October 28, 2012

Monster Metaphors – Werewolves

One of the favorite monsters this time of year is the Werewolf – a big, strong, hairy man who can’t control his masculine urges.  This sounds pretty darn good, actually!  Think about it, your professional, maybe metro-sexual, boyfriend grows tons of muscles, lots of hair and gets really forceful and downright manly a couple of nights a month.  What a turn on!

Well, until you get to the part where insane ‘roid-rage and eating human flesh comes in, then maybe not so good.

Historical Werewolves

Werewolves – aka lycanthropes – show up in nearly every part of the globe.  They are one of the oldest recorded monsters in human history.  One of the oldest legends started in ancient Rome.  According to, the poet, Ovid,  recorded the tale of King Lycaon (the origin of the word lycanthrope) in 1 A.D. King Lycaon offended the gods by offering them human flesh for dinner, and Jupiter punished him by turning him into a werewolf.  This way, Lycaon could eat human meat, in a less offensive manner.  Really?

Since then, the werewolf legend has evolved.  The full moon had nothing to do with Lycaon and other early legends, werewolves changed shape at will.  Other legends included some sort of girdle or belt that would transform the wearer into a wolf.

Once Christianity started to take over Europe, the werewolf myth took on overtones of witchcraft and devil worship.  The girdle was furnished by the devil for his evil minions to use.  Whether becoming a werewolf is a punishment from the gods, or because you are consorting with the dark arts – it would seem the werewolf legend has something to do with religion.  It’s more likely though that religion is an overlay on a much older monster.  Like almost all legends, there are two possible reasons for the werewolf to be so prevalent: either people thought it up to explain something horrible, or they are real.

“Real” werewolves

Supporting this idea that werewolves could be real is the fact that people have been jailed and executed for being werewolves.

Example #1: Werewolf trials.

Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun were executed in 1521, in France, for being werewolves.  From the records, it seems they were an early serial killer team.  In 1573, again in France, Gilles Garnier, the “Werewolf of Dole,” was executed.  Garnier was a confessed serial killer.  Scary trivia fact: in France alone between 1520 and 1630, there were 30,000 werewolf trials.

One of the most infamous werewolf trials took place in Germany.  His neighbors caught Peter Stumpp – supposedly in wolf form – where they witnessed him “removing his girdle.” Stumpp confessed to murder, rape and cannibalism.  Peter apparently ate his son’s brains, raped his daughter, and who knows what else.  His mistress was executed for knowledge of his crimes, and his daughter for having sex with him. Obviously the werewolves, and their neighbors, were suffering from a little mental disorder.

Perfect segue into our next example.

Example #2 – Medical Disorders

Clinical Lycanthropy  is a form of psychosis where the patient has delusions of being a wild animal – usually a wolf.  They don’t actually change shape, but they are dangerous.  And this is not a modern problem, the Book of Daniel from the Hebrew bible describes King Nebuchadnezzar as suffering from a seven year depression that turned into him imagining himself as a wolf.

Then we have hypertrichosis – a medical condition that refers to an excess of body hair.  This can be mild or severe covering just a small patch of skin or the entire body.   In days gone by, hypertrichosis sufferers would stay indoors during the day, going out only at night to avoid being ostracized.  Because of this, hypertrichosis became known as “Werewolf Syndrome.”

These trials in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693 accused many village women of being what

Another medical theory for werewolves is ergot poisoning.  Ergot is a fungus that grows on cereal grains, especially rye.  Rye bread was a staple for most of Europe from the Dark Ages on.   Ergot poisoning causes hallucinations, a disruption of motor control functions, convulsions, dizziness, panic attacks, extreme hunger, and itching, tingling and even blistering of the skin. Another scary trivia fact: ergot poisoning is suspected as a cause in the Salem Witch Trials as well.

Cultural Werewolves

Going with the idea that our ancestors came up with werewolves to explain the unexplainable, I wanted to look at the werewolf as a cultural metaphor.  Or maybe metaphors.

The werewolf can be viewed as a metaphor for the turbulence of adolescence.  Raging hormones, hair growth in strange places, a feeling of ostracism, and being unable to control your emotions – does this sound familiar?

The monster can also be seen as a metaphor for rage and sex.  At our most primal, anger and sex are two of the most basic and violent urges we have.  Fighting to control those urges is what makes us civilized beings.  Once a month, losing the fight to control this urge brings out the wolf.

My personal favorite though, is the werewolf as the other.  Maybe I should capitalize that, the Other.  The thing that isn’t us, whatever that is.  It can be the beast, the uncivilized, the disabled, anything or anyone that isn’t “us.”  J.K. Rowling plays with this idea with Professor Remus Lupin.  He is ostracized from teaching because of his “proclivities,” much like we as a society have osctracized African Americans in our past, or LGBT individuals now.

However you look at it, the werewolf has been part of our collective consciousness for at least 2,000 years.  He doesn’t show any signs of going away either.

Image Credit: rudall30 / Shutterstock

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