Happy Halloween: Learning about Werewolves from Ancient Texts

This week I went full speed down a lykanthropic rabbit-hole. (Well, maybe I should call it a wolf-hole or something?).  Having the time to pursue sudden and intense interests is one of the nice things about having tenure.  The ability to do so with some speed and knowledge is the nice thing of so many years flipping through dictionaries and sneezing in libraries.

One of the many reasons we started this site (in addition to combating all the false and unattributed quotations online, bringing lesser known material to wider audiences, and entertaining ourselves) is that we wanted the impetus and opportunity to explore material only tangentially connected to our work inside and outside the classroom. More often than not, these boundaries blur–sometimes the classroom spills over here.  Other times, our ‘discoveries’ and fleeting obsessions start here and end up back in the classroom.

Did the Wolf Win or Lose this FIght?
Did the Wolf Win or Lose this Fight?

This interest in ancient werewolves started on a Monday morning.  I wanted to do something thematic for Halloween.  I ended up devoting a week to it.  Here are the sources I’ve gathered in rough chronological order. Most of the material is mentioned in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, although the entry says nothing about the medical texts.

  1. Herodotus’ Histories: A Description of the Neuri, a tribe near the Skythians who could turn into wolves and back.
  2. Plato’s Republic: Lycanthropy is used as a metaphor for the compulsive behavior of tyrants.
  3. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: Pliny describes the origins of ideas about lycanthropy and blames the traditions on the credulity of the Greeks!
  4. Petronius’ Satyricon: A character tells the story of a companion transforming into a wolf at night and back at day.
  5. Pausanias’ Geography of Greece: Like Pliny, Pausanias tells the story of the human sacrifice performed by Lykaon as an origin of lycanthropic narratives.
  6. Greek Medical Treatises on the Treatment of Lycanthropy: Medical authors from the time of Marcus Aurelius to the fall of Byzantium treat lycanthropy as a mental illness.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, City of God:  St. Augustine (5th Century CE) gives an account similar to Pliny’s, but attributes it to Varro.
  8. Michael Psellus, Poemata 9.841:An 11th century CE monk wrote a book of didactic poems about medicine. His description of lycanthropy is clearly influenced by the Greek medical treatises.

What I have learned from these texts:

  1. The early Greek tradition is harmonious with some structural aspects of Greek myth.  Lycanthropy is related to sacrilegious eating–in a system where what you eat communicates who you are, human flesh is taboo (monsters eat it).  In the Greek lycanthropic tradition, this is non mono-directional. Werewolves who abstain from human flesh can turn back again.
  2. The later ‘folkloric’ tradition (e.g. Petronius) is separate from this structural logic. in the earlier tradition, men transform for 9-10 years (in something of a purificatory period). The other tradition has shorter periods (nightly) that don’t correlate with sacrilege: Petronius’ werewolf doesn’t eat human flesh (that we know of).
  3. The moon-association may be a later accretion on the tradition. All of the medical texts associate werewolves with the night; the Roman texts agree. The lunar cycle may be implied in the Petronius tale (where the transformation happens when the light is almost as bright as day) or in the later medical texts vis a vis the connection with menstrual cycles.
  4. There is one hint of a dog-bite being associated with lycanthropy, but no foundational notion that you contract lycanthropy from a werewolf.  In addition, there are no specific suggestions or methods for how to kill a werewolf.

The most fascinating thing for me is the therapeutic approach. First, the evidence provides us with an invaluable perspective on the rationalization of a superstition. The medical world reflected in these texts seems not to believe in lycanthropy as a literal transformation but instead as a psychological phenomenon. Such a response is really important on its own.

But another angle to be explored is the extent to which phenomena we recognize as psychological maladies are “psychogenic” or “sociogenic”, that is, the tendency for some psychological conditions to manifest and cluster only in certain cultural contexts–anorexia in North America, Hikikomori (shut-in syndrome) in Japan, and magical penis thieves in Nigeria. (These examples all come from a brilliant article years back in Harpers, “A Mind Dismembered“, by Frank Bures.

Far from being merely ‘academic’ in interest, an example like that of lycanthropy as a mental illness–if taken seriously–can contribute to the comparative and historical study of the culturally constitutive and regressive nature of mental health. Taking this perspective can help us put the absurdity of the medical treatises in a different perspective. While it may seem insane to us that the behavior described as lycanthropy would be treated with bloodletting and pumpkin salves, imagine the critique that early psychological treatments for homosexuality, post-partum depression vel sim might receive in just a few generations?

Bringing historical and comparative perspectives to bear on such issues can help us better conceptualize the conditions that make the most pernicious of cultural syndromes thrive. In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Malcom Gladwell addresses the issue of mass school shootings and applies–in a typical Gladwellian move–the work of a sociologist named Mark Granovetter (his threshold hypothesis) to situate these acts of violence in a larger cultural context. The basic proposal that such behavior does not require individual psychosis but may instead that cultural models and trends can lower the ‘threshold’ for non-psychotic individuals to engage in such acts may help to explain the clustering and concentration of certain aberrant behaviors in specific times and places.

I know that it is a long way from werewolves in Ancient Greece to mass shootings in Modern America–and I may be too hopped up on sugar from candy stolen from my children–but I do think that the psychology aspect of Greek medical treatises probably needs a lot more study.

(But probably not by me…)

8 thoughts on “Happy Halloween: Learning about Werewolves from Ancient Texts

  1. This is delightful. I don’t often see it mentioned, as it’s one of the more rarely performed works. The Magic Penis Thieves of Nigeria is one of my very favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operas.

  2. So, the association with the moon, the need for silver to kill the werewolf, and transmission of the “infection” via bite? It’s been awhile, but I believe most of that is only of 20th century vintage, invented for the movies. Most werewolf folklore revolves around people cursed to become werewolves, or who choose to do so via magic. Vampires were the ones whose victims sometimes became vampires themselves, not werewolves.

      1. It was a lot of fun to do. I am glad that so many people seem to like it. I wish I had planned it and been a bit more thorough, but I think it worked out well enough.

    1. I think that the moon and bite stuff is there in the mention of a dog bit and the association with menstruation, but those things are tangential rather than direct. But, you’re right in implying that most of what we ‘know’ about werewolves is modern

      1. So apparently the silver weapons bit, at least, was definitely invented in 1941 for The Wolf Man. I think the rest was probably in the mix but not completely defined or as definite as is it is now, as is the way with folklore. At least one guy I used to bs about this stuff with felt that the 19th century started the process of “codifying” these monsters and giving them defined characteristics partially to keep up with our understanding of disease and as part of the process of bringing the rational into everything in those days. I think you still see this-look at how zombies went from being a pretty transparent fear of slavery that you cannot escape even in death in Haitian folklore to cannibalistic creatures usually (though not always) motivated by something “scientificish” that people were currently interested in or afraid of (radiation/space explorations in Night of the Living Dead in 1968 to more supernatural explanations in the 1970s as The Exorcist came into vogue to pesticides in late 70s/early 80s films like Toxic Zombies and The Grapes of Death to medical waste/testing in 1986 with Return of the Living Dead to the most common current explanation of a virus, usually engineered in a lab). Simply saying someone was “cursed” or used magical means or violated the taboo of eating human flesh gave way to something that behaved more like the diseases we were just learning about. Of course, there’s also something to be said how fear of breaking taboos/unclean things are still in horror (though not necessarily werewolves) going by the examples I gave above in the zombie genre.

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