A werewolf in folklore and mythology is a person who shapeshifts into a wolf, either purposely, by using magic, or after being placed under a curse. The medieval chronicler Gervase of Tilbury associated the transformation with the appearance of the full moon, but this concept was rarely associated with the werewolf until the idea was picked up by modern fiction writers. Most modern references agree that a werewolf can be killed if shot by a silver bullet, although this is more a reflection of fiction’s influence than an authentic feature of the folk legends. A werewolf allegedly can be killed by complete destruction of heart or brain; silver isn’t necessary.
Many European countries and cultures have stories of werewolves, including France (loup-garou), Greece (lycanthropos), Spain (hombre lobo), Romania (varcolac), Scotland (werewolf, wulver).
In Norse mythology, the legends of Ulfhednar (an Old Norse term for a warrior with attributes parallel to those of a berserker, but with a lupine aspect rather than ursine; both terms refer to a special type of warrior capable of performing feats far beyond the abilities of normal people. Historically, this was attributed to possession by the spirit of an animal) mentioned in Haraldskvaeoi and the Volsunga saga may be a source of the werewolf myths. These were vicious fighters analogous to the better known berserker, dressed in wolf hides and said to channel the spirits of these animals, enhancing their own power and ferocity in battle; they were immune to pain and killed viciously in battle, like a wild animal. They are both closely associated with Odin.
Shape-shifters similar to werewolves are common in myths from all over the world, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves.
In Greek mythology the story of Lycaon supplies one of the earliest examples of a werewolf legend. According to one form of it Lycaon was transformed into a wolf as a result of eating human flesh; one of those who were present at periodical sacrifice on Mount Lycaon was said to suffer a similar fate.
There are women, so the Armenian belief runs, who in consequence of deadly sins are condemned to pass seven years in the form of a wolf. A spirit comes to such a woman and brings her a wolf’s skin. He orders her to put it on, and no sooner has she done this than the most frightful wolfish cravings make their appearance and soon get the upper hand. Her better nature conquered, she makes a meal of her own children, one by one, then of her relatives’ children according to the degree of relationship, and finally the children of strangers begin to fall as prey to her. She wanders forth only at night, and doors and locks spring open at her approach. When morning draws near she returns to human form and removes her wolf skin. In these cases the transformation was involuntary or virtually so. But side by side with this belief in involuntary metamorphosis, we find the belief that human beings can change themselves into animals at will and then resume their own form.
A recent theory has been proposed to explain werewolf episodes in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ergot, which causes a form of foodborne illness, is a fungus that grows in place of rye grains in wet growing seasons after very cold winters. Ergot poisoning usually affects whole towns or at least poor areas of towns and results in hallucinations, mass hysteria and paranoia, as well as convulsions and sometimes death. (LSD can be derived from ergot.)
Ergot poisoning has been proposed as both a cause of an individual believing that he or she is a werewolf and of a whole town believing that they had seen a werewolf. However, this theory is controversial and unsatisfactory. Witchcraft hysteria and legends of animal transformations, as well as hysteria and superstition in general, have existed across the world for all of recorded history. Even if ergot poisoning is found to be an accurate explanation in some cases, it cannot be applied to all instances. An over-reliance on any one theory denies the diversity and complexity of such occurrences.
Some modern researchers have tried to use conditions such as rabies, hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth over the entire body) or porphyria (an enzyme disorder with symptoms including hallucinations and paranoia) as an explanation for werewolf beliefs. Congenital erythropoietic porphyria has clinical features which include photosensitivity (so sufferers only go out at night), hairy hands and face, poorly healing skin, pink urine, and reddish colour to the teeth.
There is also a rare mental disorder called clinical lycanthropy, in which an affected person has a delusional belief that he or she is transforming into another animal, although not always a wolf or werewolf.
Others believe werewolf legends arose as a part of shamanism and totem animals in primitive and nature-based cultures.
So when you see a werewolf on the screen, remember the folklore has been around for a long time. Does it make you wonder if even a little bit is true?