top of page

Origins of Werewolves

Just a few juicy pieces of werewolf knowledge for you this Halloween Season.

The werewolf is a staple of supernatural fiction, whether it be film, television, or literature. You might think this snarling creature is a creation of the Medieval and Early Modern periods, a result of the superstitions surrounding magic and witchcraft.

In reality, the werewolf is far older than that. The earliest surviving example of man-to-wolf transformation is found in The Epic of Gilgamesh from around 2,100 BC. However, the werewolf as we now know it first appeared in ancient Greece and Rome, in ethnographic, poetic and philosophical texts.

These stories of the transformed beast are usually mythological, although some have a basis in local histories, religions and cults. In 425 BC, Greek historian Herodotus described the Neuri, a nomadic tribe of magical men who changed into wolf shapes for several days of the year. The Neuri were from Scythia, land that is now part of Russia. Using wolf skins for warmth is not outside the realm of possibility for inhabitants of such a harsh climate: this is likely the reason Herodotus described their practice as “transformation”.

The werewolf myth became integrated with the local history of Arcadia, a region of Greece. Here, Zeus was worshipped as Lycaean Zeus (“Wolf Zeus”). In 380 BC, Greek philosopher Plato told a story in the Republic about the “protector-turned-tyrant” of the shrine of Lycaean Zeus. In this short passage, the character Socrates remarks: “The story goes that Plato told a story in the Republic about the “protector-turned-tyrant” of the shrine of Lycaean Zeus. In this short passage, the character Socrates remarks: “The story goes that he who tastes of the one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf.”

Literary evidence suggests cult members mixed human flesh into their ritual sacrifice to Zeus. Both Pliny the Elder and Pausanias discuss the participation of a young athlete, Damarchus, in the Arcadian sacrifice of an adolescent boy: when Damarchus was compelled to taste the entrails of the young boy, he was transformed into a wolf for nine years. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that human sacrifice may have been practised at this site.

Herodotus and the Neuri

Ancient Greek historian Herodotus (regarded as the father of history) told of a reclusive Scythian tribe known as the Νευροί (Neuri) that lived near the river Narew (located in present-day Poland).

According to legend, the Neuri transformed into wolves once per year and remained in that form for several days. Herodotus himself did not believe the tales but wrote that the locals swore it was true.

Every Full Moon?

Ancient Greeks and Romans believed that wolves only howled at a full moon. Of course, this belief has since been disproven, but its influence on the werewolf legend remains.

Another well-known story is that of Hans the Werewolf, an 18-year-old who was tried and convicted of lycanthropy in 17th-century Estonia.

At his trial, Hans confessed to hunting whilst in wolf form, claiming that he had become a werewolf two years previously after being bitten by a "man in black."

The judge asked Hans a number of strange questions about his condition, such as whether he felt like a "man or beast" when he transformed. The courts eventually ruled that Hans was guilty of engaging in black magic. He was executed at the tender age of 18, despite there being no evidence of him committing any murders. It's unclear why Hans did nothing to fight the accusations. Perhaps he feared torture, which he likely would have undergone had he not confessed. Estonia was rife with superstition at the time, and accusations of lycanthropy and witchcraft were common.

Original Posts >


bottom of page