Norse European Werewolf Myths That Morphed Into Folktales, Movies

The idea surrounding a man turning into a beast not only transcended continents, it also withstood the test of time and found its way into contemporary literature and cinema.

Mythology and folklore often depict the prevailing socio-cultural environment of the regions of their birth. When similar stories emerge from more than one culture it suggests that those cultures were either offshoots of the same culture or that they constantly interacted with each other during that period.

Werewolf myths are spread across Europe and North America. The idea surrounding a man turning into a beast not only transcended continents, it also withstood the test of time and found its way into contemporary literature and cinema. Remember Fenrir Greyback and Professor Lupin from the Harry Potter series?

In Old English 'wer' means man. Therefore werewolf means wolfman. During the Middle Ages, Europe was going through some very dark times. There were many wars leading to death, destruction, disease and famine in many regions, it was during this time when lot of dark mythology and literature emerged. This was the time when werewolf myths and stories were hugely popular.

Marie de France's poem Bisclavre is about a man who transforms into a wolf every week. Some stories speak of men who were cursed to become wolves for a period of time because of some act of evil committed by them. Some other stories talk of werewolves as beasts who were half man and half wolf.

Another popular explanation for lycanthropy or werewolf stories is that they were born out of the limited understanding of diseases like rabies. The significant behavioural change after contracting rabies was often either attributed to being under the spells of witches or to turning into a werewolf. This explains why according to every werewolf myth a person needs to be first bitten by a wolf in order to become a werewolf.

Medical science was grossly underdeveloped at this stage and the only way to prevent the spread of the disease was to isolate affected person from others. Werewolf myths thus indirectly helped in containing the spread of the infection by spreading enough panic among people that they stayed away from the affected person.

However it never ended well for the person suffering from the disease as they were invariably killed after being captured. Some people accused of being werewolves also faced trials like women accused of being witches. It is not clear what led to the accusations in the first place. It may have been due to these alleged werewolves displaying symptoms of either rabies or some mental illness. In 1963 a London based doctor suggested that perhaps werewolf myths were designed to explain another condition called Porphyria where symptoms include photosensitivity, psychosis and redness of teeth.

But if we look further back in history, many werewolf myths have their genesis in the proto-Indo-European culture where the idea of a man turning into a fearless wolf represents his initiation into a select brotherhood of warriors. This is because wolves always hunt in a pack and they are very loyal to their pack. It also alludes to a shift from fruit gathering to predatory hunting.

Some of these references come from Slavic Europe and the Balkans. Many werewolf myths can also be traced to Germanic paganism where there are several tales of werewolves, particularly during the Scandinavian Viking Age. Ulfednars, a particularly ferocious and vicious king of warriors associated with the Norse God Odin, were said to wear wolf skins. Turkic folklore speaks of Kutradam, a revered shaman who was able to transform into a wolf after performing special rituals.

With colonization, werewolf myths crossed the Atlantic. Native American cultures speak of spirit animals and there are many Meso American cultures where there are myths surrounding shape shifters. The European werewolf myths got hybridized with these Native American myths and thus were born folktales about werewolves in America.