There are many ways in lore and magick to be transformed into a Werewolf. Curses from various Deities, such as the Lycean Zeus, and shapeshifting as part of a Shamanic ritual are well known in Pagan mythos as two of the most common causes. However, most people consider that the usual way of becoming a Werewolf is to be bitten by one and survive. This brings up the rabies connection with, and contribution to, Werewolf legends.
Rabies is a virus that is usually transferred by animal or human bites, it travels up the peripheral nerves to the central nervous system and the brain. Once there it causes encephalitis – swelling of the brain- resulting in changes in behaviour that are consistent with someone becoming a Werewolf as mentioned in legends. A person with rabies has a variety of symptoms, including; fear of water or any liquid, even being unable to swallow their own saliva; Periods of mania and extreme strength; vivid hallucinations; victims may even ‘bark’ as their throats swell up and vocal cords distort due to dehydration. By the time these symptoms appear death is almost certain, usually due to breathing paralysis as the brain swells. In some cases of the disease aversion to bright light occurs, so that the infected person goes outdoors by night or stays in shady areas such as dark woods as a Werewolf is said to do.
The time the infection takes to reach the symptomatic stage is surprisingly variable, usually only taking days or a few weeks, but in rare cases months or years from the first bite/infection. Rabid wolves attacking humans tend to bite the neck or head, making it a short distance from the bite to the brain and leading to rapid onset of the disease. Wolves with rabies lose all fear of humans, making attacks more likely when they have the disease. They also show some of the same symptoms which meant that people in the past associated the rabid wolf and rabid person as one entity. France, the source of many of the Werewolf legends popular today has a history of regular rabies epidemics going back at least a thousand years, as do some areas of the Americas that have similar folk tales of Werewolf-like creatures.
Two genetic conditions that may have added to the believability of the existence of Werewolves are hypertrichosis and porphyria. Hypertrichosis, an abnormal amount of hair growth over the body, is both a genetic and an acquired disorder. This makes it particularly appropriate for supporting the idea that a person can turn into a wolf. Congenital hypertrichosis is caused by a genetic mutation where a person is born with excessive hair already present. The acquired form can be the results of some types of cancer which can affect the body’s biochemistry leading to excessive hair growth, but there are cases where thick hair appears at the site of a wound or skin irritation. The latter is particularly relevant to the ancient Roman belief that a Werewolf’s skin is hairy on the inside and that a wound will expose this.
Porphyria is a disease of the liver where certain enzymes are low or missing resulting in a number of symptoms. Some of the most common are sensitivity to light, red tinted teeth, sensitivity to sunlight, and coarse hair growing closer to the eyes than normal. It also causes psychological effects including delirium, seizures, and psychosis, due to higher levels of iron in the blood. In the spirit of earlier times all of these symptoms could be considered signs of someone being a Werewolf.
Having looked at some of the key reasons someone might be considered a Werewolf in earlier eras we can move on to how people used techniques and potions to transform themselves into this feared entity. There is a psychiatric condition called “Clinical Lycanthropy” where someone believes themselves to be a Werewolf that we will address as part of the next article but, leaving that aside, why did people want to become one? Part of the answer lies in the Shamanic systems that ran alongside the mainstream spiritual paths of the day be they Roman, Celtic, or Christian. Wolves were, and are, considered great power animals and spiritual allies, especially in connection with the journeying between worlds that the Shaman does as part of their ‘Way’. Shamans were seen as people of power and this power was coveted by some people who were motivated by personal gain rather than spiritual integrity, hence they were inclined to take shortcuts. Other motives for wanting to become a Werewolf included revenge, rebelling against the values of the day, and frustration at one’s lot in life.
Some techniques were simple, one of the classical ones was to drink water from the footprint of a wolf. Considering that wolves, even rabid ones, clean their paws regularly by licking them this might be another way of contracting that disease and apparently becoming a Werewolf. More complex methods involved calling upon the “Great Wolf Spirit” which was probably the Norse God Loki, or his offspring Fenris the wolf. In Siberian spellcraft circles were cast and mixtures of Opium, Hemlock, Henbane, Poppy seed, Aloe, Asafoetida, Solanum , and Saffron were burnt in a cauldron and the fumes inhaled. A ‘God Bargain’ was made with the Being(s) evoked, sometimes the combination of herbs and intent could cause what is called ‘an evocation to visibility’ where even onlookers would perceive:
“A tall pillar-like phantom of the Unknown seven or eight feet in height. It sometimes developed further of a tall, thin, half man half animal, grey and nude with long arms and legs and the feet and claws of a wolf. Its head was shaped like that of a wolf, but surrounded by the hair of woman.”
This entity would confer the power of turning into a Werewolf onto the supplicant so that every evening they would turn into one, and at dawn turn back into a human. When the person died if they died as a Werewolf they transformed back into a human, and if they died when in human form, then they turned into a Werewolf, or so the story goes.
In Folk magick, the type of magick associated with Cunning Men/Women and Witches, similar herbs and their compounds were used in salves and ointments to enable practitioners to hallucinate flying to gatherings and journeying to the Otherworld. As with most forms of drugs use most of the effects were purely subjective and contextual, although in some cases there was a crossover into the Etheric body which we will be looking at in the next article.
These days people earnestly wishing to become Werewolves rely on psychological methods. Occultists such as Anton LaVey work on getting in touch with the ‘animal’ side of human nature via the reptile brain. This is a generic term for the older parts of the brain including the limbic system, basal ganglia, and hypothalamus which involve instincts and emotions rather than feelings. The technique itself involves moving through your own fear and working with environmental energy to enhance your personal Chi and unite with the Werewolf archetype. It might not cause actual physical metamorphosis, but people who have used this technique claim they prowled the countryside with excitingly enhanced senses and have, on occasions, been perceived as a Werewolf by people they encountered. How true this is I cannot say for certain but it is worth bearing in mind when you hear stories of people encountering fearsome two legged creatures in the wild, or even in lonely urban areas