Werewolf Wednesday: Giuseppe Acerbi on Laplanders, Cyclopes and Werewolves (1802)

Well, I’d hoped to have another post about Johann Weyer’s writings on werewolves ready for today, but digging through his Latin has turned out to be more time-consuming than I’d thought. So, I’ve got something a little shorter and sweeter today: a brief reference to werewolf folklore in Giuseppe Acerbi’s 1802 volume Travels Through Sweden, Finland, and Lapland, to the North Cape, in the Years 1798 and 1799.

The relevant section begins with a passage on the way in which descriptions of Laplanders have been distorted throughout history:

The Laplanders have been represented by some authors as being overgrown with shaggy hair, like wild beasts. Others have given them but one eye; but these are fables which those authors seem to have borrowed from Herodotus and Pliny, and in no way applicable either to the Laplanders, or any race of people upon the face of Earth.

This is accompanied by a footnote that starts out by discussing legends related to the cyclops:

The origin of this story of people overgrown with hair, who had but one eye, like the Cyclops, is as old or older than the time when Herodotus wrote his history. He speaks of certain Cyclops called Anmaspi, inhabiting the northern parts, who waged perpetual war with dragons or griffins, in possession of mines of gold. The notion of these Cyclops is supposed to have arisen from the interpretation of the Scythian word anmaspas, which signifies one eye. It has been thought that some of the Anmaspi were a Tartar nation, into whose country the Chinese (whose ensign is a dragon or griffin) made frequent inroads for the purpose of seeking for gold, which they carried away with them.

The footnote then moves on to the topic of hairy men — and, by extension, werewolves:

As to the peculiarity of the natives of Laopponia in respect to hairiness, it has been supposed to allude to their wearing furs in the winter for an outer garment. Herodotus likewise speaks of men who, at particular seasons, were changed into wolves. This certainly had no other foundation than in the depraved fancies or impositions of sorcerers, who pretend to a power of transforming themselves into wolves, and perhaps, to carry on the deception, disguised themselves in the skins of those animals. This belief has remained to later ages, and has left its name behind it, being called werewolf, by the Germans währwolf, and by the French loup garou.

I’ve covered a few authors suggesting non-supernatural explanations for supposed werewolf transformations in this series, but they generally point to mental illness. Acerbi, by contrast, blames lycanthropy on the tricks of charlatens.

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