The wereanimal belief or legend is universal. In the European and American cultures, the predominant theme is that the werecreature is a wolf. In other cultures, there are were- panthers, werejaguars and werebears. Some societies believed that the person shape shifted and appeared to be the animal while others believed the person became the animal.
During the Middle Ages, people in Europe believed in werewolves. Some believed the creature was a wolf whose body was possessed by a demon. Others believed the devil put the person in a trance and transported the soul into a wolf’s body. Another theory was that a demon got into a wolf’s body and charmed the person into believing that he or she committed savage acts that were revealed in dreams. Another theory believed that the person actually changed into a wolf and that the devil substituted a human form in the werewolf’s place.
The majority of werewolf cases come from Europe. They believed the wolf was bloodthirsty and cunning and the animal was greatly feared. Between 1530 and 1630, there were 30,000 cases of werewolves recorded in France alone. People in Normandy believed in lupins or lubins, wolf like beings that talked at night in graveyards in an unknown language. They would flee from humans, but they also dug up graves and ate human bodies.
In court documents, the testimony did not vary much. The person made a pact with the devil. They were given an ointment that transformed them into a wolf. Some were given a wolf pelt for protection.
Over the centuries, ideas began to change. Werewolf experts believed that the victims suffered from what they called lycanthropy. The victim was usually of less than average intelligence and might have been under the influence of hallucinatory drugs or delusions and believed he or she actually became a werewolf. This was often accompanied by sadistic cravings. Beliefs and legends of those who saw the werewolf might have made them think they saw a snarling four legged beast. The mind is a powerful thing.
During fits of lycanthropy, victims actually believe they are wolves and may run around, as if on four legs, snarling, growling, howling and barking. Some may desire human flesh and commit murders. This is rare in “modern” times. During the 1600s, in Luc, Switzerland, men began to walk like dogs and bark. The cure was a magical herb hung around their necks.
Some medical theorists believe werewolf sightings are those of people who have porphyria, a rare disease. The tissue of the hands and face is destroyed. They also suffer from lesions and are very sensitive to light. The combination of the disfigurement and the photosensitivity may cause some of them only to go out at night.
There are also psychological theories. Victims could be suffering from schizophrenic delusions. Another theory is that they are driven by subhuman urges and they wish to escape and, in their minds, become animals to they can fulfill these desires without guilt. Lycanthropy is considered to be a mental illness in which the victims are driven to kill. Two psychiatrists, Frida G. Surawicz and Richard Banta believe lycanthropy is a very severe form of depersonalization which can be triggered by paranoid schizophrenia, drug abuse, brain damage or other causes.
Cases and Sightings
In the 1500s, a hunter was attacked by a huge wolf and he cut off its paw. The wolf escaped. The hunter put the paw in his pouch and went to a friend’s house. When he pulled it out to show a friend, he found a woman’s hand with a ring on it. His friend recognized the ring as his wife’s. They found the wife and talked to her, they discovered she had lost her hand. She confessed to attacking the hunter, while she was in the form of a wolf. She was burned to death.
Pierre Bourgot of Poligny was brought to trial in 1521. The trial is recorded.
He was a shepherd and confessed that 19 years earlier, there was a terrible storm and his flock scattered. Three black horsemen appeared. Bourgot told them what happened. A few days later, one of them returned and told him that if he would become a servant of the devil, he would be given wealth and protection. Bourgot agreed.
In the shapes of wolves, Bourgot and another werewolf, Michel Verdung roamed the countryside and committed many savage murders. Their spree ended when Verdung attacked a traveler who fought back and wounded him while in the form a wolf. He loped into the woods. The traveler followed the trail of blood until he came to a hut. He found Verdung in human form having the wound tended to by his wife.
Bourgot, Verdung and a lesser werewolf were executed.
In 1573, a French village near Dole was terrorized. One day, a group of villagers surprised an enormous wolf horrifying a child. They noticed the facial resemblance to a recluse, Gilles Garnier.
They apprehended him and brought him to trial. Garnier lived in poverty and hunger. He admitted to having made a pact with the devil. He was burned to death.
Jean Grenier, a homeless youth, tried in 1603. He confessed to hunting with nine other werewolves. After he was incarcerated, he walked on all fours. He was sentenced to confinement to a monastery.
In 1859, in Bedburg, Germany, a crowd of 4,000 people gathered to watch the execution of Peter Stubb or Stump or Stubbe Peeter. He was described as a wicked sorcerer who, in the form of a wolf, committed many murders over a period of 25 years.
The townspeople were terrorized by what they thought to be a lone savage wolf that occasionally killed sheep and cattle, but showed a definite preference for humans.
Stubb, regarded as a brute, was a woodcutter. When he was caught, he was cornered in a ravine by a large party of hunters and their dogs. He scrambled on all fours, snarling and snapping like a wild animal. He fought with superhuman strength, but was overcome.
During his trial in Cologne, he gave, as testimony, the usual story of making a pact with the devil. He said he was given a wolf’s pelt to protect him went he went on his murderous rampages.
1868, French police arrested Jacques Roulet, a beggar. He was hiding in a bush, covered with blood, not far from the body of a mutilated boy. He confessed that he killed the boy when he was a werewolf, a state induced by an ointment.
In a Roman garden, in 1949, people thought they saw a werewolf. They called the police. What was actually seen was a young man, crawling around on all fours and clawing the ground with long sharp fingernails. He was taken to a hospital and confessed that he regularly lose consciousness during the full moon and, when he regained awareness, he discovered he was prowling the streets, compelled by a strange compulsion.
July, 1958, Mrs. Delbert Gregg, in Greggton, Texas, believed she saw one on a night she was alone during a thunderstorm. She had just dozed off when she heard scratching sounds on her screen. She woke up and saw a huge, shaggy, fanged wolf like creature glaring at her through the screen. She grabbed a flashlight and jumped from the bed. The thing ran into bushes. She watched, waiting for an animal to appear, but, the figure of a man emerged from the bushes and walked down the road.
In 1970, four youths in Gallup, New Mexico claimed to have seen a werewolf near Whitewater. It ran alongside the car when the car was driven at 45 mph.
Between July and October, 1973, a number of residents in Toledo, Ohio saw a tall human like figure with a wolf’s head. It was said to have red glowing eyes and smelled like limburger cheese.
Werewolves…. Psychiatric disorder on the part of the victim? This is based in fact and evidence exists. Sightings? Could some of them be mass or individual hallucinations? This is possible, however, this does not account for all cases. A reality we do not understand? Perhaps, this is the best theory. Then, there is the well documented case of the Beast of Gevaudan.
Author: Jill Stefko, PhD