We all know the story of the werewolf. A person is bitten by a wolf and then on the night of a full moon they turn into a wolf and the only thing that can kill them is a bullet made out of silver. But where did this story come from and why does it still invade our pop culture now?
The earliest known story of a werewolf comes from a roman writer Ovid who in around 1ad tells the story of a King Lycaon who liked to hold lavish parties for the gods but was also a cannibal inevitably roast servant was on menu. Since eating people was something the gods kind of looked down on they turned King Lycaon into a werewolf as punishment. It’s from this legend that we get the term lycanthrope to describe werewolves. This story is interesting cause we know that Rome hadn’t had a “king” for a every long time at this point and I don’t think Ovid was trying to bad mouth the past leaders of Rome. This story probably was a cleverly worded story about the people who lived beyond Rome and how they were so savage and nasty they would even try to serve human flesh to the gods.
In later early medieval stories a person would become a werewolf by wearing the hide of a wolf or a belt made of wolf skin. We know that the Germanic tribes that would be a major problem for Rome and the Roman Catholics after liked to wear wolf skins into battle. Maybe the story of king Lycaon and the image of savage pagan warriors dressed in wolf skins merged into the early medieval concept of the werewolf. This idea is reflected in a story of a wolf in France that was killed after slaughtering local live stock. When the hunter examined the body it was found to be a man wearing only a belt. But these wolf skin dressed beasts are not quite the full moon loving sliver hating misbehaved dogs we know of today.
During the late medieval era the Catholic Church was boss and many superstitions were added mixing the Christian faith with earlier legends. Now werewolves came about because of pacts with the devil or from being cursed by a witch. During this time actual werewolf trails took place. If for some reason people were coming up dead or missing it wasn’t uncommon to attribute it to a werewolf and go looking for the monster to kill it. Often time’s people would be blamed for the attacks and labeled a werewolf for things as simple as having hairy hands. Also around this time the idea of werewolves being killed by silver came about. The bible says that Jesus was betrayed for pieces of silver but Judas died before he could enjoy it so silver was imbued with the ideas of justice and purity. Also In the late medieval time the color silver and white were linked and since white is also seen as the color of purity sliver was as well. Another possible origin for silver was a legend that says in 1640 the city of Greifswald Germany was attacked by a whole group of werewolves. They tried fighting them off but it wasn’t until someone had the idea of melting the towns silver into musket balls that they were able to defeat the werewolves and save the town.
So that explains silver but what about the full moon? Well In parts of Italy and France there was the idea that a person could become a werewolf if they slept outside on a Wednesday during a full moon. Interestingly enough though the link between werewolves and the full moon didn’t become common knowledge until the 20th century when monster flicks like Frankenstein Meets Werewolf – 1943 came out. In fact in Bram Stokers Dracula he has werewolves in it that can turn into wolves any night they want. It’s possible that this idea sticks with us from the commonly held belief that urban crime is worse during nights with a full moon.
The werewolf legend is a prefect case study on how myths can change with time. A story with roman origins is tuned into an evil medieval monster. That monster is spread through out Europe picking up different attributes depending on who tells the story. That monster survives through the romantic novels of the Victorian era and finally cemented into a common myth by the monster movies of the 40’s and 50’s. Even In our own time movies like Twilight and the Shadow Hunters books have even taken the werewolf from an evil brute and turned them into heroic figures. So who knows what the werewolf might transform next.
Temme, J.D.H. Die Volkssagen von Pommern und Rugen. Translated by D.L. Ashliman. Berlin: In de Nicolaischen Buchhandlung, 1840.
Woodward, Ian. The Werewolf Delusion. (1979).
^ Glut, Donald F. (2002). The Frankenstein Archive. McFarland. p. 19. ISBN 0786413530.