OK, so basically what most everyone knows about werewolves is that if you are bitten by one, you become a werewolf. That, or you were cursed by a gypsy or something. If you are a werewolf you will turn every full moon and kill a bunch of people and then turn back to normal. If you are a werewolf, you are also screwed, as you will most likely get shot with a silver bullet. How can you tell if someone is a werewolf in their human form? Well, most people in Europe will tell you that the person has a unibrow, curved fingernails, low set ears, and a swinging stride. If you get really close and cut the person, hair should sprout from the wound. They also might freak out every time they hear a full moon will be happening. Don't worry, they aren't avoiding you because they don't like you, it's because they don't want to tear your throat out when the moon comes out.
In werewolf forms, it is said that you can tell the difference between werewolves and regular wolves by the fact that they don't have a tail. Werewolves are also said to retain human eyes and voice. When a werewolf turns back, it is often weak or in a heavy state of depression. There are varying accounts on whether werewolves know what they did while they were in their wolf form. If they did remember, it would cause them to go into a manic-depressive state, agonizing over what things they did. Werewolves are also much much stronger than a man or a wolf, which would only be obvious if they hit you.
How does one become a werewolf, though? Well, there are apparently more than Hollywood has led us to believe. One method is putting on a belt made of wolf skin. This is a substitute for wearing a whole wolf skin, as putting the whole thing on has been described too. This form of werewolf is a hexenwolf. Another way is to rub the body with magic salve or drink water out of a werewolf's footprint. In Italy, France, and Germany, it was widely believed that if one slept outside on a certain Wednesday or Friday and had the full moon shining right on their face, they would turn into a werewolf. Those who threw their lot in with Satan or were excommunicated by the Catholic Church were also said to have been punished with lycanthropy by a divine power. There are cases in which people claimed that they became werewolves for the sole purpose of carrying out God's will and destroying evil. An 80 year-old man named Thiess from Jurgenbeg, Livonia in 1692 testified under oath that he and other werewolves were the Hounds of God. He claimed that the Hounds of God went into Hell and did battle with witches and demons in order to keep Satan and his minions from taking the grain from the earthly farms and bringing them down to Hell. He also declared that when werewolves died, they were openly welcomed into heaven for their efforts. Thiess was ultimately sentenced to ten lashes for Idolatry and superstitious belief. The Hounds of God are further explored in the book, The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman. For the most part, the legends tell of people becoming werewolves on purpose. Those who did had surely made a pact with the devil so they could go out at night and kill. If a person was not a werewolf by choice it was because they had been born under a new moon or with epilepsy. For some reason epilepsy was considered a form of lycanthropy. I'm sure that didn't end well. The notion that werewolves had to bite you to turn you into a werewolf are not found in any of the old legends, but are a product of 20th century Hollywood.
In the old European legends, the only guard against werewolf attacks was rye and mistletoe, with some countries legends detailing mountain ash and wolfsbane to also be an effective ward. The notion that silver defeats a werewolf and nothing else is another case of modern depictions of werewolves. Legends on how to cure a person of lycanthropy border on the cruel to just plain stupid. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that a person could be cured by exhaustion. They would force the person to work for a very long time in hopes that they would be cured of the malady. This thought stemmed from the belief that werewolves were often weak and debilitated after a night of murder and mayhem. In medieval Europe, there were three ways to cure a person of lycanthropy: medically (usually by applying wolfsbane), surgically, or by exorcism. Almost all of the remedies to lycanthropy proved to be fatal to the patient. In other certain European countries during the 17th and 18th centuries it was believed that simply saying the person's Christian name three time would cure the person, or by simply scolding them. Another medieval cure was simply having the person convert to Christianity. At least they didn't have to get unnecessary surgery.
The origins of the werewolf myth have been around since the ancient times but didn't really take off until the 1500's in Europe. Wolf attacks were occasional but still a huge threat in Europe, so it wasn't totally crazy that Europeans projected their most feared enemy into the folklore of evil shapeshifters. This was not a isolated incident as many other regions did basically the same thing, even if they didn't have wolves. Africa has werehyenas, India has weretigers, and South America has werepumas and werejaguars. Some modern scholars blame the disease Porphyria, stating how the symptoms of photo sensitivity, reddish teeth, and psychosis could be grounds for accusing a sufferer as being a werewolf. This theory is argued by those who believe it was started by the disease hypertrichosis, which makes a person grow an obnoxious amount of hair all over their bodies. Another theory states that perhaps rabies could have been the pretext to the belief in werewolves.
The thought that people can transform into beasts is all around the globe, even being spread by to Vikings to the natives in Canada. The early colonial period also brought the belief of werewolves to the American natives eventually evolving over time into the story of the Wendigo, which is a combination of a Native American spirit and the french belief in the werewolf (they called them loup- garou. The Wendigo is a legend that basically covers the lower and upper peninsula's of Michigan, parts of Canada, and northern New York. I live in "Wendigo Alley" so I may have to worry about it, but most of the U.S. doesn't. People who are possessed by the spirit of a Wendigo can be turned into one, or if a person eats another person, they have an increased risk of turning into a Wendigo. Why? Well, because the Wendigo eat people. Watch out next time you take a late night trip through the woods of the Upper Peninsula. Whether it be a Wendigo, loup-garu, hexenwolf, or just a lycanthrope, werewolves are just nasty. There may be a lot of different versions of them, but all agree that they are incredibly strong and incredibly deadly.
Here are a few movies, TV shows, and books that deal with werewolves:
- The Wolf Man (Lon Chaney Jr. as the eponymous monster. A bit dated and kind of boring but it had its moments)
- The Harry Potter series (most notably The Prisoner of Azkaban)
- The Brothers Grimm
- Van Helsing
- Ginger Snaps
- Big Fish
- Teen Wolf
- Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf (a staple of my childhood)
- The Dresdon Files: Fool Moon (All you ever wanted to know about the different kinds of werewolves. Great book.)
- Supernatural (There are a few about werewolves and even a Wendigo in the first season)