De-Bunking Myths, Seeking Werewolves

For whatever reason, I’ve been seeing a lot of people bemoaning modern werewolf stories, whining that “werewolves have become sympathetic” as if this is both new and bad.

Rather than respond to each individually, I thought I’d do a list of werewolves in one place instead. Because this is an incomplete list, I’m limiting it to European, mostly named, and pre-modern (mostly to demonstrate a point):

Alphesiboeus & Moeris – werewolves in Greece, no ethical commentary given (Virgil, Eclogue VIII, 1st c. BCE)

Niceros’s Soldier – potentially violent werewolf, but no violent action in the story (Petronius, Satyricon, 1st c. CE)

Lycaon – man cursed by Zeus with a wolf shape for crimes against the gods (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1st c. CE)

Demarchus – one of many werewolves of Arcadia, Olympic champion (Pausanias, The Description of Greece, 2nd c. CE; also mentioned by St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, 4th/5th c.)

——— – neutral discussion of werewolves (Isidore of Seville, 6th/7th c. CE)

Alphouns – sympathetic werewolf, prince of Spain (Guillaume de Palerne, 12th c.; translated to English as William of Palerne, 14th c.)

Bisclavret – sympathetic knight-werewolf (Marie de France, “Bisclavret”, 12th c.)

Ossory-Meath Werewolves – sympathetic werewolves, married couple (Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, 12th c.)

Gorlagon – sympathetic werewolf, king (Anon., “Arthur & Gorlagon”, 14th c.)

Peeter Stubbe – monstrous werewolf, put on trial in Germany (1590)

Jean Grenier – monstrous, yet sympathetic, child werewolf, put on trial in France, deemed psychosis (1603)

Ferdinand – psychosis werewolf induced by incestuous desire (John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, 1614)

Wolf – the monstrous wolf-man of Little Red Riding Hood (Charles Perrault, 1697).

As we can see, the sympathetic and monstrous varieties of werewolves have existed side-by-side for well over 2000 years. In fact, the sympathetic werewolf seems to trace back further in history (and pre-history) than the monstrous variety (see Adam Douglas, The Beast Within, for a good starting history of the figure).

The Modern Literary Werewolf

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Werewolf Story

Last night I read “The Rabbi Who was Turned into a Werewolf” from The Mayse Book (1602).  There are a lot of parallels to Marie de France’s “Bisclavret” and William of Palerne.  More Marie than the other, but there are still a few echoes.  It is also a lot more mysogynistic than its predecessors.

That said, I find it rather interesting.  What I find most interesting is that it is an early modern sympathetic werewolf tale and story-genre fiction.  The early-17th century accounts are all “monstrous werewolf” or “lycanthropy as mental illness” in form, as are their 16th century predecessors.  So, based on that alone, I find this sympathetic story stands out.  The genre is also an interesting thing.  Every discussion of werewolves after the 14th century, at least based on my research (dissertation and book), is a treatise, court document, broadsheet, memoir, or play (in fact, I can only think of one play).  This story, hearkening back to both the subject matter and form of the 12th and 14th centuries, seems to be a throw back.

In fact, I wonder how much it predates The Mayse Book.  Based on its components, I suspect it is probably a 13th or 14th century story, although it could be older, that managed to survive long enough in popularity within Europe’s Jewish community to be transcribed into the 17th century book.