Werewolf Wednesday: Sabine Baring-Gould Chapters 1 and 2 (1865)

Well, it was only a matter of time before I got round to covering Sabine Baring-Gould’s 1865 Book of Were-Wolves. If Universal’s The Wolf Man did for werewolves what Dracula did for vampires, Sabine Baring-Gould can lay claim to being the Dr. Polidori of lycanthropy, pulling together lore and legend in a text that would become a key influence on later writers.

The first chapter opens on an autobiographical note, the author describing a visit to a small hamlet in France where the locals lived in fear of loups-garoux:

“Picou tells me that he saw the were-wolf only this day se’nnight,” said a peasant; “he was down by the hedge of his buckwheat field, and the sun had set, and he was thinking of coming home, when he heard a rustle on the far side of the hedge. He looked over, and there stood the wolf as big as a calf against the horizon, its tongue out, and its eyes glaring like marsh-fires. Mon Dieu! catch me going over the marais to-night. Why, what could two men do if they were attacked by that wolf-fiend?”

Baring-Gould himself harboured no such fears, as he made clear in his retort: “I will walk back by myself, and if I meet the loup-garou I will crop his ears and tail, and send them to M. le Maire with my compliments.” He spends the remainder of the chapter musing about the widespread nature of werewolf folklore. He compares himself to a paleontologist — a discipline that had seen great strides in recent decades — on the grounds that, while he has no living specimens to examine, he can at least study the traces left by this presumably long-gone species. (A folktale is very different from a fossil, but this hardly damages the poetic appeal of the analogy).

The second chapter, “Lycanthropy Among the Ancients”, focuses on classical accounts of humans becoming wolves. Taking us on a whistle-stop tour through the writings of Virgil, Herodotus, Ovid, Pliny and others, he recounts such tales as Lycaon being turned into a wolf by an angry Zeus; the Neurians’ fabled ability to transform themselves into wolves for several days per year; and the transformation of boxer Demænetus (or Damarchus) into the form of a wolf for a whole decade.

Of course, by focusing specifically on lupine transformations, Baring-Gould could be accused of making an arbitrary selection. After all, Greek mythology is filled with characters transforming into various different sorts of animal, from Arachne becoming a spider to Odysseus’ crew being turned into pigs. That a few of these stories involve lupine shapeshifting does not prove that the Greeks held a belief in werewolves as a distinct supernatural entity (although the story of the Neurians, which attributed lycanthropy to a specific ethnic group, can be seen as something along those lines). In fairness, though, the author makes an attempt to acknowledge this, and mentions not only lycanthropy but also kuanthropy and boanthropy — the transformation of humans into dogs and cows, respectively.

The chapter also touches upon psychological lycanthropy. Although Baring-Gould doesn’t do the best job of distinguishing this from the physical variety, he does establish that it was known in antiquity:

Truly it consists in a form of madness, such as may be found in most asylums. […] According to Marcellus Sidetes, of whose poem {Greek perì lukanðrw’pou} a fragment exists, men are attacked with this madness chiefly in the beginning of the year, and become most furious in February; retiring for the night to lone cemeteries, and living precisely in the manner of dogs and wolves.

As he reaches the end of his survey of classical werewolves, Baring-Gould locates Arcadia as the hub of Greek lycanthropy, and offers a theory as to why this is the case:

It is to be observed that the chief seat of Lycanthropy was Arcadia, and it has been very plausibly suggested that the cause might he traced to the following circumstance:—The natives were a pastoral people, and would consequently suffer very severely from the attacks and depredations of wolves. They would naturally institute a sacrifice to obtain deliverance from this pest, and security for their flocks. This sacrifice consisted in the offering of a child, and it was instituted by Lycaon. From the circumstance of the sacrifice being human, and from the peculiarity of the name of its originator, rose the myth. But, on the other hand, the story is far too widely spread for us to attribute it to an accidental origin, or to trace it to a local source.

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