With the modern trifecta of vampires, zombies, and werewolves, therianthropy, or shapeshifting from human to animals, perhaps has the earliest appearance in human history. Cave paintings from 8,000 BC in what is now modern Turkey depicted werewolves, and they also appeared in the early writings such as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Mesopotamian epic poem first written in about the 18th century BC. Greeks such as Pausanius and Herodotus and Romans such as Ovid, Virgil, and Pliny the Elder wrote about them. (***Pliny the Elder was astounding–Beth interjecting here)
Over the years, the werewolf myth remained strong throughout most of Europe and the Middle East, and as Europeans reached the new world, the myth was adopted into native American cultures that already included cynanthropes (shapeshifters who change into dogs) and nagual, of shapeshifters who can change into any animals form if they wear the pelt of that animal. In Asia, cynanthropy was the most common form of therianthropy, found in China, Timor, and India. In Africa, were-hyenas and ailuranthropy (changing into felines, particularly lions and leopards) held sway.
No one can say for certain why this myth has been so widespread, but theories abound. The most likely and common kernel to the myth, in my opinion, would be the need for people to explain evil and animalistic acts by others who would be either what we would now simply term serial killers or others who were deranged and were acting in an animalistic fashion. Taken five hundred or a thousand years ago, the Florida man who stripped naked and attacked a homeless man last year, actually eating part of his face, might be easier explained not as a human attack on another, but an attack by a man who had been somehow transformed into an animal.
The modern version of the werewolf has proven much more popular than other forms of therianthropy. Perhaps the first modern novel about werewolves was G. W. M. Reynolds’ 1847 novel, Wagner the Wehr-Wolf, in which the concept of a werewolf changing under the full moon was first introduced. Alexandre Dumas followed with The Wolf Leader in 1857, where the werewolf was bipedal, and the modern werewolf began to become became recognizable to what we know today.
Early mythology had the ability to shapeshift into a werewolf being caused by actions such as wearing a wolf-hide belt, drinking water from the footprint of a wolf, or drinking magic beer while reciting incantations. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that the lycanthropy became a contagion, spread by being bitten by a werewolf. Other aspects, such as the silver bullet aspect of killing a werewolf did not evolve until the middle of the 20th Century, probably with a 1936 account of La Bèstia de Gavaudan, a re-telling of actual wolf attacks in France during the 18th century. In the 20th Century version, the wolf was killed by a blessed silver bullet.
Most werewolf novels of the 19th and 20th Centuries did not include vampires in the plots until the current popular literature of today. However, linking vampires and werewolves can be said to be going back to the roots of the legends. In medieval times, those executed for being werewolves had their bodies burned so they could not return as vampires. In Serbian mythology, werewolves and vampires were collectively known as vulkodlak.
Hollywood has had a tremendous impact on the werewolf myth as we know it today. The first werewolf motion picture was the 1913 The Werewolf, which portrayed a Navajo maiden who was able to transform into a wolf and attack white settlers. Werewolf in films perhaps came of age with 1935’s The Werewolf of London, the first film with an anthropomorphic werewolf. In this movie, the lead actor, Henry Hull, refused to sit for lengthy make-up sessions, so Jack Pierce, the make-up artist, had to make do with a decidedly less hairy version of a werewolf. In 1941’s The Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr. had no similar reservations, so Pierce was able to design the full mask that became the penultimate werewolf look and transformation until perhaps 1981’s The Howling became a cult classic.
For at least 10,000 years, werewolves have been part of human culture. They have been presented in different lights and have changed over the years, but there is little doubt that they will continue to embedded in the human psyche for years to come. The dichotomy between man and beast is just too delicious to ignore.
***Jonathan Brazee is a retired Marine colonel who has been fascinated with werewolves ever since reading Jack Williamson’s Darker Than You Think. A frequent contributor to political science, business, and military periodicals, he has written five novels, only one being therianthropic. Wererat tells the tale of a young man whose father is a werewolf and who mother is a weretiger, but when he finally makes his first shift, he finds out that his animal form is a rat.
He currently works in Thailand where he lives with his two (non-shapeshifting) cats, Pumpkin and Chokdee.
***Visit Jonathan Brazee’s Amazon Author Page