The Origins of Werewolves

Aug 10, 2016 | Articles


In a discussion with my most esteemed friend, Mab Morris, the topic of folklore and the underpinnings of fantasy as a genre came up. She takes the view that fantasy as we know it is nothing without folklore, whereas I take the stance that the genre has long since grown beyond its beginnings. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, like many things, but the conversation got me thinking about where the most common tropes and narratives come from. And so here’s the first post of possibly a series, on the first of many fantasy tropes – werewolves.

The Legacy of the Man Wolf

The historical view of the werewolf is of a tragic figure, cursed to become a dangerous beast at every full moon. But the current trope of werewolves has metamorphosed into more of a cross between people who are also wolves, and who can shapeshift between human, wolf, and sometimes an in-between form. Some commonalities still endure, however.

The original werewolf was a human who either believed themselves to be a wolf, or who actually transformed into a wolf/wolf creature. Many folk beliefs revolved around magic and superstition, and there were as many supposed methods of becoming a werewolf as there are stories about werewolves. It seems that werewolves came to represent the primal, violent, animalistic urge of humanity, whether it was summoned by a witch to gain more power, or inflicted on someone as a punishment, and that still holds true in modern fantasy.

The tradition of a werewolf being defeated by silver is relatively new in comparison – it only originated from German folklore in the 19th century. Wolfsbane, a poisonous plant traditionally used as a preventative against werewolves, likely became so because it was readily available. (I can’t pinpoint an origin for it though.) The full moon transformation part is also a recent addition, first appearing in a movie called The Wolf Man in 1941.

The half-form, part-man and part-wolf, seems to be a much older addition, and might have evolved from the folklore of a man putting on a wolf-skin in order to become a werewolf. It may have been seen as grotesque, and bestial features were associated with the Devil, but in modern fantasy the half-form is just as likely to be a werewolf’s natural form. Werewolf forms still run the gamut from full wolf to human with some wolfish features.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

Why wolves? Of all the myths of people shape-shifting into animals, werewolves seem to be the most enduring. Well, in folklore, wolves were viewed as a symbol of power, as they were probably the most visible predators. They’re prominent in Germanic paganism, from whence the myth of werewolves arose. The subsequent treatment of the werewolf as a curse was likely a mutation and demonization of earlier pagan beliefs by Christianity. Hence, wolves are frequently cast as the villains in Christian teachings – the natural enemies of the flock, for example; the ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’.

Whatever their origins, werewolves have many different forms now, even some that I’m pretty sure no one ever expected. With the rise of urban paranormal fiction, the connection from werewolf to animalistic urge to sexual appetite has been made, and now Amazon is rolling in erotic shapeshifter fiction – and the phrase ‘animal magnetism’ has taken on a whole other meaning.

What’s your favorite werewolf story?