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The werewolf or wolf man or woman appears throughout the literature of Northern Europe with Germany being a particularly rich source of werewolf legends.

The first werewolf accounts are found in the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh written about 1800 BCE and throughout the Middle Ages were numerous accounts and legends especially in Western Europe.

Through the ages people have believed in werewolves and legends of people turning into wolves on the night of the full moon have grown up around certain areas. There may have been an original attack or a series of attacks by a huge ferocious wolf that stood on its hind legs. These may have occurred more frequently around the full moon when people were more likely to be out at night walking in the countryside because the increased natural light made travel easier when the moon was bright.

Any other attacks in the same place might thereafter be interpreted in the same way and unscrupulous strong hairy men might have dressed in wolf skins to avoid detection and hide behind the superstitious fears of werewolves to attack females out at night alone.

The most recent reported werewolf sighting or at least one considered locally to be a werewolf sighting was in 1998 at Hahn Air force Base, Germany, just outside the village of Wittlich, the last town where, it is said, a werewolf was killed in the late 1880s. There is a shrine just outside town where a candle always burns. Legend has it that if the candle ever goes out the werewolf will return.

One night during 1998 the candle went out and security policemen investigating alarms at the base saw a huge wolf -like creature seven or eight feet tall who jumped a twelve-foot security fence after taking three immense leaps.

The werewolf is said to be driven by the craving for flesh, sometimes human, as lurid accounts of werewolf activity from many parts of the world recount, but more usually it is cattle and sheep that are attacked  (probably by actual wolves).

The werewolf can be male or female and appears throughout the literature of Northern Europe with Germany being a particularly rich source of werewolf legends.

The most common method of deliberately becoming a werewolf involved tying around the body a strip of leather made from wolf skin which still had its hair. A more spontaneous change to lupine appearance was triggered by the full moon. Some legends tell that a person is born a werewolf, in others a person becomes a werewolf by being bitten by a werewolf. Until the early nineteenth century the most popular explanation was that the person had made a pact with the Devil.

A popular protective device against werewolf attack, documented as still being used by the farmers around Hesse in Germany around 1854, was to throw a knife or a piece of shiny steel over the werewolf’s head to land on the ground behind it. The werewolf would instantly be transformed into his true human form and stand there completely naked. If successful, the werewolf’s pelt burst crosswise at its forehead, and the naked human emerged from this opening.

The most famous werewolf case is perhaps that in June 1590 of Stubbe Peter, described at his trial as a most wicked Sorcerer, who in the likeness of a Wolf committed many murders, continuing this devilish practice 25 Years, killing and devouring men, women, and children.

He lived near Cologne in what was then called High Germany and was said having confessed rather than being tortured to have made a pact with the Devil. After his execution, which began with his body being laid on a wheel, and with red hot burning pincers to pull the flesh from the bones, the imprint of a wolf was apparently found on the wheel. The real perpetrators of the crimes may have been actual wolves who killed travellers or carried off small children as their parents slept or as I suggested in the Introduction, murders may have been committed under the pretence of it being a paranormal event.

Stubbe Peter may have been a scapegoat who imagined wrongly he would escape suffering if he confessed or he may have committed an actual violent murder and tried to blame the local Werewolf.     

An American werewolf

From America come accounts of the Louisiana and New Orleans werewolf called the rougarou or loup garou that means the man who becomes an animal.

The legend is first recorded when the Acadian French settled in the already culturally French area (though owned by Spain) after they were expelled from Nova Scotia by the British in the 1760s.

The werewolf is believed to inhabit the swamplands around Acadiana, the official French name for French Louisiana and New Orleans and also in local forest and farmland. The werewolf is described as having the head of a wolf and a human body and it has been hypothesized that the werewolf myth may predate the arrival of the French who may have heard the legend from original native North American Ojibwa or Chippewa settlers on the land or it may have come from the French Canadian trappers in Nova Scotia.

The beast seems to have been used over the subsequent centuries as a deterrent for naughty children and to stop them wandering in the dangerous swamplands. However others say that the loup garou story is just a variation of the French Catholic belief that if a Catholic did not observe Lent for seven years they were forced for every subsequent Lent to become a werewolf because they had given in to their animal nature.

Other versions of the Louisiana werewolf say that a person remains a loup garou for 101 days after being bitten by a loup garou. During the daytime the bitten person is pale and takes to their bed but at night returns to health and goes out seeking victims to pass on the curse and so be relieved of it (shades of vampire legends.)

It was said everyone was too afraid of public censure to admit they had been bitten even after the curse had been passed on, but others might be suspicious if a person became suddenly sickly after going to the swamplands. Even three drops of blood was enough to pass on the curse. Of course there are living creatures in swamps that could cause bites or serious injury and death, not least the alligator who could account for the loss of a pet or even a child or adult if it wandered too far into the swampland.   

Do werewolves exist?

One possible explanation is that certain medical conditions may give a strange appearance that in earlier time’s encouraged superstitious people to victimize those who had wolf like tendencies.

Probably the most famous case is of Fedor Jeffichew. He was born in 1868 in St Petersburg in Russia with hypertrichosis, a medical condition that causes excess hair all over the body. Like other sufferers in less enlightened times Fedor and his father who also suffered from the condition, ended up traveling throughout Europe and the US with PT Barnum’s circus. He was called the dog faced boy and he and his father had supposedly been captured in a cave in Russia. Fedor would bark and snarl as part of the act. He died in 1904

A more fanciful explanation for werewolves at least in Western Europe was given in the Irish book written by Kongs Skuggsjo in the Old Norse language in 1250. It was called Speculum Regale. The Vikings colonized Ireland from the mid 9th century CE onwards and founded the city of Dublin. Skuggsjo collected previously oral tales of old Ireland. One concerns the 6th century CE St Patrick who while he was converting the pagans encountered resistance from a tribe who howled like wolves to drown out the saint’s prayers. St Patrick’s response was to curse the tribe, so that their descendants would also be punished for the ancestral disobedience by becoming werewolves and howling to the moon when it was full. Some had the curse for seven years and the more fortunate every seventh year!

 

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