The Literary Origin Of The Werewolf Is Actually Way Less Sexy Than 'Twilight' And 'Teen Wolf' Would Lead You To Believe
The werewolf. A little less popular than their sexy older cousin, the vampire, and perhaps not so scary as the ubiquitous zombie. Nevertheless, werewolves still hold their own as a classic monster of the page and screen. Like the vampire before them, they've gone from a loose collection of folktales and lore to Gothic monstrosities to tortured paranormal boyfriends who struggle with their otherworldly curse — and with keeping their shirts on.
But unlike the stately, aristocratic vampire, the werewolf tends to be a bit more direct. Werewolves aren't usually all that suave or seductive. At best, they're rumpled wizard high school teachers or teen basketball stars. At worst, they're men who transform into slavering beasts with poor hygiene and no self control. The werewolf myth is frightening because it suggests that we, as civilized humans, might suddenly snap and behave like animals.
Nearly every culture on Earth has some sort of folklore about men turning into animals. The ancient vikings actually tried to go the extra mile and do it for real: Berserkers and Úlfhéðnar were elites warriors who reportedly wore animal skins and fought in a wild, trance-like state, channeling the power of wolves and bears (and quite possibly doing a ton of drugs while they were at it).
Some of the first examples of literary werewolf fiction, however, were penned by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. And boy were they just kind of... gross.
In Greek mythology, Lycaon is a king of Arcadia who decides to try and trick the god Zeus into eating human flesh. He does this because he's... mad at Zeus, I guess (who isn't)? Or because he's just haughty and a prankster? Or because he wants to prove that Zeus isn't really all-knowing by trolling him? Sources differ, but the story goes that Lycaon tries to serve Zeus the remains of a sacrificed boy (his own son, in some versions). Zeus is like, "Um, no thanks," and turns Lycaon into a wolf as punishment.
Clearly, this is something of a cautionary tale (don't eat dead children!), and it plays up the fear of ordinary humans behaving like animals (i.e. eating dead children). And Lycaon seems to be from the Remus Lupin school of "werewolves whose names mean WOLF."
But this early myth doesn't really have the "transforming from human to wolf and back again" vibes of our modern wolfpeople. For that, we have to look to a bizarre work of Roman prose called The Satyricon.
The Satyricon by Gaius Petronius is kind of like a novel, but far less organized. It follows the misadventures of a retired gladiator and his much younger boyfriend, and they mostly just hang out and go to parties. One of the major sections takes place over the course of "Trimalchio's dinner," an especially fancy dinner party where people eat and drink and tell wacky stories.
One of these supposedly "true" stories is told by Niceros, who recalls one time that he and a soldier friend were on the road, and they decided to stop and chill in a graveyard (classic). Here's the scene in the translation W.C. Firebaugh:
"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!"
Yes. Apparently in ancient Rome, being a werewolf was less about getting bitten or feeling angsty, and more about pissing in a circle and turning your clothes to stone:
"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!"
Niceros goes running to his girlfriend Melissa's house, only to find that a wolf has come by and attacked all her sheep. Luckily, someone managed to stab the wolf in the neck with a spear, and it ran off. Naturally, Niceros then goes running back to check on the stone clothes—but they've been replaced by 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."
I mean... I guess? I guess that a man stripping down and peeing in a circle around his own clothes is a frightening, beastly thing to do? Dogs certainly pee on things. It makes a certain amount of logical sense. And the story does have all the other hallmarks of a good werewolf tale: A full moon, a graveyard, a mysterious wolf attack, a tenuous friendship, sheep.
But as time has passed and tales have evolved, as monsters have solidified within the human psyche, as the werewolf has become a fixture of our classic Halloween landscape — well, I'm just glad that we've left the peeing thing behind.