Werewolf Wednesday: Olaus Magnus on Lycanthropy (1555)

Christmas is nearly upon us, and I decided to celebrate with an appropriately festive piece of werewolf folklore. The source this time is Olaus Magnus’ 1555 book Historia de Gentibus Septentrionalibus (A Description of the Northern Peoples), chapters 45-7 of which discuss lycanthropy. If any of this seems familiar, then chances are you’ve read Sabine Baring-Gould’s summary.

Olaus Magnus begins the section by citing Pliny’s description of a race of wolves descended from men that can be found in lands to the north. He then moves on to Prussia, Livonia and Lithuania where, we are told, substantial loss of livestock to wolves is a common problem The wolves responsible are not just any animals: rather, they are men who have been transformed.

On the night of the feast of the Nativity of Christ, says Olaus Magnus, a great number of these wolves arrive from disparate places to gather together in a location that they have chosen. They then terrorise human and animal alike, even trying to break down doors so that they can consume the occupants and any household pets. Meat is not the only substance on their minds: these wolves are also fond of entering the cellars of beer-makers and indulging in alcohol. This trait, we are told, is what distinguishes them from natural wolves.

On a certain season of the year, thousands of these wolves gather at a wall — the remnants of a ruined castle — to be found between Lithuania, Samorgitia and Courland, and test their agility by jumping over it. In an intriguing detail, Olaus mentions that the wolves which fail at this task are whipped by their leaders — unless this “whipping” is figurative, then we can infer that the wolves are led by humans. The text goes on to mention noblemen being present at these scenes, so perhaps these are the leaders in question.

Olaus then returns to Pliny, citing an account of an Arcadian custom in which people are chosen by lot to be turned into wolves and sent to live with their new kind for years. Next comes an anecdote about a nobleman turning into a wolf to attack some sheep; when or when this occurred is not clarified. Olaus compares this sequence of events to the mythological Lycaon, and quotes from Ovid.

We then get an account of an incident that reportedly occurred in Livonia within recent years. A nobleman got into an argument about whether or not men can become wolves; the man tried to prove himself right by descending into the cellar and coming out in the form of a wolf. He was then attacked by dogs and lost his eye; this injury remained when he returned to human form. (The wording in this story is ambiguous: I’m not sure if the man is supposed to have actually become a wolf or simply dressed as a wolf to play a prank, which would indicate that Olaus included the narrative for humorous effect). The section closes with a description of a recent incident in which the Duke of Prussia successfully forced an accused magician to turn into a wolf, afterwards having the lycanthrope executed for this black magic.

Most of the anecdotes collected by Olaus Magnus are a long way from the werewolves of horror cinema — although it is notable that the first story’s association of werewolves with Christmas eventually made its way into the Hammer film Curse of the Werewolf.

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