The Origin of Werewolves: Explained

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By: Alex Postrado

Werewolves: Bloodthirsty, Shapeshifting Man-Wolves of European Lore

It is no secret that pop culture has quite a fascination with werewolves.

Jacob Black of The Twilight Saga is a case in point — along with reams of other literary and cinematic pieces that feature the shapeshifting man-beast, like John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, Stephen Cole’s The Wereling trilogy, Rod Daniel’s Teen Wolf, and Stephen King’s horror novella, The Cycle of the Werewolf.

And rightly so, since the concept of a wolf-turning human is — indeed — something that is thought-provoking, to say the least.

But the way that werewolves are being introduced to modern audiences, nowadays, often divert from the elements set down by their origins and lore.

We are now commonly given the romanticized, big screen heartthrobs, rather than the terrifying and vicious, instinct-driven monsters that they originally were.

So, to end the howling misconception that has deluded many, here is the real and detailed folkloric narrative of the man-who-became-wolf.

What is a Werewolf?

In European folklore, a werewolf is defined as a human who — at night — transforms into a wolf and becomes bloodthirsty to animals, other humans, and in some cases, even corpses.

Depictions of this violent beast generally vary — with some, saying that they have the ability to change their shape at will, and others, noting that the metamorphosis happens involuntarily, “under the influence of a full moon“.

But, in most legends, werewolves return to their human forms by morning.

The word “werewolf” literally means man-wolf.

It comes from Old English wer — meaning, “man” — combined with wulf — meaning, “wolf“.

And it is related to Anglo-Norman garwalf, Middle Dutch weerwulf, Old Frankish wariwulf, and Old High German werwolf.

Yet another term for this shapeshifting monster? Lycanthrope.

And the reason why it is called that, by some, lies behind its frequently overlooked origins.

Werewolf overlooking a man

The History of the Man-Wolf Monster

Among other monsters, the werewolf is undeniably a classic and deserves a spot in the ranks, besides the vampire and the zombie — which, at times, could give us the impression that it is a fruit of a period that is still relatively more recent than others.

Perhaps, the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Era.

In truth, though, the concept of werewolves in history dates back to a far more ancient time.

One of the first legends of the werewolf can be found in Greek mythology, with the legend of Lycaon — the First King of Arcadia and the one Zeus turned into a wolf after he served the god a meal of human flesh.

Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf
Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf; engraving by Hendrik Goltzius.

But it was around 2,100 BCE when the earliest surviving record of “man-to-wolf transformation” was documented in The Epic of Gilgamesh.

This epic poem tells the story of the semi-mythic, yet confidently heroic king, Gilgamesh, and his exploits as he embarks on a quest for eternal life.

In one part of the tale, Ishtar — Mesopotamia’s goddess of war and sexual love — turns an enamored shepherd into a wolf after growing bored of his love.

This provided us with the first werewolf story known today, but some scholars argue that as far as the “human to wolf, then back to human again” plot is concerned, Gaius Petronius’s The Satyricon is the work to name.

It is a Latin novel that traces back to the late 1st century CE and recounts the adventures and mishaps of leads, Encolpius and Giton.

A major section of this prose contains an anecdote narrated by a character, named Niceros. In there, he detailed how he saw a companion strip naked, make a ring of urine, and turn into a wolf.

What’s more is that after some time of howling and running into the woods, his old comrade seemingly returned to his human shape!

Hence, it simply goes without saying that this Roman take on the story of werewolves offers a rather interesting look at the savagery and animalistic tendencies of the supernatural man-beasts.

Man becoming wolf

How to Become a Werewolf?

Wolves lack the evolutionary intelligence that we, humans, have.

Thus, consciously turning yourself into a werewolf would — more likely than not — create additional complications to your life, instead of benefits.

But, if you happen to still be interested in the idea of becoming a werewolf regardless of that, there are some ways believed to fit the bill.

The obvious, of course, is to be born to parents with werewolf ancestry. Sure, it probably isn’t a valid option for us, but that would always count as the first, most dead certain way to become a brute-turning human.

The second is to be cursed into becoming one — just like King Lycaon. In Greek legends, the god Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf when he served the god the flesh of his own son, which is where the term “lycanthropy” gets its origin.

Another legend concerns spells, magic items, and witchcraft. While one, tells of drinking water from a real wolf’s paw.

However, George Waggner’s 1941 film, The Wolf Man, easily gave us the most popular method to become a werewolf.

For context, this pictorial masterpiece did for werewolves what Bram Stoker’s epistolary novel, Dracula, did for vampires — which is to set the standards for the concept of werewolves we are familiar with today.

One of which is the common legend that getting bitten by a werewolf will cause a person to be transformed into a werewolf.

In the film, that happens during a full moon — an explanation as to why we now associate this moon phase with werewolves.

werewolf and little girl
The werewolf hunts people by night.

Along with these narrative mainstays, the film also influenced the idea that people — once bitten — are permanently doomed to transform into the cunning and dangerous, shapeshifting werewolf every full-of-the-moon — with death as the only known escape.

No matter how a werewolf is made, people need to be protected from the transformed horror.

There is a long history of myth in creating a werewolf, but how does one kill a werewolf?

Defeating a Werewolf

The Wolf Man’s 1943 sequel, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, kick-started the trend of using literal silver bullets as the ‘silver bullet’ for a werewolf attack.

Though, it has less to do with the bullet and more with the silver, since this version — the one we are still currently acquainted with — describes silver as one of the werewolf’s fatal weaknesses.

The bullet part was added for practical — and even dramatic — purposes because — without a doubt — you are more likely to survive a one-on-one with this feral monster if you have the advantage to strike from a distance.

However, if you ever find yourself in a short distance, hand-to-claw combat with the supernatural brute, impaling it with sharp objects over and over also does the trick — of course, if done the right way.

Short on silver? No problem.

Do Werewolves Exist?

As opposed to how — at present — we almost entirely see werewolves as mythical creatures, people in history used to deal with this pack of monsters as if they were real and, therefore, pose a real threat to the safety of communities.

Oftentimes, people identify which among the crowd are werewolves based on two things: unusual or eccentric behaviors, and distinct physical features.

However, those criteria open quite a few holes to both the story and existence of the ferocious, supernatural beast.

The foremost being that contemporary science finds it biologically impossible for a human to be physically transformed into a wolf, and vice versa.

But, through further searches for an answer, we now have theories, explaining how the once-feared mythic man-wolf began to bleed into reality.

Werewolf stalking by moonlight

Real medical conditions may have helped that.

The lore says that even in human form, a werewolf may still retain some of its physical attributes: long and curved fingernails, thick eyebrows that resemble a unibrow, pointed ears, a faltering gait, and an unusually hairy body.

Science deduces hypertrichosis — a case of excessive body hair growth — to be a possible explanation for alleged werewolf sightings, since people back then didn’t fully understand this condition.

On the other hand, a plausible root of the inhuman behavior described in werewolves could be rabies, as well as a condition called clinical lycanthropy — in which patients “believe they are becoming a wolf and behave accordingly“.

There are other things that could have birthed the lore and history of werewolves. Puberty also seems like a ripe metaphor for it.

So, yes — to some extent, people can say that werewolves do exist. Just not in the way most of us probably think.

If truth be told, a lot of things ancient humans failed to comprehend can now be explained by science. History is full of creatures that try to explain our fears and create a legend that makes these fears memorable.

But, in centuries when magic, witch trials, and vampire hunts were common, weaving a legend like that of the werewolf would practically be painless.

A ravening wolf in human clothing.

The scary part is — a werewolf may be lurking around, hidden among us, and we just don’t know it yet.


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