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Werewolves: Truth or fiction?

In vain he attempted to speak; from that very instant
His jaws were bespluttered with foam, and only he thirsted
For blood, as he raged among flocks and panted for slaughter.
His vesture was changed into hair, his limbs became crooked;
A wolf-he retains yet large trace of his ancient expression,
Hoary he is afore, his countenance rabid,
His eyes glitter savagely still, the picture of fury

The Roman poet Ovid, describing symptoms of Lycaon

We’ve all heard about werewolves, the myth of man turning into wolf at a full moon after having been bitten or put under a curse and Hollywood has immortalized this belief, encouraging them through such films as Werewolf of London in 1935 and later, expanding lycanthropy to the transformation into many different other types of animals, not just the wolf.

So what actually is a werewolf or lycanthrope?  Is it a fact based on concrete evidence?  Is it a myth?

The origins of lycanthropy can be traced back to Greek myth in which Zeus transforms Lycaon into a wolf as a revenge for tricking him into an act of cannibalism. Even in the Bible’s Book of Daniel, the great king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar II suffered what we would have called lycanthropy. The widespread belief existed well into the nineteenth century through legends, even some where a reverse lycanthropy occurs. The Beauty and the Beast is an example of this. Another is the most widely know story Little Red Riding Hood.

Becoming a werewolf comes in many different methods:

  • putting on a belt of wolfskin
  • rubbing a body with a magic salve
  • drinking water out of the footprint of a lycanthrope
  • a 16th-century writer believed that Livonian werewolves were initiated by draining a cup of specialty beer and repeating a set formula
  • according to Russian lore, a child born on December 24th shall be a werewolf
  • in Italy, France or Germany, if a man slept outside on a certain wed or fri under a full moon
  • In Portugal, the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter became a witch; a seventh son of the seventh son became a werewolf
  • Satanic allegiances
  • divine punishment

Once a person was seen as a werewolf, there were many methods that could be used to cure the inflicted. The Ancient Greeks and Romans for instance believed that physical exhaustion would purge the malady from the individual. And in medieval Europe, medicine, surgery and exorcism were often attempted, however, many of the cures that were thought to help, such as bloodletting, often proved fatal to the patient. Sicilian beliefs thought that simply striking it on the forehead or scalp with a knife would cure the werewolf and if that did not work/or instead, the werewolf’s hands were pierced with nails. Despite these extreme methods, there were also tamer cures, such as calling a werewolf by it’s Christian name three times or by simply scolding.

These days, though the supernatural existence of werewolves still holds strong, many believe that the legends of vampires and werewolves were used simply as a means to explain serial killings– particularly those involving cannibalisms, mutilations and cyclic attacks. Others have tried to explain it in terms of medical conditions such as porphyria and how symptoms of photosensitivity, reddish teeth and psychosis could be grounds for explaining lycanthropy. Others have pointed out a condition called hypertrichosis, a condition that manifests itself in excessive hair growth; and even rabies. Being bitten could result in the victim turning into one.  Even in the middle ages, some doctors believed that it was caused by an access of melancholy, or an imbalance in humors, the liquid or fluid of the body. Many doctors believed that such melancholy could lead to insanity and delusion; and recommended that the lycanthrope be treated with baths, bleeding, dietary measures and rubbing opium into the nostrils.

No matter which way you look at it, werewolves remain one of the most widespread legends.