The natural history of the European werewolf

Where did the European werewolf come from and why did this particular mythology become so powerful that we're still telling stories about it today?

In a fascinating talk recorded at Skepticon 5 last month, Deborah Hyde discusses the history of lycanthropy and its various roles in European society. Lycanthropy was more than one thing, Hyde explains. It functioned as a legitimate medical diagnosis — usually denoting some kind of psychotic break. It served as a placeholder to explain anything particularly horrific — like the case of a French serial killer. And, probably most importantly, lycanthropy went hand-in-hand with witchcraft as part of the Inquisition.

Hyde is the editor of The Skeptic magazine and she blogs about the cultural history of belief in the supernatural. As part of this talk, she's tracked down cases of werewolf trials in the 16th and 17th centuries and attempted to understand why people were charged with lycanthropy, what connected those cases to one another, and the role the trials played in the history of religious liberty. Great stuff!

Read Deborah Hyde's blog


  1.  I didn’t read the blog post, so if the following is already in there, I apologize.

    I recently read somewhere that the frequency of werewolf sighting reports in various locations in medieval Europe correlates well with the areas where rye was used instead of wheat to make bread.

    Rye is highly susceptible to a fungus called ergot, which can make people sick, and cause hallucinations, among other symptoms.

    1. Interestingly I’ve also heard ergot blamed from the Salem witch trials–or rather the seizures and hallucinations which would eventually lead to the trials.

      I know some scholars have put forth the idea that hunter-gatherer cultures revere the wolf rather than fear it, whereas agricultural societies tend to fear wolves. It’s further suggested that lycanthropy arose from the fear of wolves. Actually that idea, under scrutiny, seems a little too simplistic. The Cherokee, for instance, had a dislike of wolves–although there weren’t that many wolves in their area, so you could say in their case unfamiliarity bred contempt.

      1. Actually, before the Cherokee entered the country, there was a ‘werewolf’ cult that flourished in the area that the Cherokee would later have to cross to arrive in their Southern mountain territory. The priests of this cult had their incisor and lateral incisor teeth surgically removed, and the corresponding teeth and carved jawbone of a wolf inserted in their place. Nothing is known of the rites of these priests, or whether they died naturally or were sacrificed, but their bodies were tightly stitched up in rawhide bags—straitjacket-like—and their heads were crushed.

  2. Dr. Hyde mentions that werewolves are traditionally a “lower class” phenomenon, which is generally, but not always true. Although I guess it really depends on your definition of “werewolf”. She mentions at least one person who would now be classified as a serial killer who was called a werewolf, and Sabine Baring-Gould devotes much of his book about the werewolf not so much to people who believed they were wolves but people we’d also classify as serial killers. His examples include two prominent nobles, the Countess Bathory (who actually gets more often compared with vampires), and the real Bluebeard, Gilles de Rais.

    There’s also King Nebuchadnezzar II, who, for a time, reportedly thought he was a cow–an affliction that’s rarer than lycanthropy, but still common enough that you’ll find the term “boanthropy” in the OED.

  3. What’s wrong with Boing Boing’s comments?  The words are getting cut off by the ads on the right hand side. I just noticed it is also cutting off ‘Like’ & ‘Reply.’ Is it me or the site?

    1. I just installed AdBlock and it fixed that problem.  Sorry Boing Boing, I wish I didn’t have to do that, but you left me no choice (except leave and never come back, which is hardly a viable option.)

  4. @boingboing-8ff3d2721aac09f2f0a9f41964db46b4:disqus  : in both cases of Gilles de Rais and Countess Bathory, there were strong political schemes upon them… even if Mr De Rais was surely a kind a serial killer, it was mainly because he was ruining his family’s reputation AND wealth that he was get on a trial… Sorcery accusation was an easy way to get rid of somebody in these times.

    1. That’s fascinating. I really brought them up as examples of lycanthropy not being strictly limited to the lower classes. I think accusing people in the lower classes of being susceptible to becoming werewolves was, at least in part, a way of keeping them “in their place”. It makes sense, though, that such accusations could be used against nobles for strictly political purposes.

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