The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
What exactly are werewolves? Monster-movie material or something real? During Europe’s Witchcraze, a concurrent werewolf panic (centered mainly in France but also present through other regions of Europe) resulted in the deaths of many men. Just as witchcraft was identified with women, werewolves were identified with men.
Johannes Nider, author of an early fifteenth-century witch-hunter’s manual The Formicarius, discusses male witches who transform into wolves. Werewolves may be nothing more than male witches. During the witch-hunts, as witchcraft became increasingly identified with women, public perception and theology may have required that men be classified differently—if men and women can both be witches, then all this theology about women being the gender more susceptible to Satanic wiles goes out the window. To wear a wolf’s skin may be a euphemism for walking the shaman’s or male witch’s path.
European werewolves, similar to Navajo skin-walkers, may not look exactly like real wolves. They may walk upright and have no tail, which sounds suspiciously like a person. Other descriptions suggest that werewolves have a human body but a wolf’s head, like an Egyptian deity or like a masked human.
Although they might or might not literally transform, once upon a time, many people strove to be identified with wolves.
According to Book 10 of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’ grandfather was named Autolykos—“He who is a Wolf.”
The desire to identify with wolves is demonstrated by once popular boy’s names: Adolf, Rudolph, Wolfgang, Wolfram, and plain old Wolf.
The blues singer called Howlin’ Wolf was born Chester Burnett. His adopted name may be understood as a magical name, a veritable boast of primal male and magical power. In many of his songs he explicitly identifies himself with the creature, as a source of pride and power.
The Pawnee nation, Plains Indians from presentday Kansas and Nebraska, identified so profoundly with wolves that the Plains hand-signal for wolf is the same as the one for Pawnee. Others referred to them as the Wolf People.
Odin’s warriors behaved like wolves, hence the name “wolf-warriors.” Sixth- to eighth-century CE helmets and scabbards found widely through Western and Central Europe were decorated with figures that may be werewolves or berserkers.
The earliest written report of werewolves derives from Herodotus, the fifth-century BCE Greek writer. According to him, a tribe known as the Neuri, living north of the Black Sea, had members who turned into wolves for several days each year. Today, this is thought to refer to Scythian shamans.
Werewolf transformation manifests in two distinct ways:
those who shift back and forth between human and werewolf manifestations
those who assume the form of a wolf full-time
People become werewolves voluntarily and involuntarily. People become werewolves accidentally or intentionally. People transform themselves into werewolves or others do it for them. The second manifestation, the full-time wolf, is virtually always an involuntary transformation and is frequently the result of a curse.
How else do you become a werewolf?
Ancestry may be blamed. Someone from a family full of werewolves may be more likely to be one.
Simply sleeping in the moonlight may do the trick.
Taking off one’s clothes and howling in the moonlight is considered effective, too.
The notion that being a werewolf is contagious is popular nowadays but derives more from movie traditions than from any folk wisdom. It may derive from confusion between vampires and werewolves.
In Ojibwa tradition, eating meat that was previously tasted by a real wolf leaves you prone to transformation.
In the Harz Mountains, the witches’ playground, there is a “werewolf stream.” All one must do is find it and drink the water.
In the Balkans, there’s a special werewolf flower. Pick it and transform.
Various spells refer to magical belts which when worn help one transform.
European werewolves allegedly concoct salves similar to witches’ flying ointments to effect transformation.
Order of birth: being born the seventh son of a seventh son or the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter is good.
Someone born with teeth and/or a caul may indicate a potential werewolf (see DICTIONARY: Taltos).
Curses cause transformation, as do evil spells: Polish witches can transform you into a werewolf via methods of “spoiling.” The witches form a belt from human flesh. This is secretly placed over the threshold of a room where a wedding reception is expected. Should someone step over the girdle, they’re doomed to roam as werewolves. (Doom isn’t expected to be permanent; the witches’ goal isn’t malice, it’s extortion: you can pay them to remove the spell.)
A fairly international tradition recommends that you drink rainwater collected from a wolf’s footprint.
In Brazil, the notion of becoming a werewolf involves the acquisition of an animal alter-ego. Accomplishment takes some long-term planning: for three years in a row, intensely petition San Cipriano and roll in the ashes of St John’s Eve bonfires.
According to the witch-hunt era Roman Catholic Church, one can only become a werewolf by making a pact with the devil or by being a child born outside church-sanctioned marriage. No other methods exist. (So much for being the innocent victim of a werewolf attack!) However, according to various unofficial traditions Christian transgressions may be punished by involuntary transformation into a werewolf, including:
being born on Christmas Day, a day also associated with the winter solstice and the power of the sun. Prior to Christianity, this day was understood as falling within a time period when Earth’s innate anarchistic forces were at their most powerful. Another, possibly related superstition, suggests that those born on Christmas Day possess the ability to talk with animals.
being born a Roman Catholic priest’s son
Breton folklore suggests that anyone who doesn’t go to confession for ten years is vulnerable to transformation to a “bisclavret,” the Breton werewolf.
Lest one think that only male werewolves exist, there are tales of fierce, female werewolves too:
A Welsh prince allegedly had his werewolf daughter eliminate his enemies.
In the Russian tale Ivan of Shiganska, a female werewolf kills the abusive husband her parents forced her to marry.
The loups-garoux of Haiti and the French Caribbean are a fusion of Breton werewolf traditions and African secret sorcerers’ societies. These island loups-garoux tend to be female. Typically the ability to transform is passed from mother to daughter. Loups-garoux can be violent; attacks tend to be random although children of enemies are particularly vulnerable.
This may be lore or legend but werewolves are no laughing matter. Many people died because of werewolves: not because werewolves killed them but because they were suspected or accused of being werewolves. As with witches, despite all the talk of harm, malevolence and bestiality, it’s the werewolves who have historically been victims, not victimizers.
Concurrent to the European Witchcraze, there was a werewolf-panic, most famously in France but also elsewhere. (Werewolf-panic did not strike the British Isles, perhaps because wolves were already extinct.)
Like witchcraft, it’s extremely hard to prove you’re not a werewolf, especially a diabolical one. The human being is allegedly taken over by the spirit of a wolf, thus transforming into a werewolf. The alleged werewolf may be sleeping in bed or locked up in jail while his soul roams free. Using this kind of definition of werewolf, anyone might be convicted as a werewolf even if far from the place where the “crimes” were committed. (And they’re may have been crimes; just because the werewolf didn’t commit the murder doesn’t mean that the murder didn’t exist. One wonders how many accusations of witchcraft were used to deflect attention from true perpetrators.)
As with witch-trial transcripts it’s very difficult to know which part, if any of the testimony is genuine. Confessions were obtained via torture, terror, and duress and aren’t reliable. At the same time, hidden within some of the transcripts are interesting tales that suggest real, true witchcraft may not have been eradicated in Europe.
Among the most famous historical werewolves are the following:
Gilles Garnier: A number of children disappeared in the vicinity of the French city of Dole, beginning (as best as can be told from surviving records) in 1572. The rumor spread that a local werewolf was responsible. In response, the local government passed a law permitting the people of their district to hunt werewolves although it was “out of season.”
At twilight on November 8, 1573, hunters, hearing screams in the woods, discovered a severely wounded little girl fighting off something lupine. The creature fled into the woods. Some of the hunters insisted that it was a wolf. Others said they recognized it as a man, Gilles Garnier, known as the Hermit of St Bonnot.
Garnier lived with his wife in a hut near where the attack occurred. He was a red-faced, long-bearded unattractive man with bad posture and a unibrow. On November 14, a ten-year-old boy disappeared in the area. Garnier was arrested and interrogated. He said that years earlier he had met a man in the woods who taught him to shape-shift into various forms, including those of a lion or leopard but, as Garnier pointed out very reasonably, wolves were most convenient because they were least noticeable. He claimed he spent most of his time in wolf-form and used his powers to obtain food for his impoverished family. Tortured, he confessed to the murders. On January 18, 1574 Garnier was burned alive and his ashes scattered to the winds.
Peter Stump: In 1590, Peter Stump was arrested in Cologne and charged as a werewolf for a series of murders, including that of his own son, which had occurred over a 20-year period. On March 31, 1590, Stump was executed as a werewolf. An illustrated pamphlet was published detailing Stump’s career as a werewolf. The pamphlet was translated into different languages and was a bestseller of its time.
Jean Grenier: In the spring of 1613, children began mysteriously disappearing in the St Sever district of Gascony, France, including a baby from its cradle. An aura of fear pervaded the area. Other children began to report unusual occurrences. Finally 13-year-old Marguerite Poirier reported that while tending cattle, a huge, ferocious canine with reddish fur and a short, stumpy tail jumped from the bushes and attacked her. Marguerite fought it off with an iron-tipped staff. (This may be understood as a clue to the beast’s supernatural identity. If this were really a wolf, a child with a club wouldn’t stand much of a chance; iron is feared by virtually all supernatural beings. It breaks virtually every spell and offers spiritualmagical protection.)
Rumors soon spread that Jean Grenier, aged approximately 13 or 14, was boasting of attacking Marguerite. He claimed that if it hadn’t been for that iron-tipped staff, he would have killed and eaten her as he did others. Grenier, the son of an impoverished laborer, traveled about seeking work with local farmers. He never lasted long at any job, usually being fired for neglecting his duties. Whether he was uneducated or mildly retarded is unknown, but it was noted during his trial that he had the mental capacity of a much younger child. When unable to find work, he begged.
Soon 18-year-old Jeanne Gaboriaut came forward and testified under oath that while she and some other girls had been tending cows, their sheep dogs began to growl and whine at something. The girls investigated and discovered a filthy, red-haired, feral boy with a unibrow. Jeanne asked him why he looked so strange. According to her, he responded, “Because sometimes I wear a wolf’s skin.” The puzzled and intrigued girls asked him to explain. He claimed that a man named Pierre Labourat gave him a wolf skin that, when donned, enabled him to transform into a wolf and hunt. He boasted that he killed and ate many dogs but that these weren’t as tasty as children. The girls fled to the authorities.
A search was made for the boy who was soon found and arrested. Jean Grenier claimed to come from the village of Saint’Antoine de Pizon. His father beat him so he ran away, earning a living as a cowherd and beggar. About three years earlier (this would have been when he was about 10) another boy took him into the woods to meet the Lord of the Forest, who turned out to be a tall man, dressed in black, riding a black horse. Jean met him several times and agreed to serve him. Jean described the children he’d killed and eaten. Witnesses came forward to corroborate his story. The court pronounced him a werewolf and sentenced him to life imprisonment in a monastery.
Grenier is unusual in werewolf-lore because virtually all other convicted European werewolves were burned to death, in the manner of witches. In Grenier’s case however, the Chief of the Court made a speech suggesting that questions of witchcraft and diabolism should be disregarded. Instead the court should consider the boy’s age and mental capacity.
Thiess, the Livonian Werewolf: In 1692, in Jurgensburg, Livonia, an 80-year-old man named Thiess was interrogated. Thiess had long been under suspicion; local Christians considered him an idolater. He allegedly killed small livestock in wolf form although he cooked the meat, not eating it raw.
Thiess perplexed and frustrated his inquisitors. Yes, he confessed to being a werewolf but insisted that he was a holy werewolf, a benevolent one, a werewolf of God. Furthermore, he wasn’t alone: he belonged to a werewolf society. According to Thiess, members of this society went to Hell and back three times a year to fight the devil and his sorcerer minions. (The three nights were St John’s Eve, St Lucy’s Night, and Pentecost.) Thiess initially told his interrogators that Hell was at the “end of the sea.” After further questioning, Thiess amended this to the more conventional “underground.” He claimed there were male and female werewolves but specified women, not young girls. Thiess called werewolves “the dogs of God.” He claimed there were also German werewolves but that they fight in a different hell. The werewolves fought with iron whips. The sorcerers were armed with broomsticks wrapped in horsetails. They fought for the fertility of barley and rye fields as well as the sea’s bounty of fish. Sorcerers stole shoots of grain; if the werewolves couldn’t get them back, there would be famine.
The inquisitors had wanted a standardized werewolf/witchcraft/heresy trial; instead they had stumbled upon a magical shamanic scenario. Exactly what fate befell the aged Thiess is unknown.
Some context may be needed to truly appreciate the Livonian werewolf: Today Livonia is in southern Latvia but in 1692, Livonia was a Baltic province of Russia, bordered on the north by Estonia and on the east by Lake Peipus. It was a true crossroads area, with various ethnic groups present including a high proportion of Swedes.
Pockets of old religion are believed to have survived as well as a shamanic tradition that may have merged with Christianity, thus creating a kind of “double-faith.” Latvian werewolves belonged to the society of the Hairy Martinians, which may be understood as a male witch society. They roamed on certain nights, especially Midsummer’s Eve, to drive away the demons of infertility. They gathered at full moons and at New Year in the forest. Islands in the Latvian River Brasla were among their favorite meeting places.
Count Jean Potocki: The Polish count Jean Potocki was born in 1761. A writer, traveler, and diplomat serving Tsar Alexander I, Potocki traveled widely in Europe, Asia, and North Africa, where he claimed to have flirted with various secret societies. Considered among the founding fathers of ethnology, Potocki was also an early Egyptologist. His claims to fame include his death and his mysterious novel, which was published posthumously. Chapters of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa were published beginning in 1797, however the novel was still incomplete at the time of Potocki’s death almost 20 years later. Sections of the original text were lost; however, a version remains in print, including an English translation. The book is a complex series of intertwining stories featuring a cast of characters including Gypsies, a Kabala master, Moorish princesses, and assorted members of secret societies. It has been compared to The Arabian Nights.
In 1815, Potocki committed suicide using a silver bullet from a melted-down samovar, allegedly convinced that he was a werewolf.