There are a number of cultures which have were-creatures in their mythology, usually involving large, nocturnal predators. Often the were-creature takes the form of the most menacing animal found in the area. India has weretigers, Africa has wereleopards, but the most famous of all are the werewolves of medieval Europe.
The term 'were' is from the Old English word wer meaning man. Thus, werewolves, man-wolves, are half human and half animal. In tribal cultures, the ability of shape-shifting expressed power and mystery but was not always evil; it took that on later when associated with the devil and unmanageable urges.
Arcadians believed that some members of their culture had the ability to turn themselves into wolves. If they tasted human flesh during this change, they were banished to live out their lives as a wild beast unless they abstained from eating flesh for a full nine years. The ancient Greek writer Herodotus wrote in the fifth century B.C. of a tribe living north of the Black Sea which could turn themselves into wolves for a few days each year. The Roman poet Virgil wrote in the first century B.C. about a sorcerer who took lethal herbs to turn himself into a werewolf. The belief in mystical herbs lasted for centuries; in the fourth and fifth century A.D., magicians sold herbs that "guaranteed" such transformations. One of the earliest uses of mistletoe was as a werewolf repellent.
However, not all scholars of the day were believers. Pliny wrote: "That men can change into wolves and then back to men once more I shall dismiss absolutely as nonsense."
Werewolves were considered to have two origins, intentional and unwilling.
Many elective werewolves were believed to be people who had made a pact with the devil. Most werewolf tales described men who turned into werewolves at night, when they gorged on people and animals, and then reappeared as man at dawn . Night was the time of the devil.
Unwilling werewolves were those whose actions had accidentally caused a horrible transformation. Persons born on Christmas Eve were often thought to be werewolves. In Sicily, a child created during a new moon was thought sure to grow up to be a werewolf. Folk tales from Germany told of a mountain brook whose waters turned humans into werewolves. Siberian tales created werewolves from people who drank water collected in wolf footprints. People with slanting eyebrows were also routinely assumed to be wolfmen. All Grecian epileptics were thought to be werewolves.
Some werewolves were believed to be sinners transformed by God for their actions. Certain saints were thought to have the power to change sinners into werewolves. In Armenia, it was believed that an adulterous woman would be visited by the devil, who would bring her a wolf skin to wear. To pay for her sins, she had to wear the skin for seven years before she could return to human form.
Other involuntary werewolves were those who for one reason or another were hated by their contemporaries. In 1685, a wolf preying on livestock near Ansbach, Germany, was identified as the reincarnation of a despised town official. The wolf was killed and dressed in a suit, complete with wig and beard. Its muzzle was cut off and a mask of the official was placed over the face. The body was then hung.
Voluntary werewolves intentionally took magic potions or wore magic robes to achieve the transformation. In the seventeenth century, English sorcerer believed that they could transform themselves into werewolves by wearing an enchanted girdle and by anointing their bodies with a magical ointment.
The Romans believed that werewolves could not be shot, for their skin was thought to be bullet-proof. The belief in werewolves was so prevalent that bandits wore wolf skins in order to prevent being shot at by local peasants.
Many tales had the common thread of a werewolf suffering an injury at night and the injury reappearing when the beast assumed human form again at daylight. Peasants hid scars for fear of punishment as a werewolf.
Great Britain had myths describing werewolf families, whose curse was passed on through generations.
Authorities took werewolf tales very seriously. They had reached their peak in France in the 1600's, when hundreds of innocent men and children were put to death for their imagined powers. Often it was the mentally ill of the physically handicapped who paid a terrible price for their infirmities. A child with Down's syndrome was thought to be an offspring of a werewolf because of a flat face. Many were burned at the stake.
Some writers have put forth the opinion that many medieval werewolves were people who were suffering from lycanthropy, a psychiatric illness in which the person considers himself to be part man and part animal. According to medical history, the disorder is very uncommon and is not liable to explain the substantial numbers of supposed werewolves.
Amazingly, there are still believers. A 1992 Russian study showed that almost 80% of farmers surveyed believed in werewolves, proving the bad image that wolves still maintain. Most recent examples of werewolves have made them the willing instrument of the supernatural or mentally deranged. Like other stories and legends, they will take whatever form we need to fear at the present.
Profile of a Werewolf
A werewolf is a human being, man woman, or child (more often the first), who either voluntarily or involuntarily changes or is metamorphosed onto the apparent shape of a wolf, and who is then possessed of all the brute strength, and swiftness of that animal... Werewolfery is hereditary or acquired; a horrible pleasure born of the thirst to quaff warm human blood...Masqued and clad in the shape of the most dreaded and fiercest denizen of the forest the witch came forth under the cover of darkness, prowling in lonely places to seek his prey...
The werewolf loved to tear raw human flesh. He lapped the blood of his mangled victims, and with gorged reeking belly he bore the warm offal of their palpitating entrails to the sabbat to present in homage and foul sacrifice to the Monstrous Goat who sat upon the throne of worship and adoration. His appetites were depraved beyond humanity. In bestial rut he covered the fierce she-wolves amid their bosky lairs.....