How Did Werewolf Legends Start?
American actor Glenn Strange (1899 - 1973) is transformed into a werewolf in the film 'The Mad Monster', 1942. Source: (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Most myths and legends have some basis in fact. Take the legends of the werewolf, for example. This half-man, half-wolf monster is said to go on killing rampages, slaughtering its victims with vicious, horrific attacks. Despite the romantic version of werewolves Hollywood and young adult novels are showing us, stories of werewolf attacks happened after barbaric murders. Were these attacks done by an ordinary wolf, by a psychotic human, or by a true human-wolf hybrid? Let’s look at the long history of werewolf legends.
Ancient References to Werewolves
The Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian epic poem written in Sanskrit that dates back to ancient Mesopotamia, is considered one of the earliest works of literature. Believe it or not, it contains stories of werewolves. In one scene, the hero Gilgamesh did the ancient version of swiping left on a potential love interest after he found out she turned her ex into a wolf. In the Norse myth The Saga of the Volsungs, a father-son duo happens upon magical wolf pelts that, when worn, temporarily turns the wearer into a wolf. The pair go on a deadly rampage until—spoiler alert—the father turns on the son. We even see a nod to werewolves in Greek mythology when Zeus punishes Lycaon by turning him and his sons into wolves.
Were Werewolves Really Serial Killers?
It is possible that the heinous acts of serial killers were mistaken for the work of werewolves hundreds of years ago. Several old cases of serial murders contain statements from the accused murderer claiming that he had turned into a wolf or another animal when committing the crime. It could be that these people were suffering from a rare, psychological condition called lycanthropy, in which they truly believe they can be transformed into wolves. It could also be that they were just murderers blaming their crimes on werewolves. Talk about "crying wolf."
A Werewolf Team
In 1521 France, several children in one community were abducted and brutally killed. Two Frenchmen, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, were accused of the crimes. Burgot and Verdun confessed to worshiping the devil. They further claimed that the devil gave them an ointment that transformed them into werewolves. The townsfolk apparently believed them. They were sentenced to burn at the stake because fire was one of the few ways to kill a werewolf.
The Werewolf of Dole
Another murderous Frenchman from the 1500s, Giles Garnier, also claimed to have a magic ointment that turned him into a werewolf. Like his Burgot and Verdun, Garnier attacked, murdered, and devoured children. He was also burned at the stake.
The Werewolf of Bedburg
One of the most well-publicized cases of werewolf murders happened in the 15th century in Bedburg, Germany. According to the stories, the people of Bedburg were besieged by a nocturnal, wolf-like monster that killed several people. A well-to-do farmer named Peter Stubbe was eventually arrested and accused of the terrible crime after a group of hunters claimed they cornered the werewolf and watched as it transformed back into Stubbe. The local police tortured Stubbe until he confessed to being a werewolf with an appetite for killing and eating human flesh. He was executed in a grisly fashion. Today, many people believe that Peter Stubbe was innocent, the victim of an overzealous police force, who gave a false confession after hours of torture. The murders in Bedburg and the idea that Stubbe was a shape-shifting werewolf helped to fan the flames of hysteria over werewolves.
A Captured Werewolf?
In 1725, a young boy was found naked and walking on all fours somewhere in Germany. Dubbed a "wild boy," he was one of the first cases of children believed to be raised by wolves. He could not talk or walk upright and ate with his hands. He was named Peter and treated like a side-show freak. People came to gawk at the wild boy. After a time, he was sent to England to be a novelty for the courts of both King George I and King George II. Although he was said to be a wolf-boy, most likely, the child suffered from a medical condition. Some experts think Peter had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a disease that would explain his lack of speech and stunted intelligence.
A Gene Mutation
In very rare cases, a human is afflicted with what is sometimes called "werewolf syndrome." They have excessive hair, and the hair is more than just a thick beard—it covers the entire body, with the exception of the palms and soles of the feet. This condition is called hypertrichosis but is often called "werewolf syndrome" because the patients look like human wolves. Extreme cases of hypertrichosis, caused by a genetic mutation, are very rare. In fact, there have only been about 50 cases reported since medieval times. It could be, however, that werewolf myths began when people mistook hypertrichosis sufferers for human-wolf hybrids.
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