, saith he, which are thus affected, have their faces pale, their eies dry and hollow, looking drousily and cannot weep. Their tongue as if it were al scab’d, being very rough, neither can they spit, and they are very thirsty, having many ulcers breaking out of their bodies, especially on their legges; this disease some cal Lycaon, and men oppressed therewith, Lycaones, because that there was one Lycaon, as it is fained by the poets, who, for his wickednes in sacrificing of a child, was by Jupiter turned into a Wolf, being utterly distracted of human understanding, and that which the poets speake of him. And this is most strange, that many thus diseased should desire the graves of the dead.”

 Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

For an unusual modern interpretation of the legend of the Werewolf, read my historical, paranormal romance Shadows In A Timeless Myth.

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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915