Germanic Warrior Wolf Tribes: Werewolves, Shamanism, and Outlaws

Old Norse literature is filled with stories of shape-shifting transformation of humans and gods alike, reflecting oral traditions of several hundred years.[i] These transformations were either voluntary, hereditary, or the result of a curse.[ii] They include The tale of Ulf (‘Wolf’), which is described in Egil’s Saga, written in Iceland in 1000 A.D., in which Ulf who was so ill-tempered in the evening that it was believed that he transformed into a raging wolf. The Saga of the Volsungs (c.1250-1300) also described magical skin-changers who adorned wolf skins that turned them into howling, biting wolves that they would come out of every tenth day.[iii]

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

The Saga of the Volsungs influenced shamanistic practices within Scandinavian and Germanic ‘warrior wolf tradition’ (Wolfskrieger), where the wearing of wolf fur and adopting the animalistic ferocity of the wolf was used in battle (fig. 1). The foundation for this practice also lay with the cult of the war god, Odin.[iv] Odin developed from the older Germanic god, Wodan (or Wotan), who was also the god of war and the wolf and was worshipped by wolf-warriors.[v] Warriors who wore bear and wolf skin in battle were commonly called berserks or ‘wolf coats’ (úlfheðnar).[vi] They were known for their animalistic ferocity and were reportedly able to slaughter men and animals who crossed their paths with no use of weapons and were imperious to wounds.[vii] As described in the Ynglinga Saga (c.1225), written by Snorri Sturluson, led by Odin in battle: ‘His men advanced…as mad as dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were as strong as bears or bulls. They slaughtered men, but neither fire nor iron harmed them. This is called the berserk frenzy’.[viii] According to Sturluson, they achieved this feat by drawing from the power of Odin.[ix]

The origins of these tribes who adorned themselves with wolf and bear pelts can partly be attributed to bands of outcasts who survived by robbery and conquered new lands.[x] They included runaway slaves, adolescents who undertook initiation rituals by living far from their village, foreign immigrants searching for new lands to settle, or fugitives seeking refuge.[xi] Germanic warrior-wolf tribes (Wolfskrieger) such as the Lombards and the Alamanni sent out their young men to concur new lands.[xii] They were called werewolves as they resided in the lands of the wolf forming ‘wolf packs’.[xiii]  The dynamic between warrior and outlaw has been illustrated in the Saga of the Volsungs with Sigi who killed a slave for being a better hunter than him was banished to become a ‘wolf’. Sigi became a successful warrior and ruled over the land of the Huns.[xiv] Therefore, ‘wolf’ was not only associated with the ferocity of a warrior, but was also synonymous with outlaw, criminal, and werewolf.[xv]

Schwertscheide von Gutenstein, Gutenstein, Baden-Württemberg, 700
Replica in Römisch-Germanischen  Museum, Mainz.

A seventh-century silver embossed scabbard (sword sheath) called the Schwertscheide von Gutenstein (fig.2), depicts a human figure with a wolf’s head and tail holding a large sword, believed to belong to the Alamanni. Since similar images have been seen on several artefacts found from the Middle Ages, it is believed that it reflects the costume worm by wolf-warriors during the time.[xvi] The wearing of wolf pelts and adopting the iconography of the hybrid between man and beast was used to create fear in their enemy. This tactic was similarly used by the Lombards. An early Lombard historian, Paul the Deacon (c.720-799), wrote in his Historia Langobardorum (‘History of the Langobards’) that this tribe claimed to have had the dog-headed monstrous race, cynocephali in their army and would drink the blood of their enemies.[xvii] During the early fourteenth century, the Lombards’ emblem was the dog and were ruled by king Congrade known as the ‘Great Dog’.[xviii]

These practices were so engrained in Germanic culture that men of distinguished families adopted names of animals, with the most popular of these having been bear and wolf. The names were associated with success in battle and in German were combined with names of battle such as Hildewolf and Guthbeorn.[xix] Furthermore, when an ancestor died it was believed that they turned into a wolf. By adopting wolf names such as Wolfhard, Wolfbrand and Wolfgang, it was believed that warriors could adopt the strength of their forefathers.[xx] These names continue to exist today.

[i] H.R. Ellis Davidson, ‘Shape-Changing in the Old Norse Sagas’ in Charlotte F. Otten (ed.), A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986, p.142; Michael Cheilik, ‘The Werewolf,’ in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide, New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, p. 269.

[ii] Aleksander Pluskowski, Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006, p. 185.

[iii] Anonymous, The Saga of the Volsungs, trans. Eirikr Magnússon and William Morris, Stilwell:, 2004, pp.19-20; Anonymous, Egil’s Saga, ed. Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, trans. Bernard Scudder, London: Penguin 2005.

[iv] Laura Ward and Will Steeds, Demons: Visions of Evil in Art, London: Carlton, 2007, p. 119; Davidson, 1986, pp. 149, 156; Cheilik, 1987, p. 269; Mary Roche Gerstein, ‘Germanic Warg: The Outlaw as Werewolf” in Gerald James Larson (ed.), Myth in Indo-European  Antiquity, Berkley: University of California Press, 1974, p. 143.

[v] H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, London: Penguin, 1965, pp. 69-70: Michael Speidel, Ancient Germanic Warriors: Warrior Styles from Trajan’s Column to Icelandic Sagas, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 30.

[vi] Joyce E. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 160; Pluskowski, 2006, p. 182.

[vii] Davidson, 1986, p. 149; Cheilik, 1987, p. 269.

[viii] Snorri Sturluson, ‘Ynglinga Saga’, in Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald (eds.), The Viking Age: A Reader, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, p. 120.

[ix] Davidson, 1965, p. 66.

[x] Speidel, 2004, p.19.

[xi] David Gordon White, Myths of the Dog-Man, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, note 18 on page 212.

[xii] Speidel, 2004, p. 23.

[xiii] White, 1991, pp. 6-7; Speidel, 2004, p. 29.

[xiv] Anonymous, 2004, p. 10.

[xv] Gerstein, 1972, pp. 166-7.

[xvi] Speidel, 2004, p. 24.

[xvii] Speidel, 2004, p. 19. Paul the Deacon, History of the Langobards, trans. William Dudley Foulke, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1907, p. 20.

[xviii] White, 1991, p. 61.

[xix] Davidson, 1986, p. 148.

[xx] Cheilik, 1987, p. 270.