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24-03-2015, 11:09


The werewolf of Early Modern Europe had characteristics quite unlike those that one thinks of today. When we call to mind a werewolf now, we think of a human, usually a man, who can periodically change into a ravenous wolf by means of having been infected with lycanthropy through an attack by another werewolf. Today’s werewolf, whose characteristics and origins are much influenced by 20th-century cinema, does have in common some characteristics of his Renaissance predecessors. Werewolves in Early Modern Europe were similar to modern ones in that it was thought that they ran amok destroying humans and domestic animals. They turned into wolves, but the means by which this happened was vastly different than that of today’s mythology. If a werewolf bit you in 1500, you did not become infected with lycanthropy. On the contrary, you likely became the werewolf’s lunch and died without turning into a werewolf. As we note above, the Early Modern werewolf became such through combinations of magic acts and pacts with the Devil. Humans used potions, ointments, beverages, and magic belts or wolf pelts employed along with magic formulae that normally included a diabolic pact. Thus, a werewolf was the Devil’s disciple. A werewolf could be male or female; however, it need not be a witch. At the same time, some werewolves were witches. To make matters more complicated, it was thought that witches could transmute themselves into dogs as well as wolves; and witches could enchant dogs or wolves. Werewolves were a separate and yet related category of supernatural bad guys. If a witch became a werewolf, this required that extra set of black magic and an additional diabolic pact.

The magic ointment that a werewolf used to transmute him - or herself could be identical to that used by witches to facilitate flight.3 Werewolf magic ointments might include various poisonous or hallucinogenic herbs. These were the same as those found in witches’ flying ointments. Such ointments were described in 1615 by Jean de Nynauld, a French physician who wrote a book about werewolves. De la Lycanthropie, transformation et extase des sorciers (On Lycanthropy, the Transformation and the Ecstasy of Witches) devoted considerable attention to werewolf ointments. While Nynauld was convinced that lycanthropy was a mental disease and not an act of evil magic, he nonetheless comments that people believe, if they use ointments, they could at least think they had become wolves as part of their mental delusions. Ointments were made of such things as poison mushrooms (“morelle furieuse” or “morelle endor-mante”), opium, belladonna, aconite, poplar leaves, soot, mouse blood, “hycosyame” (perhaps mandrake), and parsley (“persil,” this is probably hemlock, which is sometimes called water parsley). These were the traditional compounds supposedly used by witches and werewolves. Naturally, Nynauld understood that these items could frequently cause feelings of disorientation, being “out of body,” and flight. They could kill as well.4

Werewolves occupied places in folklore but were also in the demonological, medical, and legal literature of the times. It would seem that if people could accept the notion that a witch could turn into a dog or fly on a broomstick, they could also believe that humans could be transmuted into wolves. Yet it appears that beliefs in the existence of werewolves were weaker than those in witches. At least that is the case with the various kinds of literature in which werewolves were frequently treated with a more reasoned approach. This may be because Saint Augustine’s pronouncement meant that lycanthropy was an illusion of the Devil in which one should not believe. Augustine discusses stories from classical mythology of people who were changed into wolves and other animals. He also states that to believe that the Devil could transmute a human into any animal was to accept something so preposterous as to not be credible. While God could do anything (a comment heard frequently thereafter in demonological literature), Augustine refused to believe that God allowed devils to transmute humans into wolves.5

Early werewolves frequently did their bad deeds at night, but they were not usually governed by lunar phases as modern mythology has it. No full moons were necessary. Similarly, one did not need herbs or silver bullets to get rid of them. Any good weapon would suffice. Werewolves were sometimes executed after trials by civil authorities. Some werewolves are shown being put to death in a broadside printed by Georg Kress, 1591. These werewolves are both males and females, in various stages of transmutation, and human dress or wolf fur. Some appear to be wearing nun’s veils. The story narrated in the broadside is of several hundred werewolves who terrorized the area around modern Julich, Germany. Julich (known as Juliers in French) is close to Duren and Aachen and slightly northwest of Cologne. This area was part of the Holy Roman Empire, as nearby Aachen was once Charlemagne’s capital. Julich existed from medieval times until World War II when Julich and Duren were literally leveled by allied bombers and tank bombardments in the fall of 1944. After the war, Julich was rebuilt, as was Duren, which sustained less damage. Curiously, German Wehrmacht units that fought in and around this area were known as “werewolves.”6

Werewolves were a means to explain behaviors that today we would likely term the acts of criminally insane persons. Werewolves slaughtered domestic animals, committed incest, killed and maimed humans, and even engaged in cannibalism. Had he lived in 1500, Jeffrey Dahmer would have been a werewolf. Stories about werewolves were a commonplace entry in virtually all demonological books of the 16th and 17 th centuries. There are also 18th-century books that discuss werewolves. The myth of the werewolf was found in antiquity and had made its appearance much earlier in medieval Europe; yet its origins were centuries earlier. Werewolves are mentioned in various medieval religious tracts. An early example that points to the folk belief in werewolves can be found in a famous 11th-century penitential, The Corrector of Burchard of Worms.

Broadside of Werewolves from Julich, Germany. Georg Kress, 1591. (From The German Single-Leaf Woodcut 1550-1600, Vol. 2. Courtesy of Abaris Books.)

Burchard was a German bishop (d. 1025) who wrote this handbook in about 1008 for his priests to use in preparing a person for confession. He had become a bishop in the year 1000 and retained that position in the church until his death.7 The book is a lengthy examination of conscience that contains not only a great list of possible sins, but the penances that should be imposed on someone who commits them. What makes Bur-chard particularly interesting to the modern reader is that he describes a number of beliefs in paranormal and supernatural creatures and practices. These he usually denounces as sins, but sins because they involve pagan beliefs or ignorant superstitions. In short, believing in witches and werewolves was a sin because it was superstitious. At the same time, Burchard’s Corrector provides us with a grand tour of what he considered sinful, silly folklore or both. It is a fascinating sociological document. We cannot know how many of Burchard’s parishioners believed in werewolves, but some of them certainly must have: “Hast thou believed. . . [that a person] can be transformed into a wolf, that which vulgar folly calls a werewolf, or into any other shape. If thou believest what never took place or could take place, that the divine image can be changed into any form or appearance by anyone except almighty God, thou shouldst do penance for ten days on bread and water” (Corrector, Chapter 5, 152).8 Burchard speaks of the belief as a “folly [about something that] never took place or could take place.” This reveals the somewhat ambiguous position of theologians concerning the belief in werewolves.

Writers, clergy, and lawyers sought a different explanation for lycan-thropy than merely stating that such a thing happened. Even at this early date, they are presenting lycanthropy as something that is so fantastic as not to be a reality. This is all the more amazing as the learned populace of Europe were frequently able to accept other aspects of the supernatural. They believed in angels and devils. They believed in other sorts of nonhuman spirits such as fairies, mermaids, and kobolds. They could accept that a magus could capture a spirit in a crystal. They could believe in the various supernatural deeds of witches. They just had trouble believing in werewolves. Much of this no doubt had to do with the teaching of St. Augustine, at least with respect to the clergy. And perhaps the whole notion of the werewolf was just a little too fantastic.

Some 15th-century witchcraft texts discuss werewolves in the same way that Burchard had done. Johann Vincenti’s Liber de adversus magicas artes (Book of hostile magical arts), 1475, has an entire chapter on werewolves.

Vincenti insists that this was a delusion of the Devil who put people into a trance and made them think they had turned into wolves. To even believe that one could turn into a wolf was a sinful acceptance of this delusion.9