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Where and when exactly the legend of werewolves started remains a mystery. However, it is one of the oldest legends recorded in history and it is typically connected with witches. Just like witches, people who were suspected of becoming werewolves also suffered the same trials and tribulations. A scapegoat was a necessary evil during the medieval times, especially when the strength of religion grew. In other words, suspected werewolves were interrogated, hunted and even executed. There were cases when witches were accused of being werewolves as well. Today they are rather crucial in pop-culture, because so many movies and books are based on these characters. Although the evolution of werewolves became more and more attractive, its origins are far from pleasant. As their popularity keeps growing and their characters keep evolving, there is a very dark past behind these creatures.
Origins of the Legend
Also known as “lycanthrope”, the legend is present in the ancient Roman mythology and it wasn’t the full moon that was responsible. In fact, it was a god by the name of Jupiter who put the metamorphosis in motion. This happened in 1 A.D. It all started with King Lycaon and the human flesh he served as an offering to the gods. The gods didn’t take kindly to this gesture and so Jupiter transformed him into a werewolf. This way he could indulge his lust for human flesh without the shame of being a cannibal. Obviously the evolution of werewolves and how they transformed gained more melodrama and magic so-to-speak. Some said that werewolves could transform simply by wanting to turn and others believed when a special belt was worn the transformation took place. More drastic measures joined the ranks in the forms of oil and elixirs. Modern theory is that the full moon brings out the werewolf.
Serial killers were typically associated with the werewolf curse, especially when Christianity gained more power. Some of the most notable “werewolf” executions took placed during the 1500’s, for example Michel Verdun and Pierre Burgot. They operated as a serial killing team and when their spree came to an end it was recorded as a werewolf execution. More sinister cases such as that of Peter Stumpp surfaced. Apparently his neighbors saw him as a werewolf and how he transformed back to human form after removing the magic belt he was wearing. When authorities arrested him he confessed to raping his own daughter, abusing his wife, murder, and to top it off, cannibalism. Before he was caught he butchered his son and ate his brains. The people and authorities needed to blame something for these vicious killings and werewolf transformation was the next best thing to witchcraft. The lack of medical explanation for the cannibal condition along with the sadistic nature only enforced the legend even more. It was the only logical way to make sense of it all.
Werewolf transformations were so widespread that remedies were becoming a common practice. For ancient Romans and Greeks, the only way to get rid of it was to have that person work for hours on end. They believed that the physical exhaustion would deter the werewolf from coming out. In medieval Europe three prominent methods were developed. The medicinal cure was wolfsbane. Along with this medicine they tried surgery and exorcisms. However, more often than not the procedures killed the patients. Depending on region and culture, remedies varied dramatically. The Greeks completely destroyed the corpses of supposed werewolves until the end of the 19 century, because they believed they would return either as a wolf or hyena and prowl battlefields, feeding off the blood from dying soldiers. In European countries it was thought that people who died of a mortal sin would ultimately return as blood sucking werewolves.
Werewolves in Modern Culture
Before the 20 century there is no trace that werewolves were ever vulnerable to silver bullets or weapons. Writers started incorporating this theory from the 1930’s and added this in the re-telling of the famous “Beast of Gevaudan”. It’s interesting to note that Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” actually implemented the mythology of werewolves along with a few other demons in order to symbolize the anxiety that existed within an age. In 1935 the first movie to feature a werewolf with human attributes was released under the title “Werewolf in London”. The character that transformed into a werewolf was a scientist living in London, and instead of undergoing a complete transformation he would retain most of his human features. However, the movie that really caught everyone’s attention was the 1941 “Wolf Man”, thanks to the more elaborate makeup. Films like “American Werewolf in London” followed, and who can forget Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of “Wolf” in 1994?
As the werewolf craze caught on the creature evolved yet again. Joining vampires, witches and zombies, the origins of the werewolf changed into situations where more creative stories could flow from. In some stories people are cursed by gypsies, which in turn lead to transformation during the full moon. Only now, the transformations would be complete. No human attributes remain like in earlier films. A popular movie that closely links the legend of werewolves and vampires is “Underworld”, where a vampire actually falls in love with a werewolf. More recent films such as “Twilight” show them in a heroic position. In some cases a bite or scratch from a werewolf, if the person isn’t completely devoured, leaves that person with the same curse.
Due to the freedom of creativity, writers and directors rarely base their stories on the true legend. Nevertheless, the attractiveness of werewolf characters never fails to deliver a great sense of fear and danger. Their animal instinct that can’t be controlled or argued with is what makes them so alluring to audiences. The mixture of pure force and taking what they feel like can even be an envious trait for some. Now it’s difficult to find a vampire or witch story without the presence of a werewolf and this is only natural, seeing as their history is just as old, if not older than many demonic legends. From a long line of serial killers and cannibals, the werewolf legend is by far one of the most sadistic and evil.