Werewolf Wednesday: Notes on Lycanthropy (1802)


The August 1802 edition of The Scots Magazine includes a letter on the topic of lycanthropy. Although the author makes early digressions into the Lazzaroni of Naples (I’m unfamiliar as to this area of werewolf folklore) and Ethiopian were-hyenas, the general focus is on British werewolves.


Among the popular superstitions of Scotland, there seems to have been one, the traces of which are now almost obliterated, the origin of which might be a subject of curious and entertaining discussion. Lycanthropy, or the belief of the occasional transformation of magicians, and sometimes of other persons by the power of magicians, seems formerly to have been very extensively diffused.

In Germany, the belief was at one time quite current, and is alluded to by various authors. Among the Lazzaroni of Naples, the manners of whom have too much verisimilitude to the idea, this transformation was very recently believed. [James] Bruce found a similar notion prevalent in Abyssinia; and relates that the inhabitants of Gondar imagined the hyænas that infested their streets by night, and were accustomed to prey on mangled carcasses, were individuals of the Jewish tribes of Samen, transformed into the shape of that ferocious animal.

Mr Scott, in his notes on the ballad of Lemption, in the second volume of his Border Minstrelsy, has adduced several curious examples of the superstition existing among the northern nations, and the history of Merlin the Wild, or the Scotish Merlin, who is represented as suffering his weird or destiny in the shape of a wild beast in the Prophecies of Waldhave, affords us an instance of the same belief in Scotland.

The poem of William and the Werwolf, which still remains in MS. in the library of King’s College Cambridge, would probably furnish some curious illustrations of this subject. Mr J. Bryant, who quotes it in his Observations on the Poems of Thomas Rowley, Vol 1, p. 14. 73. 233. says, it is written in the principal dialect of one of the western counties, and is in many respects similar to the stile of Pierce Plowman. The subject is the history of William, a royal foundling, and of a Werwolf by whom he was preserved. The Werwolf, in his transformation, is supposed to retain the human intellect. Probably it may be in the power of some of your correspondents to introduce this interesting work to the public, either by your valuable Miscellany, or by some other channel.



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