Historical werewolf cases in Europe

A werewolf is a human with the ability to shapeshift into a wolf, either purposely or after being placed under a curse or affliction (often a bite or scratch from another werewolf) and especially on the night of a full moon. Nowadays the werewolf phenomena is linked, in occult circles, to very dense etheric doubles used by shamans or witches for astral travel.

 

Dog-headed men from Livre des merveilles du monde, a 13th-century travelogue with stories told by Marco Polo

 

Early sources for belief in this ability or affliction, called lycanthropy, are Petronius (27–66) and Gervase of Tilbury (1150–1228). The werewolf is a widespread concept in European folklore, existing in many variants, which are related by a common development of a Christian interpretation of underlying European folklore developed during the medieval period. From the early modern period, werewolf beliefs also spread to the New World with colonialism. Belief in werewolves developed in parallel to the belief in witches, in the course of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Like the witchcraft trials as a whole, the trial of supposed werewolves emerged in what is now Switzerland (especially the Valais and Vaud) in the early 15th century and spread throughout Europe in the 16th, peaking in the 17th and subsiding by the 18th century.

The persecution of werewolves and the associated folklore is an integral part of the “witch-hunt” phenomenon, albeit a marginal one, accusations of lycanthropy being involved in only a small fraction of witchcraft trials. During the early period, accusations of lycanthropy (transformation into a wolf) were mixed with accusations of wolf-riding or wolf-charming.

The case of Peter Stumpp (1589) led to a significant peak in both interest in and persecution of supposed werewolves, primarily in French-speaking and German-speaking Europe. The phenomenon persisted longest in Bavaria and Austria, with persecution of wolf-charmers recorded until well after 1650, the final cases taking place in the early 18th century in Carinthia and Styria.

 

The Beast of Gévaudan

The Beast of Gévaudan, “a calf-sized men-eating wolf” that attacked about 210 people, resulting in 113 deaths (98 of them were partly eaten), between 1764 and 1767

 

How to change into a werewolf

Several methods for becoming a werewolf have been reported, one of the simplest being the removal of clothing and putting on a belt made of wolfskin, probably as a substitute for the assumption of an entire animal skin (which also is frequently described). In other cases, the body is rubbed with a magic salve. Drinking rainwater out of the footprint of the animal in question or from certain enchanted streams were also considered effectual modes of accomplishing metamorphosis. The 16th-century Swedish writer Olaus Magnus says that the Livonian werewolves were initiated by draining a cup of specially prepared beer and repeating a set formula. Ralston in his Songs of the Russian People gives the form of incantation still familiar in Russia. In Italy, France and Germany, it was said that a man or woman could turn into a werewolf if he or she, on a certain Wednesday or Friday, slept outside on a summer night with the full moon shining directly on his or her face.

Werewolf Histories

In other cases, the transformation was supposedly accomplished by Satanic allegiance for the most loathsome ends, often for the sake of sating a craving for human flesh. “The werewolves”, writes Richard Verstegan (Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1628),

..“are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in worrying and killing, and most of humane creatures.

The phenomenon of repercussion, the power of animal metamorphosis, or of sending out a familiar, real or spiritual, as a messenger, and the supernormal powers conferred by association with such a familiar, are also attributed to the magician, male and female, all the world over; and witch superstitions are closely parallel to, if not identical with, lycanthropic beliefs, the occasional involuntary character of lycanthropy being almost the sole distinguishing feature. In another direction the phenomenon of repercussion is asserted to manifest itself in connection with the bush-soul of the West African and the nagual of Central America; but though there is no line of demarcation to be drawn on logical grounds, the assumed power of the magician and the intimate association of the bush-soul or the nagual with a human being are not termed lycanthropy.

The curse of lycanthropy was also considered by some scholars as being a divine punishment. Werewolf literature shows many examples of God or saints allegedly cursing those who invoked their wrath with werewolfism. Such is the case of Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for slaughtering one of his own sons and serving his remains to the gods as a dinner. Those who were excommunicated by the Roman Catholic Church were also said to become werewolves.

The power of transforming others into wild beasts was attributed not only to malignant sorcerers, but to Christian saints as well. Omnes angeli, boni et Mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra (“All angels, good and bad have the power of transmutating our bodies”) was the dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Patrick was said to have transformed the Welsh King Vereticus into a wolf; Natalis supposedly cursed an illustrious Irish family whose members were each doomed to be a wolf for seven years. In other tales the divine agency is even more direct, while in Russia, again, men supposedly became werewolves when incurring the wrath of the Devil.

A notable exception to the association of Lycanthropy and the Devil, comes from a rare and lesser known account of an 80-year-old man named Thiess. In 1692, in Jürgensburg, Livonia, Thiess testified under oath that he and other werewolves were the Hounds of God. He claimed they were warriors who went down into hell to do battle with witches and demons. Their efforts ensured that the Devil and his minions did not carry off the grain from local failed crops down to hell. Thiess was steadfast in his assertions, claiming that werewolves in Germany and Russia also did battle with the devil’s minions in their own versions of hell, and insisted that when werewolves died, their souls were welcomed into heaven as reward for their service. Thiess was ultimately sentenced to ten lashes for Idolatry and superstitious belief.

Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies

The etymology of werewolf

The word werewolf continues a late Old English wer(e)wulf, a compound of were “man” and wulf “wolf”. The only Old High German testimony is in the form of a given name, Weriuuolf, although an early Middle High German werwolf is found in works of Burchard of Worms and Berthold of Regensburg. The word or concept does not occur in medieval German poetry or fiction, gaining popularity only from the 15th century. Middle Latin gerulphus Anglo-Norman garwalf, Old Frankish wariwulf. Old Norse had the cognate varúlfur, but because of the high importance of werewolves in Norse mythology, there were alternative terms such as ulfhéðinn (“one in wolf-skin”, referring still to the totemistic or cultic adoption of wolf-nature rather than the superstitious belief in actual shape-shifting). In modern Scandinavian also kveldulf “evening-wolf”, presumably after the name of Kveldulf Bjalfason, a historical berserker of the 9th century who figures in the Icelandic sagas.

 

Lycantropy

The term lycanthropy, referring both to the ability to transform oneself into a wolf and to the act of so doing, comes from Ancient Greek λυκάνθρωπος lukánthropos (from λύκος lúkos “wolf” and ἄνθρωπος, ánthrōpos “human”). The word does occur in ancient Greek sources, but only in Late Antiquity, only rarely, and only in the context of clinical lycanthropy described by Galen, where the patient had the ravenous appetite and other qualities of a wolf; the Greek word attains some currency only in Byzantine Greek, featuring in the 10th-century encyclopedia Suda. Use of the Greek-derived lycanthropy in English occurs in learned writing beginning in the later 16th century (first recorded 1584 in The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, who argued against the reality of werewolves; “Lycanthropia is a disease, and not a transformation.” v. i. 92), at first explicitly for clinical lycanthropy, i.e. the type of insanity where the patient imagines to have transformed into a wolf, and not in reference to supposedly real shape-shifting. Use of lycanthropy for supposed shape-shifting is much later, introduced ca. 1830.

 

Slavic terms for the werewolf

Slavic uses the term vlko-dlak (Polish wilkołak, Czech vlkodlak, Slovak vlkolak, Serbo-Croatian вукодлакvukodlak, Slovenian volkodlak, Bulgarian върколак/vrkolak, Belarusian ваўкалак/vaukalak, Ukrainian вовкулака/vovkulaka), literally “wolf-skin”, paralleling the Old Norse ulfhéðinn. However, the word is not attested in the medieval period. The Slavic term was loaned into modern Greek as Vrykolakas. Baltic has related terms, Lithuanian vilkolakis and vilkatas, Latvian vilkatis and vilkacis. The name vurdalak (вурдалак) for the Slavic vampire (“ghoul, revenant”) is a corruption due to Alexander Pushkin, which was later widely spread by A.K. Tolstoy in his novella The Family of the Vourdalak (composed in French, but first published in Russian translation in 1884).

In Hungarian folklore, the werewolves used to live specially in the region of Transdanubia, and it was thought that the ability to change into a wolf was obtained in the infant age, after the suffering of abuse by the parents or by a curse. At the age of seven the boy or the girl leaves the house and goes hunting by night and can change to person or wolf whenever he wants. The curse can also be obtained when in the adulthood the person passed three times through an arch made of a Birch with the help of a wild rose’s spine.

The werewolves were known to exterminate all kind of farm animals, especially sheep. The transformation usually occurred in the Winter solstice, Easter and full moon. Later in the 17th and 18th century, the trials in Hungary not only were conducted against witches, but against werewolves too, and many records exist creating connections between both kinds. Also the vampires and werewolves are closely related in Hungary, being both feared in the antiquity.

Among the South Slavs, and also among the Kashubs of what is now northern Poland, there was the belief that if a child was born with hair, a birthmark or a caul on their head, they were supposed to possess shape-shifting abilities. Though capable of turning into any animal they wished, it was commonly believed that such people preferred to turn into a wolf.

Serbian vukodlaks traditionally had the habit of congregating annually in the winter months, when they would strip off their wolf skins and hang them from trees. They would then get a hold of another vulkodlak’s skin and burn it, releasing from its curse the vukodlak from whom the skin came.

 

Cynocephaly
 cynocephalus

A cynocephalus. From the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

The characteristic of cynocephaly, or cynocephalus, having the head of a dog—or of a jackal—is a widely attested mythical phenomenon existing in many different forms and contexts. The literal meaning of “cynocephaly” is “dog-headed”; however, that this refers to a human body with a dog head is implied. Often, such creatures also have human intelligence. Such cynocephalics are known in mythology and legend from many parts of the world, including ancient Egypt, Greece, and China. Further mentions come from the medieval East and Europe. In modern popular culture cynocephalics are also encountered as characters in books, comics, and graphic novels. Cynocephaly is generally distinguished from lycanthropy (werewolfism). The word cynocephaly is taken (through Latin) from the Greek word κῠνοκέφᾰλοι kynokephaloi, from kyno– (combining form of κύων kyōn) meaning “dog” and κεφαλή kephalē meaning “head”. The same “dog” root is found in the name Cynomorpha (“dog-shaped”) for a sub-group of the family Cercopithecidae, which contains many species of macaques and baboons.

 

Lycaon, the first werewolf
Lycaon. Gravure de Vergilius Solis (1514-1562) - werewolf

Lycaon. etching by Vergilius Solis (1514-1562)

Few references to men changing into wolves are found in Ancient Greek literature and mythology. Herodotus, in his Histories, wrote that the Neuri, a tribe he places to the north-east of Scythia, were all transformed into wolves once every year for several days, and then changed back to their human shape. In the second century BC, the Greek geographer Pausanias related the story of Lycaon, the King of Arcadia and father of Callisto, who was transformed into a wolf because he had ritually murdered a child. In accounts by the Bibliotheca (3.8.1) and Ovid (Metamorphoses I.219-239), Lycaon serves human flesh to Zeus, wanting to know if he is really a god. Lycaon’s transformation, therefore, is punishment for a crime, considered variously as murder, cannibalism, and impiety. Ovid also relates stories of men who roamed the woods of Arcadia in the form of wolves. Others believed that Lycaon is the Constellation of the Wolf, and that in him were the united qualities of wolf, king, and constellation.

In addition to Ovid, other Roman writers also mentioned lycanthropy. Virgil wrote of human beings transforming into wolves. Pliny points out that the origin of transformation into wolves was due to Evanthes, a Greek author of good repute, who tells the story of Antheus, the Arcadian, a member of whose family is chosen by lot and then taken to a certain lake in the district, across which he swims and is changed into a wolf for a space of nine years. So, too, Demæntus, during a sacrifice of human victims, tasted the entrails of a boy who had been slaughtered, upon which he turned into a wolf, but ten years later he was victorious in the pugilistic contests at the Olympic games.

wolf

Wolf fighting dogs.

 

In the Latin work of prose, the Satyricon, written circa AD 60 by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, one of the characters, Niceros, tells a story at a banquet about a friend who turned into a wolf (chs. 61-62). He describes the incident as follows, “When I look for my buddy I see he’d stripped and piled his clothes by the roadside… He pees in a circle round his clothes and then, just like that, turns into a wolf!… after he turned into a wolf he started howling and then ran off into the woods.

Lupercalia

The turnskin or versipelles

The following quaint story is taken from Petronius, being told by one Niceros, at a banquet given by Trimalchio: “It happened that my master was gone to Capua to dispose of some second-hand goods. I took the opportunity and persuaded our guest to walk with me to our fifth milestone. He was a valiant soldier, and a sort of a grim water-drinking Pluto. About cock-crow, when the moon was shining as bright as midday, we came amongst the monuments. My friend began addressing himself to the stars, but I was rather in a mood to sing or count them; and when I turned to look at him, lo! he had already stripped himself and laid his clothes near him. My heart was in my nostrils, and I stood like a dead man; but he made a mark round his clothes and on a sudden became a wolf. Do not think I jest, I would not lie for any man’s estate. But to return to what I am saying. When he became a wolf he began howling and fled into the woods. At first I hardly knew where I was, and afterwards, when I went to take up his clothes, they were turned into stone. Who then was more like to die from fear than I? Yet I drew my sword, and cutting the air right and left came thus to my sweetheart’s house. When I entered the courtyard I was like to breathe my last, perspiration poured from my neck, and my eyes were dim. My Melissa met me to ask where I had been so late, and said, ‘Had you only come sooner you might have helped us, for a wolf came to the farm and worried our cattle; but he had not the best of the joke, for all he escaped, as our servant ran a lance through his neck.’ When I heard this I could not doubt what had happened, and as the day dawned I ran home as fast as a robbed innkeeper. When I came to the spot where the clothes had been turned into stone I could find nothing except blood. But when I got home I found my friend, the soldier, in bed, bleeding at the neck like an ox, and a doctor dressing his wound. I then knew he was a turnskin; nor would I ever have broken bread with him again, no not if you had killed me.” The expression turnskin or turncoat is a translation of the Latin versipelles, a term used to describe a werewolf.

18th Century etching of a Loup-garou (werewolf)

18th Century etching of a Loup-garou (werewolf)

The Lady of Saintonge and Eliphas Levi’s commentary on Lycanthropy

Another story in which the human being suffers from the wound inflicted on the werewolf concerns a fine lady of Saintonge, who used to wander at night in the forests in the shape of a wolf. One day she caught her paw in a trap set by the hunters. This put an end to her nocturnal wanderings, and afterwards she had to keep a glove on the hand that had been trapped, to conceal the mutilation of two of her fingers. Eliphas Levi, the occultist, has endeavoured to explain this sympathetic condition between the man and his animal presentment.

“We must speak here of lycanthropy, or the nocturnal transformation of men into wolves, histories so well substantiated that sceptical science has had recourse to furious maniacs, and to masquerading as animals for explanations. But such hypotheses are puerile and explain nothing. Let us seek elsewhere the solution of the mystery, and establish—First, that no person has been killed by a werewolf except by suffocation, without effusion of blood and without wounds. Second, that werewolves, though tracked, hunted, and even maimed, have never been killed on the spot. Third, that persons suspected of these transformations have always been found at home, after the pursuit of the werewolf, more or less wounded, sometimes dying, but invariably in their natural form….

We have spoken of the sidereal body, which is the mediator between the soul and the material organism. This body remains awake very often while the other is asleep, and by thought transports itself through all space which universal magnetism opens to it. It thus lengthens, without breaking, the sympathetic chain attaching it to the heart and brain, and that is why there is danger in waking up dreaming persons with a start, for the shock may sever the chain at a blow and cause instantaneous death. The form of our sidereal body is conformable to the habitual condition of our thoughts, and in the long run it is bound to modify the features of the material organism. Let us now be bold enough to assert that the werewolf is nothing more than the sidereal body of a man whose savage and sanguinary instincts are represented by the wolf, who, whilst his phantom is wandering abroad, sleeps painfully in his bed, and dreams that he is a veritable wolf. What renders the werewolf visible is the almost somnambulistic over-excitement caused by the fear of those who see it, or their disposition, more particularly among simple country-folk, to place themselves in direct communication with the astral light which is the common medium of dreams and visions. The blows inflicted on the werewolf really wound the sleeper by the odic and sympathetic conjestion of the astral light and by the correspondence of the immaterial with the material body….”

 

A werewolf incident of 1588
munster wer-wolf werewolf

1554 Munster Lycanthrope Werewolf Demon. Woodblock in the text of lycanthrope alongside accounts of real animals and places. Sebastian Munster in his book, Cosmographia, also included much of what was simply believed to exist in late medieval times. Hence this lycanthropic devil or demon turns up printed on many pages.

This peculiarity of the wound dealt to the werewolf being reproduced in the human being is emphasised by an incident which occurred about 1588 in a tiny village situated in the mountains of Auvergne. A gentleman was gazing one evening from the windows of his castle when he saw a hunter he knew passing on his way to the chase. Calling to him, he begged that on his return he would report what luck he had had. The hunter after pursuing his way was attacked by a large wolf. He fired off his gun without hitting the animal. Then he struck at it with his hunting knife, severing one of the paws, which he picked up and put in his knapsack. The wounded wolf ran quickly into the forest. When the hunter reached the castle he told his friend of his strange fight with a wolf, and to emphasise his story opened his knapsack, in which to his horror and surprise he saw, not a wolf’s paw as he had expected, but the hand of a woman which had a gold ring on one of the fingers.

The owner recognised the ring as belonging to his wife, and hastening into the kitchen to question her he found her with one arm hidden beneath the folds of a shawl. He drew it aside and saw she had lost her hand. Then she confessed that it was she who, in the form of a wolf, had attacked the hunter. She was arrested and burnt to death soon afterwards at Ryon.

In another variation of the werewolf story, the human being retains a material object acquired by his animal replica and is freed thereby from his obsession.

A man, who from his childhood had been a werewolf, when returning one night with his wife from a merrymaking, observed that the hour was at hand when the transformation usually took place. Giving the reins to his wife, he got out of the cart and said, “If anyone comes to thee, strike at it with thy apron.” Then he went away and a few minutes later the poor woman was attacked by a wolf. Remembering what her husband had told her, she struck at it with her apron, and the animal tore out a piece and ran off. Presently the man himself returned holding in his mouth the torn fragment of the apron. Then his wife cried out in terror, “Good Lord, man! Why, thou art a werewolf!” “Thank thee, mother!” replied he, “but now I am free!” and after this incident he kept human form until the day of his death.

 

William and the Werewolf

In “William of Palermo,” the old romance known as “William and the Werewolf,” translated from the French at the command of Sir Humphrey de Bohun about A.D. 1350, the wer-wolf appears as a sort of a guardian angel. The brother of the King Apulia, envious of the heir-apparent, bribes two women to murder the king’s son. While the boy William is at play a wer-wolf runs off with him, swims across the Straits of Messina, and carries him into a forest near Rome, where it takes care of him and provides him with food. The wer-wolf in reality is Alphonso, heir to the Spanish throne, who has been transformed by his stepmother Queen Braunde, who desires her own son Braundinis to wear the crown of Spain.

werewolf carries Prince William of Palermo away

Werewolf carries Prince William of Palermo away.

The wer-wolf embraces the king’s son
With his fore-feet,
And so familiar with him
Is the king’s son, that all pleases him,
Whatever the beast does for him.

While the wer-wolf seeks provender, a cowherd finds William and takes him to his hut, where the Emperor meets him when out hunting. Placing him behind him on his horse he takes him to Rome and gives him in charge of his daughter Melior, to be her page.

William and Melior fall in love with one another, and to avoid the Emperor’s wrath devise an escape, disguised in the skins of white bears, helped by Melior’s friend Alexandrine. When Melior asks whether she makes a bold bear, Alexandrine answers, “Yes, Madame, you are a grisly ghost enough, and look ferocious.” Together the lovers wander out of the garden on all fours and making their way to the forest hide in a den. Meanwhile the wer-wolf has followed William’s fortunes, and finding the wanderers in need, he sets on a harmless passer-by who carries provisions, and seizing bread and boiled beef out of his bag, lays it before the lovers, then runs off and, attacking another traveller, secures two flagons of wine.

Witch riding a black wolf by Bernard Zuber

Witch riding a black wolf by Bernard Zuber

Being pursued, the lovers escape to Palermo, led always by the wer-wolf, Alphonso, half-brother to Braundinis, who was destined by Melior’s father to become his son-in-law. William does battle with the proposed suitor and, still helped by the wer-wolf, whose symbol is painted on his shield, overcomes his rival, takes the King and Queen of Spain prisoner and refuses to let them go until Queen Braunde promises to transform the rightful heir from a wolf back into a human being. “Unless she disenchants you, she shall be burnt,” he says forcibly. Braunde takes her stepson, the wolf, into a private chamber, draws forth a magic ring with a stone in it that is proof against all witchcraft and binds it with a red silk thread roun