Most of society – unless you’ve been living under a rock with no television – knows what a werewolf is. It’s a person, male or female and typically human, who can transform themselves into a wolf. Many different authors and hollywood producers have their own take on werewolves. Some can’t control their beasty side, some can. Some only change once a month and some change whenever they want and are not tied to the moon cycle. Some are tragic heroes and some are dangerous villains bent on destroying mankind.
But no matter what mythology you adhere to, werewolves are a real thing! Now, before you go thinking I’m a nut case, I don’t believe a person can actually transform into a beast. That’s the stuff of fairytales and nightmares. No, what I’m talking about is lycanthropy which is a real psychological disorder that people suffer from even today.
The origin of the word is derived from the Greek legend of King Lycaon who ruled over Arcadia. There are many different versions of this myth, but the most widely accepted is that of when Zeus visited the cruel king and was tricked into eating human flesh. When the god found out, he was enraged and caused a massive flood and turned the king into a wolf. Lúkos also is Greek for “wolf”.
The belief that a human can transform into a wolf has been around for centuries, even back to Biblical times. Also in Greek culture was the Wolf-Zeus cult and Mount Lycaeus where priests would make sacrifices of human flesh, that when consumed would transform that individual into a wolf. There are tons of myths and legends and stories from cultures and people groups spanning the globe that talk about men turning into wolves or other animals. People believed to be lycanthropes (werewolves) were burned at the stake and often associated with witchcraft.
Warriors from Northern Europe donned the animal skins of wolves and bears, and rubbed ointments on their skin to induce hallucinations before going into battle. The warriors who dressed in bearskins were known as “berserkers”, lending to the popular term for someone who has gone nuts, but those who donned wolf skins were called “Úlfhéðnar” and were said to channel the spirit of the wolf to aid in their fighting abilities.
But North America was not excluded in these myths. Skin-walkers in the Navajo beliefs were said to be witches (not to be confused with medicine men) who were evil and turned into the animal of their choosing to cause mayhem. Canada, predominately populated by Frenchmen after the natives, adhered to the belief in loup-garou (wolf-man in French). Those of French descent further south in Louisiana told their children about the rougarou, a werewolf beast who prowled the Cajun swamps and devoured children who didn’t behave.
Victims of this mental disorder believe themselves to be animals – not just wolves – and display animalistic characteristics such as savage behavior, howling or growling, and craving for raw meat. They may have vivid hallucinations of being an animal or seeing themselves as one. I remember reading one article about a man who looking in the mirror and didn’t see his own face, but that of a wolf. Lycanthropy may be considered a form of schizophrenia.
Since 1850, there have been 13 documented cases of lycanthropy. The first case was recorded in 1852 when a man was submitted into an asylum in Nancy, France. He claimed that he had transformed into a wolf and to prove it, he showed the doctors his “canine teeth” and body covered in long hair.
Now, before we get carried away, some of these authentic 13 cases are not restricted to the victims believing themselves to be wolves. Lycanthropy can range between many animals including cats, horses, pigs, frogs, etc.
However, this mental condition, along with all of the myths and legends throughout history, have sparked a fan-base for werewolf movies like American Werewolf in London, The Wolfman, and Skinwalkers (based off the Native American legends), television shows like Teenwolf, and novels like Twilight, To Tame a Wolf, and the Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs – just to name a few.