The term “Lycanthropy” refers to the ability of a human being to undergo transformation into an animal – typically a wolf. The term may also refer medically to a mental illness condition in which a patient believes he or she possesses lycanthropic abilities – again, most often a wolf. In 1975, Surawicz and Banta published two modern cases of lycanthropy (not to be confused with theriomorph or “shape-shifting”) and again, both cases involved men who believed they could turn into wolves. Lycanthropy is a fairly new concept, but the history of werewolfism goes much further back…
How werewolves are infected
There’s a common belief that a werewolf is “infected” after being bitten by another werewolf. It has been a common affliction with documented cases occurring all over the world and dating back to the earliest recorded events in history. In medieval times, it became associated with a full moon (Gervase of Tilbury first proposed this in his 13th-century writings on paranormal events). Other aspects of werewolfism, such as the belief that a werewolf can be killed by a silver bullet, most likely came from movies (the 1944 House of Frankenstein movie is most likely the first mentioned the use of a silver bullet to kill a werewolf).
Where did this originate?
The word werewolf derives from the old English word “wer” meaning “man” implying “man wolf”. Werewolves appear most often as a common wolves although they possess human eyes and voice. In some cases, werewolves are reported to walk upright like a man. The process of turning into a wolf varies. In some cultures, it is instigated by wearing a particular piece of clothing such as a belt. In other cultures, it is an uncontrollable metamorphosis that occurs when a person becomes angry or when the full moon comes out. In all cases, when returning to human form, the person is typically weak and undergoes nervous depression – with the depressed state coming about because they are consciously aware of the crimes they committed while in the werewolf state.
The origination of the werewolf legend is not entirely clear. Some speculate that it may have derived from the very earliest days of mankind as an excuse to explain away human serial killers as some sort of paranormal event. In fact, there are several parallels between early serial killers and werewolves, including the cyclic nature of their crimes, cannibalism, and mutilation of the victim. Others speculate that the myth began in Europe where widespread reports of wolf attacks occurred before the animal was made extinct and purged from the area. One supporting fact for this theory notes the parallels between similar, related lycanthropy myths from other countries. For instance, in Africa where hyena populations are large, they have were-hyenas – were-tigers in India, were-jaguars in South America, etc.
Tracing werewolves through history
We can trace the history of werewolves going back to Turkish cave paintings in 8,000 B.C., and even written, documented cases exist from as early as 2000 B.C. In that era, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and epic poem and one of the earliest forms of literary fiction, was penned and included several references to werewolves. Many centuries later, around 400 B.C., we find recorded Grecian stories of Damarchus, an Arcadian werewolf who changed back to a man after nine years and was reported to have won a boxing medal at the Greek Olympics. In 1020 A.D. we find our first record of the word “werewolf”. It is at this point in time that the legend begins to take off.
In 1101, Prince Vseslav of Polotsk (or Vseslav Bryachislavich), the most powerful ruler of Polotsk (a Ukrainian city), died and was rumored to be a werewolf. A century later, Volsungasaga, probably the most important saga of the Fornaldar Sagas, or epic poems, included references to the hero Sigmund and his son Sinfjötli who wore cursed wolf-skins which transformed them into wolves. By the early 1400’s we begin to see references to women being tried for “riding wolves” and by the 1500’s, there are many recorded instances of men being executed for being werewolves. Astonishingly, from 1520 to 1630, there are over 30,000 werewolf trials recorded in France alone. During that same era, Weyer’s, De praestigus daemonum was published, which rationalized werewolfism as a demonification of mental illness (a theory later supported by the infamous 1975 Surawicz and Banta research paper).
Modern werewolf incidents
By the 15 century, the wolf was extinct in England and could no longer be blamed for particularly vicious murders. According to Edward Topsell, a well-known 15th-century author of compendiums of beasts, “There are none at all in England, except such as are kept in the Tower of London to be seen by the Prince and people brought out of other countries.” It seems as if the wolf had been purged from the European countryside but alas, the legend of werewolves would continue a little longer.
The Peter Stubbe case
In 1589, a very well-documented and bizarre case was recorded regarding a man named Peter Stubbe (or Peter Stumpp). German pamphlets from 1590, some of which were translated into English (two copies still exist to this day) describe a maniac murderer roaming the German countryside. As their history records, Peter was a German serial killer who was executed for being a werewolf in the city of Cologne. His brutal sentence included having his flesh pulled from the bones with hot pincers, having both arms and legs broken (so he could not escape), and finally having his head removed and his corpse burned, all of which were intended to ensure he remained dead. Unfortunately, his daughter and mistress were executed along with him, supposedly for withholding knowledge of his crimes.
And what exactly was his crime? Peter confessed (yes, after being tortured on the rack) to having killed and fed on 13 children, two pregnant women, and his very own son. The Werewolf of Beburg, as he came to be known, terrorized the country for several years. Bizarre murders and vicious mutilations, including the consumption of fetuses that were removed from his pregnant victims, set the townsfolk on edge. After being caught, Peter explained that he had practiced black magic since he was 12 years old and that Satan had given him a belt that would allow him to transform into a werewolf. He described his transformation as “the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws. “
Werewolves prosper in France
In the late 1700s, France experienced an unusual rash of werewolf mania. Although mostly confined to France, the terror spread into Europe also. One notable case occurred in July of 1764 in Le Gevaudan, France, where a small girl went missing while tending the family’s sheep. Her body was found by local townsmen with the heart torn from the body. A short time later, two more children were found murdered in a similar manner. Townsfolk were baffled until a local woman spotted a creature in her field that “walked upright like a man, was covered in hair, and had a tail.” The creature chased her into town, where she promptly reported the incident to authorities. Townspeople of course, thought the story ludicrous and were certain that the woman was insane until a local officer of the town council also spotted the creature and gave the exact same description as the old woman. The creature immediately became the prime suspect in the murders.
More reports of the creature followed from townspeople, many with unquestioning reputations, which necessitated a letter written to the King requesting help in capturing the creature (a copy of which is purported to exist still). The King sent soldiers into the town to investigate (a copy of the official order also exists). The soldiers entered the town with a condescending flair, thinking the whole thing was a ruse and a complete waste of time, but they too quickly changed their tune when they spotted the creature roaming the countryside. Reportedly, the soldiers shot and killed the creature, and their description of the body matched the description that was previously provided by the townspeople. Unfortunately, the killings began again a year later and continued for several more years afterward.
Werewolves spotted in Wisconsin
In the early 1900’s, a rash of werewolf sightings occurred in the state of Wisconsin in the United States. In 1936, Mark Schackelman encountered a wolfman just east of Jefferson, Wisconsin on Highway 18. While driving home, he spotted the creature digging in a dirt mound. He described the creature as a “hair-covered creature that stood erect and stood more than six feet tall. The face of the creature boasted a muzzle and features of both an ape and a dog. Its hands were oddly formed with a twisted thumb and three fully formed fingers.”
The Bray Road Beast
Reports in the same area of Wisconsin surfaced in 1964 and again in 1972. In October 1999, the infamous “Bray Road Beast” report came out of Delavan, Wisconsin. 18-year-old Doristine Gipson was driving along Bray Road when she felt a bump on the car. Thinking that she had run over something, she pulled over to investigate. Doristine got out of the car to check the tires when she spotted a dark, hairy form racing toward her. She quickly jumped into the car and sped off as the creature jumped onto the trunk of her car.
After word of the Doristine’s encounter spread, more local people began to come forward and share their tales of beastly encounters. Lorianne Endrizzi recalled an encounter that she had experienced in 1989. Driving along Bray Road, she saw what she initially thought, was a person hunched over on the side of the road. She slowed down to take a closer look. She saw a beast “with grayish, brown hair, fangs, and pointed ears. His face was … long and snouty, like a wolf. The creature also had glowing yellow eyes. She had no idea what this thing could have been until she saw a book at the library that had an illustration of a werewolf in it.”
In-Article Image CreditsA werewolf devouring a woman via Wikimedia Commons by Unknown author with usage type - Public Domain. 19th century
Werewolf in woodland at night via Wikimedia Commons by Mont Sudbury with usage type - Public Domain. Weird Tales Volume 36 - November 1941
Werewolf In Geneva 15 October 1580 via Wikimedia Commons by Johann Jakob Wick with usage type - Public Domain. circa 1587
Werewolf via Wikimedia Commons by Lucas Cranach the Elder with usage type - Public Domain. circa 1512
Featured Image CreditA werewolf devouring a woman via Wikimedia Commons by Unknown author with usage type - Public Domain. 19th century