Werewolf Wednesday: Elliott O’Donnell on How to Become a Werewolf (1912)

This week I’m returning to Elliott O’Donnell’s 1912 book Werwolves, which previously provided the account of Estonia’s luminous lycanthrope. In the fourth chapter, O’Donnell discusses how a person might become a werewolf; once again, his seeming inability to actually cite his sources gives the general impression that he’s just making things up on the fly, but his book nonetheless has interest as a stage in the development of werewolf literature.

O’Donnell lists a few alleged methods of obtaining lycanthropy: “by eating a wolf’s brains, by drinking water out of a wolf’s footprints, or by drinking out of a stream from which three or more wolves have been seen to drink”. These sound to me as though they may be genie folkloric concepts, although I have yet to find earlier attestations to them (the detail about footprints turns up in a number of later publications). O’Donnell, meanwhile, is unimpressed: “but as most of the stories I have heard of werwolfery acquired in this way are of a wild and improbable nature, I think there is little to be learned from the modus operandi they advocate.” Given the fanciful nature of the stories he chose to include, this really does raise questions about the ones he rejected.

O’Donnell notes that “in some people lycanthropy is hereditary”, possibly drawing upon the theme of the cursed werewolf family found sometimes in nineteenth-century literature, “and when it is not hereditary it may be acquired through the performance of certain of the rites ordained by Black Magic.” The author states that these rites “vary according to locality” before outlining what he apparently considers to be a typical werewolf ritual.

First, the subject should choose a remote and solitary area such as a desert, wood or mountain top, and visit it on “a night when the moon is new and strong” (an interesting detail: while the notion that werewolves transform on the full moon was cemented by Hollywood, the moon sometimes plays a role in literary antecedents to werewolf cinema). The ritual that follows involves making two circles on the ground with chalk or string, placing an iron vessel over a fire and throwing herbs into the boiling water.

Then comes the chant:

Spirits from the deep
Who never sleep,
Be kind to me.

Spirits from the grave
Without a soul to save,
Be kind to me.

It goes on like this for several more verses, invoking spirits of trees, air, water, fire, ice and the earthbound dead, before reaching conclusion:

Wolves, vampires, satyrs, ghosts!
Elect of all the devilish hosts!
I pray you send hither,
Send hither, send hither,
The great grey shape that makes men shiver!
Shiver, shiver, shiver!
Come! Come! Come!

While O’Donnell may well have drawn upon transcripts from witch-trials relating to lycnathropy when he wrote this chapter, i seriously doubt that the above material is anything other than a modern invention.

The supplicant then smears their body with the fat of a sacrificial animal (“preferably a cat” for some reason) and dons a girdle made of wolf-skin. This latter detail does have some historical basis, as the 1590 document  The Life and The Death of One Stubbe Peeter, a Most Wicked Sorcerer describes that individual being given a girdle (the material of which is unspecified) by the Devil, which when worn allowed him to turn into a wolf.

The impression that O’Donnell’s account is a distorted version of the Stubbe Peeter narrative is strengthened when we learn that, as with that alleged incident, a devilish spirit appears to the would-be werewolf. O’Donnell stresses that he personally doesn’t believe in Satan; he instead theorises that the spirit in question is “some malevolent, superphysical, creative power, such as, in my opinion, participated largely in the creation of this and other planets” and suggests that the majority of supplicants “regard it merely as a local spirit—the spirit of some particular wilderness or forest.” Nonetheless, his description sounds as though it came straight out of a witch trial:

There is little consistency in the various methods of the spirit’s advent: sometimes a deep unnatural silence immediately precedes it; sometimes crashes and bangs, groanings and shriekings, herald its approach. When it remains invisible its presence is indicated and accompanied by a sensation of abnormal cold and the most acute terror. It is sometimes visible in the guise of a huntsman—which is, perhaps, its most popular shape—sometimes in the form of a monstrosity, partly man and partly beast—and sometimes it is seen ill defined and only partially materialized.

Exactly what act is performed by the spirit to turn the summoner into a werewolf is left to the reader’s imagination.

As noted, I suspect that the above account is no more than the product of O’Donnell’s imagination. Still, it clearly had an influence. The song “Worthless Soul for Sale?” by the metal band Abyssos includes the final verse of the chant, V. J. Banis’ 2011 novel The Wolves of Craywood incorporates the above-described rite into its story. Multiple books on werewolf folklore have likewise cited O’Donnell as a source.

Depending on how much benefit of the doubt you’re willing to give, Elliott O’Donnell was either a sloppy scholar or an outright fraud; but you can’t deny that he left his mark.

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