Wolves and Werewolves

Edwin Wollert / Education Coordinator / Wolf Song of Alaska

Did you know?

...that cultures from around the world have contributed to the mythology of what is perhaps our greatest fear pertaining to wolves: the legends of werewolves?

To begin with, the basic term relating to werewolves is "lycanthropy," borrowed from the name Lycaon, an ancient Greek king whom the god Zeus transformed into a wolf for attempting to practice cannibalism at Zeus' expense! Through the ensuing centuries, lycanthropy today refers to an extremely rare mental illness by which the afflicted person believes he or she is either a wolf or a werewolf.

So, if these tales have roots in ancient mythology, and if the modern mental affliction is so extraordinarily rare, then why bother? After all, how many modern individuals believe that humans are capable of turning into voracious murdering beasts, part human and part wolf, simply with the coming of each full moon?

The answer lies in the basic historical truth that werewolves were once taken very seriously. The medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe were also the most influential in worldwide perception of these fabled creatures. Accused lycanthropes were actually put on trial for violent and deadly crimes. They were examined in early and modern mental institutions, and in medical offices. They were treated to communal pity, fear, and revulsion. Sermons, and even entire philosophical works, were composed in vain efforts to explain them.

There seems to be one central point with the ongoing fascination for werewolves. And this fascination, however morbid or perverse, remains; why else would these monsters keep appearing in fiction and in films? Yet the point is this: werewolves offer perspectives into some essential aspects of human life. In them, we can reconsider the meaning of violence and general, and the impetus towards criminality. We can also examine the very nature of good and evil. Werewolves are sometimes portrayed as glad of their unique powers, other times as innocently cursed, and our attitudes towards them are shaped accordingly. They are reflections of our own inner natures: our capacity for tremendous violence kept in check by more civilized impulses.

Curiously enough, however, werewolves indicate fear, both of ourselves, and of wolves. They have very little to do with actual wolves, who are intelligent, social, and only kill when hungry, much unlike the fictitious lycanthropes. The werewolf seems a hybrid of the worst traits of humans, disguised in a form which many people have found fearful for centuries