AskDefine | Define werewolf

The Collaborative Dictionary

Werewolf \Were"wolf`\, n.; pl. Werewolves. [AS. werwulf; wer a man + wulf a wolf; cf. G. w[aum]rwolf, w[aum]hrwolf, wehrwolf, a werewolf, MHG. werwolf. [root]285. See Were a man, and Wolf, and cf. Virile, World.] A person transformed into a wolf in form and appetite, either temporarily or permanently, whether by supernatural influences, by witchcraft, or voluntarily; a lycanthrope. Belief in werewolves, formerly general, is not now extinct. [1913 Webster] The werwolf went about his prey. --William of Palerne. [1913 Webster] The brutes that wear our form and face, The werewolves of the human race. --Longfellow. [1913 Webster] Werk

Word Net

werewolf n : a monster able to change appearance from human to wolf [syn: wolfman, lycanthrope] [also: werewolves (pl)]

English

Etymology

Late Old English werewulf, probably from wer ‘man’ + wulf ‘wolf’.

Pronunciation

  • /ˈwɛ:wʊlf/, /ˈwɪəwʊlf/ (UK)

Noun

  1. A person who is transformed into a wolf or a wolflike human when there is a full moon.

Translations

wolflike human
Were-wolves, also known as lycanthropes, are mythologic humans with the ability to shapeshift into a wolf or wolflike creature, either purposely, by eating Henbane, being bitten by a werewolf or after being placed under a curse. They have been around in fiction and myth as long as recorded history. The medieval chronicler Gervase of Tilbury associated the transformation with the appearance of the full moon; however, there is evidence that the association existed among the Ancient Greeks, appearing in the writings of Petronius. This concept was rarely associated with the werewolf until the idea was picked up by Gervase. Werewolves have been mentioned in many forms of media, such as the Harry Potter series and are usually described as vicious monsters.
Shape-shifters similar to werewolves are common in tales from all over the world, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves.
Werewolves are a frequent subject of modern fictional books and films, although fictional werewolves have been attributed traits distinct from those of original folklore, most notably the vulnerability to silver bullets.

Origins

Many authors have speculated that werewolf and vampire legends may have been used to explain serial killings in less rationalistic ages. This theory is given credence by the tendency of some modern serial killers to indulge in practices commonly associated with werewolves, such as cannibalism, mutilation, and cyclic attacks. The idea (although not the terminology) is well explored in Sabine Baring-Gould's seminal work The Book of Werewolves.
A recent theory has been proposed to explain werewolf episodes in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ergot, which causes a form of foodborne illness, is a fungus that grows in place of rye grains in wet growing seasons after very cold winters. Ergot poisoning usually affects whole towns or poor sections of towns, resulting in hallucinations and convulsions. (The hallucinogen LSD was originally derived from ergot). Ergot poisoning has been propounded as both a cause of an individual believing that one is a werewolf and of a whole town believing that they had witnessed a werewolf. This theory, however, is controversial and not widely accepted.
Some modern researchers have tried to use conditions such as rabies, hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth over the entire body), or porphyria (an enzyme disorder with symptoms including hallucinations and paranoia) to explain werewolf beliefs. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria has clinical features which include hairy hands and face, poorly healing skin, pink urine, reddish colour to the teeth, and photosensitivity, the latter of which leads sufferers to only go out at night.
There is also a rare mental disorder called clinical lycanthropy, in which an affected person has a delusional belief that he or she is, or has transformed into, another animal, but not necessarily a wolf or werewolf. Supernatural lycanthropy myths could originate from people relating their experiences of what could be classified as a state of psychosis.
Others believe that werewolf legends were partly inspired from shamanism and totem animals in nature-based cultures.

Etymology

The name most likely derives from Old English wer (or were) and wulf. The first part, wer, translates as "man" (in the sense of male human, not the race of humanity). It has cognates in several Germanic languages including Gothic wair, Old High German wer, and Old Norse verr, as well as in other Indo-European languages, such as Latin vir, Irish fear, Lithuanian vyras, and Welsh gŵr, which have the same meaning. The second half, wulf, is the ancestor of modern English "wolf"; in some cases it also had the general meaning "beast." An alternative etymology derives the first part from Old English weri (to wear); the full form in this case would be glossed as wearer of wolf skin. Related to this interpretation is Old Norse ulfhednar, which denoted lupine equivalents of the berserker, said to wear a bearskin in battle.
Yet other sources derive the word from warg-wolf, where warg (or later werg and wero) is cognate with Old Norse vargr, meaning "rogue," "outlaw," or, euphemistically, "wolf". A Vargulf was the kind of wolf that slaughtered many members of a flock or herd but ate little of the kill. This was a serious problem for herders, who had to somehow destroy the rogue wolf before it destroyed the entire flock or herd. Herders would often hang the wolf's hide in the bedroom of a young infant, believing it to give the baby supernatural powers. The term Warg was used in Old English for this kind of wolf (see J. R. R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit) and for what would now be called a serial killer. Possibly related is the fact that, in Norse society, an outlaw (who could be murdered with no legal repercussions and was forbidden to receive aid) was typically called vargr, or "wolf." It is also speculated that werewolves are under the influence of a god who was once a lycanthrope. He visits them in their dreams before transformation and tells them specifically who to feed upon. Some believe it is the spirit of Lycaon, the first werewolf that does this deed.
The Greek term lycanthropy (a compound of which "lyc-" derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *wlkwo-, meaning "wolf") formally denotes the "wolf - man" transformation. Lycanthropy is but one form of therianthropy, the ability to metamorphose into animals in general. The term "therianthrope" literally means "beast-man," from which the words turnskin and turncoat are derived. (Latin: versipellis, Russian : oboroten, O. Norse: hamrammr). The French name for a werewolf, sometimes used in English, is loup-garou, from the Latin noun lupus meaning wolf. The second element is thought to be from Old French garoul meaning "werewolf." This in turn is most likely from Frankish *wer-wulf meaning "man-wolf."

World literature and folklore

Classical Literature

In Greek mythology, the story of Lycaon provides one of the earliest examples of a werewolf legend. According to one version, Lycaon was transformed into a wolf as a result of eating human flesh; one of those who were present at periodical sacrifice on Mount Lycæon was said to suffer a similar fate. Herodotus in his Histories tells us that the Neuri, a tribe he places to the north-east of Scythia, were annually transformed for a few days, and Virgil is familiar with transformation of human beings into wolves.
The Roman scholar Pliny the Elder, relates two tales of lycanthropy. Quoting Euanthes, he mentions a man who hung his clothes on an ash tree and swam across an Arcadian lake, transforming him into a wolf. On the condition that he attacked no human being for nine years, he would be free to swim back across the lake to resume human form. Pliny also quotes Agriopas regarding a tale of a man who was turned into a wolf after tasting the entrails of a human child.
In the Latin work of prose, the Satyricon, written about 60 C.E. by Gaius Petronius Arbiter, one of the characters, Niceros, tells a story at a banquet about a friend who turned into a wolf (chs. 61-62). He describes the incident as follows, "When I looked for my friend I saw he'd stripped and piled his clothes by the roadside...He urinated in a circle round his clothes and then, just like that, turned into a wolf!...after he turned into a wolf he started howling and then ran off into the woods."

European cultures

Many European countries and cultures influenced by them have stories of werewolves, including Albania (oik), Armenia (mardagayl) France (loup-garou), Greece (lycanthropos), Spain (hombre lobo), Mexico (hombre lobo and nahual), Bulgaria (varkolak), Turkey (kurtadam), Czech Republic/Slovakia (vlkodlak), Serbia/Montenegro/Bosnia (vukodlak, вукодлак), Russia (vourdalak, оборотень), Ukraine (vovkulak(a), vurdalak(a), vovkun, перевертень), Croatia (vukodlak), Poland (wilkołak), Romania (vârcolac, priculici), Macedonia (vrkolak), Slovenia (volkodlak), Scotland (werewolf, wulver), England (werewolf), Ireland (faoladh or conriocht), Germany (Werwolf), the Netherlands (weerwolf), Denmark/Sweden/Norway (Varulv), Norway/Iceland (kveld-ulf, varúlfur), Galicia (lobisón), Portugal/ (lobisomem), Lithuania (vilkolakis and vilkatlakis), Latvia (vilkatis and vilkacis), Andorra/Catalonia (home llop), Hungary (Vérfarkas and Farkasember), Estonia (libahunt), Finland (ihmissusi and vironsusi), and Italy (lupo mannaro). In northern Europe, there are also tales about people changing into animals including bears, as well as wolves.
Werewolves in European tradition were sometimes innocent folk suffering from the witchcraft of others, or simply from an unhappy fate, and who, as wolves, behaved in a truly touching fashion, adoring and protecting their human benefactors. In Marie de France's poem Bisclavret (c. 1200), the nobleman Bizuneh, for reasons not described in the lai, had to transform into a wolf every week. When his treacherous wife stole his clothing needed to restore his human form, he escaped the king's wolf hunt by imploring the king for mercy and accompanied the king thereafter. His behaviour at court was so much gentler than when his wife and her new husband appeared at court, that his hateful attack on the couple was deemed justly motivated, and the truth was revealed. Other tales of this sort include William and the Werewolf (translated from French into English ca. 1350), and the German fairy tales Märchen, in which several aristocrats temporarily transform into beasts. See Snow White and Rose Red, where the tame bear is really a bewitched prince, and The Golden Bird where the talking fox is also a man.
The legends of ulfhednar mentioned in Vatnsdœla saga, Haraldskvæði, and the Völsunga saga resemble some werewolf legends. The ulfhednar were fighters similar to the berserkers, who were dressed in bear hides and reputed to channel the spirits of these animals to enhance effectiveness in battle. These warriors were resistant to pain and killed viciously in battle, much like wild animals. Ulfhednar and berserkers are closely associated with the Norse god Odin.
In Latvian folklore, a vilkacis was someone who transformed into a wolf-like monster, which could be benevolent at times. Another collection of stories concern the skin-walkers. The vilkacis and skin-walkers probably have a common origin in Proto-Indo-European society, where a class of young unwed warriors were apparently associated with wolves.
According to the first dictionary of modern Serbian language (published by Vuk Stefanović-Karadžić in 1818) vukodlak / вукодлак (werewolf) and vampir / вампир (vampire) are synonyms, meaning a man who returns from his grave for purposes of fornicating with his widow. The dictionary states this to be a common folk tale.
Common amongst the Kashubs of what is now northern Poland, and the Serbs and Slovenes, was the belief that if a child was born with hair, a birthmark or a caul on their head, they were supposed to possess shape-shifting abilities. Though capable of turning into any animal they wished, it was commonly believed that such people preferred to turn into a wolf.
According to Armenian lore, there are women who, in consequence of deadly sins, are condemned to spend seven years in wolf form. In a typical account, a condemned woman is visited by a wolfskin-toting spirit, who orders her to wear the skin, which causes her to acquire frightful cravings for human flesh soon after. With her better nature overcome, the she-wolf devours each of her own children, then her relatives' children in order of relationship, and finally the children of strangers. She wanders only at night, with doors and locks springing open at her approach. When morning arrives, she reverts to human form and removes her wolfskin. The transformation is generally said to be involuntary, but there are alternate versions involving voluntary metamorphosis, where the women can transform at will.
The 11th Century Russian Prince Vseslav of Polotsk was considered to have been a Werewolf, capable of moving at supehuman speeds, as recounted in The Tale of Igor's Campaign: "Vseslav the prince judged men; as prince, he ruled towns; but at night he prowled in the guise of a wolf. From Kiev, prowling, he reached, before the cocks crew, Tmutorokan. The path of Great Sun, as a wolf, prowling, he crossed. For him in Polotsk they rang for matins early at St. Sophia the bells; but he heard the ringing in Kiev."
There were numerous reports of werewolf attacks – and consequent court trials – in sixteenth century France. In some of the cases there was clear evidence against the accused of murder and cannibalism, but none of association with wolves; in other cases people have been terrified by such creatures, such as that of Gilles Garnier in Dole in 1573, there was clear evidence against some wolf but none against the accused. The loup-garou eventually ceased to be regarded as a dangerous heretic and reverted to the pre-Christian notion of a "man-wolf-fiend." The lubins or lupins were usually female and shy in contrast to the aggressive loup-garous.
Some French werewolf lore is based on documented events caused by the full moon. The Beast of Gévaudan terrorized the general area of the former province of Gévaudan, now called Lozère, in south-central France. From the years 1764 to 1767, an unknown entity killed upwards of 80 men, women, and children. The creature was described as a giant wolf by the sole survivor of the attacks, which ceased after several wolves were killed in the area.
At the beginning of the seventeenth century witchcraft was prosecuted by James I of England, who regarded "warwoolfes" as victims of delusion induced by "a natural superabundance of melancholic."

American cultures

The Naskapi's believed that the caribou afterlife is guarded by giant wolves which kill careless hunters venturing too near. The Navajo people feared witches in wolf's clothing called "Mai-cob".

Characteristics

Becoming a werewolf

Historical legends describe a wide variety of methods for becoming a werewolf, one of the simplest being the removal of clothing and putting on a belt made of wolfskin, probably as a substitute for the assumption of an entire animal skin (which also is frequently described). In other cases, the body is rubbed with a magic salve. To drink water out of the footprint of the animal in question or to drink from certain enchanted streams were also considered effectual modes of accomplishing metamorphosis. Olaus Magnus says that the Livonian werewolves were initiated by draining a cup of specially prepared beer and repeating a set formula. Ralston in his Songs of the Russian People gives the form of incantation still familiar in Russia. According to Russian lore, a child born on December 24 shall be a werewolf. Folklore and literature also depict that a werewolf can be spawned from two werewolf parents.
In Galician, Portuguese, and Brazilian folklore, it is the seventh of the sons (but sometimes the seventh child, a boy, after a line of six daughters) who becomes a werewolf (Lobisomem). In Portugal, the seventh daughter is supposed to become a witch and the seventh son a werewolf; the seventh son often gets the Christian name "Bento" (Portuguese form of "Benedict", meaning "blessed") as this is believed to prevent him from becoming a werewolf later in life. In Brazil, the seventh daughter becomes a headless (replaced with fire) horse called "Mula-sem-cabeça" (Headless Mule). The belief in the curse of the seventh son was so widespread in Northern Argentina (where the werewolf is called the lobizón), that seventh sons were frequently abandoned, ceded in adoption, or killed. A 1920 law decreed that the President of Argentina is the official godfather of every seventh son. Thus, the State gives a seventh son one gold medal in his baptism and a scholarship until his twenty first year. This effectively ended the abandonments, but there still persists a tradition in which the President godfathers seventh sons.
In other cases, the transformation was supposedly accomplished by Satanic allegiance for the most loathsome ends, often for the sake of sating a craving for human flesh. "The werewolves", 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 devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in worrying and killing, and most of humane creatures. Such were the views about lycanthropy current throughout the continent of Europe when Verstegan wrote.
The power of transforming others into wild beasts was attributed not only to malignant sorcerers, but to Christian saints as well. Omnes angeli, boni et Mali, ex virtute naturali habent potestatem transmutandi corpora nostra ("All angels, good and bad have the power of transmutating our bodies") was the dictum of St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Patrick was said to have transformed the Welsh king Vereticus into a wolf; St. Natalis supposedly cursed an illustrious Irish family whose members were each doomed to be a wolf for seven years. In other tales the divine agency is even more direct, while in Russia, again, men supposedly became werewolves when incurring the wrath of the Devil.A notable exception to the association of Lycanthropy and the Devil, comes from a rare and lesser known account of a man named Thiess. In 1692, in Jurgenburg, Livonia, Thiess testified under oath that he and other werewolves were the Hounds of God. He claimed they were warriors who went down into hell to do battle with witches and demons. Their efforts ensured that the Devil and his minions did not carry off the abundance of the earth down to hell. Thiess was steadfast in his assertions, claiming that werewolves in Germany and Russia also did battle with the devil's minions in their own versions of hell, and insisted that when werewolves died, their souls were welcomed into heaven as reward for their service. Thiess was ultimately sentenced to ten lashes for Idolatry and superstitious belief.
A distinction is often made between voluntary and involuntary werewolves. The former are generally thought to have made a pact, usually with the Devil, and morph into werewolves at night to indulge in mischievous acts. Involuntary werewolves, on the other hand, are werewolves by an accident of birth or health. In some cultures, individuals born during a new moon or suffering from epilepsy were considered likely to be werewolves.
Becoming a werewolf simply by being bitten by another werewolf as a form of contagion is common in modern horror fiction, but this kind of transmission is rare in legend.

Vulnerabilities

Werewolves have several described weaknesses, the most common being an aversion to wolfsbane (a plant that supposedly sprouted from weeds watered by the drool of Cerberus while he was brought out of Hades by Heracles). Unlike vampires, werewolves are not harmed by religious artifacts such as crucifixes and holy water.
Various methods have existed for removing the werewolf form. The simplest method was the act of the enchanter (operating either on oneself or on a victim), and another was the removal of the animal belt or skin. To kneel in one spot for a hundred years, to be reproached with being a werewolf, to be struck three blows on the forehead with a knife, or to have at least three drops of blood drawn have also been mentioned as possible cures. Many European folk tales include throwing an iron object over or at the werewolf, to make it reveal its human form, naked in cases from 1859.
Another vulnerability is to use a weapon of silver (bullet, knife etc). To stab a werewolf with a silver dagger, or to shoot it with a silver bullet is said to not only kill a werewolf, but to also cause it agony in the time before it dies, rather resembling being slowly burned from the inside.

In fiction

The process transmogrification is often portrayed as painful in film and literature. The resulting wolf is typically cunning but merciless and prone to killing and eating people without compunction, regardless of the moral character of its human counterpart. The form a werewolf assumes is not always that of an ordinary wolf but often anthropomorphic or otherwise larger and more powerful than an ordinary wolf. Many modern werewolves are supposedly immune to damage caused by ordinary weapons, being vulnerable only to silver objects (usually a bullet or blade). This negative reaction to silver is sometimes so strong that the mere touch of the metal on a werewolf's skin will cause burns. Current-day werewolf fiction almost exclusively involves lycanthropy being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like an infectious disease by the bite of another werewolf. In some fiction, the power of the werewolf extends to human form, such as invulnerability, super-human speed and strength and falling on their feet from high falls. Also aggressiveness and animalistic urges may be harder to control (hunger, sexual arousal). Usually in these cases the abilities are diminished in human form. In other fictions it can even be cured by medicine men or even antidotes.
The first feature film to use an anthropomorphic werewolf was Werewolf of London in 1935 (not to be confused with the 1981 film of a similar title) establishing the canon that the werewolf always kills whom he loves most. The main werewolf of this film is a dapper London scientist who retains some of his style and most of his human features after his transformation.
However, he lacks warmth, and it is left to the tragic character Talbot played by Lon Chaney Jr. in 1941's The Wolf Man to capture the public imagination. This catapulted the werewolf into public consciousness. Sympathetic portrayals are few but notable, An American Werewolf In London and those in the Harry Potter literature being more recent examples. Other werewolves are decidedly more willful and malevolent, such as those in the Howling series.
With the rise of environmentalism and other back-to-nature ideals, the werewolf has come to be seen by some authors as a representation of humanity allied more closely with nature. Some recent fiction also discards the idea that the werewolf dominates the mind when one transforms, and instead postulates that the wolf form can be used at will, with the lycanthrope retaining its human thought processes and intelligence.

Other uses of the term

In World War 2, the German SS formed an irregular network of Partisan-like units known as Operation Werwolf to resist the occupation of allied forces. These units were under the leadership of the SS and were comprised of members of that group, along with members of the Heer and Hitler Youth. Their campaign of resistance was, however, an almost complete fiasco, especially following their disownment by Hitler's successor, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz.

Footnotes

References

  • Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Were-Wolves: Being an Account of a Terrible Superstition. London: Smith, Elder, 1865. ISBN 0-7661-8307-6
  • Douglas, Adam. The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf. London: Chapmans, 1992. ISBN 0-380-72264-X
  • Lecouteux, Claude. Witches, Werewolves, and Fairies. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions International, 2003. ISBN 089281096-3
  • Prieur, Claude. Dialogue de la Lycanthropie: Ou transformation d'hommes en loups, vulgairement dits loups-garous, et si telle se peut faire. Louvain: J. Maes & P. Zangre, 1596. (By a Franciscan monk, in French)
  • Rev. Montague Summers, The Werewolf London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1933. (1st edition, reissued 1934 New York: E.P. Dutton, 1966 New Hyde Park, N.Y: University Books, 1973 Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 2003 Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, with new title The Werewolf in Lore and Legend). Written by an individual claiming that werewolves are real, it is understandably filled with a number of bizarre conclusions but has an impressive bibliography. ISBN 0-7661-3210-2
  • Wolfeshusius, Johannes Fridericus. De Lycanthropia: An vere illi, ut fama est, luporum & aliarum bestiarum formis induantur. Problema philosophicum pro sententia Joan. Bodini ... adversus dissentaneas aliquorum opiniones noviter assertum... Leipzig: Typis Abrahami Lambergi, 1591. (In Latin; microfilm held by the United States National Library of Medicine)
werewolf in Arabic: مستذئب
werewolf in Czech: Vlkodlak
werewolf in Danish: Varulv
werewolf in German: Werwolf
werewolf in Esperanto: Lupfantomo
werewolf in Spanish: Hombre lobo
werewolf in Estonian: Libahunt
werewolf in Persian: گرگینه
werewolf in Finnish: Ihmissusi
werewolf in French: Loup-garou
werewolf in Hebrew: איש זאב
werewolf in Croatian: Vukodlak
werewolf in Armenian: Մարդագայլ
werewolf in Indonesian: Manusia serigala
werewolf in Italian: Licantropo
werewolf in Japanese: 狼男
werewolf in Latin: Lycanthropus
werewolf in Lithuanian: Vilkolakis
werewolf in Dutch: Weerwolf
werewolf in Norwegian Nynorsk: Varulv
werewolf in Norwegian: Varulv
werewolf in Polish: Wilkołak
werewolf in Portuguese: Lobisomem
werewolf in Russian: Оборотни
werewolf in Simple English: Werewolf
werewolf in Slovak: Vlkolak
werewolf in Serbian: Вукодлак
werewolf in Swedish: Varulv
werewolf in Thai: มนุษย์หมาป่า
werewolf in Turkish: Kurt Adam
werewolf in Ukrainian: Вовкулак
werewolf in Walloon: Leu-waerou
werewolf in Chinese: 狼人
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