Who's afraid of the big bad wolf? Werewolves (and us)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“Werewolves – like many monsters, especially those that can take our form – hold a mirror up to us, showing us our fears and desires, the parts of us that we would rather remain hidden, buried in the subconscious.”  

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Ovid’s Metamorphoses – his epic poem detailing over 250 myths from classical antiquity – contains the story of Lycaon, a king of Arcadia who sought to test the omniscience of the god Zeus. To do so, he served Zeus the roasted flesh of his son, Nyctimus. Zeus, however, was not fooled. To punish Lycaon for his transgressions, he transformed him into a wolf. 

Lycanthropy – the transformation from human to wolf – takes its name from Lycaon. This etymological lending was not the only feature of werewolf stories that Lycaon contributed to later narratives: in many subsequent tales, becoming a werewolf is associated specifically with the consumption of human flesh. In Silver Bullets, a collection of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century werewolf stories that I have recently selected for the British Library, this anxiety surrounding cannibalism is still detectable. This is a taboo that has spanned millennia.

In popular culture, werewolves have been somewhat overshadowed by their cousin, the sexier (and sparklier) vampire. Certainly, the two are connected in their supernatural abilities and appetite for human flesh. Werewolves, however, are closer to us as living readers. They are not the undead, but fellow living people trapped between human and animal states. They also call to mind our longstanding relationship (and co-evolution) with the domestic dog, an inter-species bond that began, some scientists speculate, when friendly wolves approached human settlements. As such, some werewolf tales feature benign werewolves, far from the evil pig-, child-, or granny-eating wolves of children’s fairy stories. 

Of course, malicious werewolves still stalked the pages of novels and literary magazines. Female werewolf stories, in particular, emerge across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; it is no coincidence that these tales were written and published at a time when women’s rights were increasingly the subject of public debate. Beautiful, seductive, and often dressed in white fur when in human form, female werewolves are typically depicted as sirens luring strapping young heroes to their doom. They also seem to have a certain taste for children, upsetting the notion of innate maternal instinct, replacing it with far more animalistic ones. They are Lycaon’s daughters, enacting mythology thousands of years older than themselves. 

One feature of twentieth-century werewolf lore which also relates to anxieties about women – the full moon as a stimulant for transformation – seems to suggest that human metamorphosis into a beast echoes the female hormonal cycle. It also evokes ‘lunacy’, temporary mental illness believed, in the Middle Ages (and to an extent, beyond), to have been related to the phases of the moon. Such features of myth-making are bound up in misogyny, as well as fear and ignorance surrounding mental illness. 

Werewolves – like many monsters, especially those that can take our form – hold a mirror up to us, showing us our fears and desires, the parts of us that we would rather remain hidden, buried in the subconscious. When Sergei Pankejeff – a patient of the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud – spoke of his dream of ‘six or seven’ white wolves sitting on a walnut tree and looking through his bedroom window, he was – according to Freud – dealing with a decidedly human issue; the trauma of having seen his parents having sex. Wolves that populate our dreams and our literature, more often than not, stand in for ourselves. Most, it seems, are merely humans in lupine clothing.

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