The moon is full. The night is dark. The mist is rising on the moor. Listen -- can you hear it? There -- the hair-raising, heart-rending, howl of a wolf. But watch yourself -- for it may not be a real wolf...but a werewolf!
This mysterious creature is one of the oldest and most widespread folk beliefs on Earth -- as well as one of the most feared. From before recorded history, people were convinced that under the correct conditions some individuals can turn into living, slathering, and very hungry wolves.
Wahich raises this question: can something so widely believed in by so many people be purely legendary?
Different civilizations in different lands and ages shared many of the same beliefs about werewolves:
- The transformation usually can take place only at night -- in many cultures it was believed only when the moon is full.
- While in wolf form, the werewolf attacks animals and sometimes people, and eats them.
- The creature returns to its human shape when it's hunger is satisfied.
There were also many specific details that differed from culture to culture. For instance:
Some societies believed that human beings took on wolf form by putting on a wolf skin.
Other cultures believed that it was the wolf that took on human form by putting on a human skin!
And still other cultures believed that, when in human form, the werewolf's fur was growing on the inside. When they wanted to become wolves, they simply took off their skin and turned it inside out.
More Werewolf Lore
Last time, I wrote about the universal belief in werewolves, along with some of the similarities and differences in the beliefs of various cultures.
As with the other beliefs about werewolves, different cultures had different explanations for how someone became a werewolf in the first place.
Some cultures believed that people became werewolves against their will. Of the societies in this group, many held the belief that only the bite of a werewolf could turn someone into one. (This, of course, begs the question, where did the first werewolf come from?) Others in the "against their will" camp believed the condition could be brought on by a curse, or simply by being a wicked person.
On the other hand, many cultures believed that people who became werewolves did so intentionally. These societies believed that people conjured up evil spirits to ask for the power to change into a wolf, or even made a pact with the Devil in exchange for this ability.
So you've got a werewolf on your hands, now what do you do? Believe it or not, many cultures believed there was a cure. Some cultures held that calling a werewolf by its human name while it was in wolf form would turn it back into the person. Other societies felt that if the werewolf underwent an exorcism it would return to normal. More prosaically, some societies believed that eating no meat would do the trick.
And, as we all know, the only sure way to kill a werewolf is to use a silver bullet, right? Wrong! That particular belief does not occur in any known culture's folklore in the history of the world. It was purely an invention of Universal Studios in Hollywood, to add a dash of drama and suspense to their Wolfman movies. In the old folktales, any ordinary weapon that could kill a real wolf could take care of a werewolf: an ax, an arrow, even a plain old bullet.
There are dozens of folktales with this pattern: a wolf attacks a village or farm, the wolf is wounded by someone defending the place, and a little while later a person is found with an identical wound in the same part of his body as the wolf -- proving that he's a werewolf. One famous variation tells of a king who went hunting in his forest where he saw a wolf attacking one of the royal animals. The king fired an arrow at the wolf, striking the beast in its right leg. The wolf roared in pain and fled. The king returned to his castle -- where he found one of his servants with an unexplained arrow wound in his right leg. The servant was immediately strung up for being a werewolf.
The problem with these tales is that they cannot be verified. Most of what we know about werewolves comes from folklore -- stories passed orally from generation to generation, with no certain origin and no way to check the truth of the claims. If only there were some early written records about werewolves, preferably from some kind of official, verifiable source.
Well, it just so happens there are such written records, with an official stamp of authority -- court transcripts, no less. Because during the middle ages, there were several famous werewolf trials.
One such trial took place in 1598, in Angers, France. A begger named Roulet had been found with his clothing in tatters, his hands drenched in blood, and with shreds of human flesh under his fingernails. When a mangled corpse was discovered not far away, Roulet was dragged before the court where he was charged with murder. Roulet confessed to the crime, and this led to the learned judge asking the following questions in court: "Did you become a wolf?" "Did your hands and feet become the paws of a wolf?" "Did your head become a wolf's head?" To each question, Roulet answered "Yes".
A few years later, in another town in France, a tailer was accused of having the power to turn himself into a wolf. Townspeople claimed he lured children into his tailor shop where he murdered and ate them. He was also accused of lurking in the woods where he would attack and kill unlucky travellers. Most damning of all, a basket full of bones was found in his shop. The tailor was found guilty and executed. Unfortunately, in this case, the transcript no longer exists: the testimony so frightened the judges that they ordered the court clerk to burn all the records but the verdict.
In another trial, another man was accused of being a werewolf. In this case, one of the witnesses, knowledgable about such matters, informed the court that a werewolfs fur grows on the inside. So, to see if the man was really a werewolf, his arms and legs were cut off. Court officials checked carefully, but could find no trace of fur growing inside his skin, so they decided the man was not a werewolf after all. However relieved the man may have been to be found innocent of the charge, he soon bled to death.
It has long been noted that there seemed to be a connection between the cycles of the moon and odd human behavior. The word lunatic comes from the word lunar, which means moon. Many people have observed and recorded, over the years, that people behave strangely when the moon is full.
Some suggest that this is where the connection between the full moon and werewolf lore came from. That rather than people literally turning into wolves, they simply engaging in demented behavior.
In 1584, the first attempt was made in print to suggest a rational explanation for werewolves. Reginald Scot, an ordinary citizen, became alarmed at the numerous bloodthirsty witchcraft trials that were taking place in Europe. He felt they were a travesty of justice, and that the judges and prosecutors were executing innocent people.
So Scot wrote a book called The Discovery of Witchcraft, which attempted to prove that much that was being attributed to witchcraft was really of natural origin -- either madness or misunderstanding, and that accusations of witchcraft often sprang from greed, jealousy or bitterness between neighbors.
In a section on werewolves, Scot was far ahead of his time when he wrote that lycanthropia [being a werewolf] is a disease of the mind and not a transformation. In other words, Scot believed that mentally ill people imagined themselves to be wolves, and then acted like animals -- but they didn't actually become wolves.
Most anthropologists and folklorists now believe that Scot was right, of course. But then along comes a well-documented case that defies explanation, and makes us wonder if we will ever learn the truth about werewolves...
The Scariest Werewolf Ever!
The werewolf of folklore looked nothing like the Hollywood version. While "The Wolfman" of the movies stood on two legs, and looked pretty much like a man with a furry face, a wolf's nose and fangs, every culture that believed in the existence of real werewolves imagined that the supernatural creature looked just like an ordinary wolf.
However, there was one real-life exception -- a sighting of a creature that looked very much like the Hollywood version of a werewolf. And it just happens to be the best-documented werewolf case in history. These events occurred in France over two hundred years ago, but it involved real people who signed documents swearing to what they saw. The monster was reported to the King of France, who sent his soldiers to deal with the problem. And many real people died.
It was the summer of 1764, in a region of France called Le Gevaudan. One night, a little girl tending the family's flock of sheep didn't return home. Her father went searching for her -- and found her lifeless body. Her heart had been ripped out of her chest.
People thought it was a terrible thing, and wondered if a wild animal had been responsible. Then two more children died the same way. After that, the children of the nearby villages were not let out of their homes.
One day not long after these deaths, a woman was walking through the fields of Le Gevaudan when she saw a strange creature -- it stood like a man, but was covered with hair from head to foot, had short ears and a long tail, and had a strange up-turned nose that looked a little like a pig's snout.
When the creature saw her, it started running toward her. The woman turned and ran for her village as fast as she could -- she was certain it was going to kill her. In fact, she was somehow certain that it was responsible for the death's of the children. When she reached the village, the creature had disappeared. She told the people what she had seen, but they just laughed at her. As it happened, she wasn't exactly the town's most upstanding resident.
As it happened, a few days later the town's most upstanding resident did see the creature. This man, an officer of the town council well-known for his honesty, people had to listen to.
While they were trying to decide what to do, a few more sightings took place. The people of the village decided to write a letter to their King, describing what had been seen and pleading for his help. All the people who had seen the creature signed the letter. That letter still exists.
When the King received the letter, he wasn't sure what to do. There were important matters of state to attend to, wars to be fought and such. The King decided to send a few soldiers to the village to see what the fuss was about. Their written orders still exist.
The soldiers didn't take their mission very seriously. They were sophisticated and worldly men of the big city who felt they were above peasant superstitions. They assumed some wild animal was responsible for the deaths. They joked among themselves that a hunter should have been sent to the village, not professional soldiers.
But no sooner did they arrive at the village than they saw the man-like beast themselves. They knew at once it was no ordinary animal. The soldiers fired on the beast -- they hit the thing and it fell.
At first, none of the men wanted to get close enough to see if it was dead. One man finally went -- he didn't get very close, but he was near enough to see that it looked like no animal he had ever heard of. He could also see that their bullets had hit it. He returned to his comrades and told them they had killed the creature. The soldiers returned to the King and filed a report describing what they had seen and what they had done. Their report still exists.
But the soldier who went to take a look should have looked closer. Apparently the creature wasn't dead after all.
The following summer, the killings started again. After two more children died in the same way as the first -- their hearts pulled from their chests -- several villages were abandoned. The people sent another letter to the King, but this time he was in the middle of a war with a neighboring country and had no soldiers to send.
The men of the villages of Le Gevaudan realized they would have to do something themselves. According to village records, they tracked the beast down and killed it. To make sure it was dead this time, they burned the body.
Was there a Beast of Le Gevaudan? We have eye-witness testimony, records of murders, royal orders and military reports. But what does it add up to? According to science, the creature could not have existed -- yet it was seen, it killed others, and it was killed.
What do you think?
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