How did people transform into werewolves: from antiquity to popular culture today

Keywords: Arcadia mythology, Jean Bodin demonology, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Petter Stump (Peter Stumpp, Peter Stump), Gilles Garnier

Ancient Greece
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.

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 (Irving, 1990, p. 55). The crossing of the water could represent the boundary between human and wolf form and thus the animalistic state that exists in the wild (Buxton, 2013, p. 44). 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 (Bodin, 1995, p. 126). In this way, the early myths from antiquity influenced the beliefs and depictions of werewolves during the sixteenth century.

The Arcadian myth was linked to a tale retold in Ovid’s poem, Metamorphoses (43 B.C.–17 A.D), 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’ (Dell, 2010, p. 121). 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 (Ovid, 2013, pp. 9-10 (Book 1, Lines 221-253)).

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

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 (Ovid, 2013, p. 10 (Book 1, Lines 234-237)). Some scholars have incorrectly attributed Lycaon’s metamorphosis to Jupiter (See for example Beresford, 2013, p. 46). 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.

Norse Mythology
Old Norse literature is filled with stories of shape-shifting transformation of humans and gods alike, reflecting oral traditions of several hundred years (Davidson, 1986, p. 142; Cheilik, 1987, p. 269). These transformations were either voluntary, hereditary, or the result of a curse (Pluskowski, 2006, p. 185). They include the tale of Ulf (‘Wolf’), which is described in Egil’s Saga, written in Iceland in 1000 A.D., in which Ulf 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 (Anonymous, 2004, pp.19-20; Anonymous, 2005).

Early Modern Werewolves
During the German witch trials, illustrated broadsheets of the notorious farmer Petter Stump accused of multiple murders, cannibalism, incest, and sorcery proliferated. The renowned broadsheets not only show his torture and execution for committing these crimes but also accused him of doing so while transformed into a wolf in the Bishopric of Cologne in 1589. The story of Stump spread far and wide, with illustrative broadsheets reporting his execution not just printed in Nuremberg, but with copies created from woodcuts or engravings, coloured and uncoloured in Augsburg, Cologne, Denmark, Antwerp, and London.

Franz Hogenberg, Stump Petter, Cologne, 1589,
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin,
Source: Artstor EU directive copyright on public domain images:

The Nuremberg broadsheet printed by Lucas Mayer and its Augsburg copy by Johann Negele described Stump’s transformation with the aid of a belt that he would immediately transform into a wolf when he put it around his waist. The text does not explicitly state that the Devil gave him the belt, but that: ‘I have given myself to the Devil, so that I live my life with sorcery (‘Dem Teüffel ich mich hab ergeben / Das ich mit Zauberey mein leben’ translation by Gerda Dinwiddie).’ An English pamphlet expanded on the tale of Stump. As the Devil recognised that Stump possessed the desire to cause mischief, the Devil saw his potential and sent him a magical fur belt to allow him to transform into a wolf. Prosecutors had no evidence of the belt that supposedly transformed Stump into a ravening wolf as he reportedly threw the belt into a valley before he was captured. The belt was never found and his captors rationalised that the belt had ‘gone to the devil from whence it came.’ (Anonymous, 1590. For the full English transcription see Otten, 1986, p. 74)

Where German werewolves were described as typically using a magical fur belt to transform into wolves, French werewolves were more likely described as using a magical ointment (Sidky, 1997, p. 248; Lancre, 2006, pp. 257, 258 (Book 4, chapter 6)). For example, Gilles Garnier (d. 1574) was known as the Werewolf of Dôle (Sidky, 1997, p. 224; Wiesner-Hanks, 2009, pp. 30-1; See Anonymous, 1574). He was reportedly convicted and burned at the stake for murder while transformed into a wolf in 1574 in Lyon (Bodin, 1995, p. 122). He reportedly confessed to using an ointment from the Devil that transformed him into a wolf (Wiesner-Hanks, 2009. pp. 30-31).

Werewolves in popular culture today
Typically, the werewolf of the twenty-first century is physically human in appearance until the full moon each month when they uncontrollably transform into a wolf as in the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer (United States, 1997-2003) (Sibielski, 2013, p. 125). This is more in line with the werewolf in medieval literature where the ability to metamorphose into a wolf was imposed on a person for a number of reasons and resulted in an uncontrollable transformation. Although, the monthly transformation of werewolves did not enter literature until the nineteenth century (Du Coudray, 2006, p. 78). However, more recently, the werewolf has sometimes been depicted as being able to transform into their wolf-form at will as seen in the series True Blood (United States, 2008-2012). Although they physically appear to be human for the rest of the month, the idea of fragments of the wolf temperament and heightened wolf senses continuously within the host is pervasive (Sibielski, 2013, p. 120).

The werewolf is further believed to pass on this ‘curse’ to other humans by inflicting them, while transformed into a wolf, with a scratch or bite. Transferring the curse from a bite was introduced by the film The Werewolf of London (United States, 1935) (Coudray, 2006, p. 77). In other instances, it is passed on genetically and further hybridisation with vampires has been explored. Born werewolves are seen in the film series The Twilight Saga (United States, 2008-2012), while the werewolf-vampire hybrid can be seen in the film series Underworld (United States, 2003, 2006). As Leslie Sconduto concludes, today there is a werewolf to satisfy all tastes (Sconduto, 2008, p. 200).

Anonymous, Arrest memorable donné à l’encontre de Gilles Garnier lyonnois pour avoir en forme de loup garou devoré plusieurs enfans…, Lyon: Benoît Rigaud, 1574

Anonymous, A True Discourse Declaring the Damnable Life and Death of One Stubbe P
, …, 1590.

Anonymous, The Saga of the Volsungs, trans. Eirikr Magnússon and William Morris, Stilwell:, 2004.

Anonymous, Egil’s Saga, ed. Svanhildur Óskarsdóttir, trans. Bernard Scudder, London: Penguin 2005.

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

Beresford, Matthew, The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture, London: Reaktion Books, 2013.

Buxton, Richard, Myths and Tragedies in their Ancient Greek Contexts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Cheilik, Michael, ‘The Werewolf,’ in Malcolm South (ed.), Mythical and Fabulous Creatures: A Source Book and Research Guide, New York: Greenwood Press, 1987, pp. 265-93.

Davidson, H.R. Ellis, ‘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, pp. 142-66.

Dell, Christopher, Monsters: A Bestiary of the Bizarre, London: Thomas & Hudson, 2010.

Du Coudray, Chantal Bourgault, The Curse of the Werewolf: Fantasy, Horror and the Beast Within, London: I.B. Tauris: 2006.

Irving, P.M.C. Forbes, Metamorphosis in Greek Myths, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Lancre, Pierre de, On the Inconstancy of Witches: Pierre de Lancre’s Tableau de l’inconstance des mauvais anges et démons, ed. Gerhild Scholz Williams, trans. Harriet Stone and Gerhild Scholz Williams, Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2006.

Otten, Charlotte F. (ed.), A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture, Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1986.

Ovid, Metamorphoses (c.43 B.C.- 18 A.D.), trans. Rolfe Humphries, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013.

Pluskowski, Aleksander, Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages, Woodbridge: Boydell, 2006.

Sconduto, Leslie A. Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2008.

Sibielski, Rosalind, ‘Gendering the Monster Within: Biological Essentialism, Sexual Difference, and Changing Symbolic Functions of the Monster in Popular Werewolf Texts,’ in Marina Levina and Diem-My T. Bui (eds.), Monster Culture in the 21st Century: A Reader, London: Boomsbury Publishing, 2013, pp. 115-31.

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

Wiesner-Hanks, Merry, The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and their Worlds, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009.

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