Rabies and Lycanthropy

A rabid canine, according to clinical observations, becomes "increasingly irritable, restless, and nervous.... It shows exaggerated response to sudden stimuli of sight and sound. Excitability, photophobia, and hyperesthesia may become apparent...the animal may begin to move and roam, and wander aimlessly, all the time becoming more irritable and vicious; at this stage the animal is now very dangerous because of its tendency to bite anything that it encounters, be it man, animal, or inanimate objects. If the animal is confined it will bite at chains or bars of the cage or kennel, breaking its teeth, and inflicting severe trauma on its oral tissues.

There are numerous reliable reports of rabid wolves traveling long distances, invading villages, and attacking all humans they encountered. These animals show no fear and charge relentlessly, often inflicting massive injuries and deaths. The horror of a crazed beast, frantically assailing people, is often amplified by the hair-raising sounds which rabid animals emit due to the paralysis of their laryngeal musculature.

One such incident took place in 1851, near Hue-Au-Gal, France, where a rabid wolf bit forty-six people and killed eighty-two head of livestock in one day. A similar episode occurred in the Turkish town of Adalia, where another rabid wolf wounded 128 people and killed eighty-five sheep during a single rampage. Many of the victims died of rabies.

This raises an intriguing possibility: could rabid wolves have contributed to the belief in diabolically possessed werewolves who fiendishly and relentlessly attacked, killed, and sometimes devoured humans? Rabid wolves certainly behave more like the folk-stereotype of wolves--and especially werewolves--than do their healthy and normal counterparts.

But an attack by a rabid wolf had a repercussion which extended far beyond the immediate deaths of the lacerations received by those who survived the mauling: rabies-infected humans. Also known as "hydrophobia"--after the spasmodic laryngopharyngeal contractions experienced by patients upon seeing liquids, and their inability to drink water--rabies is a zoonotic malaise transmitted to humans through the bite of an animal carrying the virus in its saliva. The epidemiology of human rabies, therefore, closely parallels the epizootiology of animal rabies.

The incubation period of the rabies virus in humans averages from two to eight weeks, but may vary from ten days to ten months, or more, depending on the location of the bite, the severity of the wound, and its proximity to the central nervous system. The symptoms of the disease in humans are relevant to our discussion. These, according to modern clinical observations, include: hyperactivity, disorientation, hallucinations, seizures, bizarre behavior, stiffness or paralysis of the neck. In most cases a period of marked hyperactivity (furious rabies) develops lasting hours to days. The hyperactivity consists of periods of agitation, thrashing, running, biting, or other bizarre behavior. These episodes may occur spontaneously or may be precipitated by tactile, auditory, visual, or olfactory stimuli.

Many victims of rabies are reported to rage in delirium, howl like wolves in their agony, go into violent frenzies, and attack and bite those around them, producing horror among both medical personnel and casual onlookers. Again, the absence of detailed and unbiased observations precludes a retrospective diagnosis with any degree of certainty in most of the recorded incidents of lycanthropy; however, these symptoms do bring to mind behavior such as that of the Gandillon men while in captivity. One wonders whether the often misunderstood but truly horrifying sypmptoms of rabies might not, under certain circumstances (e.g., long incubation periods disassociating the animal bite from the disease of the human), have been interpreted as evidence of werewolfism.

Finally, there is the close historical correlation between the werewolf trials in Europe and rabies epizootics (outbreaks of rabies among humans, as already mentioned, coincide with epidemics among animals). According to one authority on the subject, "until the middle ages epizootics were rare. Most cases were singular bites of rabid dogs, and occasionally wolves.... In 1500, Spain was said to be ravaged by canine rabies. By 1586 there were epizootics of rabies among the dogs in Flanders, Austria, Hungary and Turkey. In 1604, canine rabies was widespread in Paris and caused great alarm....

The occurrence of a terrible disease transmitted from wolf to man, providing a sinister linkage between the two species, may well have contributed to the werewolf belief. It is even possible that some of the convicted werewolves may have been suffering from rabies.

Although rabies was known to the ancient Greeks, the Romans, early Christian writers, and medieval Arab physicians, and a sound naturalistic treatise on the subject was written in 1693 by Salius of Bologna, such specialist knowledge rarely filtered down to local communities. Moreover, demonological speculation, interjecting demonic forces into nearly every kind of pathology, could very well have obfuscated the epidemiological basis of rabies in humans in favor of supernatural causes (Sidky 244-246).

Author: Shantell Powell
Source: The ShanMonster Page


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