Werewolves… pt 1

The Lone Prospect is a story based around three core ideas, werewolves, bikers and the Black Hills of South Dakota. I chose to write a story about werewolves partially because I was tired of reading stories about vampires. Vampires are about the fear of death, the fear of mortality and the ability to live forever. Werewolves are more about the concepts of transformation and change. There is a subtext of who is more monstrous, the one who can change into a beast? Or the one hunting the beast? Or does a monster even wear the face of a beast or do they just look human (like everyone else?) There is a lot of themes to explore with werewolves that often get overlooked, especially if you mix werewolf mythos with wolf science and wolf behavior.

There are a lot of writers out there, especially in Urban Fantasy that write about every type of supernatural creature that humanity has ever dreamt up, vampires, witches, fae, werecreatures, demons, and the list goes on. That is a lot of competition to go up against. In order to stand out, I wanted to create a world where there were werewolves and only werewolves.

Unlike vampires, werewolves don’t have a singular great literary story that everyone can point to and say “That’s the origin of the werewolf legend.” Vampires have the Victorian gothic story of Dracula by Bram Stoker. In Dracula the ‘rules’ of the vampire universe were set and are the same rules that everyone follows to this day. This doesn’t apply as much to werewolves. And some people believe that because there isn’t one true story that caught the imaginations of people like Dracula did for vampires, werewolves aren’t as popular. The story of werewolves or men that could turn into wolves dates back just as far as vampire stories if not further, but there was never one true origin story on how one became a werewolf, just as there isn’t actually one type of werewolf. In one case, the origin stories of werewolves intertwines with vampires. If you don’t properly stake the vampire in its grave, it will turn into a werewolf after three days.

In my research for writing the Heaven’s Heathens universe, I came across four types of werewolves of literary origin and a fifth that is probably what everyone thinks when they say ‘werewolf.’ Werewolves are mostly an Eastern European construction and came over with the settlers to America. It makes sense. You have stories of men and women who can change into wolves in areas where wolves are primary predators. In South America, there are Jaguar shapeshifters. In Africa, there are lion shapeshifters. In Asia, weretigers and wereleopards are the norm. Big scary predators are power symbols and for Europe and North America, wolves beat out bears by a large margin. So, most origin stories of werewolves come from Eastern Europe. The fifth type was invented in 1941 for “The Wolf Man” movie by Universal. There is the lycanthrope, the berserker, the loup garou, the demon pact werewolf and the Hollywood wolfman.

The lycanthrope is when a man can change into a shape of a wolf (or a wolf can change into the shape of man.) This is probably the most common and at times most benign version of a werewolf. There were several medieval theories about how the lycanthrope origin worked. It was believed that if a man drank water from the paw print of a wolf he could turn into a wolf. Or if he passed under an archway of vines and a specific flower he would become a werewolf. Or if he spent three nights out sleeping under the full moon.

However, the most common origin was that the lycanthrope had been excommunicated from the church or “cursed.” Being excommunicated from the church was a big deal in medieval times. It was a source of fear that their souls would be damned for eternity if they questioned the church or stepped out of line. Throw in a curse about changing into a wolf if you were considered a blasphemer no doubt you’d have the entire town against you. But it wasn’t just the church who could curse others in those days. People threw curses around like water. Wives could curse their husbands. Husbands could curse their wives. Priests cursed their parishioners. There are tales that St. Patrick cursed people into turning into wolves. There is actually a story in the Bible about a King who was cursed by God to act like a wild animal for seven years. There is some debate if he changed into a wolf or just acted like a wolf. Zeus also used transformation into a wolf as punishment for Lycaon. But this makes this type of idea old.

Lycanthropism when used as a punishment is really a punishment of shame. It was considered very dishonorable to act like an animal. Being bestial in nature was considered taboo. If one was cursed to be an animal and to act like an animal, to hunt and run and use their teeth and nails as weapons, to rut in the open. It was humiliating. Men were above beasts. Men have the capability to reason. It was the use of shame or the threat of shame and dishonor to keep people from cheating on their spouses or committing murder or rejecting God. Most curses are the stick method of punishment. You’re good, you get into heaven. You’re bad. We’ll turn you into a big bad wolf and force you to go hunt a rabbit for your dinner.

Lycanthropes are the werewolves in the types of tales where a man goes out hunting a wolf, cuts off a wolf’s paw and comes back to find his wife is missing her hand. The stories go that these were punishments that a man was turned into a wolf and thus acted like a wolf. These lycanthropes didn’t hunt down and hurt humans as much as one would think. In fact, there are stories of how these lycanthropes would help others and some were even knights errant trying to atone for their deeds. Being a lycanthrope was a thing to be feared and certainly wasn’t fun or “acceptable” but it was mostly benign in comparison to other types of werewolves.

The next type of werewolf is not as benign, the berserker. In ancient cultures all over the world, but particularly in the Germanic tribes, the Vikings and even the Native Americans, berserkers were considered great and fearless warriors who protected their people. They were considered great and fearless because they were believed to know how to channel the warlike spirits of predatory animals that inspired fear into their enemies. Humans fear wolves. It is a primitive thing. We fear wolves just like fearing dogs. They’re big. They move quickly. They can be noisy. They have a lot of teeth and claws. They tend to band together to hunt. One can never be sure what they’re going to do. So, the wolf, the apex canine predator of them all, was an extremely popular spirit for these warriors to channel. To make themselves appear more fearsome, many of these warriors would wear full wolf pelts using the head of the wolf as a hood and paint their faces. So, try to imagine if you’re a roman legionnaire and all of these tribal warriors were running at you screaming at the top of their lungs wearing wolf pelts. You truly might believe that they were some sort of wolf man hybrid creature.

(to be continued…)

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