1902 Encyclopedia > Lycanthropy


LYCANTHROPY is a term used comprehensively to indicate a belief, firmly rooted among all savages, and lingering in the form of traditional superstition among peoples comparatively civilized, that men are in certain circumstances transformed temporarily or permanently into wolves and other inferior animals. In the European history of this singular belief, wolf transformations appear as by far the most prominent and most frequently recurring instances of alleged metamorphosis, and consequently in most European languages the terms expressive of the general doctrine have a special reference to the wolf. Examples of this are found in the Greek lukanthropos, Russian volkodlák, English were-wolf, German währwolf, French loup-garou. And yet general terms (e.g., Latin, versipellis; Russian, óboretne; Scandinavian, hamrammr; English, turnskin, turncoat) are sufficiently numerous to furnish some evidence that the class of animals into which metamorphosis was possible was not viewed as a restricted one. It is simply because the old English general terms have been long diverted from their original signification that the word "lycanthropy" has recently been adopted in our language in the enlarged sense in which it has been defined above.

There are two unfailing characteristics of lycanthropous belief: -- (1) there can nowhere be a living belief in contemporary metamorphosis into any animal which has ceased to exist in the particular locality; (2) belief in metamorphosis into the animal most prominent in any locality itself acquires a special prominence. These characteristics apart, the phenomena of lycanthropy exhibit a very considerable diversity in their nature.

Throughout the greater part of Europe the were-wolf is preferred on the principles just noted. There are old traditions of his existence in England, in Wales, and in Ireland. In southern France, the Netherlands, Germany, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Servia [Serbia], Bohemia, Poland, and Russia he can hardly be pronounced extinct now. In Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland the bear competes with the wolf for pre-eminence. In Persia the bear is supreme, in Japan the fox; in India the serpent vies with the tiger, in Abyssinia and Bornou the hyaena with the lion, in eastern Africa the lion with the alligator; in western Africa the leopard is perhaps most frequently the form assumed by man, among the Abipones the tiger, among he Arawaks the jaguar, and so on. In none of these cases, however, is the power of transformation limited exclusively to the prominent and dominant animal.

The most familiar phase of the superstition is also the latest and most sophisticated. It was no belief in mere transformation; the transformation here was accomplished by Satanic agency voluntarily submitted to, and that for the most loathsome ends, in particular for the gratification of a craving for human flesh. "The were-wolves," writes Richard Verstegan (Restitution of Decayed Intelligence, 1628), "are certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devill, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, doe not onely unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their owne thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they weare the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in wourrying and killing, and most of humane creatures." Such were the views about lycanthropy current throughout the continent of Europe when Vestegan wrote. France in particular seems to have been infested with were-wolves during the 16th century, and the consequent trials were very numerous. In some of the cases, -- e.g., those of the Gandillon family in the Jura, the tailor of Châlons, and Roulet in Angers, all occurring in the year 1598, -- there was clear evidence against the accused of murder and cannibalism, but none of association with wolves; in other cases, as that of Gilles Garnier in Dôle in 1573, there was clear evidence against some wolf, but none against the accused; in all the cases, with hardly an exception, there was that extraordinary readiness in the accused to confess and even to give circumstantial details of the metamorphosis, which is one of the most inexplicable concomitants of mediaeval witchcraft. Yet, while this lycantrhopy fever, both of suspectors and of suspected, was at its height, it was decided in the case of Jean Grenier at Bordeaux, in 1603, that lycantrhopy was nothing more than an insane delusion. From this time the loup-garou gradually ceased to be regarded as a dangerous heretic, and fell back into his pre-Christianic position of being simply a "man-wolf-fiend," as which he still survives among the French peasantry. In Prussia, Livonia, and Lithuania, according to the bishops Olaus Magnus and Majolus, the were-wolves were in the 16th century far more destructive than "true and natural wolves," and their heterodoxy appears from the assertion that they formed "an accursed college" of those "desirous of innovations contrary to the divine law." In England, however, where at the beginning of the 17th century the punishment of witchcraft was still zealously prosecuted by James I., the wolf had been so long extinct that that pious monarch was himself able (Demonologie, lib. iii.) to regard "warwoolfes" as victims of delusion induced by "a naturall superabundance of melancholie." Only small creatures, such as the cat, the hare, and the weasel, remained for the malignant sorcerer to transform himself into; but he was firmly believed to avail himself of these agencies. Belief in witch-animals still survives among the uneducated classes in parts of the United Kingdom.

The were-wolves of the Christian dispensation were not, however, all heretics, all viciously disposed towards mankind. "According to Baronius, in the year 617, a number of wolves presented themselves at a monastery, and tore in pieces several friars who entertained heretical opinions. The wolves sent by God tore the sacrilegious thieves of the army of Francesco Maria, duke of Urbino, who had come to sack the treasure of the holy house of Loreto. A wolf guarded and defended from the wild beasts the head of St Edmund the martyr, king of England. St Oddo, abbot of Cluny, assailed in a pilgrimage by foxes, was delivered and escorted by a wolf." [FOOTNOTE 99-1] Many of the were-wolves were most innocent and God-fearing persons, who suffered through the witchcraft of others, or simply from an unhappy fate, and who as wolves behaved in a truly touching fashion, fawning upon and protecting their benefactors. Of this sort were the "Bisclaveret" in Marie de France’s poem (c. 1200), the hero of "William and the Were-wolf" (translated from French into English about 1350), and the numerous princes and princesses, knights and ladies, who appear temporarily in beast form in the Mährchen [Tales] of the Aryan nations generally. Nay the power of transforming others into wild beasts was attributed not only to malignant sorcerers, but also to Christian saints. "Omnes angeli, boni et mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra" [All the angels, good and bad, have the power from their natural strength of changing our bodies], was the dictum of St Thomas Aquinas. A Russian story tells how the apostles Peter and Paul turned an impious husband and wife into bears; St Patrick transformed Vereticus, king of Wales, into a wolf; and St Natalis cursed an illustrious Irish family, with the result that each member of it was doomed to be a wolf for seven years. In other tales the divine agency is still more direct, while in Russia, again, men are supposed to become were-wolves through incurring the wrath of the devil.

There is thus an orthodox as well as a heterodox were-wolf; and, if a survey be taken of the lycanthropous beliefs of non-Christian peoples, this distinction among shape-changers will be equally obvious. The gods of ancient mythology, Hindu, Persian, Greek, and Teutonic, had an apparently unlimited power of assuming animal forms. These gods, moreover, constantly employed themselves in changing men and women into beasts, sometimes in punishment of crime, sometimes out of compassion, and sometimes from pure voluptuousness. Thus Kabandha was changed by Indra into a monster, Trisanku by the sons of Vasishtha, into a bear, Lycaon by Zeus into a wolf, Callisto into a bear, Io into a heifer; the enemies of Odin became boars, and so on. It is admittedly difficult to trace the original meaning of these legends, but the alleged metamorphosis of a god is at times clearly associated with his worship under the form of the animal he turned into in the region where the metamorphosis was said to have occurred. Indra in the form of a bull encountered the monster Vritra, and released the cows he had stolen; Indra was invoked as a bull, and to him the bull and the cow were sacred among the Hindus. Derketo became a fish near Ascalon; a fish-goddess identified with her was worshipped in Syria, and the fish sacred to her were not eaten. Poseidon, the inventor of horses, was, as a horse, the father of the steeds Arion and Pegasus, and the horse was sacred to him. Jupiter Ammon appeared as a ram in the deserts of Libya; in Libya he had an oracle where the ram was sacred to him, and his image wore ram’s horns. So too metamorphosis by gods is in some cases connected with local traditions. The Arcadians, or bear-tribe, sprang from the were-bear Callisto; the Lycians, or wolf-tribe, were wolves when they conducted to the river Xanthus the were-wolf Leto, mother of the Lycian Apollo.

Turning from the gods to the heroes of classical romance, we find traditions more interesting and more instructive, because they must have some real historical foundation. Yet they also abound in episodes of beast mothers and beast fathers, and also of lycanthropy proper. Cyrus was suckled by a bitch, the Servian [Serbian] hero Milosh Kobilitch by a mare, the Norse Sigurd by a hind, the German Dieterich and the Latin Romulus by wolves; the progenitor of the Merovingian kings was a bull, of the Danish royal race a bear; Sigmund and Sinfiotli in the Volsunga Saga become wolves, Nagli in the Eyrbyggia Saga a boar. The Berserkir of Iceland asserted their ability to become bears and wolves, and dressed themselves in the skins of these animals; their existence, their garb, and their pretensions are historical facts. In the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata, the hero Puloman becomes a wild boar to carry off the wife of Bhrigu; the house of Brabant traced its origin to a transformed swan. Beast-form is, however, in mythology proper far oftener assumed for malignant than for benignant ends; indeed the heroes and anthropomorphic gods of the great religious systems are principally distinguished for their victories over the semi-human semi-bestial demons. The bull Indra fights the demon serpent Vritra, and so forth; the Theban Cadmus, the Russian Ivan, the Norse Sigurd, all encounter dragons or serpents, which possess human characteristics. In most of such cases indeed the human as well as the beast form is distinctly attributed to the demon.

It is because they may after all be properly associated with the undoubted phenomena of modern savage life that these facts of ancient mythology are here alluded to. Among savages there is the most confident belief in metamorphosis, -- metamorphosis effected for the most salutary and for the most baneful ends. In the neighborhood of Tette on the Zambesi every chief is credited with the power of assuming lion shape; every lion is respected as being a transformed chief or the spirit of a chief departed. Moreover, there is a special class of "doctors" or medicine-men, known as "pondoros," scattered through the villages, who pretend to powers of metamorphosis, and thus are regarded with both respect and dread; their kindly disposition they display by hunting for the community in lion shape, and then bringing home the game. Among the Arawaks of Guiana, the Kandhs of Orissa, and the Jakuns of the Malay peninsula, beast form is said to be assumed by those desiring to avenge themselves justly on enemies. Beast-parents and cases of women alleged to have borne beast children are also familiar to savages. But this is only one side of the picture. The "kanaima-tiger" (i.e., man-jaguar) of Arawak may be possessed by the spirit of a man devoted to bloodshed and cannibalism; "there is," writes the Rev. Mr. Brett, "no superstititon more prevalent among the Indians than this, and none which causes more terror." In Ashango-land, where there are distinct traces of animal worship, a were-leopard was at the time of Du Chaillu’s visit charged with murder and metamorphosis, and, confessing both, was slowly burnt to death, quite in the style of mediaeval Europe. Similar occurrences have been known among the Kols (of Chútiá-Nágpúr) and among the Arabs.

The expedients supposed to be adopted for effecting change of shape may here be noticed. One of the simplest apparently was the removal of clothing, and in particular of a girdle of human skin, or the putting on of such a girdle, -- more commonly the putting on of a girdle of the skin of the animal whose form was to be assumed. This last device is doubtless a substitute for the assumption of an entire animal skin, which also is frequently found. In other cases the body is rubbed with a magic salve. To drink water out of the footprint of the animal in question, to partake of its brains, to drink of certain enchanted streams, were also considered effectual modes of accomplishing metamorphosis. Olaus Magnus says that the Livonian were-wolves were initiated by draining a cup of beer specially prepared, and repeating a set formula. Mr Ralston in his Songs of the Russian People gives the form of incantation still familiar in Russia. Various expedients also existed for removing the beast-shape. The simplest was the act of the enchanter (operating either on himself or on a victim); another was the removal of the animal girdle. To kneel in one spot for a hundred years, to be reproached with being a were-wolf, to be saluted with the sign of the cross, or addressed thrice by baptismal name, to be struck three blows on the forehead with a knife, or to have at least three drops of blood drawn were also effectual cures. The last-mentioned was quite essential to the subsistence of the superstition. Its absurdity would have much sooner appeared, but for the theory that, directly the were-wolf was wounded, he resumed his human shape; in every case where one accused of being a were-wolf was taken, he was certain to be wounded, and thus the difficulty of his not being found in beast form satisfactorily disposed of.

The foregoing types of lycanthropy, in which the divine or diabolical agency is always emphasized, are presumably less primitive than those cases in which super-human agency is not so prominent. The following cases, therefore, seem to be more intimately connected with the origin of the belief. (1) The Kandhs believe "natural tigers to kill game only to benefit men, who generally find it but partially devoured and share it; while the tigers which kill men are either Tari (a goddess), who has assumed the form of a tiger for purposes of wrath, or men who, by the aid of a god, have assumed the form of tigers, and are called ‘mleepa tigers.’" A distinction was previously drawn between friendly and hostile lycanthropists; here a distinction is drawn between friendly and hostile tigers, and lycanthropy is introduced to explain the cases of hostility. Again (2) in the native literature of modern savages there constantly occur stories of the "Beauty and the Beast" type, so distinctly resembling those of the Aryan Mährchen [Tales] as to indicate identity of origin; but, while in the Aryan story the beast-form of the hero or heroine is generally at last removed, in the savage story the incongruity of the beast-form is scarcely realized, and the Indian lover lives happily with his beaver bride, the Zulu maiden with her frog husband. And (3) in many instances the power or necessity of transformation is ascribed, not to individuals, but to clans or nations. Thus the aboriginal Naga tribes of India seemed to the Aryans to take the form of serpents; the Neuri seemed to the Scythians, and the Hirpini to the Romans, to become wolves, as also did the native Irish of Ossory to the early Christian priests; the Abyssinians credit the Buda caste (blacksmiths and potters of alien stock) with ability to become hyaenas at pleasure; the Berserkr-rage of Iceland is perpetuated in the modern Scandinavian belief that Lapps and Finns can take the form of bears. In mediaeval times Blois had a special celebrity for were-wolves, and persons named Garnier or Grenier were generally assumed to be lycanthropists.

When we find that these three distinct classes of primitive facts regarding lycanthopy are all referable to a common origin, there seems good reason for regarding that as being in truth the origin of lycanthropous belief. And thus we are led to refer lycanthropy to the more general facts of primitive TOTEMISM (q.v.), for the facts recited are as undoubtedly characteristic of the latter as of the former. Where the totem is an animal, it is regarded as the ancestor of the tribe; all animals of its species are revered, and are never willingly killed; however dangerous to life, they are feigned by the tribe to be friendly to them, and hostile only to their enemies. Applying these facts to the foregoing lycanthropous phenomena in order, we observe (1) that the tiger is a totem god among the Kandhs; consequently he reserves his wrath for their enemies. [FOOTNOTE 91-1] Individual enemies would, however, be created whenever an individual Kandh had the blood-feud against another, for then his totem was bound to aid him. Such we saw was in fact the Kandh explanation of the wrath of the totem. The development of sorcery would naturally lead to the utilization of the totem as assistant in it also. The Arawak "kanaima" is both lawful avenger and cruel sorcerer; and from a similar reason probably did the wolf or were-wolf in Europe become a synonym for outlaw. The outlaw was at first simply the peaceless man -- the man who preferred vendetta to money composition for injuries, - as he was originally bound to do, subsequently entitled to do, and finally prohibited from doing. (2) The beast-hero of savage story ceases to be strange when we learn that "a beaver," "a dog," "a grizzly bear," mean respectively a person of a tribe having the animal in question for totem. And so too (3) with the third class of phenomena which contemplates tribes turned into beasts. The Nagas had the serpent for totem; apparently the Hirpini, and the native Irish in many districts, had the wolf; they certainly venerated and worshipped that animal. The Lapps are known to worship the bear. Blois means the "city of wolves." Doubtless all cases of this sort admit of similar explanation.

The doctrine of lycanthropy or metamorphosis of living men must be distinguished from the doctrine of metempsychosis or transmigration of souls. It no doubt was usual to conclude that the souls of cataleptic and epileptic patients sojourned temporarily in animals, while the patients were unconscious; but this phase of lycanthropy is too rare and too abnormal to be associated with the origin of the superstition. Transmigration after death, involving the belief in a future state, raises questions as puzzling as does lycanthropy itself, and questions quite of a different kind, because in normal lycanthropy the change effected is an actual corporeal one. Mr Tylor therefore throws little light on the origin of lycanthropy when he connects it with metempsychosis. In the form familiar to us it doubtless involves the doctrine of "animism" – the doctrine that animals, plants, and things are prompted to action by spirits similar to those possessed by men; but, whether lycanthropy is simply a special application of a general doctrine of animism, and is not rather one of the earliest advances from a blind totemism to a general animistic theory, may fairly be questioned. This at least seems plain: animism, apart from totemism, is not itself sufficient to explain lycanthropy, for even animistic beliefs are not developed abnormally, but along lines predetermined by circumstances. Mr. Tylor’s views are, however, so cautiously and so suggestively expressed as to deserve close study.

Hardly so satisfactory are the other theories on the subject, which, passing over variations in detail, fall into two classes – the mythological and the rationalistic. On the former view, now upheld by a large school of inquirers, the ancient Aryan myths, and their modern representatives the Mährchen [Tales], are regarded as imaginative descriptions (principally due to the use of metaphorical language) of the great elemental powers and changes of nature. On such a view the occurrence of shape-changing gods and heroes is simple and natural, so long as the persons are purely mythical, because thus far nothing need be deemed strange or unnatural. But the theory breaks down when it ventures on elucidation of historical facts. It seems vain to contend, -- although it is contended, -- that "the terrible delusion of lycanthropy arose from the mere use of an equivocal word " (lykos [Gk.], "wolf," leukos [Gk.] for "shining"). Attempt to substantiate in detail this explanation of history is absolutely fatal. "Whence," it is asked, "came the notions that men were changed into wolves, bears, and birds, and not into lions, fishes, or reptiles?" and the triumphant reply is that the first-named animals were selected for glossiness or luminosity of coat. [FOOTNOTE 91-1] Consequently, if transformation into the other animals was also believed in, the theory stands self-refuted. Now Hippomenes and Atalanta were for impiety turned into lion and lioness, Cadmus and Harmonia into serpents; and these cases of transformation have almost as intimate an association with the historical belief in men-lions and men-serpents as the case of Lycaon (mythologically-the shiner, the sun) has with lycanthropy.

Cognate to the mythological doctrine is the doctrine of the personification as demons of all obstacles which men have encountered in the long struggle for existence, - among these the wilder and more savage animals. This is just a one-sided animism; it is inadequate to explain how the savage beasts so often became mild and gentle men. The rationalistic theories are open to the same objections: to account for divine and benignant lycanthropists they have to be supplemented by the mythological theories; they themselves deal exclusively with the more repulsive characteristics. The most recent exponent of the rationalistic theory is Mr Baring Gould, who rests his case on a proof of the facts that there is "an innate craving for blood implanted in certain natures, restrained under ordinary circumstances, but breaking forth occasionally, accompanied with hallucination, leading in most cases to cannibalism." That cannibalism and craving for blood had a natural (though not a necessary) connection with lycanthropy, if it originated among savages, need not be disputed; but Mr Baring Gould’s instances, drawn from mediaeval European history, are undoubtedly exceptional. Hallucination, however, has been accepted as sufficient explanation of lycanthropy by many eminent authorities, besides Mr Gould, and raises a graver question. Belief in transformation into beasts has been acknowledged as a distinct type of monomania by medical men since the days of Paulus Aegineta (7th century) at least; but even in madness there is method, and insane delusions must reflect the usages and beliefs of contemporaneous society. Here the weakness of the case appears. Mr Gould, for instance, merely states that the victims were rustics, and wolves the chief terror of their homesteads, an explanation valid only on the assumption that the idea of metamorphosis was already familiar, - an assumption, that is, of the whole matter at issue. Besides, it is the popular, not the individual, belief in transformation that is strange; to trace its origin to insane delusion makes it stranger still, for sane men are particularly sceptical regarding the reality of the impressions of the insane. Sane men, moreover, believed in transformation, not only into malignant wolves, but also into harmless cats and hares, which in consequence became malignant and dangerous. How can the rationalistic theory account for a phenomenon like this? On the whole, there seems little doubt that, whether the origin of lycanthropy rests in totemism or not, Mr Tylor is right in referring lycanthropous insane delusions to an antecedent belief in lycanthropy, instead of ascribing lycanthropy to insane delusions.

Literature. – In the numerous mediaeval works directed to the study of sorcery and witchcraft, the contemporaneous phases of lycanthropy occupy a prominent place. In addition to the authors who have been already mentioned, the following may named as giving special attention to this subject: - Wier, De Praestigiis Daemonum, Amsterdam, 1563; Bodin, Demonomanie des Sorciers, Paris, 1580; Boguet, Discours des Sorciers, Lyons, 2nd ed. 1608; Lancre, Tableau de l’Incontance de Mauvais Ange, Paris, 1613; Psellus, De Operatione Daemonum, Paris, 1615; see also Glanvil, Sadducismus Triumphatus, for the English equivalents of lyncanthropy.

Treatises solely confined to lycanthropy are rare both in mediaeval and in modern times; but a few are well known, as, for instance, those of Bourquelot and Nynauld, De la Lycanthropie, Paris, 1615; Hartz, De Werwolf, Stuttgart, 1862; Baring Gould, The Book of Were-wolves, London, 1865.

Incidentally, however, lycanthropy has engaged the attention of a large number of writers, most of whom theorize regarding its origin. An exhaustive enumeration of these cannot be here attempted; but the following works will be found particularly instructive:-- Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, vols. ii and iii., 4th ed., Berlin, 1878; Welcker, Kleine Schriften, vol. iii., Bonn, 1850; Waitz, Anthropologie, vol. ii Leipsic [Leipzig], 1860; Dasent, Popular Tales from the Norse (Introduction), Edinburgh, 1859; Afanasief, Poeticheskiya Vozzryeniya Slavyan na Prirodu, vol iii., Moscow, 1869; Tylor, Primitive Culture, vol. i. London, 1871, and Anthropology, chap xiv. and xv., London, 1881; Gufernatis, Zoological Mythology (especially chaps. xi. and xii.), London, 1872; Ralston, Songs of other Russian People, London, 1872; Laisnel de la Salle, Croyances et Legendes du Centre de la France, Paris, 1875; of lycanthrophy, consult the Asylum Journal of Mental Science, vol. iii. p. 100 (Dr D. H. Tuke), and authorities there cited. ( J. F. McL.)


89-1 A de Gubernatis, Zoological Mythology, 1872, vol. ii. p. 145.

91-1 The Watusi of East Africa distinctly describe all wild beasts save their own totem-animals as enemy-scouts.

91-2 Sir G. W. Cox, The Mythology of the Aryan Nations, London, 1870, vol. i. pp. 63 note, 231, 363, 459; vol. ii. p. 78 note.

The article above was written by John Ferguson McLennan, M.A., Advocate; Parliamentary Draughtsman for Scotland, 1871; author of Primitive Marriage and Studies in Ancient History.

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