Werewolf Wednesday: Sabine Baring-Gould Chapter 9 (1865)

An illustration by Jean de Bosschère for The Golden Ass.

The ninth chapter of Sabine Baring-Gould’s Book of Were-Wolves, “Natural Causes of Lycanthropy”, will be of interest less to those studying folklore, and more to those investigating Victorian attitudes towards criminal psychology.

The author spends much of the chapter waxing philosophical about the human capacity for destruction and cruelty: hunters and fishermen; children who gloat over wounded animals; sadistic murderers; and tyrants like Nero, Caligula and Robespierre. Cannibalism soon becomes a focal point, with Baring-Gould finding some interesting incidents to back up his arguments:

An abnormal condition of body sometimes produces this desire for blood. It is manifest in certain cases of pregnancy, when the constitution loses its balance, and the appetite becomes diseased. Schenk gives instances. A pregnant woman saw a baker carrying loaves on his bare shoulder. She was at once filled with such a craving for his flesh that she refused to taste any food till her husband persuaded the baker, by the offer of a large sum, to allow his wife to bite him. The man yielded, and the woman fleshed her teeth in his shoulder twice; but he held out no longer. The wife bore twins on three occasions, twice living, the third time dead.

It takes a while before he returns to the topic of lycanthropes, eventually remarking that “[t]he cases in which bloodthirstiness and cannibalism are united with insanity are those which properly fall under the head of Lycanthropy.” As he goes on to illustrate:

A disordered condition of mind or body may produce hallucination in a form depending on the character and instincts of the individual. Thus, an ambitious man labouring under monomania will imagine himself to be a king; a covetous man will be plunged in despair, believing himself to be penniless, or exult at the vastness of the treasure which he imagines that he has discovered. The old man suffering from rheumatism or gout conceives himself to be formed of china or glass, and the foxhunter tallyhos! at each new moon, as though he were following a pack.

In like manner, the naturally cruel man, if the least affected in his brain, will suppose himself to be transformed into the most cruel and bloodthirsty animal with which he is acquainted. The hallucinations under which lycanthropists suffered may have arisen from various causes. The older writers, as Forestus and Burton, regard the were-wolf mania as a species of melancholy madness, and some do not deem it necessary for the patient to believe in his transformation for them to regard him as a lycanthropist.

Baring-Gould proceeds to place Jean Grenier in the psychiatrist’s chair, theorising at the same time that the salve cited in witch-trials as a cause of lycanthropy may have been some sort of hallucinogen. He backs up his speculation with a passage from The Golden Ass describing the sight of a sorceress daub herself with ointment and transforming into an owl; but when the narrator Lucius tries the same substance on himself, he instead becomes a donkey. Baring-Gould then ties up the chapter with the following thoughts:

Whatever may have been the cause of the hallucination, it is not surprising that the lycanthropist should have imagined himself transformed into a beast. The cases I have instanced are those of shepherds, who were by nature of their employment, brought into collision with wolves; and it is not surprising that these persons, in a condition liable to hallucinations, should imagine themselves to be transformed into wild beasts, and that their minds reverting to the injuries sustained from these animals, they should, in their state of temporary insanity, accuse themselves of the acts of rapacity committed by the beasts into which they believed themselves to be transformed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: