This post originally appeared in the December issue of Sanitarium Magazine
“Omnes angeli, boni et Mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra.” All angels, good and bad, have the power of transmuting our bodies.
A few months ago we began a discussion about vampires. Not as they are today but as they were in folklore. Today I’d like to do the same with werewolves, and again see what we can come up with by drawing on these basic components.
The werewolf myth is thought to have originated in Proto-Indo-European culture as a “class of young unwed warriors [that] were apparently associated with wolves. By the Middle Ages werewolves were generally associated with witchcraft and sorcery, an important thing to note because it meant that werewolves usually had magical powers in addition to shapeshifting.
Keep in mind, whatever else you do as you write, that wolves are scary. Spend a night in wolf country, why don’t you, and then see how you like bumping into just a single wolf. Removed from the dark as we are, we find it easy to forget what it means that a wolf is a predator, but the first and most desperate lesson of any old folktale was this: The woods are bad. Do not enter the woods. Bad things happen there, and nobody gets out alive.
And the wolves are the embodiment of woods. So says Red Riding Hood.
Cannibalism is a common theme in werewolf stories. Werewolves can be made by eating the meat of a wolf and a human together, or just a wolf’s brains.
Werewolves could be born with the curse if they were the seventh son of a seventh son (seventh daughters were born witches) or the first son born after a line of six daughters. It could also happen if they were conceived under the new moon or born under the full moon. Born werewolves typically change their shape for the first time at age seven.
The moon could have an effect in other ways. Sleeping under the full moon on a Wednesday or Friday (but sometimes only in the summer) would convey the curse.
Drinking water that has been touched by a wolf, such as from a “lycanthropous stream,” can do the trick (consider what would happen if one inhaled the water as a vapor).
Totems may be used, such as a wolf skin (either a cloak or a belt) that must be removed at daybreak and be hidden. Through the skin the werewolf may be controlled or killed. A magic salve may be rubbed onto the body, or a beer may be drunk, followed by reciting a magical formula. Passing through an arch of birch three times can do it, and ash can also be involved, in this or other contexts, in making a werewolf.
Wrongdoing (such as killing a close family member or committing incest or necrophilia) could be responsible for the curse, which might make one return from the dead as a blood-drinking wolf. Other stories speak of women who committed certain sins and were visited by a spirit. Forced to wear to wear the wolfskin carried by the spirit, the woman will hunger for flesh, leading her to eat her own children, and then her relatives’ children, and then the children of strangers, and all this for a period of seven years.
While it is well-known that pacts with the Devil may make one a werewolf, less known is that in some stories it was angering the Devil that would bring down the curse.
Abused children could become werewolves, which highlights a theme that is easy to find in many versions of the myth, both modern and ancient. The werewolf reflects the cycle of abuse, violently attacked and now later becoming an attacker, an abuser, as well. Perhaps by playing on this it is possible to lose the curse (maybe only if one never gave in, though), but incredibly hard. And the curse may always come back if things go badly.
Besides the usual trope of a werewolf changing shape, it may produce a double or project its soul in order to possess a wolf. The “wolf” may also be a familiar spirit that serves and is directed by the human. In cases of remote direction injuries to the wolf may be reflected in the condition of the werewolf.
After returning to human form the werewolf may be weak and debilitated and suffer from nervous depression.
Double or projected soul. Real animal or familiar spirit, in which case injuries to it may be reflected in injuries to the human. After returning to human form may be weak and debilitated with nervous depression.
The child-eating werewolf spoken of earlier has doors and locks spring open at its approach, making no path shut off to it. Some werewolves were thought to descend to the depths of Hell and there do battle with the Devil and his servants. Werewolves could easily be able to travel to another world, too.
Some werewolves had poison-coated claws and a paralytic gaze, which might only work on animals and children. According to the Greeks, a werewolf that was not destroyed in the proper fashion would return as a wolf or hyena to prowl battlefields and eat the dead and dying (perhaps these can become something worse if not dealt with?).
Navajo skinwalkers, which share many underlying tropes with European werewolves, have a number of interesting powers. They can steal faces, read thoughts, enter your body by looking in your eyes, and mimic sounds. Through magical items, which are usually made from bones (especially infant bones) or snakes, they can cause fear, paralysis, and heart failure, and control people. They can feed off fear.
First off, children cursed to become werewolves may be given a name like “Blessed” in order to cure them (which makes one wonder if the curse would take effect or return if one’s name were changed later). Werewolves can also be cursed by being struck on the forehead or scalp three times with a knife, being addressed by their Christian names three times, or having their hands pierced with nails.
According to one lengthy account the proper method of disposing of a werewolf is to decapitate it with a spade, exorcise the body, and then throw the head into a stream. Werewolves often share other traits (especially methods of disposal) with vampires, up to and including an inability to enter a home without being invited.
At first glance, werewolves may have unibrows, curved fingernails, widow’s peaks, low-set ears, or glowing eyes. With closer inspection one may find bristles under the tongue or overly stiff movements, and one who cuts a werewolf will find fur in the wound no matter the circumstances.
The animal form may be larger than normal, have no tail, and/or have human eyes and a human voice.
Those that are born werewolves may be identifiable as having been born with hair or a caul, or a certain birthmark (sometimes any birthmark at all).
Sometimes the only thing that can mark a werewolf is its personality, whether it has become outright murderous, merely predatory, or simply possessed of a few new quirks, such a need for spooky meetings in the dead of winter. Other interesting quirks include attempts to get parents to give up their children, an obsession with spreading their condition, or a deep-rooted compulsion to eat corpses. Epilepsy sufferers may be identified as werewolves (do werewolves have epilepsy as a rule).
In Practice: The Evening Men
Spirits are the source of all power in the world. Wretched and alien, old enough to remember different ways in the land and different constellations in the sky. Perhaps they were always as they are now, or perhaps they are the eldritch vestige of a much earlier civilization. Regardless of how the spirits got their power, magic today depends on the spirits, who may warp the world and grant gifts both intentionally and as a mere side effect of their existence.
The Evening Men are those that have successfully entreated a spirit to remove their souls. Under the darkness of the new moon a called spirit flays its petitioner and takes his soul with it, the two inexorably bound in the form of a wolf skin. The process is excruciating, sometimes even deadly.
In theory, the process should confer immortality. However, a soul that has been once removed from its tabernacle of flesh will not last very long, and such a soul that has been given physical form is only slightly better off. Moreover, a soulless body will soon begin to rot. Without further intervention, the soul-flaying is but a recipe for an early and agonized death.
In order to refresh their bodies the Evening Men don their wolfskins for a few hours each night. And sometimes as they do this they project their minds into the body of a wolf and go hunting. The object is not merely to kill their victim but to inspire fear all along the way. The body is flooded with chemicals which, once properly “catalyzed” by a violent death, are capable of giving nourishment to the wolfskin soul in some as-yet undiscovered process. Depending on how successful an Evening Man is in triggering these chemicals one may need to hunt every night or once a month.
But in the daylight the wolfskin crumbles, and so they must put it away somewhere dark and safe until the night comes again. If the wolfskin fades in daylight or is burned then the Evening Man will be left with no way to stave off future decay, until finally there is nothing left but immobile, yet still eternally aware, bones. Should the body be made unviable without the wolfskin being destroyed, however, then the Evening Man’s consciousness can jump to possess someone of weak will, perhaps a small child or a lunatic, and the process will start all over again.
Evening Men can be physically identified by the scars left from their flaying, and should they relocate to a new body their original scars will reappear the first time that they don the wolfskin again. It takes time for skin to grow back too, which makes them even more obvious in the early days.