Werewolves, Wolves, and the Intersections between Human and Animal

Keywords: Werewolves, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Cannibalism, Petter Stump, Peter Stump, Peter Stumpf, Peter Stumpp, Wolves

One of the earliest werewolf fables originated from the ancient festival of Zeus in Arcadia, Greece. Participants would choose a piece of meat from a mixture of both animal and human sacrifices. Those who unwittingly chose and ate the entrails of a human sacrifice would transform into a wolf for nine years. They would transform back into human form in the tenth year if they abstained from eating human flesh, but would remain a wolf if they had. It suggests that when they transformed into a wolf they maintained some of their human faculties for them to suffer the consequences of their actions whilst transformed. If they ate a human in wolf form, it meant that they had given into their animalistic nature and therefore could not return to civil society. This highlights the distinction between humans and animals in antiquity, which lies in contrast to scholars who have used these transformative myths as evidence that there was less distinction during the classical period.[i] Aristotle’s writings on the civilising influence of the city, or polis, reinforces this point. Quoting Homer, those outside the polis were ‘Clanless and lawless and heartless’.

Sebastian Brant, Esopi appologi sive mythologi cum quibusdam carminum et fabularum additionibus, Basil: Jacob Wolff of Pforzheim, 1501,
Basel, University of Basel.

The Arcadian myth was retold and illustrated in a collection of fables by Sebastian Brant, published in 1501. It included the depiction of undressing at the water bank and crossing a body of water. These motifs were associated with rites of passage.[ii] The crossing of the water could represent the boundary between human and wolf form and thus the animalistic state that exists in the wild.[iii] French jurist, Jean Bodin, inspired by this myth, described witches who would transform into wolves once they crossed a river. After twelve days, they would return to the river and transform back into their human form.[iv] In this way, the early myths from antiquity influenced the beliefs and depictions of werewolves during the sixteenth century.

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Mainz: Juo Schoffer, 1551,
Woodcut, 9x 15cm,
Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek.

The Arcadian myth was linked to a tale retold in Ovid’s poem, Metamorphoses, which drew from classical Greek mythology. 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’.[v] In this tale, the King of the Gods, Jupiter, took human form to see, use and punish the decadence of mortal man firsthand. When the Arcadian people recognised that the stranger in their midst was a god, Lycaon set about to test his divinity by serving him the flesh of a boy to serve to Jupiter.[vi]

In a 1551 German edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, capturing the unfolding tale,[vii] the foreground of the pictorial print depicts a man being sacrificed on a chopping block whose limbs are boiling in a cauldron above a fire. His leg is skewered and roasting in the flames below, clearly highlighting the cooking of the man to accentuate the depravity of the Arcadian king. The abhorrent message is clearly conveyed to the German Renaissance viewer by showing Lycaon serving Jupiter the human hand and face on plates. Jupiter who could tell immediately it was human flesh raised his hand in a dismissive manner, while wearing a crown and sceptre, resembling a true king. Behind this scene, Lycaon is shown fleeing into obscurity in wolf form. This further served to juxtapose the real power of the king of the gods against Lycaon who was only king of the mortal realm of the Arcadians. This separation between man and Gods, further marked the separation between man and beast.[viii]

Despite the strong theme of cannibalism, Lycaon does not personally eat human flesh in this tale. It was the act of murder that made him transform into a ravaging, bloodthirsty wolf.  Lycaon fled in terror and into madness, turning into a wolf, growing a coat of hair and howling instead of the ability to speak.[ix] Some scholars have incorrectly attributed Lycaon’s metamorphosis to Jupiter.[x] However, his spontaneous metamorphosis into a wolf revealed his true nature. Like the myth of the Arcadian festival, cannibalism resulted in the perpetrators turning into wolves and having to live in exile from civilisation – in the land of the wolf. The link between the consumption of human flesh and wolves suggests they were viewed as a predator of man. Therefore, people who consumed human flesh turned into wolves themselves. As these tales demonstrate, the difference between wolves and humans was not just physical, but behavioural.

Like Lycaon who fled into the wild transforming into a beast, the wilderness in sixteenth-century Germany was associated with all things uncivilised and dangerous including, insanity and criminality.[xi] Some criminals, the insane and other unwanted groups found themselves banished from early modern German cities.[xii] The encapsulation of the fear of both the forest and the wolf is portrayed in Lucas Cranach the Elder’s woodcut commonly entitled Werewolf. The single-sheet woodcut depicts a wildly-looking man on all limbs, crawling with a naked baby in his jaws, alluding to cannibalism. Amidst the destruction that surrounds him are torn up bodies with four of his victims left in his wake. The baby’s parents in the background are depicted as helpless figures with the mother waving her hands in despair as the monster crawls towards the dark forest with her baby. The sense of remoteness is illustrated by the city and castle perched on a hill in the distance. This woodcut illustrates that one of the threats of the wilderness was not just wild animals, but wild people. It recalls the Latin proverb ‘man is wolf to man’. It has been interpreted as man without civilisation, is a man without peace.[xiii]

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

The only discernible characteristic that the murderous man is turning into a werewolf is the thick hair on his back revealed from a tear in his shirt. In this way, the image further conveys the idea of the mythological wild man, frequently represented with thick hair covering their entire bodies, except for their knees where the hair has worn away from crawling on all fours. Yet, Cranach’s image is not the mythological idea of the wild man of the German Renaissance, particularly because they were not portrayed as wearing clothes. For this reason, they were symbolically outside civilisation – both physically and behaviourally.[xiv] Even those who became temporary wild men through madness and fled into the forest to shed their clothes, only returned to civilisation by again putting their garments back on as discussed in the Arcadian myth. In the forest, they begun to grow hair all over their body to signify their move away from the human realm and into the animal one.[xv]

As with animals, lunatics were characterised with a lack of reason.[xvi] They encapsulated the fears of Europeans concerning the abandonment of reason and civilisation.[xvii] Many people concluded that the wild men were degenerative humans. It was believed that they became an irrational beast in the same way that the insane were believed to be a form of wild people. The theme of civilising the wild man was popular during the Middle Ages. Medieval romances frequently described people who suffered a crisis and lost their mind and ran into the forest living as semi-human wild people.[xviii] Thus, insanity and wildness during the Middle Ages and early modern period was thought to be a temporary condition.[xix] The wilderness in part created the state for wildness as it was located on the margins of civilisation and rationality.[xx] Like the wild man, the werewolf entered the wilderness and transformed into a hairy wolf losing their rationality and inhibitions, subject to animalistic urges. The mystery of the man encapsulates the fear of what lurked in the forest: the peasant rustic, the exiled criminal, the lunatic and the mythology of the wild man and transformative powers of the werewolf. As a result, the print served to conflate the lower echelons of society with animalistic and primitive characteristics. Therefore, Cranach took the theme of the civilising influence of the city, by exposing those who lived on the fringes of German society.

Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg, Die Emeis, Strasbourg, Grüninger, 1516, fol. XLIr,
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBiblothek.

The wolf in sixteenth-century Germany posed a real threat both to inhabitants outside the city walls and their livelihoods. The increasing encroachment and disruption caused by wolves in human habitats meant they were attributed with supernatural qualities and equated them with human qualities of boldness and intelligence. The threat posed by wolves was discussed and illustrated in a chapter devoted to werewolves in the published transcripts of Johann Geiler von Kaysersberg’s sermons, published in 1516 posthumously. The woodcut portrays a journeyman with his arms raised in surprised as a large and ferocious wolf pounces on him. The unknown artist appears to convey the dangers that lurk on the other side of the walled city, as the wolf and the journeyman have merged from the depths of the forest outside the city’s gate, guarded by a lansquenet.[xxi]

The text underneath the image states that werewolves are believed to desire the flesh of man ‘for there are were-wolves which run about the villages devouring men and children’.[xxii] This recounted the enduring perception that real wolves were fearful and avoided humans. Current studies have shown that wolves are more likely to avoid humans, particularly if they have less exposure to them.[xxiii] However, cases exist where predatory wolves have preyed upon humans for food.[xxiv] The text further recalls the tales from antiquity that connected cannibalism with werewolves. Therefore, any potential attack by a wolf could be attributed to a werewolf. However, Geiler continued by providing several reasons why a wolf would eat a man or child, including both natural and supernatural, but not the belief that man could metamorphose into a wolf.

Regardless, the print and the accompanying discussion reaffirmed that wolves were something to be feared. Geiler first described wolves out of hunger may come closer to human settlements in search for food and attack people to eat. In Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), Olaus Magnus reiterated this point and stated that during the harshest winters, wolves would even enter people’s homes.[xxv] Wolves who entered cities and attacked people had been described as werewolves for their bold ferocity and intelligence of man. After all, the ability to reason was what separated man from animal.[xxvi] As animals continued to be regarded as distinct from humans, such cunning shown from animals was considered miraculous and thus attributed supernatural qualities to them.[xxvii]

Jost Amman, ‘Wolf Hunt,’ illustrated in  Heinrich Schröter, Künstliche, Wolgerissene new Figuren von allerlai Jagt und Weidwerck, Leonhardt Heussler, 1592,
Woodcut, 8.8 x 11.6cm,
Munich, Bayerische StaatsBibliothek.

The print and its accompanying text highlights that there was a real concern with wolf attacks and that wolves were getting more desperate for food, leading them closer to human habitats. The threat felt from wolves during this period is illustrated in several prints of wolf hunts. These prints illustrating the threat posed by wolves demonstrate mass cultural fears during a time that could have led to scapegoating and believing people were transforming into wolves. According to Elmar Lorey, 280 witches were accused of transforming into a wolf between 1407-1674.[xxviii] Discourse by judges, law makers, physicians, theologians on the existence of werewolves raged across sixteenth-century Europe and was particularly fixated on the ability of witches to transform themselves into wolves. Although some Renaissance thinkers believed in the reality of people being able to transform themselves into wolves through a pact with the Devil, most did not as it challenged the Christian hierarchical worldview between humans and animals.[xxix]

In sixteenth-century Germany, the notorious farmer Petter Stump was accused of multiple murders, cannibalism, incest and sorcery. A broadsheet not only shows his torture and execution for committing these crimes, but also accused of doing so while transformed into a wolf in the Bishopric of Cologne in 1589. The Nuremberg broadsheet by Lukas Mayer depicted an unfolding scene beginning with Stump’s attack on a local farmer in the top left corner.[xxx] Transformed back into human form, the foreground reveals Stump attached to a cart-wheel where he was tortured with his skin pierced by hot tongs. A man behind him pulls a sheet from his face as if revealing the wolf’s real identity. After decapitation, he is finally dragged by his legs to his final execution in the fire – a dishonourable death of a heretic ‘because he led a wolf’s life’.[xxxi] Amongst the crowd of hunters, a large cross is held up illustrating Stump as the antithesis to Christianity. His transformation into a wolf had corrupted godly order, where man was created in God’s image and was given dominion over all other animals.

Anonymous, warhafftige und wunderbarlich Newe zeitung von einen pauren der sich durch Zaüberey des tags siben stund zu ainen wolff verwandelt hat, und wie es darnach gericht ist worden durch den Colnischen Nachrichter, den letzen October Jm 1589 Jar, Nuremberg: Lucas Mayer, 1589,
Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.
Source: ArtStor (accession number: 20.033.625)

The first scene illustrated Stump’s paw being cut off amid transformation in the form of a wolf and with the legs and feet of a human. While attached to the wheel, Stump’s hand is depicted missing, making clear to its viewing audience that the wolf and Stump are the same. The broadsheet describes the farmer taking the cut-off paw home, but when he later took it out to show his neighbour, it had transformed into a human hand. It was a well-established motif that if a werewolf suffered an injury while transformed into a wolf, that the same injury would remain once converted back into human form.[xxxii] This motif dates to antiquity, therefore, the story of Petter Stump could have been inspired by this common tale. Furthermore, his name Stump, like Lycaon, suggests that his name is referring to his severed arm rather than a real name as it is similar to the German ‘Stumpf’, which has the same meaning as the English stump.

The tale of Stump is a representation of the worst kind of criminal. He was not just a murderer, but predominately a child murderer and cannibal, eating out their brains. Jean Bodin claimed that witches commonly turned into wolves for they were known to eat children.[xxxiii] Although the murder of children is a characteristic of the demonisation of the Other, there were natural explanations why children were thought to be the target of werewolves. Children were easier prey for natural wolves who would frequently work on farms, gathering firewood and herding livestock.[xxxiv] This is supported by studies of wolf attacks, where children were the predominate victims. A 2002 Norwegian study found 90 per cent of wolf victims were children. It also found that the remaining adult victims were all women, suggesting that wolves attacked smaller people.[xxxv] This pattern of attack correlates with Stump’s victims. It is therefore unsurprising to note that tales and trials of werewolves were also largely restricted to areas that had large wolf populations.[xxxvi] Reports of werewolves further correlates with a ‘little ice age’ that caused wolves to travel closer to human habitats in search for food, increasing wolf attacks.

Although the broadsheet of the trial of Petter Stump was likely fictitious, it offers an example of how perceived outsiders were regarded during the sixteenth century. Like the female witch, the werewolf was also linked with the most socially marginalised members of society.[xxxvii] People charged with transforming into a wolf were typically peasants or beggars living outside the main urban centres. These stories reflect suspicion that existed of people who resided in the land of the wolf as the wilderness and outskirts of society was associated with lower order beings. People who lived outside the city were described akin to savages and beasts, along with the other animals they lived beside in the wilderness.[xxxviii]

Modified from Dana Rehn’s talk delivered to Animal Intersections, Australasian Animal Studies Association Conference, 3-5 July 2017, University of Adelaide.


[i] See Joyce E. Salisbury, The Beast Within: Animals in the Middle Ages, New York: Routledge, 1994, p. 4. Salisbury referred to the distinction between man and beast as ‘illusory’.

[ii] P.M.C. Forbes Irving, Metamorphosis in Greek Myths, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 55.

[iii] Richard Buxton, Myths and Tragedies in their Ancient Greek Contexts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, p. 44.

[iv] Jean Bodin, On The Demon-Mania of Witches, trans. Randy A. Scott, Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1995, p. 126.

[v] Christopher Dell, Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre, London: Thomas & Hudson, 2010, p. 121.

[vi] Ovid, Metamorphoses (c.43 B.C.- 18 A.D.), trans. Rolfe Humphries, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013, pp. 9-10 (Book 1, Lines 221-253).

[vii] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Mainz: Juo Schoffer, 1551.

[viii] Irving, Metamorphosis in Greek Myths, 1990, p. 93.

[ix] Ovid, Metamorphoses, 2013, p. 10 (Book 1, Lines 234-237).

[x] See for example, Matthew Beresford, The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture, London: Reaktion Books, 2013, p. 46.

[xi] Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1952, p. 12.

[xii] Jason Philip Coy, Strangers and Misfits: Banishment, Social Control, and Authority in Early Modern Germany, Leiden: Brill, 2008, p. 9; Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Richard Howard, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 6, 7.

[xiii] Derrida, Jacques, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol 1, ed. Michel Lisse, Marie-Louise Mallet, and Ginette Michaud, trans. Geoffrey Bennington, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011, p. 11. The proverb was first recorded in Titus Maccius Plautus’s (255-185 B.C.) play Asinaria. ‘lupus est homo homoini, non homo, quom quails sit non novit’ (‘when one does not know him, man is not a man but a wolf for man’); Peter Arnds, Lycanthropy in German Literature, Houndsmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 4, 6.

[xiv] Danielle Régnier-Bohler, ‘Imagining the Self’, in Georges Duby (ed.), A History of Private Life: vol. II Revelations of the Medieval World, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 368.

[xv] Régnier-Bohler, 1988, p. 369.

[xvi] Susi Colin, ‘The Wild Man and the Indian in Early 16th Century Book Illustration,’ in Christian F. Feest (eds.), Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999, p. 6.

[xvii] Colin, ‘The Wild Man and the Indian in Early 16th Century Book Illustration’, 1999, p. 9.

[xviii] Salisbury, The Beast Within, 1994, p. 152.

[xix] Henry Kamen, Early Modern European Society, New York: Routledge, 2005, p. 200.

[xx] Colin, ‘The Wild Man and the Indian in Early 16th Century Book Illustration’, 1999, p. 9.

[xxi] Alan Charles Kors and Edward Peters (eds.), Witchcraft in Europe, 400-1700: A Documentary History, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001, pp. 236-7. This edition contained a number of woodcuts, several of which have been attributed to Hans Baldung Grien (1480-1545) or his workshop, however, the signature reveals that this is from an alternative, currently unknown artist.

[xxii] ‘seint also werwölff die in die Dörffen lauffen unnd kind unnd menschen essen.’ For the full English translation of this section see Sabine Baring-Gould, The Book of Were-Wolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition, London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1865, p. 262.

[xxiii]  Caroline Oates, ‘Metamorphosis and Lycanthropy in Franche-Comté, 1521-1643,’ in Michel Feher (ed.), Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part One, New York: Zone, 1989, pp. 306-7. Steven H. Fritts and Robert O. Stephenson, Robert D. Hayes, and Luigi Boitani, ‘Wolves and Humans’, in L. David Mech and Luigi Boitani (ed.), Wolves: Behavior, Ecology, and Conservation, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010, p. 301.  Wolves are less fearful when they come in regular contact with humans.

[xxiv] John D. C. Linnell, Reidar Andersen, Zanete Andersone et. al., The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans, Trondheim, Norway: Norsk Institute for Naturforskning, 2002, 2002, p. 16.

[xxv] Olaus Magnus, Description of the Northern Peoples, trans. Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens, London: The Hakluyt Society, 1998, p. 894. (Vol. 3, Book 18, Chapter 13)

[xxvi] Homayun Sidky, Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease: An Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts, New York: Peter Lang, 1997, p. 220; Salisbury, The Beast Within, 1994, p.163.

[xxvii] Salisbury, The Beast Within, 1994, p. 178.

[xxviii] Elmar Lorey, ‘Werwolfprozesse in der Frühen Neuzeit’,http://www.elmar-lorey.de/Prozesse.htm accessed 15 March 2017. For further discussion on inflated numbers attributed to werewolves see Willem de Blécourt, ‘The Differentiated Werewolf: An Introduction to Cluster Methodology’, in Willem de Blécourt (ed.), Werewolf Histories, Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 4-7.

[xxix] Renaissance thinkers who believed in werewolves include: Jean Bodin, and Johannes Fridericus Wolfeshusius. Renaissance thinkers who rejected the notion that humans could metamorphosis into wolves include: Sieur de Beauvoys de Chauvincourt, King James I, Johannes Geiler von Kaysersberg, Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Pierre de Lancre, Claude Prieur, Nicholas Remy, Reginald Scot, Peter Thyraeus, and Johann Weyer. While Henry Boguet denied the ability of humans to transform into wolves, he still executed people who committed crimes in the form of wolves. See footnote 135. For further in-depth discussion on early modern literature on werewolves and the debates surrounding the ability of humans to transform into wolves see Leslie A. Sconduto, Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2008.

[xxx] Charles Zika, The Appearance of Witchcraft: Print and Visual Culture in Sixteenth-Century Europe, London: Routledge, 2007, p. 187. Zika states that Augsburg broadsheet was ‘probably a copy’.

[xxxi] ‘Weil er hat gefürt ein Wolff leben‘. Caroline Oates, ‘Metamorphosis and Lycanthropy in Franche-Comté, 1521-1643,’ in Michel Feher (ed.), Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part One, New York: Zone, 1989, p. 325. Article 109 of Constitutio criminalis Carolina, 1532, stipulated that witchcraft was punishable by fire.

[xxxii] Olaus Magnus, Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), trans. Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens, London: The Hakluyt Society, 1998, p. 931. (Vol. 3, Book 18, Chapter 47) Magnus’ recites a tale of a werewolf who lost his eye.

[xxxiii] Reginald Scot, The Discoverie of Witchcraft, Arundel, England: Centaur Press, 1964, p. 94 (Book 5, Chapter 1).

[xxxiv] Joanne M. Ferraro, ‘Medieval and Early Modern Childhood,’ in Paula Fass (ed.) The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World, New York: Routledge, 2013, p. 65.

[xxxv] John D. C. Linnell, Reidar Andersen, Zanete Andersone et. al., The Fear of Wolves: A Review of Wolf Attacks on Humans, Trondheim, Norway: Norsk Institute for Naturforskning, 2002, p. 37.

[xxxvi] Homayun Sidky, Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease: An Anthropological Study of the European Witch-Hunts, New York: Peter Lang, 1997, p. 222.

[xxxvii] Sidky, Witchcraft, Lycanthropy, Drugs, and Disease, 1997, p. 233

[xxxviii] Paul Freedman, ‘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, 32-33.

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