The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition

The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition

Caroline Taylor Stewart
Caroline Taylor Stewart

Author: Stewart, Caroline Taylor
The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition
Note: Errors in German quotes and booktitles were mostly not corrected. A more detailed transcriber’s note can be found at the end of this text.

  • Transcriber’s note


The belief that a human being is capable of assuming an animal’s form, most frequently that of a wolf, is an almost worldwide superstition. Such a transformed person is the Germanic werewolf, or man-wolf; that is, a wolf which is really a human being.2 So the werewolf was a man in wolf’s form or wolf’s dress,2 seen mostly at night,3 and believed generally to be harmful to man.4
The origin of this werewolf superstition has not been satisfactorily explained. Adolf Erman5 explains the allusion of Herodotus6 to the transformation of the Neurians (the people of the present Volhynia, in West Russia) into wolves as due merely to their appearance in winter, dressed in their furs. This explanation, however, would not fit similar superstitions in warm climes. Others ascribe the origin of lycanthropy to primitive Totemism, in which the totem is an animal revered by the members of a tribe and supposed to be hostile to their enemies.7 Still another explanation is that of a leader of departed souls as the original werewolf.8
The explanation of the origin of the belief in werewolves must be one which will apply the world over, as the werewolf superstition is found pretty much all over the earth,9 especially to-day10 however in Northwest Germany and Slavic lands; namely, in the lands where the wolf is most common.11 12 According to Mogk13 the superstition prevails to-day especially in the north and east of Germany.14
The werewolf superstition is an old one, a primitive one.15 The point in common everywhere is the transformation of a living human being into an animal, into a wolf in regions where the wolf was common16 into a lion, hyena or leopard in Africa, where these animals are common; into a tiger or serpent in India;17 in other localities into other animals characteristic of the region.18 Among Lapps and Finns occur transformations into the bear, wolf, reindeer, fish or birds; amongst many North Asiatic peoples, as also some American Indians, into the bear; amongst the latter also into the fox, wolf, turkey or owl; in South America, besides into a tiger or jaguar, also into a fish, or serpent. Most universal though it seems was the transformation into wolves or dogs.19
As the superstition is so widespread—Germany, Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, America, it either arose at a very early time, when all these peoples were in communication with each other20 or else, in accord with another view of modern science, it arose independently in various continents in process of the natural psychical development of the human race under similar conditions.
The origin of the superstition must have been an old custom of primitive man’s of putting on a wolf’s or other animal’s skin21 or dress, or a robe.22 Thus Leubuscher,23 says: “Es ist der Mythenkreis eines jeden Volkes aus einfachen wahren Begebenheiten hervorgewachsen.”24 25 Likely also the notion of attributing speech to animals originated from such disguising or dressing of men as animals. In the following we shall examine into primitive man’s reasons for putting on such a skin or robe.
Primitive man was face to face with animal foes, and had to conquer them or be destroyed. The werewolf superstition in Europe arose probably while the Greeks, Romans, Kelts and Germanic peoples were still in contact with each other, if not in the original Indo-Germanic home, for they all have the superstition (unless, as above, we prefer to regard the belief as arising in various localities in process of psychical development under similar conditions; namely, when people still lived principally by the chase.26) Probably the primitive Indo-European man before and at the time of the origin of the werewolf superstition, was almost helpless in the presence of inexorable nature. This was before he used metal for weapons. The great business of life was to secure food. Food was furnished from three sources, roots, berries, animals, and the most important of these was animals.27 Without efficient weapons, it was difficult to kill an animal of any size, in fact the assailant was likely himself to be killed. Yet primitive man had to learn to master the brute foe. Soon he no longer crouched in sheltered places and avoided the enemy, but began to watch and study it, to learn its habits, to learn what certain animals would do under certain circumstances, to learn what would frighten them away or what would lure them on. So at least the large animals were to early man a constant cause of fear and source of danger; yet it was necessary to have their flesh for food and their skins for clothing.28
Very soon various ingenious contrivances were devised for trapping them. No doubt one primitive method was the use of decoys to lure animals into a trap. Some could be lured by baits, others more easily by their kind. Occasionally masks were used,29 and similarly, another form of the original decoy was no doubt simply the stuffed skin of a member of the species, whether animal or bird, say for example a wild duck.30 Of course the hunter would soon hit on the plan of himself putting on the animal skin, in the case of larger animals; that is, an individual dressed for example in a wolf’s skin could approach near enough to a solitary wolf to attack it with his club, stone or other weapon, without exciting the wolf’s suspicion of the nearness of a dangerous foe.31 So the animal disguise, entire or partial, was used by early man acting in the capacity of a decoy, firstly, to secure food and clothing. Secondly, he would assume animal disguise, whole or partial, in dancing and singing; and both these accomplishments seem to have arisen from the imitation of the motions and cries of animals,32 at first to lure them, when acting as a decoy. With growth of culture came growth of supernaturalism, and an additional reason for acquiring dance and song was to secure charms against bodily ills,33 and finally enlivenment.34 In both dance and song, when used for a serious purpose, the performers imagined themselves to be the animals they were imitating,35 and in the dance they wore the skins of the animals represented.36
Probably as long as animal form, partial or entire, was assumed merely for decoys and sport (early dancing),37 for peaceful purposes therefore, such people having whole or partial animal shape were not regarded as harmful to man,38 just as wise women began to pass for witches only when with their art they did evil.39 A similar development can be traced in the case of masks.40 It was some time before man could cope with food- and clothing-furnishing animals that were dangerous to life, though these are the ones he first studied;41 and we cannot presuppose that he disguised to represent them until he could cope with them, since the original purpose of the disguise was to secure food and clothing. Thus far then we see whole or partial disguise as animals used to secure food and clothing when acting as decoys to lure animals; and in dancing.42

Fourthly, primitive man would put on an animal’s skin or dress when out as forager (or robber) or spy, for the purpose of avoiding detection by the enemy. The Pawnee Indians for example,43 were called by neighboring tribes wolves, probably not out of contempt, since it may be doubted that an Indian feels contempt for a wolf any more than he does for a fox, a rabbit, or an elk, but because of their adroitness as scouts, warriors and stealers of horses; or, as the Pawnees think, because of their great endurance, their skill in imitating wolves so as to escape detection by the enemy by day or night; or, according to some neighboring tribes, because they prowl like wolves44, “have the endurance of wolves, can travel all day and dance all night, can make long journeys, living on the carcasses they find on their way, or on no food at all.” … And further, “The Pawnees, when they went on the warpath, were always prepared to simulate wolves…. Wolves on the prairie were too common45 to excite remark, and at night they would approach close to the Indian camps.” … The Pawnee starting off on the warpath usually carried a robe made of wolf skins, or in later times a white blanket or a white sheet; and, at night, wrapping himself in this, and getting down on his hands and knees, he walked or trotted here and there like a wolf, having thus transformed himself into a common object of the landscape. This disguise was employed by day as well, for reconnoissance…. While the party remained hidden in some ravine or hollow, one Indian would put his robe over him and gallop to the top of the hill on all fours, and would sit there on his haunches looking all over the country, and anyone at a distance who saw him, would take him for a wolf. It was acknowledged on all hands that the Pawnees could imitate wolves best. “An Indian going into an enemy’s country is often called a wolf,46 and the sign for a scout is made up of the signs wolf and look.”47 Should any scout detect danger, as at night when on duty near an encampment, he must give the cry of the coyote.48
The idea of the harmfulness to other men of a man in animal form or dress became deeply seated now, when men in animal disguise began to act not only as decoys for animals dangerous to life, but also as scouts (robbers49—and later as possessors of supernatural power, when growth of culture brought with it growth of supernaturalism50); when people began to associate, for example, the wolf’s form with a lurking enemy.51
All uncivilized tribes of the world are continually on the defensive, like our American Indian; they all no doubt on occasion have sent out scouts who, like our American Indians, to avoid detection, assumed the disguise of the animal most common to the special locality in question, just as to-day they are known to disguise in animal skins for purposes of plunder or revenge.52 53

The kind of animal makes no difference, the underlying principle is the same; namely, the transformation of a living human being into an animal. The origin of the belief in such a transformation, as stated above54 was the simple putting on of an animal skin by early man. The object of putting on animal skins was,
(1) To gain food. For this purpose the motions and cries of animals were imitated (origin of dancing and singing),55 artificial decoys (like decoy ducks to-day)56 and finally even masks were used.57

(2) To secure clothing in cold climes by trapping or decoying animals, as in (1) above.
(3) The imitation when decoying, of the motions of animals led to dancing, and in the dances and various ceremonies the faces and bodies of the participants were painted in imitation of the colors of birds and animals, the motions of animals imitated and animal disguises used.58
(4) Scouts disguised themselves as animals when out foraging, as well as for warfare,59 60 therefore for booty, and self-defense. Either they wore the entire skin, or probably later just a part of it as a fetich, like the left hind foot of a rabbit, worn as a charm by many of our colored people to-day.61

(5) For purposes of revenge,62,63 personal or other. For some other personal motive of advantage or gain, to inspire terror in the opposing agent by hideousness.
(6) To inspire terror in the opposing agent by symbolizing superhuman agencies.64 So now would arise first a belief in superhuman power or attributes,65 and then,
(7) Witchcraft.66 It is very easy to see why it was usually the so-called medicine-men (more correctly Shamans), who claimed such transformation power, because they received remuneration from their patients.67

(8) Finally dreams68 and exaggerated reports gave rise to fabulous stories.69
We have discussed (1), (2), and (3);70 for an example under (4) we have cited the practices of American Indians.71 It is probable that about now (at the stage indicated in (4) above), what is known as the real werewolf superstition (that of a frenzied, rabid manwolf) began to fully develop. The man in wolf-skin was already a lurking thief or enemy, or a destroyer of human life. To advance from this stage to the werewolf frenzy, our primitive man must have seen about him some exhibition of such a frenzy, and some reason for connecting this frenzy particularly with, say the wolf. He did see insane persons, and the connecting link would be the crazy or mad wolf (or dog, as the transformation was usually into a wolf or dog,72) for persons bitten by it usually went mad too.73 The ensuing frenzy, with the consternation it occasioned, soon appealed to certain primitive minds as a good means of terrorizing others. Of these mad ones some no doubt actually had the malady; others honestly believed they had it and got into a frenzy accordingly; others purposely worked themselves up into a frenzy in order to impose on the uninitiated.74 Later, in the Middle Ages, when the nature of the real disease came to be better understood, the werewolf superstition had become too firmly fixed to be easily uprooted.
We have discussed (5), (6), (7), and (8) in the notes.75 As further examples of the development into fabulous story,76 we may cite any of those stories in which the wild werewolf, or animal-man is represented as roaming the land, howling, robbing, and tearing to pieces men and beasts, until he resumes his human form. Thus an early scout in animal garb would be obliged to live on food he found on his way, and later fabulous report would represent him as himself when in disguise possessing the attributes of the animal he represented, and tearing to pieces man and beast. For such an account see Andree,77 concerning what eyewitnesses reported of the wild reveling over corpses of the hyena-men of Africa. Naturally the uninitiated savage who witnessed such a sight would become insane, or at least would spread abroad such a report as would enhance the influence of the hyena-men far and wide. Some savages, as in Africa,78 came to regard any animal that robbed them of children, goats or other animals, as a witch in animal form;79 just as the American Indians ascribe to evil spirits death, sickness and other misfortunes.
We can see how at first the man in animal disguise or an animal robe would go quietly to work, like the Pawnee scout;80 how though, as soon as the element of magic enters in, he would try to keep up the illusion. At this stage, when the original defensive measure had become tainted with superstition, men would go about in the night time howling and holding their vile revels.81 Andree,82 narrates how a soldier in Northeast Africa shot at a hyena, followed the traces of blood and came to the straw hut of a man who was widely famed as a magician. No hyena was to be seen, only the man himself with a fresh wound. Soon he died, however the soldier did not survive him long. Doubtless one of the magician class was responsible for the death of the soldier, just as we to-day put to death the man who so violates our laws, as to become a menace to our society, or as formerly kings killed those who stood in their way; or as religious sects murder those who dissent from their faith. These magicians, supposed to be men who could assume animal form, as a matter of fact do often form a class, are greatly feared by other natives, often dwell with their disciples in caves and at night come forth to plunder and kill.83 It is to their interest to counterfeit well, for if suspected of being malevolent, they were put to death or outlawed, like criminals to-day.84 Their frenzies were, as said above, in some cases genuine delusions; in other cases they offered, as one may readily imagine, excellent opportunities for personal gain or vengeance.85

Only by instilling in their fellows a firm belief in this superstition and maintaining the sham, could the perpetrators of the outrages hope to escape punishment for their depredations, could they hope to plunder and steal with impunity.86 So they prowled usually under the cloak of night or of the dark of the forest,87 howled and acted like the animals they represented, hid the animal skin or blanket, if they used one,88 in the daytime where they thought no one could find it, whereas the animal skin which was worn for defence, was put on either by day or night,89 and one story recounts the swallowing of a whole goat, the man bellowing fearfully like a tiger while he did it.90 Some of the transformed men claimed they could regain human form only by means of a certain medicine or by rubbing. The imposters were the criminal class of society that is still with us to-day,91 no longer in werewolf form, but after all wolves in human dress, each maintaining his trade by deception and countless artifices, just as did the werewolf of old. Not unlike these shams are those of the American negro, who in church, when “shouting,” that is, when stirred up by religious fervor, inflicts blows on his enemy who happens to be in the church, of course with impunity; for he is supposed to be under some outside control, and when the spell has passed off, like some of the delusionists mentioned,92 claims not to know what he (or generally she) has done. Similar also are the negro voudoo ceremonies, those of the fire-eaters, or any other sham.
The wolf disguise, or transformation into a werewolf was that most often assumed for example in Germanic lands.93 The term wolf became synonymous with robber, and later (when the robber became an outlaw,94) with outlaw, the robber and outlaw alike being called wolf and not some other animal (i. e., only the wolf-man surviving to any extent) firstly, because the wolf was plentiful; and secondly, because as civilization advanced, there came a time when the wolf was practically the only one of the larger undomesticated animals that survived.95 We can notice this in our own United States, for example in eastern Kansas, where at night coyotes and even wolves are sometimes heard howling out on the prairie near woodlands, or in the pastures adjoining farms, where they not infrequently kill smaller animals, and dig up buried ones.96 In Prussia also it is the wolf that survives to-day. American Indians, and other savages however do not restrict the transformations to the wolf,97 because other wild animals, are, or were till recently, abundant amongst them. As civilization advances, one by one the animal myths disappear with the animals that gave rise to them (like that connected with the mastodon);98 or else stories of such domestic animals as the pig, white bull, dog superseded them.99 When this stage was reached, as time went on and means of successfully coping with the brute creation became perfected, the animals were shorn of many of their terrors, and finally such stories as Aesop’s fables would arise.100 This however was psychologically a long step in advance of our were-wolf believing peoples of an earlier period.
Up to this point the illustrations have shown that the werewolf superstition went through various stages of development. The motives for assuming wolf’s dress (or animal skins or robes), at first were purely peaceful, for protection against cold, and to secure food by acting as decoys; then it was used for personal advantage or gain by foragers (or robbers) and spies; then for purposes of vengeance;101 later from a desire for power over others; and finally men (the professional and the superstitious) began to concoct fabulous stories which were handed down as tradition or myth, according to the psychic level of the narrator and hearer.102

The starting point of the whole superstition of the harmful werewolf is the disguising as some common animal by members of savage races when abroad as foragers or scouts, in order to escape detection by the enemy. Like wolves they roamed the land in search of food. As stated above,103 later fabulous report would represent them as possessing in their disguise the attributes of the animal they impersonated,104 and finally even of actually taking on animal

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The Origin of the Werewolf Superstition
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