Myth Monday: Werewolves and Their Kin
Myth Monday: Werewolves and Their Kin
Everybody has heard of a werewolf … but have you heard of a wereshark? A werejackal? How about a werebutterfly? Are any of them real? If you’re interested, take a gander at a list I put together for you—a list I had to stop at 17 creatures, because it was getting too long!
Werewolf (Europe, North America): Of course, the werewolf is the most widely recognizable shapeshifter out there, with nearly every culture hosting it’s own take on what it is, how it’s made and how you kill the pesky thing, though it seems to be more at home in Europe than most anywhere else. At once point France was rife with them, Germany was famous for the number of werewolf trials and burnings it had, werewolves ran rampant in Hungary and Central Europe, England and Scotland had it’s fair share, and Ireland used to be known as “The Land of the Werewolves.” Werewolves were thought to be people who could transform completely into wolves either through a curse, some magic doings (such as smearing on an ointment, drinking a potion or wearing a magic belt), by making a deal with the Devil, or by doing something stupid, like eating meat from an animal killed by a wolf or drinking water that was collected in a wolf’s paw print. The Vikings believed that if they wore the pelt of a wolf into battle, they would be imbued with its ferocity and literally turn into wolves as they fought. (There’s also a few hundred reports of “real” werewolves, bu that’s going to have to be another blog!)
Jaguar (Central America): Aztec and Mayan societies worshiped the jaguar as scariest predator out there—which it was. Like the Vikings, native Central American warriors called “jaguar knights” would wear jaguar skins and jaguar-head shaped helmets to give them fierceness and strike fear into their enemies. It’s thought that the jaguar was so revered that Olmec nobility would flatten the heads and faces of their infants to try to give them a more jaguar-like appearance.
Bear (Europe, North America): While no slouch in the strength and fury department, the otherwise shy bear doesn’t seem to really have any kind of were- counterpart like many other animals. Many Native American tribes view the bear as an ancestor with human qualities, and shamans were thought to be able to transform into a bear or other animal to lure them back to hunting areas after they had become scarce. The Vikings believed that wearing a bearskin shirt would intensify their strength, making them bear-like but not necessarily turning to a bear. It’s believed that the word "berserk" comes from the Norse words “bear shirts,” and a berserker was a bear shirt wearing wild man who’d kill everything in sight.
Tiger (Asia): The weretiger is an especially feared creature in Asia—an already powerful, silent, huge hunter with the ability to think like a person and escape undetected? Why wouldn’t it be terrifying? Tigers typically don’t kill humans unless they’re cornered or starving, but when they do they strike with a speed and suddenness that’s almost mystical. Some areas of rural India believe that a shaman or magic worker can change himself into a tiger at will, and while he may use that ability for good, such as protecting his farm, they generally use it to terrorize people. A famous story recounts how an anonymous Englishman was determined to see a weretiger and pestered the local Khond populace until someone directed him to a man in the woods. The man was happy to demonstrate how he turned into a weretiger. He drew a circle in the earth, said an incantation—and in a flash of light, turned into a huge, roaring tiger, chasing the terrified Englishman straight up a tree. Something about the tree drove the weretiger off, and the Englishman fled back to the village. The next day he learned that an entire family, enemies of the weretiger, had been slaughtered. Wondering how it was he was spared, the Englishman described his ordeal to a mystic in the village. The mystic explained that the Englishman had unwittingly run straight to a tree that was inscribed with the name of Vishnu, their high deity. The holy tree had scared the weretiger off. Summoning his courage, the Englishman returned to the tree, and indeed found the name “Vishnu” carved into the trunk.
Jackal (Africa): Jackals don’t have a very good rap in most of Africa; they’re seen as cowardly little scavengers, though they are seen to be wise and are frequently clever tricksters in tales. It’s believed that if a witchdoctor needed to travel quickly by night, they would do so in the form of a jackal. Other people would tie a strip of leather around their heads to trigger the transformation.
Coyote (North America): Another ancestor spirit of many Native American tribes, the coyote is also closely associated with trickery and sometimes witchcraft. A Navajo man named David Little Turtle once told how he had gone hunting one evening and saw a large coyote. As he lifted his gun to to take aim, he was shocked to hear a familiar female voice shouting at him, warning that he was about to kill a family member. To his disbelief, the coyote faced him and pulled back part of its skin, revealing the face of a female relative. She said that if he would let her live and not betray her secret, then she would perform a sing (ceremony) for him. Knowing better to refuse, David agreed, the woman performed the sing and went on her way. David kept quiet about it for many years, knowing that these witches, commonly called skinwalkers, could be extremely dangerous.
Fox (North America, Europe, Asia): The Native Americans view the fox as an ancestor spirit and wise trickster, though an evil Navajo spirit called a chindi is know to possess foxes to make it carry out its work. In Europe, there are stories of people donning a fox skin belt and turning into the little creatures in order to steal chickens and lambs from their neighbors farms. One story features a schoolteacher, determined to prove to his student that fox belt doesn’t work, is instantly changed into a fox in front of the terrified pupils. In Asia, the fox is sometimes seen as a malevolent creature, and instead of a human turning into a fox, it’s a fox turning into a human. Though these spirits often seek to do mischief and harm, some are good and want to help humans. In Japanese legend, the white werefox (kitsune) Kuzunhoa married the hero Abe no Yasuna and gave birth to his son, Abe no Seimei, who is known as something like a Japanese Merlin. (There are lots more creatures that fit into this category, but that would make the list a lot longer! Another time, ‘kay?)
Cow (Ireland, North America): Lions and tigers and … cows? Apparently so. According to monk Giraldus Cambrensius, a.k.a Gerald of Wales, in his book The Werewolves of Ossary, he visited Ireland in 1185 and his cousin Maurice Fitzgerald had in his possession a “man-ox,” a strange human-cow hybrid Giraldus himself saw. He also remarked that a “man-calf” had been born near Glendalough. And in Indiana in 1780, a French trapper named Jean Vetal discovered that a stationed American soldier, one who had loudly mocked the trappers’ beliefs, had been transformed into a cow. Having recently been cured of werewolfism himself, Jean knew what to do. Chasing down the cow, Jean managed to stab it with his knife, turning it back into a slightly wounded, highly confused man.
Crocodile (Africa, Asia): In Africa, the sneaky crocodile is a terrifying monster in its own right, but it becomes all the more scary when it could actually be a witch doctor in disguise, or the reincarnated form of a vengeful murder victim.
Hare (England): The hare and rabbit is kind of unique; generally, you wouldn’t think of a bunny as terrifying. If you lived in England in the 13th-17th centuries, during the great witchcraft persecutions, you’d believe otherwise. Many people believed that a witch could turn herself (or himself) into a hare, sneak into another family’s barn at night, then suck all the milk out of a cow until it was dry. These hares were particularly nasty and vicious, hard to kill and more than happy to fight back for a minute and then run like hell.
Butterfly (England): As with the hares mention before, people believed that a witch could turn into this beautiful fluttering insect and steal all their butter away. This might be why we call them “butterflies” today.
Dog (South America): Good luck to you if you live in South America and are an unbaptized seventh child; you’re destined to turn into a weredog, locally known as a lobizon! And don’t think you’re going to spend your days running around catching Frisbees, ‘cuz you’re not. Nope, you’re going to savagely attack any person you come in contact with, ripping them to shreds. In an episode of Destination Truth (formerly Syfy, now Travel Channel), Josh Gates and his team traveled to Argentina, where the lobizon epidemic was so feared that the president himself would baptize babies to protect them from a curse. Among his interviews, Josh met a man who claimed a lobizon invaded his house. The man beat it, noosed it and dragged it outside. He gave Josh the bloodstained lasso he used, and when it was tested, the blood was found to be human.
Shark (Oceania): The shark is a revered ancestor of the Hawaiian people and was worshiped as different deities. One common burial method was to submerge the dead person in the ocean, where they would eventually turn into a living shark or be devoured by sharks and have their spirits inhabit the animals. Either way, they were supposed to protect their relatives when they entered the water.
Lion (Africa): It’s believed, even now in some areas, that a shaman or a chief has the ability to transform into a lion in order to attack his enemies or drive off invaders. Like weretigers, werelions look like ordinary animals but are possessed of human intelligence. From March until December 1898, the man-eating lions of Tsavo, called the Ghost and the Darkness, killed a reputed 135 railway workmen and were so skilled at evading capture that many tribesmen believed that they had to be chieftains in lion form, there to stop the work on the railroad cutting through their lands. In modern times, it was common for warlords to capture mentally handicapped children, dress them in lion skins and torture them, making them deranged and violent, and then setting them loose on their enemies.
Leopard (Africa): Possibly more feared than the werelion, the leopard carried a cult-like status well into the 20th century. Renowned for its ability to remain completely silent and unseen until it struck, wereleopards terrified people, who believed the things were completely evil. A Leopard Man cult flourished in the 1940s, with followers dressing themselves in leopard skins and attacking with hooked iron claws resembling gardening rakes, shredding their enemies and chosen victims. Many believed that they were supernaturally empowered until a few well-placed police bullets brought some of the members down.
Hyena (Africa): Already hated by many people, the werehyena was especially sinister. It would stand just out of sight in the dark near its victim’s house, mimicking the voices of those the people knows. The victim, thinking perhaps that a friend is in trouble, would leave their home to investigate and be immediately pounced on by a giggling hyena, killed and dragged off, never to be seen again. The Ethiopians believed that all blacksmiths were really wizards who could change themselves into hyenas and were called bouda.
Cat (Europe): Good old Europe and it’s witch-phobia … they made damned sure that women wouldn’t be the only ones to suffer during the Burning Times. Cats, frequently seen accompanying women who were accused of witchcraft, were maligned as diabolical servants (called familiars) or as the witches themselves in disguise. Many people believed that a witch could turn into a cat nine times (that’s most likely where the superstition comes from—and 9 was considered the perfect number to many pagan communities, being three equal groups of three, so it was just used to brand witches as heretics—in case you’re wondering) and in that form do great harm to the community, such as spoiling milk and sickening livestock and people, among other things. Thousands of cats were burned alive, and all the misogynistic religious dumbasses rejoiced … until the Black Plague hit. See, the Black Plague was caused by a bacteria that bred in rats and was transmitted by their fleas jumping off and biting people. Where there was a lack of cats, there was an excess of rats and their bubonic-plague-toting fleas. Makes spoiled milk seem like not such a big deal anymore.
Tiger: (Sultan or T72) By Dibyendu Ash
Butterfly: By Charlesjsharp
Hyena: By Ion Tichy
Lilith the Black Cat:By The original uploader was DrL
All photos obtained through Wikimedia Commons