I was reminded tonight that there are a number of new followers and I tend to forget about self-advertising . . . so, without further ado, links to my book on werewolves (available in print, Kindle, and Nook formats):
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).
I’m reading Magic City: Recent Spells (ed. Paula Guran) and have a tough choice for favorite creation of the week:
1) Scott Lynch’s library (“In the Stacks”)
“Yes, this place has done its very best to kill the pair of us. But the books were returned to the shelves.” (176)
2) Elizabeth Bear’s story “The Slaughtered Lamb”
Werewolf drag queen . . . that’s all that needs to be said there.
Thinking about history, I think about traditional figures, particularly shapeshifters since I’ve spent a long time studying them. When I think about traditional figures, I like werewolves especially because there’s a divide between what most modern audiences consider to be traditional and what actually is traditional. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to the latter as traditional and the former as “traditional”.
The modern “traditional” is really a new phenomenon that is largely built out of Hollywood, rather than the traditional figures of folklore, legend, myth, and literature. For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on cases of supposed actual change, not psychology (Sigmund Freud, Henri Boguet, James I of England, Simon Goulart).
According to the “traditional”, werewolves have a number of interesting traits. Most of these traits would be unrecognizable to pre-modern audiences. For instance, “traditional” werewolves take a wolfman shape, sometimes in addition to a wolf shape. “Traditional” werewolves are forced to change at the full moon (a theory posited by Gervase of Tilbury in the medievla era and dismissed by his peers, a theory that was never posited again until the 18th century), possibly coming about due to theories about ties between the moon and madness. “Traditional” werewolves are regenerative and vulnerable to silver (likely tied to the moon change, also a relative cheap precious metal). Finally, “traditional” werewolves transmit their condition through biting victims (or sometimes transfer of other bodily fluids), an idea that doesn’t appear before germ theory.
On the other hand, the traditional werewolves of the ancient through early modern eras were rather different. They only had human and animal shapes, no hybrid form. They did not regenerate (nor share injuries between forms, a concept that developed in 18th c. literature). All traditional werewolves changed for one of four reasons: curse, genetics, ritual, or an item. The most well known curses are in Gerald of Wales, Ovid, and William of Palerne. Marie de France seems to work with genetics. Petronias’ werewolf and Demarchus of Acadia were ritual based. Item based change, with an attendant deal with the devil, was most commonly use in the early modern/Renaissance era. Werewolves of the eras could be cured, typically by being struck three times by certain objects (with the spread of Christianity). They were a mix of monstrous (classical and early modern) and sympathetic (classical and medieval). Virtually all traditional werewolves were male (only one female comes to mind, in Gerald of Wales), from Lycaeus to Alphouns, Bisclavret to Gorlagon.
The “traditional” has become considered traditional due, I think, to saturation. Most modern audiences know the werewolves of movies and modern horror novels (and urban fantasy of the last decade). Few know the older stories, especially the early modern, medieval, and classical.
Are the “traditional” in any way worse than the traditional? No. But, as some authors rediscover the older sources, I’ve seen readers scream that the figures “aren’t right” because they don’t have the “traditional” attributes. I think this is another area where some awareness of history and awareness of just how young some of our “traditional” things really are is helpful.
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.
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