Werewolf Wednesday: Chambers’s Encyclopedia on the Werewolf (1868)

The tenth volume of Chambers’s Encyclopedia, published in 1868, has an in-depth entry on werewolves that makes for interesting reading today. Written long before werewolf movies codified certain conventions, the entry lacks many elements of lycanthrope lore that we now take for granted (full moon transformations, for example) and instead delves deeply into folklore…


WERE-WOLF (Ang-Sax, wer, a man), a man-wolf, a man who, either periodically or for a time, is transformed, or transforms himself into a wolf, becoming possessed of all the powers and appetites of a wolf in addition to his own, and being especially remarkable for his appetite for human flesh. The belief in the transformation of men into wolves or other beasts of prey has been very widely diffused; there is perhaps no people among whom some evidence of its former prevalence does not exist. It is not yet extinct, even in Europe. In many of the rural districts of France, the loup-garou (the latter part of the word is a corruption of the Teutonic wer-wolf), is still an object of dread. This superstition lingers too among the country-people of Northern Europe, and a particular form of It flourishes vigorously among the Bulgarians, Slavonians, and Serbs, and even among the more intelligent inhabitants of Greece. See VAMPIRE. Its details vary in different countries and districts. The definition given above includes only the commonest and the best marked of its incidents. Probably, it has not yet entirely disappeared In any country whose rural districts are infested with wolves or other wild animals; and manifestations fitted to suggest it may be occasionally observed in the mad-houses of most countries. See LYCANTHROPIA. The animal whose shape is taken, as already stated, is not always, though usually, a wolf; it was probably always the animal most formidable, or considered most inimical to man. In Abyssinia, it is the hyena.

Occasional notices of lycanthropy, as it is called, are found in classical writers; and lycanthropy, as there described, was the change of a man or woman into a wolf, so as to enable the man or woman to gratify an appetite for human flesh, either by magical means, or through the judgment of the gods, as a punishment for some dire offence. Sometimes the transformation was into the shape of a dog or a bull. Ovid, in his “Metamorphoses,” tells the story of Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who, when entertaining Jupiter at a banquet, resolved to test his omniscience by serving up to him a hash of human flesh. The god, to punish him for this, transformed him into a wolf. Herodotus describes the Neuri as sorcerers who had the power of taking once a year, for several days, the shape of wolves; and the same account of them is given by Pomponius Mela, Pliny relates that, in Arcadia, every year, at the festival of Jupiter Lycaeus, one of the family of Autaeus was chosen by lot, and conducted to the brink of the Arcadian Lake, into which, after having hung his garments upon a tree, he plunged, and was transformed into a wolf. Nine years after, if alive, he returned to his friends, looking nine years older than when he disappeared. Some notices of lycanthropy are to be found in Petronius; and allusion to it is also made by Virgil iu the 8th “Eclogue.” Marcellus Sidetes tells us of men who, every winter, were seized with the notion that they were dogs or wolves, and lived precisely like these animals, spending the night in lone cemeteries. This disorder attacked men chiefly in the beginning of the year, and was usually at its height in February. It is worth while observing that the classical instances of lycanthropy mostly refer to Arcadia, a pastoral country, whose inhabitants suffered greatly from the ravages of wolves.

In Norway and Iceland, it used to be believed that there were men who were “not of one skin.” Such men could take upon themselves other shapes than that of man, and the natures corresponding to the shapes which they assumed; they had the strength and other powers of the animal whose shape they bore, as well as their own. It was believed that the change of shape might be effected in one or three ways: simply by putting on a skin of the animal; by the soul of the man deserting the human body—leaving it for a time in a cataleptic state—and entering into a body borrowed or created for the purpose; or, without any actual change of form, by means of a charm, which made all beholders see the man under the shape of the animal whose part he was sustaining. The two former were the common modes of transformation; at any rate, the Sagas are full of illustrations of them; while illustrations of the third mode are comparatively rare. Nothing of the man remained unchanged except his eyes; by these only could he be recognised. Odin had, and freely exercised, the power of varying his shape. When men change their shape to prey upon their kind, they always took the form of a wolf. It was believed that many had the power of thus transforming themselves; and great was the popular dread of were-wolves. Perhaps the best stories of were-wolves which are to be found are contained in the Northern Sagas. Scarcely anywhere did the belief in them go so deep into the minds of the people as among the northern races. In connection with it, notice may be taken of what is called the “Berserkr rage,” which appears to have been a peculiar form of mania. The Berserkr yelped like dogs, or wolves rushing into conflict, hit their shields with their teeth, and committed terrible atrocities while the paroxysms of their disease were upon them. Berserkr has been rendered “bare-skinned;” others make it mean “wolf-skin-coated” (why not “bear-skin-coated?”).

Olaus Magnus states that in Prussia, Lithuania, and Livonia, though wolves were very numerous and troublesome, the ravages of the were-wolves were regarded as much more serious. Every year at the feast of the Nativity at night, the were-wolves assembled in great numbers at appointed places, and proceeded to look out for human beings, or tame animals, upon which they could glut their appetites. If they found an isolated house, they entered it, and devoured every human being and tame animal it contained; after which—shewing that they were not common wolves —they drank up all the beer or mead. Similar testimony with regard to Livonia is given by Bishop Majolus, who adds, that the transformation into the wolf-form continued for twelve days.

Instances of persons being changed into wolves by way of punishment, were freely believed in the middle ages; for example, St Patrick was believed to have changed Vereticus, king of Wales, into a wolf; and there was an illustrious Irish family which had incurred the curse of St Natalis, every member of which, male and female, according to the popular belief, had to take the shape of a wolf, and live the life of a wolf for seven years.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, the belief in were-wolves was, throughout the continent of Europe, as general as the belief in witches, which it had then come to resemble in many respects. It gave rise to prosecutions almost as frequent as those for Witchcraft (q.v.), and these usually ended in the confession of the accused, and his death by hanging and burning. It was calculated to inspire even greater terror than witchcraft, since it was believed that the were-wolves delighted in human flesh, and were constantly laying in wait for solitary travellers, and carrying off and eating little children. The were-wolves, like the witches, were now regarded as servants of the devil, from whom they got the power—often exercised by anointing with a salve—of assuming the wolf’s form; and it was believed that great numbers of them trooped together to the devil’s Sabbath. The stories of mutilations and other mishaps befalling them in the wolf-state, by which, when they resumed the human form, they were identified as werewolves, exactly resemble the stories told of witches. In September 1573, we find a court of parliament sitting at Dole, in Franche-Comté, authorising the country-people to take their weapons, and beat the woods for a were-wolf, who had already — thus went the recital — ‘carried off several little children, so that they had not since been heard of, and done injury to some horsemen, who kept him off only with great difficulty and danger to their persons.’ Throughout Europe, the judicial cognizance of witchcraft and of lycanthropy ceased at the same time. In Great Britain, where wolves had early been exterminated, the werewolf was only known by rumours coming from abroad; but the belief that witches could transform themselves into cats and hares, which did prevail, was precisely analogous to the belief in were-wolves, especially in its later forms.

The later forms of this strange belief were obviously sophisticated. In its earlier shape, three things are to be noticed — the power ascribed to the were-wolf of transforming himself, either by changing the shape of his own body, or projecting his spirit into another body; his appetite for human flesh; his taking the shape and nature of the animal held to he most, malicious against man — the wolf. As to the first of these, all that can here he done is to point to its connection with the doctrine of Transmigration 9q.v.), and to add that it has been one of the commonest of human beliefs. As to the second, is it unlikely that in the early times in which the superstition had its origin, the appetite for human flesh may have been common enough to spread terror through whole districts? It is, at least, not improbable that every race of men has had an experience of cannibalism; and it may well have been that, in occasional cases, especially under conditions of disease, the taste for human flesh survived the general practice of using it. Modern Europe affords many unquestionable examples of this taste existing and being indulged in the midst of comparative civilization. There can be no doubt that some of the unhappy multitude put to death as were-wolves had really murdered and eaten the flesh of human beings. But secret murders, unaccompanied by cannibalism, would tend to support a popular belief in cannibalism. We have not to go out of our own age for proofs of the existence of men afflicted with a homicidal tendency; and in the times when the means of detecting crimes were very imperfect, it is conceivable that the murders committed by one or two such persons would spread terror, and give support to a superstitious theory throughout a large district. The Maréchal de Retz, who lived in the time of our Henry VI., had caused to be stolen and put to death by torture, under the most inhuman circumstances, many hundred children—he confessed on his trial that he murdered 120 in a single year. (A memoir of Gilles de Laval, Maréchal do Retz, has been compiled from authentic documents by P. J. Lacroix, the eminent French antiquary.) Perhaps no society has ever been free from men similarly constituted, and acting similarly according to their opportunities. As to the third point, if it be granted that a certain practice of, or general suspicion of cannibalism existed among a people who believed in the power of transformation, it is easy to understand how the cannibal, getting his victims by stealth, was supposed to indulge his inhuman appetite under the guise of the animal most unfriendly to man. And the existence of a form of mania in which the madman had the hallucination that he was changed into a wolf, yelled like a wolf, lived in many respects like a wolf, was calculated strongly to confirm the belief in men-wolves. In conjunction with the mischief done by real wolves, this itself may be thought almost enough to have given origin to the superstition. The hallucination of having undergone transformation into a wolf from time to time, seems to have been one of the commonest by which weak and crazed brains were possessed during the period when the hunt for were-wolves was kept up. The literature of this subject, though abundant, is for the most part fragmentary, and mixed up with other matters. A good account of the subject will be found in The Book of Were-wolves, by Sabine Baring-Gould (Lond. 1865).

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