As a top predator wolves were dreaded for most of human history both as competitors for food and because of their capacity to hunt people if other animals were scarce. Considering that the Timber wolf - also called the “Grey” or “Common” wolf - measures around seven feet long, and weighs nearly ten stone (140 imperial pounds), and can bring down a bison, horse, or elk by itself if need be, you can see why even a single wolf was feared. Also wolves use their strong sharp teeth in a series of rapid snaps, inflicting far more damage than a dog which tends to just bite and hang on. Indeed, recent genetic research suggests that dogs evolved from a species of wolf that is now extinct and that there is little relationship between the two species nowadays.
The same research suggests that dogs were domesticated between 36,000 and 9,000 years ago at a time when our ancestors were hunter-gathers rather than farmers. In the shamanic spiritual practices of those times shape-shifting into animal forms, including wolves was one of the ways to encourage successful hunting and healing. Animals perceived as powerful were often adopted as a persons personal ‘ally’, or “power animal” and in hunting this often included the wolf because of its prowess in this area. As part of a ritual for a successful hunt people may have entered trance states and taken on aspects of the wolf including wearing the skins and imitating the wolf’s techniques of ambush and ferocity.
As humans became more agriculturally based the wolf was still seen as a source of fear and awe. Something various warrior groups used to advantage themselves and strike fear into their enemies. Perhaps the most famous example of this were the Norse warriors mentioned in the Volsunga Saga, who were called “Ulfahamir” – literally “Wolf-skin shirted” who wore coats of wolfskin and were the first implied werewolves. People these days are more familiar with the term “Berserker” which refers to warriors who wore bear skins to draw upon the power of the bear. Berserkers seem to have made more of an impression on the non-Norse people they fought with their strength and power, while the Ulfahamir made a deeper impression on their own side. Possibly due to their association with the giant wolf Fenris who was the offspring of Loki, a shapeshifter Deity of the Norse pantheon, and the Giantess Angurboda. So strong was this belief in the Scandinavian countries that even well into the 20th century Finnish country dwellers were reported to “Cower in fear at the merest mention of the word Vargr (Werewolf)”
It was also said that when these warriors were at home between battles and raiding that sometimes possessed of the same homicidal rage as when they were in battle and would go out at night wearing their wolf skins and attack travellers, breaking their bones and drinking their blood. After they returned from these bloodthirsty exploits they were reported as suffering from nervous exhaustion and depression. Something that was associated with accusations of someone being a Werewolf in later centuries. Whether this was as the result of what we would call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today, or one of the effects of over-identifying with the Wolf archetype has long been debated by Pagans in the magickal research and psychology fields.
Werewolf- like shapshifting into animals that attack humans are not confined to Scandinavia, or the European regions that the Norse travelled to. Most parts of the world have a myth of people transforming into a vicious local animal, willingly or not, and attack people. Were-tigers in India and were-lions in Africa were, and are, connected with magickal secret societies. The Mau-Mau in 1950’s Africa were connected with the Leopard Society, whose members were purported to be able to transform themselves into leopards through the use of local herbs and enchantments. There were many reports of this happening in front of credible eyewitness, both local and European.
To return to Europe, there was another source for the Werewolf legend in Ancient Greece. Although it is supposed to have taken place in a time before written history, where oral tradition takes over, combining real-world happenings with mythological characters and events. The first mention of it is by Plato around 370 BCE in a written dialogue where he asks if someone has heard of the legend of the Lycaean Zeus in Arcardia? This being a myth of how Lykaon, king of Arcardia, which is about 90 miles from Athens, sacrificed a baby on the altar of Lycaean Zeus as a test of the God and was transformed into a wolf immediately after the sacrifice. Variations of this legend are commented on in later times by Pausanis and Herodotus, both famous travellers and writers of Classical times along with the assertion that some people of that region became Werewolves at certain times of the year, or for a certain period, only turning back after a period of time if they “Had abstained from human flesh”.
The Romans, who based much of their culture on that of Classical Greece, also adopted the Werewolf legend. The term they used was “Versi-pellis” which translates as “Skin changer” or “Turncoat” as it was believed that when in human form the Werewolf‘s pelt grew into the body from the skin and when the person wished to transform they literally turned themselves inside out. This belief persisted into medieval times and one of the supposed tests for someone being a Werewolf was peeling bits of skin back to check for the hairy pelt underneath (!).
In subsequent articles we will be looking at some other facets of Werewolves that, combined with the brief background laid out above, will give some idea of the reasons that the Werewolf legend had endured for so long. You will learn of the connections between Vampires and Werewolves and look at techniques and potions that were supposed to aid in turning someone into a Werewolf- although strictly for informational purposes only.