Basically, a person changes into a wolf-like creature, willfully or through a curse. Often transforming during the full moon, werewolves delight in human flesh, prowling about at night for their victims.
Similar ideas are are found on just about every continent. And when a wolf image is absent, some other menacing animal takes its place—for instance, the Chinese and Japanese tiger; the African leopard, lion and crocodile; the Greek and Turkish boar; the North American bear; and the South American jaguar.
In North America the Navaho are said to change into a wolf and practice witchcraft to the detriment of human beings.
The European persecution of so-called werewolves began in what is now Switzerland:
The werewolf is a widespread concept in European folklore, existing in many variants which are related by a common development of a Christian interpretation of underlying Indo-European mythology which developed during the medieval period. From the early modern period, werewolf beliefs also spread to the New World with colonialism. Belief in werewolf develops parallel to the belief in witches, in the course of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Like the witchcraft trials as a whole, the trial of supposed werewolves emerges in what is now Switzerland (especially the Valais and Vaud) in the early 15th century and spreads throughout Europe in the 16th, peaking in the 17th and subsiding by the 18th century. The persecution of werewolves and the associated folklore is an integral part of the “witch-hunt” phenomenon, albeit a marginal one, accusations of werewolfery being involved in only a small fraction of witchcraft trials.¹
The belief in werewolves was so rampant in the 15th and 16th centuries that approximately 30,000 people were executed in France for this mystical violation of mankind and nature.²
Like the vampire myth, some see the werewolf as an all-too-human metaphor for warped psychological development, bad moral judgment, lack of self-control and an overwhelming sex drive. Sexual predators are sometimes called werewolves. This should not be confused with the idea of the cougar, an older women looking for sex with a younger man. The word werewolf has a much darker tone, and hardly any good comes from it. Cougars, on the other hand, can be seen as pleasurable and respected.³
A contemporary “werewolf” in the symbolic sense could also be a criminal mastermind who shrewdly marries a naive person to advance their career and gain social legitimacy. This kind of werewolf has a dual nature. Part respected professional and part sleazeball manipulator.
We usually hear a lot about male werewolves, but female werewolves are also portrayed in fiction. A notable example is found in the Canadian film Ginger Snaps (2000).
Today, fictional werewolves often emerge through some kind of hereditary trait or infectious disease transmitted through the blood, a kind of fusion of modern science and ancient myth.
² Stuart Gordon, The Encylopedia of Myths and Legends, London: Headline, 1993, p. 727.
- Maria Leach, ed., The Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, New York: Harper & Row, 1984, p. 1170.