In the Middle Ages, Europeans had a lot to be afraid of. From the Black Plague to the crusades, death ran rampant during these dark times. But the natural world was not the only thing that people had to worry about during these trying times. The supernatural world was also filled with horrifying creatures that haunted the night. On nights when the full moon glowed bright overhead, the poor people huddled closer in their cottages, afraid of the wolves howling in the distance. Yet it wasn’t just the normal wolves that peasants had to be worried about during the full moon, human-like monsters stalked the night as well, for the full moon was the time of werewolves.
The name werewolf comes from the Old English words “were” meaning man and “wulf” or wolf as these creatures were men transformed into wolves. The female variant actually was a wifwulf, not a werewulf, as “were” meant man and “wif” meant woman. There were different ways to become a werewolf too, curses, witches, or special spells allowed the caster to transform themselves or others into wolves. While some of these transformations were willing, the majority of them were not, cursing the individual to spend sometimes years in the form of a wolf.
The term lycanthropy is often used to refer to werewolves, as both a species and a condition. Origination from Ancient Greece, the term comes from the myth of Lycaon. In the myth, Lycaon was the king of Arcadia and invited the gods of Olympus to a feast. What the gods didn’t know is that the feast was actually a test that Lycaon had created in order to test how all-knowing the gods actually were. The meal that Lycaon prepared was rare kind of meat, his own son, Nyctimus. Lycaon killed his own son and prepared his body as a feast for the gods, as eating human flesh would show that the gods were fallible.. Zeus, however, wasn’t fooled. When he want to eat, Zeus noticed the deception and became enraged. As punishment for trying to fool the gods, Lycaon and his descendants were turned into wolves. Zeus also brought Nyctimus back to life, though he had to replace one shoulder bone with ivory. Demeter, who was distracted by the loss of her daughter Persephone, had eaten the boy’s shoulder bone without thinking.
Some people didn’t become werewolves due to curses, rather, they took the form of a wolf willingly. In the 16th century, there were many reports of werewolf attacks, so many in fact, that there were many records people put on trial for being werewolves. Townsfolk accused these people of taking the form of a wolf in order to murder innocents. One of these examples is the accused loup-garou Gilles Garnier. Loup-garou is the French word for werewolf and during the early 16th century, there were a series of trials, with Garnier as the most famous of the accused. A hermit who lived in the woods during a time when children were turning up dead, the townsfolk found Garnier with one of the children’s corpses and accused him of being the werewolf. According to his testimony, Garnier had been given an ointment by a spectre to make it easier for him to hunt. This ointment allowed him to take the form of a wolf and thus began his murdering spree. He confessed to killing at least four children and cannibalising them, as well as bringing home the meat for his wife. When tried, he was found guilty of lycanthropy and witchcraft and burned at the stake. In the 16th century, people had a hard time believing that people could be capable of committing atrocities like serial murder. So often they would say that someone was a witch or a werewolf or a vampire or something else, anything besides human, to explain how someone could be capable of such horrific acts.
Not all werewolves actually transformed into wolves, and not all werewolves were only in legend. The Norse were a fearsome band of warriors, driving terror into the hearts of their enemies. No group of soldiers did this better than the berserkers. Charging into battle wearing animal skins instead of armor, these warriors entered a trance-like state when fighting. Taking on the ferocity of the animal whose hide they wore, they went into battle like wild animals. There were multiple types of berserkers who wore different animals skins. The term berserker comes from those who wore bearskins, as the word translates to “bear-shirt” from Old Norse. The Ulfhednar wore wolf skins into battle while the Svinfylking wore the hides of wild boars.