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Werewolves are creatures of legend immortalised in horror fiction and films

Posted in Animals, Historical articles, Legend, Magic, Myth on Wednesday, 30 October 2013

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This edited article about werewolves originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 444 published on 18 July 1970.

Priest and werewolf, picture, image, illustration

In C12 Ireland a priest has to pass the night in a wood, and while sitting by a fire he has built is approached by a talking wolf, who says that he and his wife have been cursed and transformed into werewolves and need the priest’s help

If you find the skin of a wolf hidden in the hollow of a tree, you must sprinkle the skin with pepper. That will make it too itchy for the Werewolf to wear.

But what is a werewolf and how has it come to lose its skin?

The explanation was simple to the early Europeans who believed in magic and the strange creatures that bewitchment could produce.

“Werewolf” comes from two Old English words which mean “man-wolf.” And that tells you what these creatures were thought to be.

They were men who had been changed by some magic power into wolves which hunted by night for human flesh.

At daybreak, they returned to their human form. They did this by taking off their wolf skin and hiding it. If the skin were hidden in a cold place, the owner would shiver all day. And if the skin were found and destroyed, the owner would die.

The kindest act was to pepper it so that the owner could not put it on again. Perhaps he would thus remain a human forever and put aside his vicious hunting ways.

In French-Canada, a werewolf was called a loup-garou. Here it was believed that a man became a loup-garou because of a curse or as a punishment from heaven. One man, so the story goes, became a loup-garou because he had not been to church for ten years.

For many centuries, werewolves were seen and feared in Eastern and Western Europe and Asia. It was thought that the only way to kill one was to shoot it with a silver bullet.

One of the earliest werewolves was said to have been Lycaon, a king of Greek mythology, who wanted to find out whether Zeus, the king of all the gods, was really a god.

To do this, he served Zeus with a dish of human flesh. If Zeus ate this, he was clearly not a god, reasoned Lycaon.

This challenge so outraged Zeus that he demonstrated his divine powers by turning Lycaon into a wolf. Whether the stories of werewolves sprang from this early legend is not known, for they are part of the mythology of many countries.

Belief in them was widespread in England, Wales and Ireland – and a great part of the Continent – down to the 17th century. Some people are even said to believe in them today, despite the fact that wolves are rare in many parts of the world.

Werewolves so caught people’s imagination, that many stories were told about them. One of these tells how Prince William of Apulia, in Italy, was saved from poisoning as a child by a werewolf.

This werewolf was really the heir to the kingdom of Spain, but he had been bewitched by his stepmother, the Queen of Spain.

William wanted to marry Melchior, the daughter of the emperor of Rome. The two lovers ran away together, and were protected on their journey from many evils by the werewolf.

To repay the werewolf, William went to war against the king of Spain, captured him and forced the queen to remove the spell from the werewolf.

Once he was freed from the queen’s magic the werewolf became human again and revealed that William was a prince.

This story was first told in the 14th century, but its origin is thought to be Latin. However, in England in 1605, the belief in werewolves still existed. They were thought to be magicians who smeared on their bodies an ointment which they made with the help of the devil. They then fastened around their waist a magic girdle which not only made them look like a wolf but caused them to behave like one as well.

To protect yourself from such a vicious creature, you had to carry a wolf’s tooth in your pocket as a lucky charm.

Sometimes, the werewolf was hunted, and the moment he was wounded he changed back to human form.

In countries where there were no wolves, similar stories were told about other fierce animals. Tigers, foxes, leopards, lions, crocodiles, bears and jaguars are part of the mythology of early people.

So vivid is this superstition, that some primitive people still believe in it today!

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