Lycanthrope: Werewolves from mythology and beyond

Aparna Chatterjee

Human curiosity knows no limit. While this fascination can lead to the discovery of the theory of relativity and compel others to some lucid dream, human-animal hybrid characters leave no stone unaltered in arousing the imagination of curiosity-seekers throughout the world. We have angels, human-like figures with wings, Sekhmet, a woman with a cat head, Centaurs having the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse, Bai Ze having the head of a human being with the body of the cattle, etc. We have Lord Matsya having a human-fish hybrid body, Lord Narsimha having the head and claws of a lion with the human body, Garuda having an eagle and human-hybrid body. Indian, Greek, Egyptian, East Asian, Christian, and Arabic myths flourished on such characters. Werewolves, or Lycanthrope, how the Greeks refer to those mythical creatures is just one of many personifications.

The origin of werewolves is as old as 1150 AD. Contrary to the popular belief that werewolves are a sort of human-wolf hybrid, it’s a creature with shape-shifting ability. That means this creature can become a normal-looking human being and then into a wolf or mixture of both when they can. In ancient Greek, tales of Lycanthropic soldiers are frequent. One of such tales, in particular, is about Lycaon, the king of Arcadia. Zeus, the god of the sky, had invited Lycaon for dinner. Thinking this to be some trick, Lycaon wanted to know his real name.  Lycaon tried to feed Zeus human flesh and hired assassins to kill him in his sleep to test his immortality. Angered by these actions, Zeus killed Lycaon’s sons with his lightning bolts and cursed Lycaon to become the first-ever Lycanthrope. Later, Lycaon formed the famous army of Lycanthropes who worked for Orion, a giant.

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.”

Plato.

The folklores of werewolves grew pretty parallel to that of witches and vampires but minus the grandeur of Greek mythological characters. However, the second name of the werewolves was fear. Just like the vampires, a person could become a werewolf by getting bitten or scratched by them. If not eaten by the werewolves, of course! Scandinavians had it a bit, kveldlf or evening-wolf after Kveldulf Bjalfason from the Icelandic saga, a mighty Viking military commander and a well-known landowner from the 9th century. Europe was full of wolves, and wolf attacks were common incidents at that time. Wolves are humongous and smart; attack in well-coordinated packs. That was the perfect scenario for many folklores to pop up and spread widely as possible.

In the Nordic region, the fear of the wolf started right from the Gods. Loki, a juton, was a very capable shape-shifter, who had several non-human children, one of which was Fenrir. The Gods feared Fenrir as he was prophesized to kill Odin. Therefore, he was kept under the control of the Gods right from his birth. Being scared of the might of Fenrir, they kept him chained up with his mouth kept open pierced with a sword where his drooling formed a river. He stayed there as long as the great Ragnarök happened.  In Ragnarök, he fought with Odin and eventually got killed by Thor, the son of Odin. His might, power, and size made people tremble with fear while the earth herself would shake on each of his steps. Another version of the story is where the Gods don’t care about Odin and let Fenrir live, thinking about the wrath that can come from this mighty wolf’s blood.

So far, we saw this creature only in our mythology. But is it possible for those to exist in recent times? In 2017 a weird human-like skull was discovered by a farmer in Europe. The locals dreaded that that was a bad omen, and the mighty beasts would return. On further scientific analysis, it was discovered that the skull belonged to a wolf suffering from Paget’s disease, in which the skulls grow larger than usual. Then, there is the case of clinical lycanthropy, a psychiatric condition, in which the person has a delusion that they can transform into an animal. It is being argued that people claiming to see werewolves saw a person suffering from congenital porphyria as the symptoms like photosensitivity, reddish teeth, and erratic psychological behavior match with the usual description of the werewolves. Additionally, the victims of hypertrichosis could also have been accused of being werewolves as this condition inhibits immense growth of hair all over the body. It has also been coined that the idea of one turning into a werewolf on being scratched or bitten has manifested by the victim suffering from rabies.

The character comes from a time when anything and everything abnormal was stated as satanic. Thousands of women were burnt alive on the stake under the pretext of being witches, and more people were slaughtered in vampire hunts. One can only imagine what would happen if a person suffering from an unknown dreadful disease discovered in current times? But, would humans be so naïve to create such grand tales based on mere speculations? Or, was this something only a God could do. Is it possible that somewhere around the world, in a quiet town still intact of its forest, live these shape-shifters who are well versed with the standard/acceptable way of human living and have tamed down to eat meat from the butcher shop? I guess we’ll never know.

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