Mythology: Learn About the Legends & Origins of the Werewolf

These famous beasts of the night have been a staple of horror for centuries. Both the film and the gaming industry have capitalised on the use of these shapeshifting creatures as terrifying, bloodthirsty beasts. But, where did they come from? What is the actual origin of these powerful wolf-like creatures? Well, there are several mythologies which have werewolves within their folk tales and the lore. Each of them spinning a different tale as to how and where these creatures originated. We will be looking at a few of these mythologies as well as looking into what actually makes a werewolf. 

Werewolves reared their heads again with the new Resident Evil Video Game. The vicious cannon fodder of this game brought the werewolf back into the spotlight after years of being ignored. So I thought I would share some information about what this creature is and where the stories actually came from. Without further ado, let us look into the mythology and origin of the werewolf as we know it. 

 

About Werewolves

A werewolf in the darkness
Credit: Artist – Dorothy Binder via Fine Art America

Werewolves are infamous creatures of the night. But what exactly are they? This section holds information about what a werewolf actually is and what they might look like and even how to cure them. There is a great deal of information out there about these creatures. Various mythologies and stories to explore and learn. So we will start with the basics.

 

Lore

Old piece of art of a werewolf
Credit: Wikipedia

The lore surrounding werewolves is complicated and strangely diverse. These mythical beasts have evolved over the centuries in every way. From appearance to how they look and how they can be killed. In today’s lore, they transform under moonlight, undergoing a painful transformation. Or they are able to transform at will and keep some semblance of their human thought. In the past, the werewolf was a cursed being. Either by a witch or by god if you consumed human flesh. In Norse mythology, like in the Saga of the Volsungs, wearing a pelt would force you to change for a time. 

The mythology also talks about how to kill one of these seemingly unkillable creatures. Nowadays, they can be slain with silver bullets or blades. But in the past there was a lot of lore indicating that they could be killed by any weapon that could harm a human.

Appearance

Still from an american werewolf in london
Credit: An American Werewolf in London via Den of Geek

There are two forms of the werewolf. The human form and the beast form. As a human, there are no signs that this person may actually be a werewolf. But according to European mythology, there are tell-tale traits which might give you away. One way they thought that you could tell was to cut the skin off the afflicted. For underneath it was thought that there would be fur under the wound.

The beast’s form could be anywhere from a large wolf to a half-man, half-beast like we see in films and video games. It is up to you what you imagine a transformed werewolf might look like. I personally prefer the imposing half-man, half-beast creature. 

 

Cures

Potion bottles and herbs
Credit: Mike Savad Photography via Pinterest

There are many cultures which have werewolves embedded in their culture. However, in this instance we will be looking at medieval Europe’s potential cures for Lycanthropy. There were three main ways that someone might be cured, if at all. 

  • Medically, by using wolfsbane in small doses to cure the afflicted. 
  • Surgically, by cutting the afflicted forehead with a knife.
  • Exorcism, the belief that werewolves were agents of the devil, meant that a priest might do the trick and expel the evil from the afflicted. 

There were many that believed that a werewolf might never be cured or that they could change at will. The theories and lore surrounding these mythical creatures have certainly evolved over the years. 

 

Origin Stories of Werewolves

The beginning of werewolf mythology is hard to discern. There is no real pinpointed, exact origin to where and when those lores started being prominent. However, there are several legends which may have birthed the origin of this creature of the night which we know and love today. The two origin stories that I will be telling today are Greek and Norse. The story of king Lycaeon & Zeus was supposedly the first recorded story of werewolves. Followed closely by the Norse saga of the Volsung. Both are incredibly  interesting stories. Both far removed from modern day representations of werewolves and quite similar too. So, without further waffling on my part, here are the two stories in question. 

 

Greek Mythology – The Story of King Lycaon & Zeus

Depiction of a scene in the story of Lucaeon and zeus
Credit: Wikipedia

The city of Arcadia was once a wealthy and splendid utopia. Blessed by the gods and thriving. However, the selfishness of man caused the gods to turn away from the city. Taking with them their blessings and so the once thriving city lost its way. Lycaeon, one of the first kings of Arcadia, was determined to recover Arcadia’s former glory, to gain the gods’ blessings once again. So the king built a great temple to the king of the gods, Zeus. The temple was so splendid and ornate that Zeus began to favour the new king of Arcadia. 

Unsatisfied with the paltry blessings, King Lycaeon performed more feats to gain the favour and blessings of the gods. But he lost control and became a fanatic. Sacrificing humans to the gods in return for their blessings. This practice was long condemned by the gods and was an offense to hospitality, which was one of Zeus’s demands. So the king of the gods came down to Arcadia in disguise to see for himself if the stories were true. He was taken to the palace where he was to be received by the king and then sacrificed. But Zeus was calm, observing the king and his many sons. One of King Lycaeon’s sons grew suspicious of the stranger and voiced his suspicions to his father. Claiming that he may be Zeus himself, testing their hospitality. The king decides to test this theory by concocting a dastardly and sinister test. 

When the dish was brought out, Zeus was horrified to find that the meat was human flesh. Hands and feet cooked up and plated up in intricate, morbid meals. When the king and his sons ate the flesh, they mocked the stranger, asking him if he was to refuse their hospitality. Angered by the disrespect and breaking of his sacred rules. Zeus revealed himself and cursed Lycaeon and his sons. He turned them into half man, half beast creatures. The likes of which we know today as werewolves. These creatures were cursed to feed on human flesh and prowl the night, for if they wanted to act like beasts, then they would be cursed to forever walk as one of them.

 

Norse Mythology – The Saga of the Volsungs

Two wolves
Credit: The Daily Scandanavian

The Volsung clan were well known as mighty warriors. Volsung himself was one of these mighty warriors. He had ten sons and one beautiful daughter named Signy. Whose wit and beauty was spoken of far and wide. But, talk of Signy reached the ears of an evil king known as Seggir. Who travelled across the country to meet Volsung and gain her hand in marriage. 

After much consideration between her father and her brothers, it was decided that she should marry king Seggir. On the condition that they should be able to visit her. But a tall, white-haired stranger with one eye walked into the hall that evening. Carrying a greatsword, the likes of which no one had ever seen. 

The stranger plunges the blade into the ancient tree in the centre of the Volsung longhouse and proclaims that whomsoever pulls the sword from the tree may keep it. The blade was so fine that every man wanted it for himself. Including evil king Seggir. 

He tried to pull the sword from the tree first, but he was also the first to fail. Each son of Volsung tried and failed to pull the sword from the tree. Each fails until the youngest brother, Sigmund,  manages to free the blade. The evil king offers to pay Sigmund’s weight in silver for the fine blade, but he refuses. Claiming that if the sword was meant for him, he would have pulled it in front of the tree himself. 

The humiliated and spiteful king Seggir leaves the home of the Volsung with an unwilling Signy in tow. Plotting his revenge on the Volsung family for his humiliation. Signy tries to warn her brother but is too late. King Seggir captures all her brothers and kills her father. She begs her new husband to kill her brothers slowly. Take them to the forest so that the wolves may feast on them, she begs. King Seggir does just that. The brothers were tied to trees and taken to a place where the dire wolves roam. 

 Each night, a great she wolf takes a brother and devours them until just Sigmund is left. Signy begs the servants to give her honey so that she may put it on her brother to keep the wolves interested. They give her the honey and she smears the honey on Sigmund’s face. That night, the mother wolf comes back and licks the honey off him. Seeing his chance, Sigmund bites the wolf’s tongue, eventually ripping it off the beast and the she-wolf bleeds to death. The pulling of the wolf also freed Sigmund’s bonds. He then digs a hole under the tree and makes that his home for many years. 

By the time Signy had many children by the evil king Seggir. She dreams of revenge every day. So, when her oldest child turns ten, she sends him to her brother under the tree. Where he tests the child, he gives them a bag of flour with something moving inside. The boy grows frightened of it and, as requested by Signy, he kills her son. Each time one of her sons comes of age, she sends them to her brother and each one fails and is killed. 

Signy grows frustrated and goes to a witch woman who disguises her to look like someone else. She goes to her brother and spends three nights of passion with him. Later she bears a son by her brother Sigmund. She names him Sinfjotli and when he comes of age she sends him to Sigmund to be tested. Sinfjotli kneads the bag of flour into a pulp and hands it to Sigmund. He laughs because the bag held a poisonous snake within. But now he knows that the boy is strong enough to avenge the Volsung family. He takes Sinfjotli and the two of them become bandits. One day they come across two sleeping men with fine wolf pelts lying beside them. 

These men were once sons of kings cursed to change into wolves when they wore the pelts. But Sigmund and Sinfjotli do not know this and take the pelts. Not knowing that they could not be removed until ten days had passed. They turned into wolves and went on a killing spree, murdering beasts and humans alike. Sigmund nearly kills Sinfjotli over a stag. He rips out the boy’s windpipe. But Sinfjotli is saved by a raven with one eye, who restores the boy. Once Sigmund and Sinfjotli remove the pelts, they burn them and continue raiding until Sinfjotli is a full grown man. 

They head back to King Seggir’s home and set everything ablaze, killing him and all his children. Signy confesses her treachery. Finally revealing that Sinfjotli is Sigmund’s son and that she had visited a witch to change her form. Feeling such remorse and guilt. She throws herself into the flames and dies.  

 

The End 

a werewolf eating a man
Credit: Deviant Art

The stories and legends surrounding werewolves are a fascinating topic to delve into. For one there are many more mythologies which talk about werewolf origin. The stories are equally as interesting and compelling as the two I told today. Lycaeon’s story was one of the first to involve werewolves as we know it. Supposedly. But there is nothing to say that they are with all certainty the first. The story of shapeshifters have always been around us for as long as humans have been around. 

Who is to say that changing into a wolf was not something that already existed back in the stone age. Werewolf, skinwalkers, lycanthropes. There are several names we call these creatures of the night. Even though we know that they are not real, there is still that uncontrollable fear that something is stalking you in the night. Who is to say that it was not a werewolf watching you on your way home or staring at you as you walk up the stairs after turning the lights off. That subconscious fear is where these beasts live whether real or not and that is real enough to me.

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