THE NAME OF THE BEAST
a Consideration of the Historical Werwulf
by Robert Dunbar
“By no spell nor evil power can the body corporeally be changed . . .
a man is only fantastically and by illusion metamorphosed.”
~ St. Augustine
In a vile attempt to curry favor with the gods, Lycanon (according to Virgil) sacrificed an infant.
The plan backfired when an outraged Zeus transformed him into a frothing reflection of his true inner self: the first lycanthrope
The story resurfaced in Ovid’s Metamorphoseswith one crucial elaboration: anyone who even unknowingly ate the flesh of an animal sacrificed at Lycanon’s altar would himself become a beast, and in the centuries that followed, variants of the legend found their way into every corner of the world. Only the method of affliction varied. In rural Greece eating a goat slain by a real wolf could transmit the curse, whereas in the Balkan peninsula, merely drinking water from the footprint of a wolf promoted infection. In other parts of Europe sleeping in the open during a full moon
sufficed . . . and innocence of spirit provided no immunity.
But even before the dissemination of Mediterranean myths, the notion of a beast that walks like a
man had attained worldwide prominence in most folkloric systems.
Hot breath gutters in the darkness. A growl rumbles.
A savage lunge . . . a spurt of blood . . .
Many aboriginal cultures evolved with the concept of a totemic animal spirit, a “bush-soul” symbiotically linked to the spirits of men. E. William Mentes (in his esteemed Witchcraft in France and Switzerland) asserted that the belief in sorcerers who could transform themselves into beasts became “nearly universal in primitive societies,” the animal chosen typically the one most dreaded by locals. In China, tiger-people marauded. In Kenya the mau-mau prowled in leopard guise, and in Argentina, the lobison (boar-man) and tigre capiango (jaguar people) stalked the night.
But wolves – even natural ones – have inspired more terror in humankind than any other creature.
Wherever wolves occur in nature, men have organized attempts, not merely to control them, but to hunt them out of existence. This hysterical loathing represents an unfounded prejudice. Wolves do not attack human beings. Why then has humankind chosen to project its deepest fears onto this unfortunate beast?
“It is believed as undoubted truth, that only the Almighty can, when he pleases, change one into another,” wrote Giraldus Canbrenses, Chaplain to Henry II. However, the Dominicans Heinrich Kramer and James Springer in their infamous Malleus Maleficaruminsisted that Satan could influence “the inner perceptions” and “effect changes in the actions and faculties.” A century later, Robert Devoreaux, Earl of Essex echoed this theory of “Satanical delusion” in his A Treatise Against Witchcraft.
Controversy concerning their exact nature notwithstanding, few doubted the actual existence of what the Demonlogie of James I referred to as “the men-woolfes.” Belief in the Black Arts was rampant. Throughout the Middle Ages, people clung to the notion that evil individuals became werewolves through a pact with Satan, the process usually involving magical ointments and the ritual donning of a pelt.
Surely some reality could have inspired the development of such convictions. Raids by Norse Berserkers – who wore wolf skins to enhance their ferocity – may have had an influence. To a panic-stricken medieval villager, the howling invaders must have seemed all but indistinguishable from the scavenging beasts that followed in their wake.
Medical factors may have nurtured the legends as well as historical ones. Wolves avoid human settlements except when rabid. Imagine the terror a hydrophobic wolf would inspire in a peaceful hamlet or the effect on superstitious minds when those bitten by such an animal began to exhibit identically savage behavior.
Innocence provided no immunity. European folklore always acknowledged the existence of two types of lycanthrope: those who sought the shapeshifting ability for evil purposes of their own, and those who suffered hideously from the affliction. Modern literature (and film) has dealt almost exclusively with the latter variety, but it is the first sort – active rather than passive lycanthropes – who dominate most authentic superstition and nearly all case histories.
And case histories abound.
Unlike the legends of witches and vampires, which mostly made scapegoats of women (a legacy of the Christian demonizing of older, goddess-oriented religions), the recurrent famines in central Europe brought forth a figure exuding a distinctly male musk. The Werwolf of Bordeaux and the Beast of Gerandordevoured dozens of young girls, as did the Bavarian Devil’s Hound, while the Wolfman of Prague appears to have been a homicidal maniac with a predilection for teenage boys. Nor were these isolated aberrations. In medieval France alone, authorities ordered the execution of more than 30,000 lycanthropes. Undoubtedly, in a world where the “witchfinders” constituted a self-sustaining industry, systematically confiscating the property of those who confessed under “examination,” thousands of cases must have been fabricated. But were they all?
Among isolated huts and primitive villages, something monstrous may truly have stalked – something of which the modern serial killer seems merely a pale shadow.
Thanks to meticulous torturing, the exploits of three men known collectively as the Werewolves of Poligny (1521) were extremely well detailed. One of the three, Pierre Bourgot confessed to devouring a four-year-old girl and finding her flesh “succulent,” while his companions spoke of mating with real wolves and taking “as much pleasure in the act as if we had copulated with our wives.” At the time, these constituted commonplace assertions. Starvation was a familiar component of medieval existence, and by 1543 attacks on young children had reached such epidemic proportions in Dole, Fraenchi-Comte that the local parliament felt moved to issue a general dispensation, exhorting anyone who could kill a werwolf to do so without fear of subsequent prosecution. Scant months later, one Gille Garnier and his wife admitted having stripped a nine-year-old girl naked before consuming her. They also bragged of tearing the leg off a ten-year-old boy, devouring his thigh and belly. Most executioners strangled lycanthropes before burning them. Such merciful treatment was not accorded to the Garniers.
In the Jura region of France lycanthropy represented a venerable tradition. In 1573, teenage Gilles Grenier acknowledged he had “killed dogs and drunk their blood; but little girls taste better and their flesh is tender and sweet.” He spoke of raiding isolated villages in order to cannibalize unattended infants, even testified about raping and killing children he found working alone in the fields, and the details he provided led authorities to partial corpses. In a surprisingly humane decision, the Parliament of Bordeaux rescued this malnourished mental defective from hanging, instead committing him to a dungeon at the monastery of the Franciscan Gordeliers. He died at age twenty, still declaring he would like to eat children . . . if only he could get free.
The following year in the same region, a dying youngster spoke of an attack by a wolf with “human hands,” which resulted in the arrest of an entire family. They became known as the Werewolves of St. Cloud. Pierre Gandillon, the oldest son, had apparently long been prone to slipping into trance states, upon emerging from which he often raved of his adventures in wolf-form. (Such indiscretion would prove the downfall of many a lycanthrope.) Before sentencing them, the presiding judge visited the family in prison, where he witnessed them snarling “on all fours in a room just as they did in the fields.”
Stubbe Peeter, a 16th-century German, achieved even greater notoriety. According to an English pamphlet [spelling modernized], Stubbe would “walk up and down, and if he could spy maid or child that his eyes liked and his heart lusted after, he would in the fields ravish them, and after in his wolfish likeness cruelly murder them.” An arduous manhunt brought his twenty-year reign of terror to an end. On October 28, 1589 his trial finally concluded. His sentence [translated from the High Dutch] condemned him to “have his body laid on a wheel and with red-hot pincers to have the flesh pulled off from the bones; after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden axe or hatchet; afterward to have his head struck off from his body; then to have his carcass burned to ashes.” On Halloween, local authorities carried out this terrible punishment and afterwards displayed his head on a pole in the center of the town of Bedbur –above the painted likeness of a wolf.
Another celebrated trial took place near Angersin 1598, after soldiers found Jacques Roulet naked in some bushes, his hair unkempt, his face smeared with blood, and shreds of human flesh clotting his nails. Nearby, they uncovered the mutilated corpse of a fifteen-year-old boy. Roulet soon confessed to having killed and eaten several adolescents, and the secular court ruled that he must burn. Signaling another important breakthrough in the recognition of lycanthropy as mental illness, the Parliament of Paris commuted his sentence and consigned him to an asylum. However, not three months later, that same parliament condemned a tailor of Chalins to death, charging that he habitually lured children into his shop in order to “wolfishly” murder and eat them. This time the presiding judge ordered the court records burnt along with the accused, declaring the very testimony “too foul” to exist.
“The medieval mind, more than any other mind in history, was obsessed with images of wolves,” observed Barry Holstun Lopez in his study Of Wolves and Men. “Peasants called famine the wolf. Avaricious landlords were wolves. Anything that threatened a peasant’s precarious existence was the wolf.” He went on to remark that such pejorative wolf-lore reflected “a projection of human anxiety” and that the wolf of folklore remains “not so much an animal we have always known as one that we have consistently imagined.”
Lycanthropy trials reached their zenith in the 1600s, before (nearly) vanishing in successive waves of cultural and scientific revolution. However, a revival of lycanthropy, if only as a complex and potent symbolic structure, occurred early in the Victorian era, this time reeking with a misogyny typical of the period. Various elements of the legend for the first time assumed aspects they would forever afterwards retain . . . among them a renewed emphasis on the full moon as a key component in the transmogrification process. In such works as The Female Animal, fashionable French writer Rachilde argued that women -- possessed of imagination but no true intellect -- had evolved into creatures of night and moonlight, becoming the absolute inversion of all things healthy and male. (Sunlight traditionally symbolized masculinity.) In the compelling Idols of Perversity, Symbols of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture, Bram Dijkstra wrote of the overwhelming distaste felt by men of the era for the “animal requirements” of their women. This loathing apparently made the transition to the New World relatively intact, further blurring the already muddied distinctions between werwolf and vampire in the public mind.
[The then-popular practice for anemic society women to frequent slaughterhouses, where they would quaff goblets of fresh oxen blood, only enhanced the confusion, but the legends of werwolf, witch and vampire have always intertwined.]
In the 1920s, William J. Robinson, chief of the Department of Genito-Urinary Diseases at The Bronx Hospital, sternly warned readers of his popular Guide to Married Life and Happiness about a “type of woman who is a great danger to the very life of her husband,” referring to “the wife with an excessive sexuality . . . utterly without pity or consideration.” Such women, it seems, had long been known by the scientific community to hunger for man’s seminal essence, her lust for his fluids precipitated by an insatiable need to replenish the blood incessantly lost to her own reproductive cycles.
Apparently, the vilified old goddesses could still inspire unease in the masculine bosom. (And a wooden stake pounded between the breasts – traditional solution to the vampire problem – all too clearly represented the supposed curative powers of a properly administered phallus.) Clearly, the roots of certain fears penetrate very deeply indeed, and some superstitions die hard … if at all.
Between the World Wars, authorities in Bourg-la-Reine, France failed in their efforts to assist farmers plagued by a marauding werwolf. In 1946, a Navajo shapeshifter terrorized a reservation in New Mexico, despite the intervention of state police, and on December 17, 1976, The London Daily Mail heralded the apprehension of a serial killer with the headline WEREWOLF KILLER CAUGHT. In the early 1980s, another supposed lycanthrope caused panic in a British seaside resort, ultimately prompting publication of Werewolf, A True Story of Demonic Possession by a pair of “renowned psychic investigators” in collaboration with the recalcitrant “werewolf” himself.
“The old, savage lycanthropic beliefs have been relegated to our dream life,” wrote psychologist Nandor Fodor. “Now transformation is used symbolically as self-denunciation for secret deeds, fantasies or desires.” In fact, the world itself has been transformed, if only because the domestic harnessing of electricity has fundamentally altered the very psychology of mankind. No longer do human beings cower before an impenetrable darkness, and the terrors that haunted the ancients have devolved into mere entertainments. Yet modern children still tremble in fear of a ravenous creature beneath their beds . . . and the interval identified by statisticians as the moment when most people slip out of life continues to be known throughout the world as the Hour of the Wolf. From what dark recess of the collective unconscious does this persistent image emanate?
Theories proliferate. Anthropologist Robert Brain’s monograph The Hunters or the Hunted described Dinofelis, a prehistoric carnivore with a build so cumbersomely muscular that it could only have hunted by stealth and, therefore, by night. Significantly, Dinofelis bones have been unearthed from the Transvaal to Ethiopia, which is to say throughout the original range of early man. It has been well established that hand-reared rabbits and chickens, never having seen a wild animal, will convulse with terror when shown a hawklike shadow. Does an instinctive dread of a predator that once may have threatened the very survival of the species still lurk within human race-memory?
Basing his own hypothesis on the writings of Carl Jung, psychologist Robert Eisler (in his Man Into Wolf, An Anthropological Interpretation of Sadism, Masochism and Lycanthropy) also suggests a prehistoric solution to the riddle of the werwolf. If primitive man had been vegetarian and peaceful, postulates Eisler, what effect would the coming of the Ice Age have had upon his developing psyche? Humans suddenly had to kill to survive. Could the necessity of eating meat and wearing hides have resulted in permanent racial trauma? Such trauma might well result in potent, if repressed, self-loathing, myriad suggestions of which may be discerned in various ancient rituals. Consider Navajo hunting rites, during which participants invited the spirit Coyoteto possess them during the stalking and the slaying and the butchering, thereby absolving themselves of all personal culpability.
But perhaps the traditional belief in a man-beast manifests no pathological desire to escape guilt, no socio-cultural need to evade self-recognition. Perhaps instead it reflects something too harrowing to contend with in non-symbolic terms. Do wolves replace another creature in the public consciousness, some entity too fearful to contemplate?
Werwolf imagery still forms an integral part of contemporary culture, evidenced by the most rudimentary of childhood nursery stories. (The quickest perusal of the original versions of various tales collected by the Brothers Grimm – Little Red Riding Hood in particular – immediately reveals lycanthropic subtext.) In today’s world, an interest in the occult denotes an attempt at escapism (as delineated by Charlotte Otter in her Werewolves in Western Culture), but in earlier times such interests demonstrated a sincere attempt to comprehend the problems of a society endangered by mankind’s most bestial urges.
Witchcraft may well have represented the earliest form of science.
Only the terminology changes. Contemporary lycanthropes (and, yes, such still are diagnosed) often are found to be suffering from chronic pseudoneurotic schizophrenia coupled with dissociative hysterical neurosis. In the 1960s, the prevalence of recreational psychedelics, chemically similar to the alkaline-based salves used in medieval conjuring, contributed to several well-documented cases. Aside from bestial compulsions – wolfish sexual postures and a craving for raw flesh – most of those thus afflicted suffered from acute anxiety, alienation from human society (indicated by a predilection for hanging about cemeteries or deserted woods), and an obsession with Satanism. Treating a female lycanthrope in 1975, psychiatrists suggested that her pathological metamorphosis “provided temporary relief from an otherwise consuming sexual conflict.” Two years later, a male patient who suffered from an irresistible urge to devour wild rabbits and howl at the moon was diagnosed with “chronic brain syndrome.” In neither case could psychiatry help the patient, both of whom continued to deteriorate.
The modern city remains as full of shadows as any medieval hamlet.
Innocence protects no one.
Ed Gein greedily devoured parts of his victims, and Ted Bundy once confessed to thinking of himself as “a sort of vampire.” Numbering cannibalism among his monstrous predilections, Jeffrey Dahmer kept a barrel of human bones in his abode, just as had that tailor of Chalins four centuries earlier. Is it difficult to imagine how the medieval mind would have interpreted such acts? These men would undoubtedly have been perceived as werewolves, perhaps rightly so. Such creatures have not vanished as civilization has evolved ever more complex landscapes for them to prowl.
In the 1970s, John Wayne Gacy tortured, raped and murdered thirty-three young men, still an American record. But on October 12, 1992, Soviet officials sentenced Andrei Chikatilo, the most ferocious serial killer of modern times. Ostensibly a quiet family man, for twelve years Chikatilo stalked the Russian forests, killing countless women and children. Forensic evidence suggests that several of his victims were literally devoured alive. In an attempt to comprehend such atrocities, psychiatric researchers investigated Chikatilo’s childhood and discovered that his older brother had been cannibalized by neighbors during the Great Famine in the Ukraine, doubtless a formative event in the pathology of a young lycanthrope.
And what other appellation befits such an individual?
Other legends – like those concerning vampires and succubi – may have sprung wholly formed from the collective unconscious, manifestations of sexual compulsion and cultural preoccupation. Gaining power from the very force with which they were repressed, they remain guideposts to the origins of the human psyche. But the myth of Lycanon always illustrated a grim reality: a ravening horror as old as mankind itself.
Robert Dunbar is the author of BATS
E Mail: DunbarRbrt@aol.com
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