Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Brief History of Werewolves

Just a few decades ago, werewolf stories were strictly barred within the horror section. They were something terrifying, mysterious, wild. They still are, except today that somehow translates to sexy. Your best shot at finding a 21st-Century werewolf is in the romance section. My question is how the hell did that happen?

I guess you could chalk it up to humans' relationship with wolves. For thousands of years, wolves have been man's (or at least White man's) enemy. You can go as far back as the Old Testament. Every time the word "wolf" shows up, it's depicting a vicious enemy or a curse (such as the "wolf in sheep's clothing" quote, which comes from Matthew 7:15). Wolves were bad news. They threatened the Europeans' livestock, which was often a family's only source of food and income. Some continue that feud to this day, so it makes sense that we've seen wolves as nothing but villains for centuries. The idea of a human turning into a wolf is terrifying.

It was, in fact, considered absolute fact in medieval and renaissance Europe. In the early 15th Century, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg (1410-1437) called an assembly to determine the validity of werewolves. They unanimously decided that not only were werewolves 100% true, but to say otherwise was considered a sin and therefore heretical. As in, "Bitch, you're gonna burn if you don't agree that this guy can painfully and completely change his anatomy, physiology, and DNA into a completely different animal because Jesus."

Romans weren't big on wolves, either, except for the one who supposedly saved their founding fathers Romulus and Remus (the two kids above). So the Romans had a relationship with wolves and werewolves like boys do with girls: they're all nasty and gross and should be pushed into the mud, except for Mom.

In 1588 in south-central France, a story started of a nobleman who was friends with a huntsman. He asked the huntsman to go into the woods and get him some game for dinner. The huntsman went with his arquebus (an old-timey gun) and a knife. Instead of finding deer or rabbits, he was attacked by a massive wolf ('cause, you know, that's perfectly normal behavior for regular wolves who are in fact shy and secretive). He fired his gun, missed, and almost got his throat torn out. He managed to defend himself and during the fight cut off the wolf's paw. It ran away the best it could with three legs, howling in pain. Seeing as it was almost dark out, the huntsman went back to the nobleman's castle. When asked if he'd had any luck, the huntsman went to show him the wolf's paw, but was stunned to see that it was a woman's hand. Further, there was a distinctive gold ring on one of the fingers that the nobleman recognized. Enraged, he went to his wife, who was sitting by the fire, her right hand hidden beneath her silks. He demanded to see her hand, and she showed him the bloody stump. Realizing that he'd married a werewolf, the nobleman handed her to the authorities, who burned her at the stake.  I guess they weren't that happily married to begin with, because geez.

Around the same time, in Germany, there were tales of demon worshipping wizards who, upon crossing a river, would turn into wolves and ravage the countryside. Twelve days later, they would cross the river again and turn back. The scholar who reported this, Kaspar Peucer, said the way to tell a man was one of these wizards was to smell their skin. Their human skin was simply the wolf hide turned inside-out, which, I don't know about you, but that sound extremely uncomfortable and itchy. I mean...what if they have fleas, and then they turn the pelts inside-out...

Like the feared witches and sorcerers, people who could turn into wolves were said to have made a pact with the devil. It's hard not to be afraid of such a person today in the theater, never mind at a time when they were believed to be a very real threat, which sounds utterly ridiculous today. How did anyone believe such things to be real? To the point that there were enforced laws about it? Utter lack of education of the masses and complete dependence on the Bible and superstition only go so far, and certainly not far enough to instill this level of fear and paranoia over thousands of years. But there are a few theories.

The signs of severe malnutrition include receding and bleeding gums, as well as excessive hair growth. 700-800 years ago, when nobility was in charge and acting like a bunch of jerks, such extreme starvation was very common among the poor, who may have scavenged for food in low light, much like a wolf. It didn't help that a lot of these people wore animal skins as protection from the cold, since American Eagle and central heating didn't exist back then.

Another theory points to poor grain storage. Bad rye seed can cause hallucinogenic reactions, and voila! Another werewolf sighting.

Mental health was unchecked at the time, and nobody knew of a type of schizophrenia called lycanthropy. The patient believes that he or she is a wild animal, such as a wolf or werewolf. Such patients have been known to growl and snarl at perceived threats, and to gnaw on furniture as if it were prey.

Look out, a werewolf! Get the--oh, wait, it's just Grandpa. False alarm, people!

What's funny is that while people who were believed to be werewolves were punished and killed in Europe (okay, maybe funny isn't the right word...), they were revered in pre-colonial America.

Wolves were teachers and guides to many Native American tribes, who wanted to know better ways to hunt and cooperate. Wolf spirits were thought to be some of the best guardians of humans and the spirit world. Hunters would wear wolf pelts to better absorb the wolf's strength and cunning. Whole tribal structures were based off of wolf pack hierarchy.
 
One Native American legend tells of a woman who found a wolf cub in the forest while she was collecting wood. The cub was abandoned, starving, and close to death. And because she was awesome, she carried him back to the tribe, where she fed and raised him. As the cub grew, he and the woman became close friends. One morning when they went to the river to collect water, the woman looked back and saw their tracks in the soft mud. Human and wolf prints turned to two sets of wolf prints. Concerned (and maybe a little freaked out), the woman spoke to the chief ("Dude, my footprints turned to wolf prints; WTF?"). He said that, to thank her for saving his life, the wolf had given her a gift: the ability to exist in both human and wolf form. That evening she sat by the water with her wolf friend and looked at her reflection. A female wolf looked back at her.

...those don't look like tracks left by Prada heels. 

In the end, everything falls into the eye of the beholder. Native Americans sought to live in harmony with nature, so the werewolf was the ultimate being, man and nature intertwined. The Europeans tried to tame nature and were terrified of magic, so the idea of the werewolf as the bad guy (whether as an evil wizard or a representation of the wild and anti-civilization) lasted thousands of years. Now, we have a deeper understanding of the wolf. We no longer fear magic. So the idea of a super-sexy werewolf hero translates to billions of blockbuster dollars.

Progress! I think.

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