Shape-shifters have long fascinated me, particularly werewolves, and in this, my first actual paranormal-themed blog, I must come to the defense of the werewolf. Just post-Halloween, it’s become abundantly clear that werewolves are suffering some major PR problems: they’re cast as the villains, or cursed and afflicted (and still the villain). Other fanged-creatures seem to be gaining in popularity despite their life-issues (ie: they’re undead), and yet the werewolf still gets cast as the bad guy.
This is completely uncalled for. There are so many reasons why werewolves are great (and make great heroes). If you’re into alphas, can you get any more alpha then an alpha wolf? They’re alive, hot-blooded, and passionate since – with their animal side – they may be more willing to give into urges and desires. All that aside, there’s mythological basis to dismiss the bad publicity werewolves keep getting.
Throughout the world, different forms of shape-shifters have long existed in myth, many of them having the ability to change into other animals. To keep things simple, we’ll focus on the wolves, the most likely basis for the werewolf myth.
Are there myths that suggest werewolves are evil? Yes. In Nordic and Icelandic lore exist the pagan cult of were-animals, the eigi einhamr, who have the ability to take on the form or powers and characteristics of their animal (Guiley 117). Once transformed, the animals with human intellect devour others and do evil things. Inuit lore tells of the adlet, a race of man-dogs born of an Inuit woman and a large red dog; repulsed by her sons, she sends them to Europe where they marry white women and become flesh-eating monsters (Guiley 2). Similarly, the windigo of Native American lore becomes a flesh-eating wolf-monster after becoming lost on a hunting trip and consuming human flesh (Guiley 324). The consumption of human flesh is so strong a cultural taboo, in other cultures some werewolves are created as punishment by the gods, such as in the case of Veretius, King of Wales, who St. Patrick turned into a wolf (Ingpen 226-227), and King Lycaon of Acadia who Zeus turned into a werewolf for serving human flesh (Steiger x).
The consumption or hunger for human flesh is one of the “symptoms” when looking for a werewolf, along with hanging out in a lot of graveyards, insatiable lust, animal-like actions and instinct, and excessive hairiness even in human form. Oh, and the mark of the pentagram, which starts to give you a clue where some of this bad PR is coming from. After all, the same folks who see a lonely spinster with a few cats and a talent for herbalism as a witch who should be stoned or burned, may be just as likely to see a hairy guy who gets all the women as a werewolf who should be shot with silver. During the 15th and 16th centuries at the peak of the Inquisition, many were accused as werewolves, guilty of murder and cannibalism. In the Pyrenees alone, some 200 men and women “werewolves” were executed as a result (Guiley 316-318).
What it sounds like is the werewolf is a victim of speciesism, that is prejudice or discrimination based on species, along with the assumption of human superiority on which speciesism is based (and yes, it’s a real word, in the dictionary and everything). Further evidence of this is in the fact that much of what werewolves are criticized and feared for has to do with their close affiliation with their animal nature, the wolf itself.
I would argue the more dangerous side could be their human side. After all, humans have a greater tendency to harm or torture others out of sadistic or psychotic desires, whereas this is practically unseen in the animal world. Humans start wars, use material wealth as a marker of worth, whereas animals are more likely to use something like meritocracy (ie: you hunt the best, are strongest, you win). Wolves work together, in highly organized packs led by their alpha. Their desires and needs are primal, for things like food, sex, the hunt, etc. Wouldn’t werewolves be likely to work in similar ways?
Finally, let’s return to myth, where there is evidence for “good” werewolves as well. Perhaps the earliest werewolf may be King Gilgamesh’s friend, Enkidu c. 2000BC. Enkidu is first created to counter Gilgamesh’s extreme lust, as a worthy enemy. Enkidu instead protects the forest creatures until brought before Gilgamesh, and after wrestling they become friends and go on to battle other gods and giants together (Steiger 99). Shetland lore provides the wulver, a man with a wolf’s head and man’s body covered in brown hair who fishes, generally wants to be left alone, but could be helpful to those in need, leaving food on their doorsteps (Guiley 327). In Spain, a 13th century romance by W. Palerne describes the tale of the noble werewolf, Alphonsus (Guiley 324), rightful heir to the Spanish throne, whose stepmother uses charms and potions to transform him into a werewolf so her son can inherit instead. Rather than becoming evil, Alphonsus rescues the infant William, heir to Sicily, falls in love, has lots of other adventures – but no eating of any one.
Perhaps the most compelling is the snippet about the 1691 Trial of the Werewolf (Lecouteux 168). This is a real, documented trial, similar to some of the witch trials at the time. But, this werewolf does not deny he is a werewolf, and in fact claims he and his fellow werewolves are “Dogs of God” and in fact protectors of human society. Quite a different view from the villains they’re so often portrayed as, hmm?
Anyway, I’ll hop off my soapbox now, and hope I’ve given you reason to be pro-werewolf. Below I’ve included a few links for interest, along with some authors and places where werewolves get to be the alphas they deserve to be. Have I missed any? Have I convinced you? Please, share your comments below, and join the Pro-Werewolf campaign! J
You might also be interested in an earlier article I wrote:“Ode to the werewolf”
For a bit of info about other werewolf trials: http://yaiolani.tripod.com/middle.htm
Link to a casual English translation of the 1691 Livonian trial: http://werewolf-research.tumblr.com/post/769044033/confessions-of-a-benevolent-werewolf-a-translation-of
Other authors who write “Pro-werewolf”:
Christine Bell (thanks M!)
Coleman, J.A. The Dictionary of Mythology: An A-Z of Themes, Legends and Heroes. Toronto: Arcturus Publishing Ltd., 2007.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. Encylopedia of Vampires, Werewolves, and Other Monsters. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2005.
Ingpen, Michael Page & Robert. Encylopedia of Things That Never Were. Toronto: Penguin Books, 1998.
Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies: Shapeshifters and Astral Doubles in the Middle Ages. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 2003.
Steiger, Brad. The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-shifting Beings. Farmington Hills, MI: Visible Ink Press, 1999.
Summers. The Werewolf in Lore and Legend. New York: Dover Publications, 2003.