Unlike the vampire myth, which came across Europe from east to west, werewolf myths developed in central and western Europe, radiating outward over time. This is shown even in the commonly used names for lycanthropes (Greek for “wolf men”). Werewolf is from the Frankish (an old Germanic dialect) and loup-garou is the French interpretation of this word. Loup-garou is literally “wolf werewolf.” In fact, both of there words migrated to North America with European colonizers. Most people in the United States know of the term werewolf, but French influenced Louisiana still uses a Cajun slang variation of loup-garou: as either loogaroo, roogaroo/rugaru, in some places. They also use it more broadly to describe any number of supposed shape-shifting swamp monsters.
It is interesting to note that the different ends of Europe developed separate creature myths. Eastern European Slavic groups focused on the undead–specifically vampires, while western European Germanic groups focused on beast men–specifically werewolves. The latter is a curse on the living; the former is a curse on the dead. Yet there is a slight blending of each in the other as travel and literacy have increased. The vampire now has lycanthropic tendencies, while both are able to confer their curse to living humans through their bites.
The initial separation of myth types is likely due to these areas’ different pre-Christian beliefs, and their subsequent responses to the introduction of Christianity. As this applies to werewolves, the myths gained popularity and notoriety as the witch scares ramped up between the 14th and 18th centuries. They were a side issue emerging as one of the consequences of witchcraft or sorcery. Instead of being a curse from the gods (as it was represented in Greco-Roman mythology), it was a spell from a witch that created an initial werewolf. Like the vampire hysteria, which gave authors ideas for vampire fiction, the witch hunt/werewolf hysteria also inspired fiction featuring wolf men. Both vampires and werewolves became staples of Gothic horror, and remain icons of horror to this day despite their influences bleeding into other genres. They pop up just as frequently in fantasy and romance these days.
Shape-Shifting Myths and Shamanism
Many cultures have myths or religious traditions that involve shape-shifting beings in one form or another. In many of these stories, the shape-shifter can change into one or more of several different animals. This was generally accomplished by some sort of ritual usually viewed as evil by the majority of people in that culture. There was a trade off of high price: humanity must be forsaken to gain animal abilities.
A well known shape-shifting tradition comes from the Native American belief in skin walkers. These people were not shamans, as shamans were a good and respected part of the community. Anyone who chose to become a skin walker was the opposite of a shaman. They followed the Witchery Way and were considered evil. They used this power for murder and destruction, not for the benefit of the community. The power to transform was initiated by the shape-shifter through a set ritual.
Likewise, European werewolf beliefs, especially between the 15th and 17th centuries, included a choice by the person to become a monster. Here, this required an ointment-like potion, a belt (usually of wolf skin), or some other item imbued with special powers. As with the skin walkers, these items were derived through evil means. It was believed the items were received through a deal with the devil. This is also why werewolves were classed with sorcerers and witches. Another similarly structured shape-shifter legend comes from the plains region of Africa. In this instance, a witch becomes a hyena. In the European tradition, there is also the belief that a person could become a werewolf by the removal of clothing, and human again by dressing. The original myths always imply choice on the part of the shape-shifter, as well as control over when, and a desire to do evil. Only recently–with the aid of Hollywood–have werewolves become subject to the constraints of the lunar cycle. The transmission of the werewolf curse through the bite of another werewolf is also a new invention.
From Human to Howling Monster: The Hollywood Transformation
Most werewolf movies draw their inspiration from the Franco-Germanic myths, with quite a bit of the lore stemming from the creative license taken in 1941’s The Wolf Man. This film restricted lycanthropy to a condition passed on by the bite of another werewolf. It also depicted the transformation as caused by natural phenomena, on a cyclical basis. In this version, the peak time for werewolf activity was in autumn when the wolfsbane blooms. The affected person also had no control of himself when in wolf form. The old gypsy woman sums this up with an oft repeated verse:
“Even a man who is pure in heart,
and says his prayers by night,
may become a wolf when the wolfsbane blooms
and the autumn moon is bright.”
Neither the gypsy werewolf nor Larry Talbot desired to harm others, but the curse fated them to kill, and to eventually be killed. The only defense against the werewolf is silver and the only cure is death, according to this interpretation. Later filmic and literary depictions of werewolves have played around with different attributes, adding and subtracting tropes as it suits the story.
Cursed is a fairly recent movie, and it adheres to the full moon rule, where the change to wolf form is compulsory in the three days around a full moon. It also adds the idea that the curse can be broken by killing the werewolf that inflicted the bite. This appears to be borrowed from the vampire lore in Dracula (the novel) whereby Mina Harker’s impending vampiric state is halted with the count’s demise. The “kill the cause to reverse the curse” scenario is not often used with werewolves, however. The movie also introduces the notion that the violent werewolf tendencies, as well as the physical change, can be controlled with time and practice.
Even more recently, the idea that a good person can be a good werewolf (to some extent), and a bad person a bad werewolf, by choice or methods of control, has surfaced. The remake of the 1941 werewolf movie is similarly titled The Wolfman. In this version, Larry Talbot becomes a werewolf by being bitten by his father, in werewolf form. There follows a battle between the two generations of Talbot where Sir John reveals a desire to relish his animal side and brutality, rather than have himself locked up during full moons any longer. Larry, however, is far more sympathetic toward humans, having only recently acquired the curse. His only desire is to die so that he may spare others, but he also must kill his father, to prevent further carnage. The “kill the cause to cure the curse” idea has no place in this version of the werewolf legend.
The good werewolf/bad werewolf dichotomoy also plays out in the Harry Potter series (movies and books alike). Remus Lupin is a good character. He controls his werewolf self by inducing a sleeping or catatonic state in himself and being locked up during the full moon phase of the lunar cycle. When caught outside once in the full moon, he is able to remember his humanity enough to protect his friends from a wild werewolf. His nemesis, Fenrir Greyback, is quite the opposite. He is an evil man who embraces the werewolf curse to wreak havoc in Voldemort’s name. He downright enjoys brutality and bloodshed.
Throughout the centuries, werewolves have thrilled and terrified the human imagination. There is something about the idea of a wolf man that tugs at our fears as humans. If faced with such a curse, how would we behave? In the image of the werewolf lies a fear of man’s capacity for evil. The brutal, animal instinct lies just below the surface. What would it take to push someone to that point? It does not really matter whether werewolves were used to explain hypertrichosis, rabies, or lycanthropy (in the sense of the psychological condition). They have also become a way to process human behavior that most have a hard time understanding. Most of us have lost our temper or engaged in violence, but–thankfully–most of us also stand horrified at the actions of serial killers. Sheer, compulsive brutality seems to be the arena of monsters rather than man, and the werewolf serves as a mythical stand-in for very real evils in this world.
Sidenote: Some fun facts I wanted to share from my research, but couldn’t fit into the article without disrupting the flow, end up making a circle from Fenrir back to Native American lore and into Norse mythology again. Fenrir Greyback is named for the Norse god Fenrir, who is a giant wolf. He is prophesied to kill Odin in the final battle of the gods, before being slain by Odin’s son, Vitharr. he is on the side of evil (I think, my knowledge of Norse mythology is hazy at best). He is also the son of Loki, who is the trickster god. His counterpart in some Native American folklore is Coyote. They are neither good nor bad, but they are both the impetus behind a lot of hijinks. My understanding is that Fenrir is the representation of taking things too far. Loki might start things in motion just to see what happens, whereas Fenrir opts for willful destruction. Coyote likes pranks, while skin walkers enjoy causing blatant harm. Each mythology has a side that’s an annoyance and a side that’s a threat. Returning back to Norse mythology, although skin walkers are bad, they display a channeling of animal abilities. Berserkers (and ulfhethinn a.k.a. “wolf skin”) were Norse warriors who wore, respectively, bear or wolf skins into battle as a way of channel the powers of those animals. In this case, the idea was to call down a blessing of power and success from the gods, rather than a way to actually shape-shift. It was seen as good, not evil.
Someone who knows more about this stuff can feel free to correct me, but these are just my musings. I’m not saying that Norse and Native American mythologies are parallel in every aspect, just that there are correlations between certain aspects of each. I find it fascinating.