“We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.”Aldo Leopold
Cover art by Maquenda
We have all heard the wonderful tales of the ancient shape shifters common amongst our ancestors, but few capture our imagination as much as the werewolf. Anthropologists have observed that half-human, half-animal creatures that look reminiscent of the werewolf were painted by Stone Age artists more than 10,000 years ago. The world’s oldest art throughout Europe, Africa, and Australia in particular depict common animal human hybrids. These figures are fascinatingly one of the only common denominators in primitive art around the world besides an array of pleasing geometric patterns, depictions of the ‘wild hunt’ and sun, moon or other star worship.
These werewolves can often look more akin to werelions or werebats but inevitably all belonged to a world which early humans saw as powerful and terrifying. While some of these figures may have been deities as they were commonly shown to have animal like features, many may have been malevolent characters. Scary imaginings in our dreams can often translate as something to fear in reality. It could also be as simple as that when our kin committed crimes of murder and particularly something so heinous as cannibalism, it could only be explained away by dark magic or otherworldly capabilities. It could be somewhat organic and natural to create a symbolistic representation to explain the depth of our fellow human’s depravity and insanity.
Fascinatingly, many European archaeologists and anthropologists believe there was a Proto-Indo-European wider mythology that may have involved lycanthropy through the famed kóryos or ancient warrior class. Considering that dogs were possibly our first close animal companions, there may have been a focus on wolves and wolf dogs, living in close companionship with young unmarried warriors, probably mostly male. The dogs would have aided in hunting but also companionship, warmth or even been food themselves in times of need. Countless wolves have been found in various ritualistic burials across Europe. There are hints of this widespread cultural phenomenon in nearly all European countries but some of the strongest of these practices comes from Indian, Norse and Irish traditions.
In Europe, India and Asia, bands of roaming and aggressive warriors such as the Indian Vrātyas in the Veda and the Fianna in the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology roamed the wild countrysides for years on end, honing their hunting and survival skills. They were said to purposefully relate with and act like wild wolves, which was quoted in the pseudo tellings regarding St. Patrick’s life of local boys that challenged his beliefs. In Norse cultures, there were the Ulfheðnar, the wolf warriors or berserkers in general that may have also donned a wolf, bear or boar head and skin and howled like wild animals going into fits of frenzy during battle that were said to be unstoppable. All of these warrior bands would have likely had a ritual initiating them into the dog warrior class as well as a ritual when they came back to society as a man which in Indian tradition was on the winter and then, summer solstice.
To initiate into this band of warriors was to “descend into darkness” and possibly why there would have been a link with the winter solstice and then a returning to society and a more stable life at the summer solstice a specific amount of years later. These bands of warriors were frequently said in literature to be “liminal” in the role they assumed and their overall journey. Typically, they would have survived on only what they hunted or stole. The Gaulish tribes that supposedly went to battle naked are rumored to have been hypothetical remnants of this specific and more wild warrior class. Young boys in Brittany, France were rumored to have been participating in activities similar to this and even wearing wolf skins all the way through the Middle Ages. Criminals in general often used animal and wolf skins as a disguise to steal and ransack isolated homes and families.
We know that the phenomenon of the werewolf existed in the pagan world as it was referenced by both Greek and Roman authors, as well as much early Christianized or historical literature. However, it wasn’t until Christian influence took over that lycanthropy took a more negative center stage throughout Europe and likely led to a lot of the destruction of the wolf itself. The condition of the werewolf was paralleled by vicious witch hunts during the same few hundred years in the Middle and Late Middle Ages. Suspects of lycanthropy were treated similarly as witches, typically tortured and burned or beheaded. Legends began springing up around the creature and it was often said they were created purposefully by being put under an enchantment, curse, affliction or bite from another werewolf and said to often transform on full moon nights. Occasionally, they were said to have been given a belt or a potion from the devil himself that allowed them to change. Although, these admissions were made under torture. A common remedy for wolf bites or of being a werewolf was the herbal medicinal plant wolfsbane, and hence where it got its name.
Again, there are werewolf characters the world wide over, some very famous, such as the Native Turtle Island Wendigo, which were also cannibals. There is undoubtedly a continuation of belief from Indo-European tradition to the present in the representation of the wolf and the symbolical impact it has on the human psyche. Merely to see a wolf in person is a powerful experience in itself and given how long they’ve been our hunting and living partners, it all seems like a meaningful relationship, more than most other species of animals except possibly, the horse. We can also easily sense into the increased fear of the wolf throughout the Middle Ages coupled with the condemnation of pagan beliefs and any association to shapeshifting symbolically in ritualistic practices. For as much has been written here, it’s ultimately only a scratch on the surface of wolf and werewolf tales throughout Europe.
The French word for wolf is loup or louve and werewolf is loup-garou. One of the most famous supposed werewolves in France was Gilles Garnier, “The Werewolf of Dole” who was tried and convicted of the murder of several children to which the sentence was to be burned alive.
Beast of Gévaudan was another real life example of a purported werewolf. The mysterious creature was said to look “like a wolf, yet not a wolf” and ravaged a rural region of Gévaudan, France, killing approximately 100 people within three years. The story became news that spread far and wide for the time period and the beast eventually acquired a 6,000 livre bounty by King Louis XV. A local hunter named Marquis d’Apcher finally shot a wolf where it was revealed to have human remains inside of it and other non-wolf characteristics as described by witnesses. Scholars in hindsight believe that the animal, if a wolf was not acting alone to cause this many deaths and it was likely part of a larger local pack that were picking off townsfolk or they surmise it was some sort of hybrid or lion that escaped captivity.
There were countless tales of werewolves throughout France with some of the oldest being told around the 12th century. Bisclavret, “The Werewolf” was famously translated from Breton by Marie de France and written in the 12th century. This tale bears resemblance to another similar tale from the same period in Welsh Arthurian legend as well as another famous French werewolf tale called Melion where a man is betrayed by his wife…
The story goes that there was once a knight named Melion who served King Arthur and vowed never to marry a woman who had loved another man. He had a hard time finding this impossible love but one day while out hunting, he met the daughter of the King of Ireland. They quickly fell in love and she confessed to him that she had never loved another man. They were quickly married and had two children. Three years later, Melion and his wife were out hunting and saw a beautiful stag. His wife was so awestruck by the deer, she declared that she would die if she did not eat the animal’s flesh. Melion promises to get her the deer but needs help transforming into a wolf through the use of a magical ring. Once he is transformed, he took off towards the deer while the wife took his clothes and returned to Ireland with Melion’s squire to elope. When Melion returns, he sees to his heartbreak that his wife is gone. King Arthur went to Ireland and Melion decides to travel there as well seeking his wife. Melion arrives at court, sees his squire and attacks him. Arthur, seeing how tame Melion appears despite attacking the squire, knows that the wolf must be under a spell so goes to investigate. The squire confesses what happened and Melion’s wife is forced to restore Melion with the magical ring. Melion considers punishing the woman and turning her into a wolf left to suffer as he had, but he decides against it and returns to Britain with King Arthur.
The wolf’s Scots Gaelic name is mac-tìre, “son of the countryside” or madadh-allaidh. It lives on in a number of Scottish place names, such as Mullinavaddie, ‘Mill of the wolf’, as well as Lochmaddy, Craigmaddy, and Creag a Mhadaidh meaning ‘Crag of the Wolf’. In Scotland, as early as the 2nd Century BC, King Dorvadilla decreed that anyone who killed a wolf would be rewarded with an ox. In the 15th Century James the First of Scotland ordered the eradication of wolves in the kingdom. “Last wolf” legends were common tales to be passed on in many parts of Scotland. The very last was allegedly killed by some accounts in 1680 by Chief Sir Ewan Cameron and in other accounts, in 1743 by a man named MacQueen of Pall-a-chrocain. Werewolf legends are few and far between but references to wolves were common in being referenced as a threat to livestock.
There have been some tales of “wulvers” existing in Scotland and specifically in the Shetland Islands but it was discovered later that these claims were completely fabricated by folklorist Jessie Saxby when she said…
“The Wulver was a creature like a man with a wolf’s head. He had short brown hair all over him. His home was a cave dug out of the side of a steep knowe, half-way up a hill. He didn’t molest folk if folk didn’t molest him. He was fond of catching and eating fish, and had a small rock in the deep water which is known to this day as the “Wulver’s Stane”. There he would sit fishing sillaks and piltaks for hour after hour. He was reported to have frequently left a few fish on the window-sill of some poor body.” – Jessie Saxby, Shetland Traditional Lore
A little incantation regarding the wolf was salvaged by Alexander Carmichael that says…
“The people repaired to the fields, glens, and corries to eat their quarter cakes. When eating them, they threw a piece over each shoulder alternately, saying : ‘ Here to thee, wolf, spare my sheep ; there to thee, fox, spare my lambs ; here to thee, eagle, spare my goats ; there to thee, raven, spare my kids ; here to thee, marten, spare my fowls ; there to thee, harrier, spare my chickens.’’
The wolf’s Irish Gaeilge name is mac-tìre, “son of the countryside” while werewolf was faoladh, conriocht or conrecht in some sources. It lives on in a number of place names including Feltrim or Faeldruim Hill, Knockaunvicteera, “Little Hill of the Wolf” and Isknamacteera, “Water of the Wolves” among many other places. Despite the Midlandian ice age which reached its peak in 20,000 BCE, wolves were present in Ireland at that time and for thousands of years prior as has been proven through the bones of wolves found in caves in counties Cork, Waterford and Clare. The last wolf in Ireland was said to be killed in 1786. During Queen Elizabeth’s reign, her lord deputy John Perrot was the first to order a large scale scheme to destroy wolves in Ireland. Oliver Cromwell also did an incredible amount of damage and one of the most hated men, had a lot to do with the demise of the wolf. This was somewhat referenced in the Irish animated film, Wolfwalkers. Wolves were considered to be so incredibly prolific in Ireland that the island was referenced during the Middle Ages as “Wolf-land” and many of the ring forts were speculated to have been built to protect precious livestock from wolves and other raiders. The Irish wolfhound was a special type of dog specifically bred to hunt wolves that was exported in mass across to Britain, Scotland and Europe to aid in the hunting of wolves.
An interesting reference is made in the Brehon Laws to women that might be a detriment to caretakers or that you were excused in essence from not having to take into your care which included “sharp-tongued viragos” and “werewolves”. It was also said in the law codes that wolves were sometimes kept as pets. There is another interesting and speculative reference in the Lebor Gabála Érenn…
“With the Tuatha De Danann were spells of druids and charioteers, of trappers, spencers, werewolves?, cupbearers, and leeches.”
One of the most famous associations with the idea of a werewolf comes from the ability of The Morrígan being able to take the form of a wolf, particularly when she joined Cú Chulainn in battle. What is further interesting of this association is her connection to liminality, sovereignty, prophecy and death practices. Similar to crows, which are also strongly associated with her, the wolf was also quoted in historical texts as frequently feasting on the fresh corpses of bodies after war. In addition to that, wolves were often quoted as being nuisances in that they commonly dug up freshly buried bodies to eat as well.
Of course Cormac mac Airt, a famous High King of Ireland was said to be carried off as a baby to be nourished by a she-wolf and her pack in the Caves of Kesh in County Sligo. He was soon found by a hunter and brought back but later it was said that he could understand their language. Four wolves would accompany him in his rebellion against Lugaid mac Con, and he was said to have kept wolves and dogs close with him until the end of his life.
In the Fenian Cycle, Airitech had three daughters that were wolf-like creatures that came out of their cave Oweynagat or Cave of Cruachan every year at Samhain to stalk and prowl the land, taking their fair dues of local sheep. They were eventually killed by the hero Cas Corach and Caílte mac Rónáin, the nephew of Fionn mac Cumhaill. It was said that the she-wolves loved music and so the harp was played to attract and distract them while also soothing them into changing back into human form. Caílte then threw a spear that penetrated and killed all three of them at once. In legend, Cas Corach was a harper of Tuatha Dé Danann, who also went on to play for St. Patrick.
There are other tales of werewolves such as the Werewolves of Ossory where they were said to be a descendant of Laignech Fáelad, or in some instances, generalized “descendant of wolves”, that had the power to change themselves and devour people. Here we are harkened back to a similar set of warriors as the Fianna or roaming young boys that would have howled at night and took on the behaviors of wolves referenced by St. Patrick. These wolves of Ossory also went “wolf walking” where according to legend, they carried out raids, terrorizing the land at night. In another specific instance, the brother of the King of Ossory, Feradach mac Duach was said in the Cóir Anmann that he was the ancestor of a tribe of werewolves and…
“He was a man that used to go wolfing, i.e. into wolf-shapes, i.e. into shapes of wolves he used to go, and his offspring used to go after him and they used to kill the herds after the fashion of wolves, so that it is for that that he used to be called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them who went into a wolf-shape.”
The wolf’s Welsh name is blaidd and werewolf is bleiddiaid. There are quite a few historical and fictional accounts of werewolves in Wales. One is called the “Merionethshire Werewolf”, worth quoting in full, relatively modern, likely fictitious, but a worthy tale…
In a remote lake in the hills of Merionethshire, Wales a professor and his wife took a cottage on the lakeshore for a summer so that the professor could pursue his passion of fishing. They entertained a guest while staying there. One day while rowing out into the lake, the professor discovered near the shoreline a skull that appeared to be that of a very large dog. He took it back to the cottage and left it on a kitchen shelf. That evening, his wife was alone in the cottage. She heard a snufﬂing and scratching at the kitchen door that sounded like that of a dog. She went to bar the door: As she moved something drew her attention to the window, and there she saw glaring at her through the diamond panes the head of a huge creature, half animal, half human. The cruel panting jaws were gaping wide and showed keen white teeth; the great furry paws clasped the sill like hands; the red eyes gleamed hideously; it was the gaze of a man, horribly intensive, horribly intelligent. Half-fainting with fear she ran through to the front door and shot the bolt. A moment after she heard heavy breathing outside and the latch rattled menacingly. The minutes that followed were full of acutest suspense, and now and again a low snarl would be heard at the door or window, and a sound as though the creature was endeavoring to force its entrance. At last the voices of her husband and his friend, come back from their ramble, sounded in the little garden; and as they knocked, ﬁnding the door fast, she was but able to open ere she fell in a swoon at their feet.
Evidently the men had neither seen nor heard anything unusual. After the wife relayed what had happened, the men sat up all night, armed with sticks and a gun: The hours passed slowly, until when all was darkest and most lonely the soft thud of cushioned paws was heard on the gravel outside, and nails scratched at the kitchen window. To their horror in a stale phosphorescent light they saw the hideous mask of a wolf with the eyes of a man glaring through the glass, eyes that were red with hellish rage. Snatching the gun they rushed to the door, but it had seen their movement and was away in a moment. As they issued from the house a shadowy undeﬁned shape slipped through the open gate, and in the stars they could just see a huge animal making towards the lake into which it disappeared silently, nor did a rufﬂe cross the surface of the water. The next morning, the professor rowed out into the lake and threw the skull as far as possible into the water. The werewolf was not seen again.
In older Welsh literature, Sir Marrock was an Arthurian hero and werewolf creature that could not assume human form unless he wore human clothes. His wife, whom wished to spend more time with her other lover, would often hide his clothes so that he was forced to stay away in the wild forested areas. This went on for seven years until one day, King Arthur encountered him and recognizing that he was under a spell, brought him home to which his wife admitted her treachery and returned his clothes. The man and his wife made amends and he continued to keep his human form.
Another famous tale regarding wolves was the beautiful tale of Gelert, the faithful wolf hound. The dog is alleged to have belonged to Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, a gift from King John of England. In this legend, Llywelyn returned one day from hunting to find his baby missing. The cradle was overturned, and Gelert greeted him in his normal friendly manner but with a blood-smeared mouth. Believing the dog had killed the child, the frantic father plunged his sword into the dog’s side. At the sound of the dog’s dying yelp the baby began crying. Llywelyn found him unharmed under the cradle, along with a dead wolf which had attacked the child and been killed by Gelert. Llywelyn is overcome with grief and remorse and buries the dog with great ceremony. He was haunted by its dying yelp and It’s told that Llywelyn never smiled again.
The German word for wolf is wolf or wölfin and werewolf is werwolf. One of the most famous werewolves comes from Germany by the name of Peter Stübbe. He was a farmer and alleged serial killer, cannibal and werewolf. Being threatened with torture, he confessed to killing 16 children and women. He was tried, tortured and sentenced to death as was his wife and daughter for being ‘consorts’. The torture he received was unprecedented and his head put up on a pike with a wolf sign next to it as a warning against such behaviors.
Similarly to the Beast of Gévaudan, Germany had their own wolf terrors with one being called the “Beast of Anspach”. In 1685, the town of Anspach was plagued by a purported wolf feeding on a number of women, children and domestic animals. Eventually, the wolf was hunted and killed as well as paraded around town as a werewolf having been slain. In both French and German sources, these were common tales with humans and livestock alike being picked off by wolves, hunted and made an example of. The idea of the werewolf ultimately became the literary and cultural beast that encouraged continued hunting and extermination of the wolf.
If we’re looking at Norse myth, Odin himself was fated to be devoured by the wolf Fenrir at the battle of Ragnarök and the wolf was sacred to him as was the raven. He had two wolves Geri and Freki as his loyal companions. They were always at his side, and when he sat at the table he would feed them while he ate his own meal. Two other wolves in Norse mythology are Skoll and Hati Hrodvitnisson. They are wolves that chase the sun and the moon. Skoll is always trying to catch the sun, and Hati is chasing the moon. Eventually, the sun and the moon will be swallowed by the two wolves at Ragnarök turning the world into darkness. Again, we are harkened to the liminality and symbolistic power of the wolf.
The word werewolf itself stems from Old English werwulf, “man wolf”. In England, the last wolf was said to be killed in 1496 by John Harrington. The werewolf legends are few and far between, similarly to Scotland.
It’s safe to say that the idea of the werewolf has been around an incredibly long time and will continue to evolve and pervade our world on a large scale. While wolves had a nuanced relationship with their kinfolk on the isles, citizens were not accused of being a werewolf specifically (outside of legend) very often. Accusations of the werewolf seems to be more a mainland European phenomenon and fueled by a mixture of reality (criminals), suspicion, wolf hatred and Christianity. Irregardless, the wolf is not lacking in representation in related folklore and a testament to how powerful and symbolic the wolf is. After all, we have seemingly ‘loved’ them enough to tame them and create hundreds of varieties of them.