History of the Werewolf from 1500 to Modern-Day

Werewolves have been around for hundreds of years as seen in art, folktales, horror books, and movies. Join us while we explore where it all started and how it has impacted modern writers and filmakers. Starting at the date of original discover here is the history of the werewolf.

Lycanthropy wood carving from 1500's

Werewolf Date of Discovery

In the countryside near the German towns of Cologne and Bedburg in 1591, the first werewolf sighting took place.

Name Variations

The Werewolf is derived from the Old English werewulf, which translated into, “man-wolf.” They can also be known as a wolfman, a loup-garou which translates from French to mean, “wolf man-wolf,” and a lycanthrope.

In Serbian, the term vulkodlaks has the meaning of both vampires and werewolves.

There are a number of cryptids known to be associated with the werewolf, most any shapeshifter can be regarded to as a “were-,” of sorts; this would suggest that they were originally a human and regularly shapeshift into another creature, such as the weretiger, werehyena, wererat, werebear, or werepanther.

Physical Description

Despite the varied lore that exists for the werewolf, there are common physical attributes between them all, Zachary Graves describes these attributes and the differences in-depth within his book Werewolves.

Attributes of the Wolf

Often described as having superhuman strength as well as the fortune of enhanced senses that far surpass those of wolves, not to even mention that of humans. They possess the typical attributes of a wolf, with strong jaws, sharp teeth, and large paws–however, they maintain their human eyes even after transformation into the wolf, but it’s also said that they are unable to cry, due to their fiery nature when they’ve been enraged. While the lore varies from culture to culture, most of them maintain that a werewolf doesn’t possess a tail.

Attributes of the Human

During the initial werewolf paranoia, people who had eyebrows that met at the bridge of their nose were suspected to be werewolves; in their human form, they would have curved fingernails, lowset ears and walk with a long, swinging stride. They’re reportedly listless, often fatigued, and uneasy in direct sunlight. Once a person has been turned to a werewolf, they would be repelled by cooked meat.

In some of the legends it is said that if you cut the flesh of a werewolf while they’re in their human form, you will see fur underneath. Meanwhile in Russia, it was considered proof of lycanthrope if a person possessed bristles underneath their tongue.

From Werewolf to Human

While in the werewolf form, the creatures are unnaturally powerful, when they have returned to their original human state their physical form is devastated. They are said to be weak, fragile, and often experience severe depression. This lugubriousness is caused by any crime or violence they may have unwittingly committed while in their feral wolf form, followed by an immense feeling of guilt.

Origin of the Werewolf

The first werewolf appeared in Petronius Arbiter’s The Satyricon, set in southern Italy, originally written in Latin and published some time in 60s AD. It talks about four poor, degenerate, self-centered companions who experience a series of increasingly outrageous and debaucherous exploits–as this is the first time the werewolf appears in any type of literature, it is referred to as a wolf or shapeshifter, the word for werewolf came much later.

Mythology and Lore

Man disguising himself as a werewolf ancient art

As dark and mysterious as the werewolf is, it has quite an illuminating history of folklore from all over the world; stories of creatures–massive wolves, stalking rural areas to terrorize and subsequently mutilate or kill their victims.

The First Werewolf

While the writers of the more ancient societies don’t exactly rise to what modern reader’s expectations may be, they contribute valuable information and a foundation of the legend. The Satyricon is one such legend that was considered to be an interesting first look of the creature.

Chapters 61-62 from The Satyricon of Petronius Arbiter

After they had all wished each other sound minds and good health, Trimalchio turned to Niceros. “You used to be better company at dinner,” he remarked, “and I don’t know why you should be dumb today, with never a word to say. If you wish to make me happy, tell about that experience you had, I beg of you.” Delighted at the affability of his friend, “I hope I lose all my luck if I’m not tickled to death at the humor I see you in,” Niceros replied. “All right, let’s go the limit for a good time, though I’m afraid these scholars’ll laugh at me, but I’ll tell my tale and they can go as far as they like. What t’hell do I care who laughs? It’s better to be laughed at than laughed down.” These words spake the hero, and began the following tale: “We lived in a narrow street in the house Gavilla now owns, when I was a slave. There, by the will of the gods, I fell in love with the wife of Terentius, the innkeeper; you knew Melissa of Tarentum, that pretty round-checked little wench. It was no carnal passion, so hear me, Hercules, it wasn’t; I was not in love with her physical charms. No, it was because she was such a good sport. I never asked her for a thing and had her deny me; if she had an as, I had half. I trusted her with everything I had and never was done out of anything. Her husband up and died on the place, one day, so I tried every way I could to get to her, for you know friends ought to show up when anyone’s in a pinch.

“It so happened that our master had gone to Capua to attend to some odds and ends of business and I seized the opportunity, and persuaded a guest of the house to accompany me as far as the fifth mile-stone. He was a soldier, and as brave as the very devil. We set out about cock-crow, the moon was shining as bright as midday, and came to where the tombstones are. My man stepped aside amongst them, but I sat down, singing, and commenced to count them up. When I looked around for my companion, he had stripped himself and piled his clothes by the side of the road. My heart was in my mouth, and I sat there while he pissed a ring around them and was suddenly turned into a wolf!

Now don’t think I’m joking, I wouldn’t lie for any amount of money, but as I was saying, he commenced to howl after he was turned into a wolf, and ran away into the forest. I didn’t know where I was for a minute or two, then I went to his clothes, to pick them up, and damned if they hadn’t turned to stone! Was ever anyone nearer dead from fright than me? Then I whipped out my sword and cut every shadow along the road to bits, till I came to the house of my mistress. I looked like a ghost when I went in, and I nearly slipped my wind. The sweat was pouring down my crotch, my eyes were staring, and I could hardly be brought around. My Melissa wondered why I was out so late. “Oh, if you’d only come sooner,” she said, “you could have helped us: a wolf broke into the folds and attacked the sheep, bleeding them like a butcher. But he didn’t get the laugh on me, even if he did get away, for one of the slaves ran his neck through with a spear!” I couldn’t keep my eyes shut any longer when I heard that, and as soon as it grew light, I rushed back to our Gaius’ house like an innkeeper beaten out of his bill, and when I came to the place where the clothes had been turned into stone, there was nothing but a pool of blood! And moreover, when I got home, my soldier was lying in bed, like an ox, and a doctor was dressing his neck! I knew then that he was a werewolf, and after that, I couldn’t have eaten a crumb of bread with him, no, not if you had killed me. Others can think what they please about this, but as for me, I hope your geniuses will all get after me if I lie.”

The Legend that Followed

When considering the acts that were committed by werewolves had a man behind them, there was a common belief that the werewolf was in league with the devil; they committed heinous acts of violence throughout rural communities, craving flesh, and blood in the dark of the night. Amongst the most awful crimes that were attributed to werewolves in medieval Europe, was the discretion and consumption of the recently deceased. For this reason, many of the earliest serial killers were actually believed to be werewolves, because who else could commit such horrifying acts than a beast working for the devil?

Transformation into the Wolf

The innocent wolves that were blamed and slaughtered to atone for the crimes of werewolves started a fire under the communities that were afflicted. The knowledge of their very existence created widespread panic, just as it did for witches during the Salem Witch Trials, and for Satanists during the Satanic Panic. This kind of fear and uproar of panic is more dangerous to the community than the beasts themselves because it results in accusations against the innocent, as well as a rise in public anxiety, fear, and suspicion. Physical attributes such as eyebrows meeting over the bridge of a person’s nose were enough of an offense to accuse someone of being a werewolf and subsequently provide them with a torturous execution. It gave way to new traditions of cautious living, in order to prevent catching the affliction of lycanthropy–such as not accepting ointments or salves from strangers, not drinking from streams that were thought to be enchanted, and killing the seventh child born into the family–believing that one day it would transform into a werewolf.

Other strange things were associated with becoming a werewolf, wearing a wolfskin belt, a lycanthropic flower, or consuming the flesh (in particular, the heart) of a wolf or a werewolf’s victim was believed to immediately transform a person into one. This last belief was so deeply held in the mid 700s that Egbert, Archbishop of York actually forbade people from eating the flesh of animals that had been attacked and killed by wolves so that there would be no chance of transformation. In France and Germany, it was said that if a man slept outside on a Wednesday or Friday night during a full moon in the summer, it would lead to lycanthropy. There were also those who actually wanted to become werewolves–wherein it was recommended to drink from certain streams, or ponds that were common for wolves to drink from, or drink water from the tracks of the wolves themselves.

Stopping the Beast

In some of the oldest accounts of werewolves, followed by the stories of their demise, the tried and true method of ensuring the beast didn’t come back from the dead was decapitation. Some of the newest lore has integrated what was originally a bane to vampires, according to the oldest mythology about the blood-sucking demons, has added silver to the repertoire of what is lethal to werewolves.

Werewolves in Other Cultures

In Fennoscandia, Scandinavia werewolves were considered old women with claws that they would coat in poison–they had a special ability to paralyze both children and cattle with their gaze.

In Serbia, vulkodlaks would gather together during the winter around a bonfire and strip off their wolfskins and hang them from trees–during every such gathering, they would throw one of the wolfskins on the fire to release the possessor from the curse that had transformed them into a vulkodlak.

In Haiti, jé-rouges which were wolf-like creatures would attempt to steal children from their mothers in the dead of the night–they would gently wake the mothers and taking advantage of their half-sleep state would ask permission to take their child–there would on occasion be a mother so disoriented that they would say, “yes,” a word they would regret for the rest of their lives.

Inuit legends talk of the Keelut which has many similarities although no shapeshifting.

The werewolves are certayne sorcerers, who having anointed their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, doe not onely unto the view of others seeme as wolves, but to their owne thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they weare the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in wourrying and killing, and most of humane creatures

Excerpt from Restitution of Decayed Intelligence by Richard Verstegan in 1628

Modern Pop-Culture References

Werewolf Books

Werewolf Movies

Werewolf Television Series



Is there anything we missed about werewolves? Let us know in the comments section below!

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