Beware the Wolfman!

Lukas Mayer, 1589
Lukas Mayer, 1589. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

The execution of Peter Stumpf is graphically recounted in the woodcut above. After wolf attacks on travellers outside of Bedburg, near Cologne, a swordsman claims to have fought a werewolf, cutting off its paw in the process (top left of image). Peter Stumpf, a wealthy Protestant farmer, was arrested on suspicion of being the wolf, with his missing hand used as evidence. When put on the rack, he apparently confessed to sucking the blood of livestock and humans, and having a girdle which transformed him into a wolf. He confessed to the murder and cannibalism of fourteen children and two pregnant women.

As a punishment for his alleged crimes, he was placed on a Catherine wheel. While tied to the wheel, red hot pincers tore the flesh from his arms, legs, and ten places on his torso. His limbs were then systematically broken with the blunt face of an axe, before he was finally beheaded.

He had also been accused of having incestuous relations with his daughter and a distant relative. On the basis of these accusations, they were both flayed, raped and throttled, before being burnt alive along with Peter’s headless body (top right of image).

Peter’s head was displayed on top of a pole, with the wheel and the figure of a wolf, as a warning to other werewolves of the punishment they faced. The case is widely regarded as one of the most brutal executions of the age, and was probably politically and religiously motivated: the town had recently been recaptured by Catholic forces and may have been an attempt to persuade Protestants to convert.

Despite a peak in stories and trials during the medieval period, stories of lycanthropy had been around for thousands of years. The ancient Greeks wrote of Lycaeon, a man who is transformed into a wolf as punishment for either ritually murdering a child or serving human flesh to Zeus (depending on the source). Lycanthropy comes from the Greek for wolf (lykos) and human (anthropos).

Myths of animalistic shape shifting are found across the world. In cultures where the wolf is absent, or is a lesser predator, these shape shifters take the form of other creatures –India has were-tigers whilst some African nations have stories of were-hyenas. The ‘werewolf’ name probably derives from linking wolf to the old English word for man – ‘wer’ which is similar to other indo-european languages: ‘Ver’ in Old Norse, ‘Weir’ in Gothic and ‘Vira’ in Sanskrit.

Vendel era bronze plate from Sweden showing Úlfhéðnar warrior
Vendel era bronze plate from Sweden showing Úlfhéðnar warrior. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Lycanthropy is particularly prevalent in Norse mythology, with the wolf linked to the gods. Loki is the father of the giant wolf Fenrir, whilst wolf pelt clad berserkers – Úlfhéðnar – were known as Odin’s special warriors. It is easy to imagine that stories of these men, terrifying to their enemies, would inspire tales of vicious wolf-men in the countries that found themselves the target of Viking invasion.

The Native American skin walker myths may have been influenced by the arrival of Norsemen to the American mainland. These stories continued to evolve with the arrival of the later European colonists. Warriors are said to transform into wolves in order to escape from white soldiers, and the only way to kill a skin walker is by shooting them with a bullet dipped in white ash.

In European folklore, it was said that humans infected with lycanthropy would continue to show animal features when in human form. Russians believed bristles would be present under the tongue. Elsewhere it was a common belief that hacking off flesh would expose fur beneath. More mundane indicators included a single continuous eyebrow, a swinging stride, or low set ears. With numerous werewolf trials and executions taking place, simply being suspected could prove fatal.

Unlike many modern interpretations, lycanthropy and vampirism were often linked. Those executed as werewolves in medieval Europe were often cremated to prevent their return as vampires. Up until the 19th Century, Greeks believed slain werewolves would return as vampires, draining the blood of wounded soldiers on battlefields. In the novel Dracula, the vampire takes the form of a dog-like creature on his arrival in England.

Weird Tales, September 1942
Weird Tales, September 1942. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Werewolves have become more popular through modern media forms. The first film depiction of a werewolf was Werewolf of London in 1935, and they remain popular in books such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series,  and in TV, film, and video games.

These myths and depictions of werewolves, along with a general fear of the creature, have made wolves a victim of human persecution throughout history. Eradicated in Britain during the Anglo Saxon period, they were hunted throughout Europe, reducing their range to the extreme north. With protection in many European states today, the wolf is gradually extending its range back into France, Germany and Italy. This has proved controversial, with many livestock farmers worried. Plans to re-introduce wolves to Britain have also met with resistance.

Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

Wolf skull from the Brighton Museum collections at the Booth Museum
Wolf skull from the Brighton Museum collections at the Booth Museum

3 Responses

  1. Very interesting!

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