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A German woodcut from 1722

A werewolf (Or Lycanthrope) in folklore and mythology is a person who shapeshifts into a wolf, either purposely, by using magic, or after being placed under a curse. The medieval chronicler Gervase of Tilbury associated the transformation with the appearance of the full moon, but this concept was rarely associated with the werewolf until the idea was picked up by modern fiction writers. Most modern references agree that a werewolf can be killed if shot by a silver bullet, although this is more a reflection of fiction's influence than an authentic feature of the folk legends. Werewolves are sometimes held to become vampires after death.

Origins and variations of the word

Werewolf, by Lucas Cranach der Ältere, 1512

The name is thought most likely to derive from Old English wer (or were) meaning man (male man rather than gender-neutral) or possibly the Latin vir, also meaning man, masculine. It has cognates in several Germanic languages including Gothic wair, Old High German wer and Old Norse var. The second element is '*wlkwo-' or wulf meaning simply wolf. The two elements joined thus yield man-wolf. The first element is thought to be representative of the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European roots *wi-ro- meaning man. Also thought to be descended from this root are Latin 'vir' Old Prussian: 'wirs', and Irish Irish 'fear' (pl. 'fir'). An alternative etymology looks to Old English weri (to wear) plus "wolf", thus bearing wearer of the wolf skin.

Other sources believe it is derived from warg-wolf where warg (or later werg and wero) is cognate with Norse varg meaning wolf and as vargulf means the kind of wolf that slaughters many of a flock or herd but eats only a bit. This was a serious problem for herders as they had to somehow destroy the individual wolf that had run mad before it destroyed their entire flock or herd. They then used the wolf's hide as a decorative ornament in the bedroom of a young infant, believing it to give the baby supernatural powers. Warg by itself was used in Old English for that specific kind of wolf (see J. R. R. Tolkien's novel The Hobbit) and it was used as well for what would now be called a serial killer.

The Greek term Lycanthropy (a compound of which the first part derives from the same Proto-Indo-European root for wolf, *wlkwo-, as the English word) is also commonly used for the wolf - man transformation. The term for the metamorphosis of people into animals in general, rather than wolves specifically, is therianthropy (therianthrope means beast-man). The term turnskin or turncoat is sometimes also used. The French name for a werewolf, sometimes used in English, is loup-garou, from the Latin noun lupusmeaning wolf. The second element is thought to be from Old French garoul meaning werewolf. This in turn is most likely from Frankish wer-wulf meaning man-wolf.

History of the werewolf

Many European countries and cultures have stories of werewolves, including France (loup-garou), Greece (lycanthropos), Spain (hombre lobo), Bulgaria (varkolak, vulkodlak), Czech Republic (vlkodlak), Serbia (vukodlak), Russia (oboroten' , vurdalak), Ukraine (vovkulak(a),vovkun,pereverten' ), Croatia (vukodlak),Poland(wilkołak), Romania (vârcolac), Scotland(werewolf, wulver), England (werwolf), Ireland (faoladh or conriocht), Germany (Werwolf), Denmark/Sweden (Varulv), Galicia, Portugal (lobisón, lobisomem), Lithuania (vilkolakis and vilkatlakis), Latvia (vilkatis and vilkacis), Estonia (libahunt), Finland (ihmissusi), Argentina(lobizón, hombre lobo) and Italy (lupo mannaro) . In northern Europe, there are also tales about people changing into bears.

  • In France they actually had an encounter with were-wolves, or the Beast of Gevaudan in 1764. It got its first name from attacking a Shepard in the small town of Gevaudan. Because of all the sightings of the wolf there where werewolf trials held in order to wipe out the wolfs while they where still human. The king issued his best hunters to go out and kill it in 1764. But it kept coming back until 1767 when one hunter shot it with a silver bullet. After that France didn't have any more werewolf problems.
  • In Norse mythology, the legends of berserkers may be a source of the werewolf myths.Berserks were vicious fighters, dressed in bear or wolf hides due to their preference to quick movement rather than tough armour; they were immune to pain and killed viciously in battle, like a wild animal. The berserkrs specifically associated with wolves were known as ulfheðnar (wolf-shirts).
  • In Latvian mythology, the Vilkacis was a person changed into a wolf-like monster, though the Vilkacis was occasionally beneficial.

A closely related set of myths are the skinwalkers. These myths probably have a common base in Proto-Indo-European society, where the class of young, unwed warriors were apparently associated with wolves.

  • Shapeshifters similar to werewolves are common in myths from all over the world, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves.
  • In Greek mythology the story of Lycaon supplies one of the earliest examples of a werewolf legend. According to one form of it Lycaon was transformed into a wolf as a result of eating human flesh; one of those who were present at periodical sacrifice on Mount Lycaon was said to suffer a similar fate.
  • The Roman Pliny the Elder, quoting Euanthes, says that a man of Anthus' family was selected by lot and brought to a lake in Arcadia, where he hung his clothing on an ash tree and swam across. This resulted in his being transformed into a wolf, and he wandered in this shape nine years. Then, if he had attacked no human being, he was at liberty to swim back and resume his former shape. Probably the two stories are identical, though we hear nothing of participation in the Lycaean sacrifice by the descendant of Antaeus. Herodotus in his Histories tells that the Neuri, a tribe he places to the north-east of Scythia were annually transformed for a few days, and Virgil is familiar with transformation of human beings into wolves. In the novel Satyricon, written about year 60 by Gaius Petronius, one of the characters recites a story about a man who turns into a wolf during a full moon.
  • There are women, so the Armenian belief runs, who in consequence of deadly sins are condemned to pass seven years in the form of a wolf. A spirit comes to such a woman and brings her a wolf's skin. He orders her to put it on, and no sooner has she done this than the most frightful wolfish cravings make their appearance and soon get the upper hand. Her better nature conquered, she makes a meal of her own children, one by one, then of her relatives' children according to the degree of relationship, and finally the children of strangers begin to fall as prey to her. She wanders forth only at night, and doors and locks spring open at her approach. When morning draws near she returns to human form and removes her wolf skin. In these cases the transformation was involuntary or virtually so. But side by side with this belief in involuntary metamorphosis, we find the belief that human beings can change themselves into animals at will and then resume their own form.
  • In the Volsungasaga of Norse mythology, the hero Sigmund and his son Sinfjötli spent some time wearing cursed wolf-skins, which transformed them into wolves.
  • Belief in werewolves was so widespread that the Church made several attempts to eradicate it, including Canon episcopi (c.900) which required penance for admitting to the belief.
  • France in particular seems to have been infested with werewolves during the 16th century, and the consequent trials were very numerous. In some of the cases those of the Gandillon family in the Jura, the tailor of Chalons and Roulet in Angers, all occurring in the year 1598; there was clear evidence against the accused of murder and cannibalism, but none of association with wolves; in other cases, as that of Gilles Garnier in Dole in 1573, there was clear evidence against some wolf, but none against the accused. Yet while this lycanthropy fever, both of suspectors and of suspected, was at its height, it was decided in the case of Jean Grenier at Bordeaux in 1603 that lycanthropy was nothing more than an insane delusion. From this time the loup-garou gradually ceased to be regarded as a dangerous heretic, and fell back into his pre-Christian position of being simply a man-wolf-fiend. The lubins or lupins of France were usually female and shy in contrast to the aggressive loup-garous.
  • In Prussia, Livonia and Lithuania, according to the bishops Olaus Magnus and Majolus, the werwolves were in the 16th century far more destructive than true and natural wolves, and their heterodoxy appears from the Catholic bishops' assertion that they formed an accursed college of those desirous of innovations contrary to the divine law.
  • In England, however, where at the beginning of the 17th century the punishment of witchcraft was still zealously prosecuted by James I of England, the wolf had been so long extinct that that pious monarch was himself to regard warwoolfes as victims of delusion induced by a natural superabundance of melancholic. Only small creatures such as the cat, the hare and the weasel remained for the malignant sorcerer to transform himself into, but he was firmly believed to avail himself of these agencies.

Many of the werewolves in European tradition were most innocent and God-fearing persons, who suffered through the witchcraft of others, or simply from an unhappy fate, and who as wolves behaved in a truly touching fashion, fawning upon and protecting their benefactors. In Marie de France's poem Bisclaveret (c. 1200), the nobleman Bisclavret, for reasons not described in the lai, had to transform into a wolf every week. When his treacherous wife stole his clothing, needed to restore his human form, he escaped the king's wolf hunt by imploring the king for mercy, and accompanied the king thereafter. His behavior at court was so gentle and harmless than when his wife's new husband appeared at court and the king met Bisclavret's ex-wife near their home, his attacks on them were taken as revenge, and the truth was revealed. Others of this sort were Alphouns, the hero of William and the Werewolf (a.k.a. The Romance of William of Palerne, translated from French - Guillaume de Palerne - into English about 1350), and the numerous princes and princesses, knights and ladies, who appear temporarily in beast form in the German fairy tales, or Märchen. See Snow White and Rose Red, where the tame bear is really a bewitched prince, and The Golden Bird where the talking fox is also a man.

Indeed, the power of transforming others into wild beasts was attributed not only to malignant sorcerers, but also to Christian saints. 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 transformed Vereticus, a king in Wales, into a wolf; and St. Natalis cursed an illustrious Irish family with the result that each member of it was doomed to be a wolf for seven years. In other tales the divine agency is still more direct, while in Russia, again, men are supposed to become werewolves through incurring the wrath of the devil.

Some werewolf lore is based on documented events. The Beast of Gévaudan was a creature that reportedly terrorized the general area of the French former provinc] of Gévaudan, in today's Lozère département, in the Margeride Mountains in south-central France, in the general timeframe of 1764 to 1767. It was often described as a giant wolf and was said to attack livestock and humans indiscriminately.


the most recent werewolf report from western Europe.

Garibaldi del Trucco was the first one to encounter the ‘beast man’ while returning home late one evening from one of his interminable poker games. The moon was full. As he walked down the Corso degli Scalzi, only the splashing of the many aged and scarred fountains interrupted the profound stillness. In order to chase away apprehensive thoughts that dogged his solitary shadow, he whistled a loud cheerful aria. As he reached the crest of the Vicolo della Lumaca [Alley of the Snail], near the fountain of the Pilotta, he saw what seemed to be a man, with eyes flaming like two firebrands and ‘fingernails’ that would be the envy of any cat. ‘Jesu! What is he? I must escape… but what if he follows and catches up with me just as I reach my door? Aiee, no, per carità! Better to crouch here in the shadows…’ The monster had not moved a centimetre; only his features and claws grew nastier. Garibaldi invoked all the holy spirits in purgatory. As the minutes dragged on, the creature started an animal grunting which grew to piercing howls. He clawed at and crawled over the low wall surrounding the fountain. From his torn hands drops of dark red splashed into the turbid water. ‘Good fellow, just let me pass’, Garibaldi nearly croaked out but the words strangled in his throat. He thought of screaming aloud the name of his wife, but his house was located at the bottom of the Avenue of the Dead, the farthest corner of Castelfuoco where only spiders and snails ventured out. ‘If I survive’, he promised himself ‘I will change houses. I will give up poker…’ Meanwhile, the werewolf was flinging himself around convulsively in the water, satisfying some mysterious animal drive to bathe himself. Garibaldi thought the time had come to flee. But to reach the shelter of the Vicolo della Lumaca ten meters away he would have to pass in front of the creature. Another eternity went by. The purple shadows began to give way to a pale light. At this point the werewolf’s baying died to almost imperceptible moans, and rapidly his ‘monster’ semblance changed to a human one. A last shuddering dip into the fountain, a last hoarse roar and he was liberated from his nightmare. The werewolf passed quietly by Garibaldi del Trucco, who was having difficulty staving off a violent attack of nervous diarrhoea. The latter dove into the Vicolo and a few seconds later flung himself onto his sleeping wife who grumbled at this unwonted aggression. Some of the idle young bucks, the vitelloni [idle young men], saw in the situation a unique kind of adventure. ‘Tonight those of you with strong livers will come with me to catch the werewolf’, their leader announced. As the same swollen moon glanced over the rooftops, the small band stationed itself silently under an arch near the Fountain of the Pilotta. Everyone held his breath in anticipation and fear. Then the werewolf vaulted into the tiny piazza and began to undress slowly, as if in a trance. Under the white brilliance of the moon his bare figure was even more terrifying. With two shrill howls the unfortunate creature began sloshing water over himself, and at this moment the spectators rushed whooping toward him. The werewolf responded with an even more terrible shriek, leaped from the water, and fell to the cobblestones as if mortally wounded. For an instant the vitelloni remained riveted. No one believed his own eyes. The werewolf was no more than a timid day labourer of Castelfuoco who lived for his work in the fields and the sacred evening mass. But on nights of the full moon, he came forth questing for water with wolflike sounds and strength.

In the late 1990s, a string of man-eating wolf attacks were reported in Uttar Pradesh, India. Frightened people claimed, among other things, that the wolves were werewolves.

Becoming a werewolf

Historical legends describe a wide variety of methods for becoming a werewolf. One of the simplest was the removal of clothing and putting on a belt made of wolf skin, probably 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
  • To drink water out of the footprint of the animal in question or to drink from certain enchanted streams were also considered effectual modes of accomplishing metamorphosis.
  • 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. It is also said that the seventh son of the seventh son will become werewolf. Another is to be directly bitten by a werewolf, where the saliva enters the blood stream.
  • In Galician, Portuguese and Brazilian folklore, it is the seventh of the sons (but sometimes the seventh child, a boy, after a line of six daughters) who becomes a werewolf. This belief was so extended in Northern Argentina (where it is called the lobizón), that seventh sons were abandoned, ceded in adoption or killed. A law from 1920 decreed that the President of Argentina is the godfather of every seventh son. Thus, the State gives him a gold medal in his baptism and a scholarship until his 21st year. This ended the abandonments, but it is still traditional that the President godfathers seventh sons.
  • Various methods also existed for removing the beast-shape. The simplest was the act of the enchanter (operating either on himself or on a victim), and another was the removal of the animal belt or skin. To kneel in one spot for a hundred years, to be reproached with being a werewolf, to be saluted with the sign of the cross, or addressed thrice by baptismal name, to be struck three blows on the forehead with a knife, or to have at least three drops of blood drawn have also been mentioned as possible cures. Many European folk tales include throwing an iron object over or at the werewolf, to make it reveal its human form.
  • In other cases the transformation was supposed to be accomplished by Satanic agency voluntarily submitted to, and that for the most loathsome ends, in particular for the gratification of a craving for human flesh. The werwolves, writes Richard Verstegan (Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1628), are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an oyntment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not onely unto the view of others seeme as wolves, but to their owne thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they weare the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in wourrying and killing, and most of humane creatures.Such were the views about lycanthropy current throughout the continent of Europe when Verstegan wrote. The ointments and salves in question may have contained hallucinogenic agents.
  • Becoming a werewolf simply by being bitten by another werewolf as a form of contagion is common in modern fiction, but rare in legend, in which werewolf attacks seldom left the victim alive to transform. This method is probably one of the worst and probably not true becuase it is pretty hard to believe.
  • Not all the time does a person "become" a werewolf. The trait of a werewolf is probably a dominate trait and if it's there, then it's going to be spread throughout the family. The only way this can be plausable is if one or both of the parents have the trait in them. They could have this from family history, an unknown or known curse, or any other method of getting a werewolf gene, trait, curse...anything that cause man to change into beast.

Theories of origin

A recent theory has been proposed to explain werewolf episodes in Europe in the 18th and 19th century Ergot, which causes a form of foodborne illness, is a fungus that grows in place of rye grains in wet growing seasons after very cold winters. Ergot poisoning usually affects whole towns or at least poor areas of towns and results in hallucinations, mass hysteria and paranoia, as well as convulsions and sometimes death. (LSD can be derived from ergot.) Ergot poisoning has been proposed as both a cause of an individual believing that he or she is a werewolf and of a whole town believing that they had seen a werewolf. However, this theory is controversial and unsatisfactory. Witchcraft hysteria and legends of animal transformations, as well as hysteria and superstition in general, have existed across the world for all of recorded history. Even if ergot poisoning is found to be an accurate explanation in some cases, it cannot be applied to all instances. An over-reliance on any one theory denies the diversity and complexity of such occurrences.

Some modern researchers have tried to use conditions such as rabies, hypertrichosis(excessive hair growth over the entire body) or porphyria (an enzyme disorder with symptoms including hallucinations and paranoia) as an explanation for werewolf beliefs, although the symptoms of those ailments do not match up well with the folklore or the evidence of the episodes of hysteria either. There is also a clinical condition called Lupus (SLE), where the afflicted person may have an altered facial appearance reminiscent of a wolf, which may be relevant.

There is also a rare mental disorder called clinical lycanthropy, in which an affected person has a delusional belief that he or she is transforming into another animal, although not always a wolf or werewolf.

Others believe werewolf legends arose as a part of shamanism and totem animals in primitive and nature-based cultures.Template:Citation needed The term Therianthropy has been adopted to describe a spiritual concept in which the individual believes he or she has the spirit or soul, in whole or in part, of a non-human animal.

Abilities of the Werewolf

The werewolf is the perfect predator, a savage hybrid of human intelligence and animal cunning. The werewolf is extremely powerful, capable of easily ripping a man apart. The werewolf has incredible hunting and killing capabilities, possessing supernatural levels of strength, speed, agility, and endurance.

The werewolf has supernatural regenerative capabilities, allowing the creature to recover from even the most grievous wounds within minutes (although whether the werewolf is capable of regrowing a severed limb is unknown). Silver inhibits the healing process, but the werewolf will eventually recover. The claws and teeth are designed for shredding flesh and snapping bones. The creatures has enhanced senses of sight, smell, and hearing. It can see extremely well in the dark, and can track its prey for miles by scent alone. The werewolf is able to hear the beating heart of its prey. Basically, when a werewolf attacks, there is almost no chance of survival.

The werewolf cannot be harmed by conventional weapons, as ordinary firearms and blades seem to do little more than annoy the beast. Only a silver bullet or blade can kill a werewolf.

Werewolves in modern fiction

The process of transmogrification is portrayed in many films and works of literature to be painful. The resulting wolf is typically cunning but merciless, and prone to killing and eating people without compunction regardless of the moral character of the person when human. The form a werewolf takes is not always an ordinary wolf, but is often anthropomorphic or may be otherwise larger and more powerful than an ordinary wolf. Many modern werewolves are also supposedly immune to damage caused by ordinary weapons, being vulnerable only to silver objects (usually a bullet or blade). This negative reaction to silver is sometimes so strong that the mere touch of the metal on a werewolf's skin will cause burns. Current-day werewolf fiction almost exclusively involves lycanthropy being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like a disease by the bite of another werewolf.

More recently, the portrayal of werewolves has taken an even more sympathetic turn in some circles. With the rise of environmentalism and other back-to-nature ideals, the werewolf has come to be seen by some authors as a representation of humanity allied more closely with nature.

  • Jack Williamson's Darker Than You Think (1948) presents an excellent example of the disembodied or psychic projection werewolf.
  • Terry Pratchett brings the sympathetic and monstrous werewolf traditions together in his Discworld series, notably The Fifth Elephant and Thud!. Both novels provide some focus on Constable/Sergeant Angua and her family.
  • J. K. Rowling has added her voice to the tradition as well with Remus Lupin and Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter series (books 2-6 and Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them).
  • Kelley Armstrong started her Women of the Otherwold series with a female werewolf. She combined the elements of both the "disease" and hereditary condition. In the Otherworld series, one could become a werewolf by bite. The werewolf "gene", though, is only passed along to the male offspring. Books narrated by the werewolf Elena (so far) are Bitten, Stolen, and Broken. No longer available for download, but soon available in book-form, are the novellas that are also werewolf narrated: Savage, Ascention, Beginnings and a couple short stories in the Otherworld Tales 2005.
  • In Len Wiseman's films Underworld and Underworld. Evolution the werewolves are portrayed as the archenemies of the vampire clan as well as the former slaves of the vampires. People could become werewolves by bite, though only a few would survive it. The second film also reveals, that the nowadays werewolves were evoluted from their primieval form which portrayed them as wild beasts and mercilessly killers. The films speculate the first werewolf and vampire were brothers, who were seperated, when Victor, one of the vampire lords, captured the werewolf and gave the order to lock him up in a dungeon.
  • USA TV series Teenage Werewolf portrays a highschool student who becomes a werewolf and uses his powers to accomplish a lot of good things as well apart from some silly mischief.

See also


  • Baring-Gould, Sabine, The Book of Were-Wolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition. London: Smith, Elder, 1865.
  • Bynum, Caroline Walker. Metamorphosis and Identity. New York: Zone Books, 2005.
  • Douglas, Adam. The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf. London: Chapmans, 1992.
  • Otten, Charlotte. ed. A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture. New York: Dorset Press, 1989.
  • Prieur, Claude. Dialogue de la Lycanthropie: Ou transformation d'hommes en loups, vulgairement dits loups-garous, et si telle se peut faire. Louvain: J. Maes & P. Zangre, 1596.
  • Summers, Montague (Rev.). The Werewolf London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1933.
    • reprinted as The Werewolf in Lore and Legend. New York: Dover, 2003.
  • Wolfeshusius, Johannes Fridericus. De Lycanthropia: An vere illi, ut fama est, luporum & aliarum bestiarum formis induantur. Problema philosophicum pro sententia Joan. Bodini ... adversus dissentaneas aliquorum opiniones noviter assertum... Leipzig: Typis Abrahami Lambergi, 1591. (In Latin; microfilm held by the United States National Library of Medicine
  • Joshua, Gee Encyclopedia Horrifica