As two of my published stories, “Shapeshifter” and “Wolfsheim”, concern werewolves, I thought I would write a post expressing my thoughts on werewolves and lycanthropy. This is not a scholarly article. It is just a summary of the conclusions I have reached over the years having researched the topic to a small degree as the basis for a novel (not yet written) involving a werewolf.
First and most importantly: I do not believe actual werewolves exist nor have they ever existed. It is simply impossible for person to change into an animal or into some sort of human-animal hybrid.
However, to paraphrase Nietzsche, what people believe is more important than fact.
I do believe there are people who believe they can become a wolf or another animal. The scientific name for this is lycanthropy.
Wikipedia, for better or worse, defines lycanthropy thus:
“Clinical lycanthropy is defined as a rare psychiatric syndrome that involves a delusion that the affected person can transform into, has transformed into, or is, an animal. Its name is associated with the mythical condition of lycanthropy, a supernatural affliction in which humans are said to physically shapeshift into wolves. It is purported to be a rare disorder.” [“https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clinical_lycanthropy” accessed December 15, 2020]
I feel that is a simple and straightforward summary based on everything else I have read. I am not familiar with the source, which Wikipedia states as “Degroot, J.J.M. (2003). Religious System of China. Kessinger Publishing. p. 484.”
An internet search for “clinical lycanthropy” will find many well-researched articles on lycanthropy as a psychiatric disorder.
Undoubtedly, it was the occasional case of clinical lycanthropy that gave rise to werewolf stories throughout history, before the science of psychiatry (or any science for that matter) arose, when people were more likely to take rumor as proverbial gospel and legends and myths as history. That people with this disorder confessed (often under torture) to being a wolf ingrained a belief in shapeshifting into an uneducated populace.
Someone who believes his/herself to be a wolf will act on those beliefs, which could, and I feel certain often did, result in crimes of extreme violence according to what that individual believes a wolf would do. Whether that belief is an accurate portrayal of what a wolf would actually do does not matter. The individual will act in accordance with his/her beliefs, whatever those beliefs are. This would, of course, have been the reason behind at least some of the infamous werewolves who were executed during the infamous werewolf trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Another reason is that, for whatever reason, a person wanted to become a werewolf and therefore found a way to chemically induce that hallucination. Quite often in the historical record one will find that several people who wanted to change into a werewolf wore a belt that had a mixture of herbs and fat smeared on it. Some of these herbs, like nightshade, are quite poisonous. I believe that applying some of these poisonous herbs to the skin in a salve would allow a minute portion to soak through the skin and induce hallucinations. If a person wanted to become a wolf, for whatever reason, then he/she could actually induce the hallucination of being a wolf. Two of the most infamous cases of werewolfery involved use of a belt to become a wolf: Peter Stumpp and Gilles Garnier.
It is possible that someone might commit one or more brutal murders and then try to avoid responsibility for his/her actions by claiming to have been a wolf at the time and therefore not in his/her right mind. I sincerely doubt the likelihood of this defense succeeding in past centuries. In 2020, claiming not to be responsible for a murder because you were a wolf at the time would probably get you several years in a mental facility. However, in 1620, you would probably have been burned at the stake.
From a literary perspective, what fascinates me the most is the use of a werewolf as a symbol of human versus the most primitive animal nature, the superego/ego versus the id. Similar symbolism crops up in mythology, legends, and history repeatedly in one form or another. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson is one example in literature. One example from Greek/Roman mythology is the centaur, half human and half horse, educated, intelligent, and refined but susceptible to animalistic drives and impulses.
That’s all the time I have for this today. I have errands calling me. Perhaps I can pick this up at a later date in more detail and with my sources cited.