Understanding Legends: Werewolves

Where did our myths of the werewolf come from? Why are they killed by silver bullets and transformed by the moon? If you’re curious about these and other questions, then here are the origins of the 4 most common werewolf legends.

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The clouds part and a full moon shines down on our hapless victim. Turning his face to the sky, he lifts his arms to shield himself from the inevitable change. Bones shift, fur grows and soon a snarling half wolf, half man form of a werewolf has replaced the otherwise ordinary human who had been there a moment before. It is an imagery we are all familiar with in movies, books, myths and ghost stories, but how much do you really know about many of the iconic aspects of the wolf man? Werewolf legends go back a long way, but they aren’t just a bunch of random ideas thrown together. Silver bullets, full moons and other icons all have their origins in the beliefs of those who came before us. These are the top four aspects of the iconic werewolf and where they originated.

1) The Curse
So what is it that causes a person to change? Modern werewolves always originate in a curse or a bite, but originally in the myths it favored all sorts of odd ritual. Sure, surviving the attack of a werewolf was one way to change, but other ways were possible as well. The most outlandish was the idea that if you drank from the paw print of a wolf, you would be cursed to transform into a killer wolf. The idea that it was a curse rather than a disease or hereditary was the standard of the original tales. Your change was the work of the devil or evil spirits.

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2) The Full Moon
The full moon is what we now associate with werewolves, but that was not always the case. Originally, according to the legends, it was the new moon that caused one to transform into a werewolf. It is admittedly rather convenient that when there is the least amount of light out at night, that werewolves can be found active in the old myths. Still, it was not quite so convenient for Hollywood producers. When creating the first werewolf movies, it was less dramatic to show a new moon, since a black sky is really not good cinema. It was decided that a full moon would be a much more powerful image and thus it was changed. Our perception of the myth has forever been altered by cinema.

3) The Transformation
Most cultures have some version of humans who transform into beasts. Some very respected historical figures believed completely in this idea. For example, Marco Polo claimed to have seen beings who bore the head of a wolf, but stood upright like men. With all of that said, the traditional portions of Europe where our classic mythical icon is found actually tended to believe there was no middle form. Instead you transformed from human to wolf without being able to hold the form of some hybrid shape. Of course, since it happened in the darkest of nights and the survival rate of those attacked by supposed werewolves was not very high, it isn’t as though one could easily say what the attacking creature really looked like while beyond the glow of lamp or fire.

4) Silver Bullets
It is worth noting that the moon and silver are both associated with concepts of magic in ancient myths and legends. Given the strong connection of the werewolf and the moon, it is a logical jump for those trying to fend against them to favor silver. Silver was a blessed metal, considered to hold magical power all it’s own and so it was the weapon of choice against a werewolf, as well as a number of other legendary beasts. Once bullets came into the picture, it was a given that musket balls would be silver if a person was fearful of a werewolf attack. Over time, religious views added layers of complexity with the marking of a cross and a blessing of the silver ball, but those aspects didn’t survive into our modern view of werewolves.

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There are many other legends tied to the icons we know about the werewolves, but they are less common and universal. Wolf’s bane and the mark of the wolf are two good examples. Now that you have a little taste, I urge you to research more deeply if you find yourself fascinated with how our views came into being on these powerful creatures of legend.

What are your thoughts?