According to myth, a werewolf was a human who changed into a wolf-like being either purposely by using magic or after being placed under a curse.
As more than 20 European countries have tales of the werewolf there are numerous unpronounceable names the werewolf is known by. The medieval chronicler, Gervase of Tilbury (c. 1150 – c. 1228), a canon lawyer, statesman and writer, associated the transformation of man to wolf with the full moon which concept is mostly noted in modern fiction.
A recent theory explains werewolf episodes in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries as being the effects of Ergot, a fungus grown in place of rye during wet seasons after cold winters which causes foodborne illnesses. Ergot poisoning usually affects whole towns, or at least poor areas of towns, resulting in hallucinations, mass hysteria, convulsions and sometimes death. It has been said that Ergot poisoning can cause individuals to believe they are werewolves and a whole town which is affected can actually believe they’ve seen a werewolf. Even if Ergot poisoning can cause werewolf belief, it cannot be applied to all instances of werewolf sightings. This theory is controversial as legends of animal transformations, hysteria and superstition in general have existed across the world in recorded history.
Some modern researchers have suggested that rabies, hypertrichosis (hair growth over the entire body) or porphyria (an enzyme disorder causing hallucinations and paranoia) can be an explanation for werewolf beliefs. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria includes symptoms such as photosensitivity, hairy hands and face, poorly healing skin, pink urine and red teeth. There is also a rare mental disorder called clinical lycanthropy where affected persons believe they are transforming into an animal, although not always a wolf or werewolf. Others believe werewolf legends arose as a part of shamanism and totem animals in primitive and nature-based cultures.
I now turn to Marie de France (1154 – 1189), a medieval poet from France who had also lived in England. Marie was noted for her 12 lais one of which is titled Bisclavret. It tells of a baron in Brittany called Bisclavret who vanished every week for three full days and no-one in his household, not even his wife, knew where he went. His wife begged him to tell of his whereabouts and he told her he was a werewolf which transformation required him to retain his clothing, without which he could not resume his human form. She was so shocked by his revelation that she no longer wanted to ‘lie beside him’ and colluded with a knight to get rid of him by stealing his clothing to ensure he never returned; she then married the knight. A year later, the king went hunting and his dogs found Bisclavret, still in wolf form, but he ran to the king begging for mercy which behaviour astounded the king and he called his dogs off and took the wolf back to the castle to live with him.
The knight was invited to the castle for a celebration and was attacked by Bisclavret, who, never having been violent before, made the courtiers think the knight must have wronged him somehow. The king visited the baron’s old home taking the werewolf with him and when Bisclavret saw his former wife he attacked her, tearing off her nose. It was now apparent that the knight’s wife was once the wife of the missing baron. She confessed all and yielded up the stolen clothing which the wolf donned and resumed his human form. The king, delighted to have found the baron, restored his lands to him, and exiled his former wife and her knight. Subsequently, many of the wife's future female family members were born without noses.
Werewolf myths have been around probably longer than those of vampires and zombies. Description of appearance varies across different cultures but the werewolf is, generally, part-man/part-wolf. He preys on humans during the night, but, to reassure the scaredy-cats, most myths do not hold up to scrutiny.
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