A Brief Historical Background to the Werewolf Myth in Sixteenth-Century Germany

in companion to Dana Rehn’s exhibition talk for Lupercalia ‘The Werewolf in German Renaissance Prints During the Witch Trials,’ Saturday 13 April 2019

Nicolaes van Geelkerken after Clüver in Philipp Clüver, Germaniae antiquae libri tres, Leiden: Louis Elzevir, 1616, Engraving, London, The Wellcome Library.
Source: archive.org


The sixteenth century was marked by a period of significant change from the Renaissance, Age of Discovery, and the Reformation that created instability and anxiety. Together with the popularity of prints and superstitious beliefs fuelled by repeated war and death from disease and famine, sixteenth-century Germany was ripe for iconography of hybrid and shape-shifting creatures that embodied curiosity and fear. Representations of hybrid creatures were partly connected to the Renaissance reverence for antiquity and the return to the classical past via the transformative narratives of hybrid gods and goddesses. Prints of werewolves and other hybrid creatures also appear to have been related to local early Germanic and Nordic folklore where ancient Germans wore wolf’s hide in battle. Images of werewolves and other hybrid monsters were produced during the witch-hunts, which saw the majority of trials take place in the German-speaking territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

Vergilius Solis, ‘Lycaon’, in Ovid, Iohan. Posthii Germershemii Tetrasticha in Ovidii Metam. lib. XV. qvibus accesserunt Vergilij Solis figurae elegantiss. & iam primùm in lucem editae… (Frankfurt am Main), Johann Postius von Gemersheim 1563, fol. 124, Book I, 220-239, Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute, source: archive.org

In Germany during the late sixteenth-century, myths from antiquity laid the groundwork for the representations of werewolf trials. The ancient Arcadian myth of the transformation into wolves after the consumption of human flesh was linked to a tale retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (43 B.C.–17 A.D), which has continued to inspire art and literature throughout the centuries.  In the first book of Ovid’s narrative of transformation, the myth of one of the first werewolves was told of Lycaon, a legendary tyrant king of Arcadia, whose name was derived from the Greek lykos, meaning ‘wolf.’  The German editions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses were published in western Germany where in a few decades the surrounding region would spur accounts of werewolves.

The belief in the transformative powers of witchcraft reignited werewolf folklore, sparking accusations and trials against witches throughout Europe who was suspected of murder while transformed into a wolf with the aid of the Devil. While witches who were accused of transforming into wolves were in the minority, the impact of the belief in werewolves is evidenced by the numerous publications on witchcraft and demonology that debated the existence of werewolves and the power of metamorphosis in sixteenth-century Europe. While witches were also trialled for crimes while transformed into wolves, this was usually overshadowed by the main crime of sorcery and a pact with the Devil where cases of transformation were usually trialled as witchcraft. Despite the association of witchcraft with women, it was the minority male witch that was most frequently concurrently changed with transforming into a wolf. The werewolf’s hairy and ferocious image, who tears up human flesh, presented a hyper-masculine figure. 

Scepticism amongst the intellectuals of society limited trials of supposed werewolves that did not occur to the same extent towards witches, where the scope of witches powers was more often debated rather than their existence in the same way that demons were an accepted fact. Although it was rare that witches were concurrently charged with the crime of transforming into a wolf, it nevertheless became a prominent theme. Learned discourse debated the nature of lycanthropy. Judges, lawmakers, physicians, and theologians questioned and commented on the existence of werewolves and the ability of witches to transform into wolves during sixteenth-century Europe.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Werewolf, c.1510-1512, Single-leaf woodcut, 16.1 x 12.5 cm, London, British Museum.

Suspected werewolves were often the most socially marginalised members of society, much like accused witches. People charged with transforming into a wolf were typically peasants or beggars living outside the main urban centres. During this period, begging and vagrancy became a crime in and of itself and a threat to the stability of society. Beggars would be arrested and found themselves cast beyond the walled-cities like other criminals. Shepherds and farmers, on the other hand, were stigmatised for the often dirty and smelly work that frequently brought them into contact with animals. On the one side, they were likened to ‘plodding domestic animals’ and on the other as ‘dangerous savage beasts’ with animal characteristics of a wolf-like snout. The Peasant’s War of 1524 brought them even greater scorn with even Martin Luther calling them ‘bloodhounds’ and for them to be killed like mad dogs.

Unknown Artist, in Johannes Geiler of Kayserberg, Die Emeis, Strasbourg, Grüninger, 1516, XLIr,
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBiblothek.

There were, however, natural explanations why children were thought to be the target of werewolves. Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg’s published sermon on werewolves in his Die Emeis (‘The Ant-Colony’, 1516), expressed concern for wolf attacks and suggested that wolves were getting more desperate for food, leading them closer to human habitats. Children were easier prey for natural wolves as they would frequently work on farms, gathering firewood, and herding livestock. It is therefore unsurprising to note that tales and trials of werewolves were also largely restricted to areas that had large wolf populations. Biologist Edward Wilson explains why Germany was transfixed with the motif of the canine: ‘We are not just afraid of predators, we are transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.’

Secondary Sources:

Freedman, Paul, ‘The Representation of Medieval Peasants as Bestial and as Human,’ in Angela N. H. Creager and William Chester Jordan (eds.), The Animal/Human Boundary: Historical Perspectives, Rochester, New York: University of Rochester Press, 2002, pp. 29-50.

Jütte, Robert, Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Kalof, Linda, Looking at Animals in Human History, London: Reaktion Books, 2007.

Lorey, Elmar M. ‘Vom Wolfssegner zum Werwolf: Hexereiprozesse im Nassauer Land,’ in Rita Voltmer and Günter Gehl (eds.), Alltagsleben und Magie in Hexenprozessen, Weimar: Verlag Rita Dadder, 2003, pp. 65-81.

Lorey, Elmar, ‘Werwolfprozesse in der Frühen Neuzeit’,http://www.elmar-lorey.de/Prozesse.htm 

Schulte, Rolf, Man as Witch: Male Witches in Central Europe, trans. Linda Froome-Döring, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Sidky, Homayun, Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease: An Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts, New York: Peter Lang, 1997.

Speidel, Michael, Ancient Germanic Warriors: Warrior Styles from Trajan’s Column to Icelandic Sagas, London: Routledge, 2004.