Werewolf Wednesday: More Ways of Becoming a Werewolf (1912)

Chapter 15 of Wlliott O’Donnel’s 1912 book Werwolves covers lycanthropy in Norway and Sweden. In his characteristic manner, O’Donnell opens with some bold and completely unsourced statements:

As in Denmark, werwolves were once so numerous in Norway and Sweden, that these countries naturally came to be regarded as the true home of lycanthropy. With the advent of the tourist, however, and the consequent springing up of fresh villages, together with the gradual increase of native population, Norway and Sweden have slowly undergone a metamorphosis, with the result that it is now only in the most remote districts, such as the northern portion of the Kiolen Mountains and the borders of Lapland, that werwolves are to be found.

He then returns to the concepts introduced earlier on in the book of “lycanthropous rivers” and “lycanthropous shrubs and flowers” that have the property to turn people into werewolves:

As far as I can gather, a Norwegian or Swedish peasant, when he wishes to become a werwolf, kneels by the side of a lycanthropous stream at midnight, having chosen a night when the moon is in the full, and incants some such words as these:—
“‘Tis night! ’tis night! and the moon shines white
Over pine and snow-capped hill;
The shadows stray through burn and brae
And dance in the sparkling rill.
“‘Tis night! ’tis night! and the devil’s light
Casts glimmering beams around.
The maras dance, the nisses prance
On the flower-enamelled ground.
“‘Tis night! ’tis night! and the werwolf’s might
Makes man and nature shiver.
Yet its fierce grey head and stealthy tread
Are nought to thee, oh river!
River, river, river.
“Oh water strong, that swirls along,
I prithee a werwolf make me.
Of all things dear, my soul, I swear,
In death shall not forsake thee.”

The supplicant then strikes the banks of the river three times with his forehead; then dips his head into the river thrice, at each dip gulping down a mouthful of the water. This concludes the ceremony—he has become a werwolf, and twenty-four hours later will undergo the first metamorphosis.

I strongly suspect that this alleged tradition is O’Donnell’s invention, although if so, he at least deserves credit for prefiguring what would become a major part of Hollywood werewolf lore: the full moon transformation.

He goes on to describe lycanthropous water in more detail, saying that it possesses a “lurid sparkle” and a faint odour “comparable with nothing”, and also makes a noise as it rushes along that “closely resembles the muttering and whispering of human voices” (in the day, at least; during the night it “sometimes utters piercing screams, and howls and groans”). As dubious as his scholarship may be, O’Donnell at least shows a flair for the weird.

After this comes the topic of lycanthropous flowers. These, too, can be used as part of a rite to become a werewolf if plucked and worn on the night of a full moon. The next method of obtaining lycanthropy to be described is a magic ritual. This involves brewing a potion with such ingredients as mandrake, opium and parsley and praying to dark forces:

“I (here insert name) offer to thee, Great Spirit of the Unknown, this night (here insert date), my body and soul, on condition that thou grantest me, from this night to the hour of my death, the power of metamorphosing, nocturnally, into a wolf. I beg, I pray, I implore thee—thee, unparalleled Phantom of Darkness, to make me a werwolf—a werwolf!”—and striking the ground three times with his forehead, he gets up

If the rite is a success, then a phantom will appear and transform the supplicant into a werewolf:

Sometimes the phantom is indefinite—a cylindrical, luminous, pillar-like thing, about seven feet in height, having no discernible features; sometimes it assumes a definite shape, and appears either as a monstrous hooded figure with a death’s head, or as a sub-human, sub-animal type of Elemental.

O’Donnell then moves on to the topic of Vargamors, old women “who are closely allied to werewolves, and exercise complete control over all the wolves in the neighbourhood.” Vargamors, he tells us, can be found in certain Swedish forests, and he illustrates the subject with the tale of Liso of Soros. As it doesn’t actually mention werewolves, the story is outside the scope of this series; suffice to say that (like many of the allegedly true narratives shared by O’Donnell) it is suspiciously similar to a fairy tale in structure, and even has a moral in that the title character is punished for selfishly putting her own life above those of her children.

As an aside, I went looking for earlier volumes that mention Vargamors; the only examples that I could find were Benjamin Thorpe’s 1851 book Northern Mythology and Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 Book of Were-Wolves, the latter repeating a story included in the former.

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