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The Werewolf: Examining the History Behind One of the Most Enduring Monster Myths

The following is just one of many fascinating articles in Darklore Volume 9 (available from Amazon US and Amazon UK). More information about all of the articles in Darklore Volume 9 can be found here.

The Lycanthropes

by Robert M. Schoch, PhD

In the Biblical book of Daniel it is recounted that God humbled the mighty Babylonian king and conqueror of Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar (reigned circa 605–562 BCE), in the following manner. Nebuchadnezzar was “transformed” into a wild beast living in the fields for seven years, away from humanity, eating grass as cattle do. Was this a bout of insanity, the earliest recorded case of the clinical psychiatric delusion now commonly referred to as lycanthropy?

The term lycanthropy, derived from the Greek lykos = wolf and anthropos = human, specifically refers to the supposed transformation of a human into a wolf – that is, a werewolf (also “werwolf”, from the Old English were or wer = adult male human and wulf = wolf) or lycanthrope. In the modern psychiatric literature lycanthropy generically refers to the delusion that one can undergo metamorphosis into an animal, be it a wolf or some other beast (also referred to as therianthropy or zoanthropy). In the psychiatric literature various patients have thought themselves transformed not only into a wolf or werewolf, but also into a dog, cat, tiger, cow, horse, rabbit, gerbil, bird, frog, bee, and various unspecified animals. In the classical, medieval, anthropological, and folkloric literature some of the animals most frequently encountered – depending on the geographic region – are wolves (around the world in the Northern Hemisphere), leopards (Africa and Asia), jackals (Africa and Asia), hyenas (Africa and Asia), tigers (Asia), bears (Americas, Europe, and Asia), cougars or pumas (Americas), and other large carnivores.


As commonly construed, however, the concept of lycanthropy includes much more than a simple clinical condition of delusions and/or hallucinations. Traditionally, in folklore and mythology, some humans are said to have been physically transformed into animals. Certainly this strains modern credulity and is open to serious question. According to one version of an ancient Greek myth (for there are many contradictory versions), mentioned by Hesiod (circa 8th–7th century BCE) and retold by later writers, Lycaon (king of Arcadia) killed and cooked one of his own sons, serving the resulting dish to Zeus in order to test the god’s true divinity. As punishment for such impiety, and the horrific deed carried out, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf. Of course this is only a myth, and not to be taken literally, but many modern stories of lycanthropy from Africa have, at least by some, been taken quite seriously. Here is a typical example, which took place in Northern Nigeria in 1915.

Lieutenant F. was camped near the village of an inferior tribe. Some hyenas had made depredations in the flocks, and the lieutenant sat on watch at a short distance from a goat tied up as bait. As soon as a hyena appeared, and before it could attack the goat, he fired twice and wounded the beast, which fled. Twenty-five minutes later drumming was heard in the village summoning the inhabitants to a funeral, as is usual with them in the event of a death.

With the first light of dawn the officer followed up on the tracks of the wounded beast, noticing that these pointed towards the village, up to a place where there was a zone of mould worked by black ants. There the print[s] of paws ceased and were replaced by human footsteps, which went towards the village as far as its entrance. A short time later the lieutenant was told of the death of one of the notables, who had died during the night of a large gunshot wound in the head. No one knew how it had been produced, but they would not allow the officer to see the body.

Lieutenant F. recounted other similar cases, including examples where a hyena (or another beast) was wounded in a trap and fled, followed by drumming from the village announcing a death and funeral. Each time when he followed the tracks of the wounded animal they led to a black ant mound and there the tracks changed from paw prints to human footprints.

Another similar case (one of many) from the same time period, and also from Northern Nigeria, was relayed by a certain Captain H. H. Shott.

The captain…[shot]…a very large hyena, whose tracks were easy to trace. Severely wounded in the head, it fled across a field. The tracks were followed at once. They led to a place where the lower jaw of the animal was found lying near a large pool of blood. Immediately after the prints led to a path towards the village.

On the next day the inhabitants presented themselves to Captain Shott, to tell him, without any signs of regret, that he had killed their Nefada (junior chief), who had lost his lower jaw, carried off evidently by a gunshot… The Nefada had a bad reputation; everyone knew that he was a man-hyena and that he transformed himself into an enormous beast of this kind showing extraordinary astuteness.

What do we make of such stories? The classic explanation is that these are not true lycanthropic transformations at all, but simply cases where perfectly normal humans dressed up as animals, including “shoes” and “gloves” made of animal paws, and then went prowling. It is reported that in Africa there were secret societies of men who promoted the belief in lycanthropy among the general populace, and they went on rampages dressed as various animals – leopards, hyenas, crocodiles, and so forth. The members of these societies were reported to be cruel and sadistic, and often cannibalistic – in their beastly forms they not only attacked and ate raw wild animals, but also human victims. To disguise themselves and their activities, they deliberately left “animal tracks” on the ground.

But would experienced colonial military officers, such as Lieutenant F. and Captain Shott, have consistently mistaken, even at night, men dressed as animals for genuine wild beasts? Although this may seem unlikely, the alternative (that men could really transform into animals and then back into men) is even more difficult to accept.

Along the same lines as the secret societies of Africa, in Medieval and Renaissance Europe the concept of lycanthropes (werewolves) was associated with witchcraft (witches would meet together in secret) and with outright criminal activity. An infamous case of a supposed “werewolf” was that of Peter Stumpp (also known by numerous other names, including Peter Stübbe, Peter Stumpf, Abal Griswold, Abil Griswold, and Ubel Griswold). A wealthy farmer from the area of Bedburg (North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany), in 1589 Stumpp was tried, convicted, tortured, and executed for being a werewolf. He confessed, under the threat of torture, to killing and cannibalizing fourteen children and two pregnant women whose fetuses he tore from their wombs, devouring the babies’ hearts. Stumpp admitted to practicing black magic and claimed that he had a special belt, courtesy of the Devil, which when he wore it turned him into a ferocious wolf. Despite the overlay of magic and lycanthropy, from a modern perspective Stumpp can be viewed as a vicious serial killer. Furthermore, he may have suffered from some severe form of psychosis resulting in loss of mental and emotional contact with reality and delusional thinking.

A Werewolf; print by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553)

All in the Mind?

By various modern medical analyses, lycanthropic symptoms and phenomena can be associated with a number of different types of mental disorders, including but not limited to various types of psychoses, psychotic depression, affective disorders (mood disorders), various types and levels of depression, dementia, hysteria (a rather classic nineteenth-century diagnosis), bipolar disorder, epilepsy, and schizophrenia. As P. Garlipp and colleagues (of the Hanover Medical School, Germany) write,

The symptomatology can be seen as a continuity spectrum of development and culture dependent normal behaviour via transitional . . . and partial forms to the whole picture of lycanthropy . . . People who live in preindustrial societies and people living on isolated countrysides are predisposed. Other precipitating factors seem to be subconscious sexual conflicts.

Lycanthropic impulses and tendencies may be induced by or exacerbated by the use of drugs. Hallucinations involving metamorphoses into various animals both real and mythological due to drug ingestion are well documented. In the past lycanthropic psychoses, behaving like a wild animal and the sensation of growing fur or feathers, may have been brought on specifically by the use of belladonna (favored in some witchcraft circles) and similar drugs. In medieval times a condition known as versipellis, or a changing of the skin (“Turnskin”, and by extension, a changing of shape or form), which in modern terms was probably the condition known as paraesthesias (a tingling sensation caused by nerve damage), may have been caused by ointments and salves used by witches. Such versipellis, in turn, was interpreted as evidence of hair growing on the inside of the skin, which in turn was evidence that a person was transforming into a werewolf.

The use of various drugs among indigenous peoples in the Americas was widespread. In this context, Caesar de Vesme names such substances as coca, tobacco, peyotl (peyote), mezcal, cohoba, huanto, and yagé (=ayahuasca).

Working in Colombia among the tribes of the Caquetá region in the late nineteenth century, Dr. Rafael Zerda Bayon observed,

The patient who has ingested the yagé sometimes thinks himself to be an animal, according to the greater or less interest which certain species inspire; it may be the puma, the tapir, the cobra, or some other wild animal. . . . He then runs to the forest, imitating the actions of the beast into which he thinks he has been changed, attacking and seeking to devour such individuals as he may meet.

Although in modern times documented cases of fully developed lycanthropy and/or associated symptoms apparently induced by drug use are rare, perhaps because the general public no longer strongly “believes” in werewolves and like entities (that is, the form mental disorders take can be culturally bound or affected), lycanthropic symptoms associated with drug use are still occasionally documented. A case in point is an Iranian man who developed delusional symptoms and a variant form of lycanthropy after consuming the drug ecstasy, which he took as part of a program at an “unofficial opium cessation center”. Lycanthropic symptoms have also been associated with psychotropic substances such as cannabinoids, alcohol abuse, and various forms of drug abuse generally.

Another mental condition that has been sometimes associated with lycanthropy is that of extreme suggestibility, often associated with forms of hysteria. Various forms of this phenomenon are known under diverse names around the globe; for instance, latah in Malaysia and miryachit or olonism among the people of the Siberian region. The anthropologist J. H. Hutton provides a graphic description:

Yet another pathological condition may contribute to cases of lycanthropy, and that is the condition of extreme suggestibility known to Malays as latah. It is a common game among Malay children to pick out a child subject to this affliction and if it be a male, make it think it is, say, a civet cat and behave accordingly, pouncing on chickens and devouring them raw and so forth. Similarly, small girls are caused to suppose themselves apes, when they perform feats of arboreal agility quite inconceivably impossible to them in a normal state. The subject is hypnotized by being made to go on all fours when he is covered with a sheet and patted and stroked by other children marching round and round repeating a rhymed formula which is changed when the hypnosis begins to take effect. The subject loses consciousness of his humanity and becomes as one possessed. In the belief that he is a polecat or a peacock or whatever animal is chosen (sometimes it is an elephant) he chases the others, climbs up trees, leaps from branch to branch and risks serious injury by venturing on boughs too frail to support him. In the end he is recalled to his senses and humanity by repeatedly addressing him by name. Parents naturally are much averse to hypnotic diversions of this kind being practised on their children. Suggestibility of this sort seems to be sometimes contagious. Oesterreich quotes a case of an hysterical nun who supposed herself a cat, and from whom the delusion spread to the convent generally, the whole company of nuns running about and mewing like cats. Another case is quoted of hysteria in a girl who, when in the country, used to bark like a dog. Hysteria of this kind must no doubt share with spiteful responsibility for beliefs in demoniacal possession.

External Physical Maladies

There were physical characteristics that in some cases were used to label “werewolves”, such as eyebrows that met in the middle of the forehead. By the power of suggestion, someone who was marked by his or her culture and community as a potential lycanthrope might indeed take on the attributes, behavioral and psychological, ascribed to him or her. Then there are even more obvious, but also very rare, physical characteristics that might suggest the concept of a lycanthrope.

In terms of the hirsute, perhaps the extreme cases are hypertrichosis (Ambras or werewolf syndrome) and related medical conditions in which abnormal amounts of hair can grow on the face and body, giving the appearance of a werewolf. A famous early example of a person with this syndrome is Petrus Gonsalvus (Pedro Gonzalez), who was born in Tenerife (Canary Islands) in 1537, was a member of the courts of France and the Spanish Netherlands, married and had seven children (four of them also had hypertrichosis), and died sometime after circa 1617. Gonsalvus was treated fairly well, as far as can be determined, although some contemporaries apparently viewed him as sub-human. In the 19th and early 20th centuries some such persons were relegated to freak shows and circuses – a famous example is Fedor Jeftichew (1868–1904), known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy/Man who appeared in Russian sideshows and was brought to the United States by P. T. Barnum for his circus. But in earlier times might cases of hypertrichosis have inspired tales of werewolves? Possibly, except that such medical cases are incredibly rare and tales of lycanthropes appear around the world among virtually all peoples and cultures.

Portrait of Petrus Gonsalvus and his wife by Joris Hoefnagel (Georg Hoefnagel; 1
Besides extreme hypertrichosis, there is another medical condition with oftentimes extreme and obvious physical symptoms that has been proposed as the historical basis for some lycanthropic beliefs: congenital porphyria. Porphyria is a rare hereditary disease associated with abnormal metabolism of blood hemoglobin. Porphyrins, a group of natural organic compounds essential for the proper functioning of hemoglobin, build up in the body. This can cause many complications, including affecting the skin, internal organs, and the nervous system. Persons with the disease may have an extreme sensitivity to light, they may excrete dark-colored urine, and they may be mentally disturbed.

Cutaneous porphyrias, forms of the disease that include oversensitivity to sunlight, are characterized by such symptoms as: “Sensitivity to the sun and sometimes artificial light, causing burning pain”, “Sudden painful skin redness (erythema) and swelling (edema)”, “Blisters that take weeks to heal”, “Itching”, “Fragile skin”, “Scars or skin color changes from healing blisters”, “Increased hair growth”, and “Red or brown urine”. Acute porphyrias, forms of the disease affecting the nervous system, include the following types of symptoms: “Severe abdominal pain”, “Swelling of the abdomen (abdominal distention)”, “Pain in [the]…chest, legs or back”, “Constipation or diarrhea”, “Vomiting”, “Insomnia”, “Heartbeat…(palpitations)”, “High blood pressure”, “Anxiety or restlessness”, “Seizures”, “Mental changes, such as confusion, hallucinations, disorientation or paranoia”, “Breathing problems”, “Muscle pain, tingling, numbness, weakness or paralysis”, and “Red or brown urine”.

In addition to the symptoms listed above, in porphyria, skin lesions (due to extreme photosensitivity) can ulcerate and the ulcers in turn can severely affect cartilage and bone. Over the years various exposed body parts, such as the head, face, hands, arms, and legs (and any other body parts an individual may expose to sunlight) can become progressively scarred and mutilated. Additionally, hypertrichosis (although not of the same extent or nature as we discussed above relative to Petrus Gonsalvus and Fedor Jeftichew) and abnormal pigmentation may develop. The teeth may appear red or reddish-brown due to the porphyrins building up on dental surfaces. Individuals with the disease may also suffer from jaundice, giving a pale or yellowish discoloration to the skin, and they may have red eyes. Epilepsy has also been associated with the syndrome.

Classical and medieval Byzantine physicians (who carried on the classical traditions of late antiquity) describe lycanthropy not so much in terms of “hairiness”, but in terms that arguably better fit porphyria. For instance, the seventh century Byzantine physician Paul of Aegina, summarizing earlier writings on the subject, had this to say:

Those labouring under lycanthropy go out during the night imitating wolves in all things, and lingering about sepulchres until morning. You may recognize these persons by these marks; they are pale, their vision feeble, their eyes dry, tongue very dry and the flow of the saliva stopped; but they are thirsty, and their legs have incurable ulcerations from frequent falls.

Returning to the suggestion that porphyria may have inspired or underlain some forms of lycanthropy, L. Illis writes,

[S]uch a person [suffering from the disease], because of photosensitivity and the resultant disfigurement, may choose only to wander about at night. The pale, yellowish, excoriated skin…together with hypertrichosis and pigmentation, fit well with the descriptions, in older literature, of werwolves [werewolves]. The unhappy person may be mentally disturbed, and show some type or degree of abnormal behaviour. In ancient times this would be accentuated by the physical and social treatment he received from the other villagers, whose instincts would be to explain the apparition in terms of witchcraft or Satanic possession.

Psychic Links with Wild Beasts

There is another aspect of lycanthropy that particularly interests me, given my serious studies of psychic (parapsychological) phenomena. Some lycanthropes do not claim to physically transform their human body into that of an animal, but rather they develop a telepathic rapport with a genuine wild animal or project their “astral body” into a wolf, jackal, hyena, leopard, or some other animal in the wild. This concept of psychically linking with an animal has been popularized in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series and the television shows based upon it. In Martin’s novels, a “skinchanger” is a person who can psychically enter and bond with an animal, seeing through the animal’s eyes, and controlling the animal’s actions; a “warg” is a skinchanger who can link with a dog or wolf. In the television series, the term “warging” is used as the equivalent of “skinchanging” and the term “warg” has been expanded to include individuals who may psychically link with animals other than wolves (just as in “real life” the terms lycanthropy and lycanthrope have been generally applied to cases involving not only humans transforming into wolves, but into other animals as well).

Returning to the anthropological and psychical literature, of such projection into a wild animal Caesar de Vesme cited the comments of a Mr. André Nervin (reporting from Dakar, Senegal, in 1908) who stated:

They showed me the ‘empty’ body [in some form of a trance state] of a sorcerer who had gone on one of these expeditions [projecting his “soul” or “astral body” into an animal].

You can touch him, strike him, prick him, cut him, or sit down on him. Put your hand over his heart; you will feel no beating, for he takes his heart with him. His body is only an envelope which he leaves in the care of his wife, for other sorcerers might prevent his return. When they wander abroad sorcerers can take the most diverse forms and incarnate in the bodies of animals.

Ostensibly such sorcerers, wizards, or shamans can enter the body of a wild animal and by such means travel to distant places, gaining information about things that would otherwise be unknown and unavailable to them. In a case from the 1890s in Lado (South Sudan – northwestern Uganda), a local m’logo (wizard or sorcerer) claimed to have traveled via a jackal to a location hundreds of kilometers away, observed steamboats and described an Englishman who, the wizard said, was headed for Lado and would arrive a month later. Indeed, the wizard’s descriptions and prediction of the Englishman’s arrival proved correct. How could this be? The Europeans had initially been highly skeptical of the claims of the m’logo, but could not deny the veracity of his statements. It was apparently impossible (according to all accounts) that the m’logo could have received the information by any normal means (quick communication, such as a telegraph, between the two distant points did not exist), and furthermore even a jackal could not have covered the distance involved in only one night, as the m’logo claimed. A possible explanation is that the m’logo gained his information through clairvoyance and telepathy, although he may have imagined that he had “traveled” via a jackal.

At this point we can refer back to our discussion of drug-induced lycanthropic phenomena. In some cases, ingesting drugs induces trances, and during such trances telepathic abilities may be enhanced. An important point that de Vesme and other serious psychical researchers have made is that the drugs themselves do not bring about telepathic abilities, but only strengthen and bring to the fore such abilities as are already present in the person using the drug. Furthermore, I would point out that drug use is certainly not the only means, nor safest nor most efficacious means, to heighten latent telepathic rapport. Rituals, ceremonies, songs, chants, drumming, fasting, and other methods can be used to produce similar or more powerful results.

Considering yagé (=ayahuasca), Dr. Zerda Bayon observed,

During the mental alienation produced by yagé the patient enters into an extremely curious psychological state, which may be explained telepathically. In delirium he sees and hears distant events, and these very clear visions are consistent with exact observation of things of which the patient neither has, nor could have, the least previous knowledge. This circumstance is highly important, for it excludes entirely the hypothesis of an awakening of subconscious memory.

Dr. Zerda Bayon goes on to relate an experiment confirming such assertions.

Colonel Custodio Morales . . . expressed to me a lively desire to try the effect of yagé on himself in the cottage occupied by me on the shore of the Gacha. After long hesitation I consented, and I administered fifteen drops of a preparation of yagé. He took the mixture in the evening, in a glass of water. In the morning, on awaking, he told me that during the night he had had a vision; his father, who lived at Ibague, had died, and his younger sister, whom he greatly loved, was ill. No one who had arrived could have communicated this news to him; the postal and telegraph office nearest to us was fifteen days’ distance from my habitation. About a month after this remarkable vision, a postal mail arrived, bringing letters informing the colonel of the death of his father and the cure of his sister from a severe illness which had stricken her.

As we noted previously, there have been instances wherein users of yagé exhibit lycanthropic behavior. Could it be that this is due, at least in part, to a true telepathic rapport established with genuine wild beasts? Or might a person simply receive information telepathically from others (or from one’s future self, which is one explanation of precognition as there is evidence that the future can influence the past and present to some extent), but perceive in their own mind (or rationalize) that they are “seeing” and receiving information through the eyes of an animal?

A woodcut of a werewolf; Germany, circa 1722.
In some situations a human identifies with a specific individual wild animal, which effectively becomes their “familiar”. In Assam, India, and Northern Burma there were “tiger-men”, each of whom identified himself with a particular individual tiger that lived in the vicinity. If the tiger was injured, then the tiger-man would suffer the same injuries or symptoms. If the tiger died, then inevitably it seemed the tiger-man would die also. These phenomena have been attributed to the power of suggestion inducing psychosomatic illnesses and even death. Supporting this contention is the fact that in many documented cases the illness or death of the tiger-man did not ensue until after he had learned about the injury or death of his tiger familiar. But, I wonder, was this inevitably the case? Could there not have been some situations where the tiger-man (or other individual identifying with a particular animal) was in genuine telepathic rapport with the animal and thus would gain, via paranormal means, information from and about the animal? Although not the conventional point of view, I do not think this would be impossible. In fact, there are cases that in my opinion are very difficult to explain otherwise. Reporting on the “leopard-men” of the Naga Hills of India and Burma (Myanmar), J. H. Hutton described his own fieldwork:

Another acquaintance of mine, Zhukiya of Kolhopu village, was in the habit of telling his fellow villagers in the morning where they could find the remains of pigs and dogs killed and only partially eaten by his leopard during the night, and these were collected by his fellow villagers. On one occasion he told them that they would find the body of a calf in a tree near the river six or seven miles [about 9.6 to 11.3 kilometers] away, which they duly retrieved. This was vouched for by the chief of the village. This same Zhukiya showed me fresh marks on his body which he said were two months old and caused by shot which had wounded his leopard familiar.

If the accounts regarding the remains of pigs, dogs, and the calf in the tree are true (and there is no strong reason to doubt them, in my opinion, unless one simply dismisses all potential paranormal phenomena as impossible – the close-minded view of the arch-skeptic and debunker), then it seems impossible that Zhukiya could have consistently gained such knowledge via normal means. I suggest that we must be open to the possibility of true telepathic rapport between human and animal, and in this sense the lycanthrope may exist in reality.

Robert M. Schoch, Honorary Professor at the Nikola Vaptsarov Naval Academy and a full-time faculty member at Boston University, earned his Ph.D. in geology and geophysics at Yale University. His most recent book is Forgotten Civilization: The Role of Solar Outbursts in Our Past and Future (Inner Traditions, 2012). Dr. Schoch’s personal website is


Darklore Volume 9 is available from Amazon US and Amazon UK. More information about all of the articles in Darklore Volume 9 can be found here.

  1. Wolves – Nebuchadnezzar
    Nebuchadnezzar was known for adopting local culture and claiming he had the same things happen to him from the local myths for every people he tried to conquer. The 7 years living as a wolf may be based on a wolf/dog cult that was seen later worshipping King Lycaon and even was said to last through early Rome. The cult sacrificed dogs and wolves (and possibly children) and it is said they lived as a wolf for seven years (sometimes it’s nine). During this time they had to behave as a wolf and not harm a human or they would end up staying as a wolf.

    I haven’t read all of this yet, looks interesting.

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