Werewolf Wednesday: O’Donnell’s Danish Werewolves (1912)

In the fourteenth chapter of his 1912 book Werwolves, Elliott O’Donnell continues his international tour of purportedly true (but woefully under-sourced) lycanthrope lore. This time, he takes us to Denmark, opening with a characteristically stupendous paragraph:

SINCE so much has already been written upon the subject of werwolves in Denmark, it is my intention only to touch upon it briefly. It is, I believe, generally acknowledged that, at one time, werwolves were to be met with almost daily in Denmark, and that they were almost always of the male sex; but I can find no records of any particular form of exorcism practised by the Danes with the object of getting rid of the werwolf, nor of any spell used by them for the same purpose; neither does there appear to be, amongst their traditions, any reference to a lycanthropous flower or stream. Opinions differ as to whether werwolves are yet to be found in Denmark, but, from all I have heard, I am inclined to think that they still exist in the more remote districts of that country.

The chapter’s first anecdote, presented by O’Donnell as “illustrative of a typical Danish werewolf”, concerns Peter Andersen. Hailing from a long line of lycanthropes, Andersen has inherited his condition but kept it a secret from his wife Elisa. This leads to an awkward moment:

Shortly after his marriage, he was returning home one evening with Elisa from a neighbouring fair, where there had been much merrymaking, when, suddenly feeling that the metamorphosis was coming on, he got down from the cart in which they were driving, and said to his wife, very earnestly, “If anything comes towards you, do not be afraid, and do not hurt it; merely strike it with your apron.” He then ran off at a great rate into the fields, leaving Elisa very much surprised and impressed.

Elisa is then confronted by her husband’s lupine form, and she obligingly hits it with her apron. Bizarrely, this cures him:

“I was a werwolf,” Peter said, “but thanks to your brave action in throwing the apron in my face, I am one no longer. I know I did wrong in not telling you of my misfortune before we were married, but I dreaded the idea of losing you. Forgive me, forgive me, I implore you!” and Elisa, after some slight hesitation, granted his request. This method of getting rid of the lycanthropous spirit seems to have been (and still to be) the one most in vogue in Denmark.

Exactly what cured Andersen is unclear. Was it the apron itself that did the job? Or, perhaps, the fact that his wife struck the blow? Could this be an early relative of the later cinema convention that a werewolf can be killed only by its lover?

O’Donnell then presents a similar story — “well-known”, he assures us — in which a man with lycanthropy tells his son that, should he see a wolf, he must throw his hat at it. Alas, the boy pays little heed and ends up killing his werewolf father with a pitchfork. After this come some curious additions to werewolf lore that are new to me:

In Denmark it is said that if a woman stretches between four sticks the membrane of a newly born foal, and creeps through it naked, she will bring forth children without pain, but all the boys will be werwolves and the girls maras. As is the case with the werwolf of other countries, the Danish werwolf retains its human form by day; but after sunset, unlike the werwolf of any other nationality, it sometimes adopts the shape of a dog on three legs before it finally metamorphoses into a wolf.

I’m genuinely curious as to whether this is actual folklore or simply O’Donnell’s invention. The brief mention of maras prompts the author to define this entity (a mara is “popularly understood to be a woman by day and at night a spirit that torments human beings and horses by sitting astride them and causing them nightmares”) and then to devote the rest of the chapter to maras, having wandered off the topic of werewolves.

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