The following is an article from Uncle John’s Great Big Bathroom Reader.
We've all heard the werewolf legend, seen it in films and on TV. In real life, it's called Lycanthropy. Here's a little of its history.
Nearly every society has legends about people who can change into animals. In Russia there are stories of were-bears. In Africa, they have were-leopards, were-hyenas, and were-hippos. In Asia there are tales about were-tigers, elephants, crocodiles, snakes, and even sharks. Why are these animals singled out? "In almost all case," Nancy Garden writes in her book, Werewolves, "the animal has these characteristics: 1) It is commonly found in the area; 2) It is feared by the inhabitants; and 3) It has been known to attack people and/or farm animals."
In Europe, wolves fit that profile: As the population grew over the centuries, Europeans settled in parts of the continent where wolves had roamed freely. As the wildlife that wolves depended on for food began to disappear, they often preyed on livestock. And when food was really scarce, they might even go after humans. As late as 1875, an estimated 160 people were attacked by starving packs of wolves in Russia. So it's not surprising that when Europeans told scary stories by the fireside, wolves were a common subject. Their spooky habit of howling at the moon made then that much more fearsome.
THE WEREWOLF TRIALS
No one (or at least hardly anyone) believes in werewolves today, but in the Middle Ages, they were taken quite seriously. "Of all the world's monsters," says Daniel Cohen in his book Werewolves, "the werewolf is the one that has been most widely believed in, and the most widely feared." Here are some of the things people commonly believed:
* A person could become a werewolf in a number of ways: if he was cursed, drank water from a wolf's pawprint, ate the meat of an animal killed by a wolf, wore a girdle made of wolfskin, or used a magic salve. "The business about becoming a werewolf after being bitten by another werewolf is basically a creation of the movies," says Cohen. "'Real' were wolves didn't just bite people, they tore their victims to pieces and ate them."
* In some versions of the legend, the werewolf remained human, but took on wolf characteristics, such as fur, fangs, and paws. In other variations, the person literally turned into a wolf.
* Werewolves could be killed any way that a normal wolf could be killed.
It was commonly accepted that werewolves were in league with the devil. Even educated churchmen who didn't believe human beings could really transform into other animals assumed that the devil was involved. "They often said that the devil created the 'illusion' of transformation," Cohen writes. "He made people 'think' they had turned into wolves, and made the victim 'think' they were being attacked by the creature." Some "authorities" believed a real wolf could be turned into a werewolf when the spirit of an evil person entered it. "It was possible therefore," Cohen explains, "for an evil person to be asleep in his bed at night, or even locked in a cell under the eyes of his jailers, and yet his spirit could roam free as a werewolf.
As a result, a lot of people were convicted of being werewolves even after it was proven that they were nowhere near the place where the werewolf had allegedly committed its crimes." This was serious business. In Europe, as late as the 18th century, if you were suspected of being a werewolf you could be put on trial and then be put to death. Untold thousand were put to death -between 1520 and 1630, an estimated 30,000 cases of "werewolfry" trials were recorded in central France alone, and thousands more trails took place in other parts of Europe.
Two of the best known "werewolves" in European history are Peter Stube and Jean Grenier -famous as much for what they symbolize as for what they did. One was tortured to death; the other was confined to a mental institution. Stube lived in the 1500s; Grenier lived in the 1800s.
Peter Stube It was big news when Stube was arrested in Cologne in 1590 and "confessed" under torture that he was a werewolf. According to his confession, a female demon had given him a magic belt that he could use to turn into a giant wolf. For nearly 30 years, he had supposedly used this power to attack and kill villagers, livestock and even wild animals in the surrounding countryside. The townspeople accepted his confession, and he was sentenced
to have his body laid on a wheel, and with red hot burning pincers in ten places to have his flesh pulled off from the bones, after that, his legs and arms to be broken with a wooden axe or hatchet, afterward to have his head struck from his body, then ho have his carcass burned to ashes.
A pamphlet describing Stube's crimes and trial, illustrated with "gruesome" details, became a bestseller all over Europe.
Jean Grenier By the 19th century, authorities were more enlightened about werewolves. They were skeptical when Grenier, a 13-year-old boy, "admitted" in 1849 to killing and eating "several dogs and several little girls" -all of them on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays just before dusk, the times when he claimed to become a werewolf. Philip Riley writes in The Wolfman: "The town's lawyer asked the court to set aside all thoughts of witchcraft and lycanthropy (werewolfism) and ...stated that lycanthropy was a state of hallucination and the change of shape existed only in the disorganized brain of the insane, therefore, not a crime for which he should be held accountable." Instead of sentencing Grenier to death, the judge ordered that he be confined to the monastery at Bordeaux, "where he would be instructed in his Christian and moral obligations, under penalty of death if he attempted an escape." Grenier slid even deeper into madness and died at the monastery seven years later. He was 20.
Centuries after werewolves "roamed" Europe, scientists have found some real "curses" -diseases and physical conditions- that may have inspired the legends.
* Porphyria makes a person extremely sensitive to light ...which would cause them to only go out at night. It creates huge wounds on the skin -which people used to think were caused when the afflicted person ran through the woods in the form of a wolf.
* Hypertrichosis causes excess growth of thick hair all over the body, including the entire face. The disease is extremely rare. Scientists estimate that as few as 50 people have suffered from the disease since the Middle Ages -but it may have contributed to werewolf legends. When the sufferer shaves off the excess hair, they appear perfectly normal -which may have contributed to the idea that people were changing into wolves. Scientists believe the disease is caused by an "atavistic genetic defect," or mutation that allows a long-suppressed gene to become active after thousands of years of dormancy. Human skin cells, the theory speculates, still have the ability to grow thick coats of fur that were normal thousands of years ago, but that evolutionary processes have "switched off."
* The belladonna plant was once eaten as medicine or rubbed on the skin as a salve. It also has hallucinogenic qualities when eaten in large quantities; eating too much can make people think they are flying or have turned into animals.
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Great Big Bathroom Reader. The book is a compendium of entertaining information chock-full of facts on a plethora of topics. Highly recommended!
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts.
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