» Werewolf Legends

by Heidi Keller - August 5, 2003

boris vallejo's werewolfThe stories of werewolves always fascinated me, and one of my reasons is that it's such a strange mythology, don't you think? It's so very surreal to imagine that a person could change into an animal or even only partially adopt its characteristics!

And another strange thing was to find out, while researching, the puzzling terms Lycanthropy and Therianthropy, which I had never heard before. In this article you'll find out about it all, plus about people who claim to possess animal qualities…

First let's start from the beginning:

The History

The ancient Greeks had several important tales about wolves, like the one about Latona mother of the music god Apollo, who after giving birth to him and his sister, the goddess of the woods and hunt Artemis, was turned into a wolf by the great god Zeus (her lover and the children's father), so that she could run away and hide from his jealous and vengeful wife Hera. That was why Apollo and Artemis were two protectors of wolves and in ancient times, the Greeks avoided killing these animals.

Another tale is about Licao, who was the king of Arcadia. He threw a banquet, killed his son Arcade and served a plate of his meat to his guests only to find out which one of them was the great god Zeus. The god got so angry at it that he transformed the stupid king into a wolf.

In Greece by that time, there were many white wolves around one of the main Hermes' temples and for this reason the people started to consider those wolves sacred to that god and prohibited their killing.

But the most famous wolves' legend is the one about the creation of the Roman State, which tells the story of how the orphans Romulus and Remus were raised by a female wolf and drank of its milk when they were babies.

As the main people from which the Romans originated, the Etruscans, were shepherds and cattle thieves, the wolves were domesticated by them, and became such an important symbol that the emblem of the army was the wolf before it became the well-known imperial eagle. 

werewolf angry Also one of their important dates, was the Lupercalia, which was a fertility rite where drugged young men used to run through sacred roads of the cities, dressed in wolf skins and would hit with lashes the young women who watched the rituals, as a means to preserve their fertility. Those ancient people and their strange habits…

When the Christians started to dominate Europe, things changed a lot to the wolf imagery, because that animal became a symbol of evil, it became a "servant of Satan".

So in spite of Francis of Assisi's example of respect to all the animals - including wolves and other demonized beasts - the medieval people were told by some of the Catholic priests, which were the only holders of knowledge at that time, to pay attention only to the examples of St. Blasius, St. Theodore and the such, who all had in their life-stories mentions to the evil of wolves.

That was the time when all kinds of superstitions started to appear, like the wolf cries because it fears the moonlight; it poisons the flesh it bites; its brain decreases and grows according to the moon phases and such crap.

And that was when those animals began to be exterminated in the continent, not only because of its evil image, but also because parts of its body were commonly used as amulets, like its teeth and skull; and this used to happen especially in Italy, France and Romania.

With the establishment of the Inquisition, things got a little worse, because in many parts of the continent and through several centuries, people were accused of being witches and werewolves, whether for superstitious reasons or for greedy ones (as their money and possessions always went to the inquisitors or to the local governments).

This was also the start of the true werewolf legends. People could become wolves as the result of a curse or for wearing a wolf skin for too long; if they were the seventh male sons of poor families or for dancing in a determined way, etc. People in Bulgaria even believed they sprung up from the blood of people killed by wolves!

Also werewolves could easily be recognized, as they had thick eyebrows that covered the nose, red and curved nails, had hair under the tongue (!), and they couldn't look at the sky nor climb more than 3 steps (!!).

These are the ways the medieval people claimed to "stop" them: by throwing keys in front of them or by pouring water on them (so they would get back to their human state), and they attempted to kill them using any kind of weapon (not only silver ones), but first they needed to manage to be faster than them, I think…

Do you want to know what happens when a werewolf dies? Well, in old France they used to believe that it became a "lupin" which is a wolf-ghoul that lives in the corpses inside the graves, or it could become a vampire! Suspects of being werewolves had their corpses beheaded or burnt in France and Germany.

And the true and sad aspect of this story is that the wolves in Europe nowadays are very scarce and in a few places - like France, for example - they only live on in preserved sanctuaries.

Now on to the baffling terms:


werewolf huntingThe name derives from the Greek lykoi (wolf) and anthropos (man) and originally means the delusion of turning to a wolf, whether through witchcraft or will.

Thus Lycanthropy officially is related to a mental disorder and extra-officially it's something like the "science" that studies werewolves and catalogues them.

The Lycanthropic Disorder is a mental condition in which the person believes that he/she is a wolf and acts accordingly. The individual under this condition can be almost as dangerous as a wild wolf.

In the "scientific" aspect of the word, werewolves would be able to shape-shift into a wolf at will, or be influenced by some moon cycle (traditionally the full moon phase) or be influenced by certain sounds like howling.

Theoretically they are immortals and don't age, but they can be killed if there's any wound to the heart or the brain, or suffer some oxygen-deprivation. The individual while in wolf form keeps a human conscience, which helps him/her to recognize victims and rationalize things in a human way.

To become a werewolf one would have to be given the power through sorcery, be cursed with it (the so called "Lycaeonia curse"), be bitten by a werewolf or would have to be born so. When it's caused by a curse, the person only turns into a werewolf after tasting human blood.

Also werewolves can live alone for a very long time, but sooner or later they end up gathering or joining a group of their kind, in which one of them is always a kind of leader, this one being called the "Alpha werewolf". All the other werewolves of the "pack" are called "Beta" and they whether were bitten by him/her or they have this one's blood.

A Beta werewolf can get rid of the curse only if the Alpha dies, and may not suffer the mutations until it proves human blood. Also if an Alpha is hurt all its Betas are too, but vice-versa doesn't happen. And finally werewolves can be noticed for their violent manners, rages, insomnia, restlessness and general bizarre behavior.


A Therianthrope - also derived from a Greek word "therios" that means animal - is a werecreature (or simply "were"), a human being that has a spiritual, deep affinity with a determined animal. Being so, there would be werefoxes, wereeagles, werepanthers, etc.

wolves These people would manifest the animal's characteritics to which they have such affinity in their behaviors and personalities, in a level that can be even easily noticed by others. 

This kind of affinity would make them more respectful of nature and would help them understand their places in the world. So Therianthropy is a term that would describe this state of animal affinity.

The two terms are different, because Lycanthropy is an uncontrollable mental disorder and Therianthropy is merely a spiritual state.

Still inside this definition there's another detail: Therianthropes use to differ themselves from those they call "Furries". Furries are people who pretend to have animal affinities only to "look cool", when they don't need to "play cool", they stop showing the affinities and Therianthropes always display them somehow.

Werewolves In Literature And Cinema

Apart from the ancient Greek and Roman legends that were registered by the writers of those times, like Greek Marcellus Sidetes and the Roman Ovid, werewolves were mentioned in texts since the 13th century, like Gervase of Tilbury's account of shape-shifters in England and Marie de France's "The Lay of The Wolf".

The first novel to be published was the Renaissance story "The Duchess of Malfi". However in this story and in many others, werewolves were only mentioned as a subplot to spice things up. All those who wrote novels only about werewolves didn't have much success until the 19th century. From that century on, many writers started to publish stories on this subject like Algernon Blackwood's "Running Wolf" and Guy de Maupassant's "The Wolf".

Then when the cinema appeared, as happened with the vampires and Frankenstein, the werewolves became a common subject that was filmed in all kinds of ways from the old silent movies and the 50's black and white horror film "The Wolf Man" to Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer turning to wolves in "Wolf".

Well, our trip now finally comes to an end (I swear to you that it was the smallest summary I could make). I hope you'll be my reader again in the next Month's Subject.

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