Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER OLL LEWIS: Werewolves of Europe (Awooo)

Apart from the fact that his puns are terrible and he has an obsession with the more surreal side of Internet culture, Oll Lewis hasn't put a foot wrong since we started this bloggo-thing. Here is his new bloggo post which, for a change, takes place on dry land....

On first impressions the werewolf is probably one of the most preposterous of all animals to be lumped in with cryptozoology. Putting their near invincibility to one side you’re left with a creature that can completely change its physical appearance, biochemistry, mass and genetic make up for one night each month and be perfectly fit to go on a hunt that very evening. However if one looks at the origins of werewolf mythology in western Europe then it can be argued that werewolves are real, but were not shape-shifters or possessed of supernatural powers as they have been portrayed by most folklore or later in horror stories and films.

Most people will group western European werewolves in with lycanthropes, which are admittedly very similar to werewolves, but have several differences. In the case of lycanthropy the physical change from human to wolf is usually absolute and the wolf has no particularly special abilities such as human intelligence, superhuman/superwolf strength or near invincibility and they were often said to stay in their new wolf form for the rest of their lives or at least for several years. The earliest surviving records of lycanthropy are found in Herodotus’ Histories where he writes of a tribe from Scythia, approximately in the area of the Belarus, called the Neuri that had a story that at least one member of the tribe would transform into a wolf once every nine years. Unsurprisingly Herodotus was quite sceptical of this outlandish claim but wrote it up anyway. Other examples of lycanthropes myths from antiquity include that of a Greek king called Lycaon who became a wolf after eating human flesh and a myth related by Euanthes that if a man hung his clothes on a tree and swam across a certain lake in Arcadia he would be transformed into a wolf and provided he didn’t kill anyone in 9 years he could swim back across the lake to become a human again. Most myths relating directly to lycanthropy date from before the birth of Christ and seem to be entirely folkloric, based on interpretation of religious beliefs held at the time.

Werewolves, as something distinctive from lycantropes, are first mentioned in Western Europe in the 12th century by Gervase of Tilbury in ‘Liber de mirabilibus mundi, Solatia imperatoris, and Descriptio totius orbis’, a collection of strange tales and unsolved mysteries, which can be viewed as an early forerunner to modern day collections of forteana like the works of Charles Fort. Gervase was also the first chronicler to mention a connection with a werewolf’s transformation and a full moon.

Werewolves are noted in folklore for their extreme violent rampages. They are commonly blamed for massacres murders and in some cases torture of humans. The Western European werewolf tales were based, not on the lycanthropes but on Scandinavian Beserkers called Úlfhéðnar who would wear the skins of wolves in battle and believe that they would take on the soul of the wolf, giving them unparalleled killing abilities and making themselves practically invulnerable. The combination between an insatiable apatite to kill and their perceived invulnerability made them among the most feared of warriors a Viking king could possess in his army. As a result of this connection most European werewolf myths cite wearing the skin or at least a belt made of a wolf’s pelt as the cause of people becoming werewolves.

The most well known European werewolf myth is that of the beast of Gévaudan which was blamed for 211 separate attacks, including 113 deaths, between the years 1764 to 1767. A major hunt was launched for the animal responsible for the killings and in 1765 the kings lieutenant of the hunt, François Antoine, killed a large grey wolf 87cm tall and 1.7m long weighing 60kg. This was assumed to have been the main culprit of the attacks but the killings continued until a local farmer and inn keeper, Jean Chastel, shot and killed a second beast in 1767. Later recounters of the tale claim that Chastel used silver bullets to kill the beast and this is likely the origin of the claims that werewolves can only be killed by silver bullets, however this claim first appears in a 1936 retelling of the legend. It has also been claimed that The beast Chastel shot was in fact merely an occupant of a menagerie owned by one of his sons.

It is likely that some people in the area may have used the wolf attacks as a cover to hide murders, but even taking that into account 211 attacks is still a very high number and several theories have been put forward to explain it. One of these theories is that the killings were due to an outbreak of rabies in the local wolf population, at odds with this theory is the fact that nearly of the victims were women and children and it is unlikely that a rabid animal would carefully pick its victims based on who could do the least potential harm to it. Another theory, favoured by the French naturalist Michel Louis, is that the beasts responsible for the killings were cross breads between wolves and domestic dogs and had no fear of men.

If there is any reality to werewolf myths it is because man often forgets just how dangerous wild animals can be and when there are prolific animal attacks in an area he feels the need to ascribe super powers to the animals rather than being forced to accept that this sort of thing can happen at any time, anywhere and that we are not the masters of nature we sometimes believe we are.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The "Silver bullets" part of the werewolf mythos is almost certainly complete and utter fabrication and certainly was never actually done. The reason is this: silver is a hard metal with a very high melting point, to the extent that silver smithing is an art that requires a good workshop and powerful, high-temperature furnace.

the TV show Mythbusters once tried to cast silver bullets as per the Lone Ranger film series, and found themselves unable to do so without a very high-temperature furnace; once cast the few miserable lumps they managed to make were so hard that they would not engage with the rifling grooves in the guns they tried, and a truly pitiful energy output was observed when the gun was fired.

So, the silver bullet myth is undoubtedly just that: pure fantasy. Silver bullets are very difficult to make, don't work very well and don't fly particularly true,either.