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A Field Guide to Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts
By Bob Curran, Gina Talucci
New Page BooksCopyright © 2009 Dr. Bob Curran
All rights reserved.
The Shadow of the Wolf
Speak of the wolf and you'll see his fangs.
—Old Irish Proverb
Arguably, the wolf is mankind's oldest foe, with an enmity that goes back almost into pre-human times. It was with the wolf that our distant ancestors competed for game and with whom they probably fought in the primal forests of an early world. And it may also be that the wolf won over the proto-men, for they were quick, strong and cunning, probably more able to chase and hunt down food than our heavy and lumbering forebears and even better at defending their territory than the early men. It had four legs, which gave it added speed, a sleek, lithe body that lent itself to the chase, and sharp, ripping teeth which could tear its quarry open in the merest hint of time. In every way, it seemed to be a fearsome and successful hunting and killing machine, better than anything our ancient ancestors could produce. Is it any wonder then, that early man both hated and feared the wolf? And yet, there was much to admire about the animal, for the very things that made mankind fear it also appealed to early men. They envied its strength and ferocity, its sleekness and speed, its tirelessness and hunting prowess. In many respects, the wolf was the enemy they often wished they could emulate. In a world where the distinction between humans and beasts was usually blurred, these attributes were normally vital for survival, and our ancestors probably longed to be as successful a hunter as the wolf.
Perhaps almost as an extension of that wish, the attributes of man and animal began to meld and flow together in the human mind. Perhaps if the man could ape the wolf in all its attributes, he would somehow acquire at least some of the creature's prowess and superior hunting skills. But how could men achieve such skills? The answer, in part, lay in supernatural means. By using the powers of another world, where perhaps animalistic spirits reigned supreme, humans could perhaps induce in themselves the wolf-like strength, cunning, swiftness, and aggression that they themselves seemed to lack. The wolf, of course, was among a pantheon of other animals with which early humans shared the world and which they also seemed to admire, but it seems to be one of the most predominant creatures whose skills were considered worth acquiring. This indeed marked its undoubted status as a hunter.
Hunting, in those early times, must have been an extremely precarious and difficult element in the survival of a human community. In pre-agricultural times, a lack of prey captured and killed by hunters meant starvation and ultimately extinction for the ever-expanding groups of early peoples—it was the difference between life and death in a very real sense. This was particularly true in the long, harsh winters when game was scarce and the wolves often proved much more adaptable than the knots of humans who kept close to the fires out of the cold. It was at such a time that feral attributes truly came into their own and that mankind wished it was more like the wolf. Perhaps, if men actually pretended to be wolves, they might acquire or draw down some of the characteristics needed for survival in difficult times. If they wrapped themselves in wolf skins and adopted a wolf-like posture, perhaps the nature spirits would mistake them for actual wolves and bestow the required skills and strengths on them. But in order to confer such an animus upon the hunters, a supernatural liaison in the form of a shaman had to contact the appropriate spirits. This shaman may well have appeared animal-like.
The earliest representation as to how such a shaman might have looked has come down to us from France. This is the celebrated figure known as "Sorcerer de Trois Frères"—a remarkable Palaeolithic drawing found on the wall of a cave system deep beneath the Pyrenees in the Montesquieu-Avantes region. The so-called "Sorcerer" (the figure is taken to represent an early shaman) is depicted as a curious creature—a hybrid combining elements of both the human and animal. The drawing appears to catch him in some sort of dancing posture, moving sideways and upward on two human feet, but slouching forward as if ready to drop onto all fours like an animal, balancing himself on bear-like forepaws. Large antlers adorn his forehead above a bearded human-like face from which intelligent eyes stare owlishly out. But at his hindquarters, a bushy wolf-like tail can clearly be seen, swinging back to reveal a lion-like phallus.
The cavern in which the painting has been created can only be approached by crawling almost horizontally along a connecting tunnel of about 30 or 40 yards, and cultural historians such as Joseph Campbell have suggested that the awkward near-inaccessibility of the site served to give it an air of mystery and mysticism. The Sorcerer is indeed a strange and enigmatic figure, and it is not hard to imagine the drawing at the very heart of some distant Palaeolithic worship. The drawing has been dated to around 13,000 BC, which led cultural anthropologists such as Margaret Murray to (perhaps erroneously) claim that this was a depiction of "one of the first gods on earth." Another archaeologist and anthropologist, the Frenchman Henri Breuil (1877–1961), who incidentally had originally discovered and sketched the painting, disagreed and described the representation probably as a shaman in the form of a "therianthrope" (an idealized figure combining both human and animal characteristics). Later speculation suggested that they were both wrong, and has suggested that the drawing was that of a shaman of the Magadalinan culture, which existed at the end of the last great European ice age, around 10,000 BC. Many learned speculations, however, have connected the figure with some sort of hunting ritual and say that it is suggestive of humans taking on the attributes of their prey or quarry. The linkage of the human and animal worlds in this activity is unmistakable.
Although nothing is written about the Sorcerer or even about the hunting practices he may have embodied (he existed in a time long before writing), it is suggested that the wolf may have formed a significant part of his figure. Wolves may have attracted much of early man's attention, for, although probably implacable enemies, the two also shared certain characteristics. Similar to ancient men, wolves were social animals. They hunted in packs, they obeyed strict laws of leadership, and they cared for their young. Indeed, these were also human characteristics, and it is therefore not surprising that they formed the foundation of a perceptual bond between humans and wolves. The perception of such a bond formed the basis of a few very ancient legends. It was said, for example, that wolves might raise abandoned human children as their own (a theme that we shall return to later in the book).
Romulus and Remus
According to ancient tradition, for example, the founders of the eternal city of Rome, Romulus and Remus (771–717 BC and 771–753 BC respectively) were supposed to have been suckled and raised by a kindly she-wolf. The twins, reputedly the sons of the war god Mars, were abandoned as small infants by their mother Rhea Silvia, a vestal virgin, in the area of Alba Longa (supposedly situated around the modern day Alban Hills) in the territory of ancient Latium, and were left to die in a swamp. They were discovered by a foraging she-wolf who viewed them with an almost human compassion. According to some variations of the legend, the wolf was the embodiment of the wolf goddess Luperca, which seems to suggest that there was a highly developed system of wolf-worship among the early Latins. Whoever or whatever she was, the she-wolf looked after the infants, suckling them with her own milk, until they were subsequently found by the shepherd Faustulus, who raised them as his own sons. Later they would find out their true identity and would be called by the people of Latium to find and rule a major city following the death of their uncle and former king, Amulius. Romulus would later kill Remus (according to some it was in a wolf-like frenzy, culminating in a blow to Remus's head with a spade) to become the first king of Rome. Imbedded within this tale is an idea of union between man and beast—the she-wolf suckled two young human children as she would her own cubs—and perhaps this forms part of the legendary juxtaposition of man and wolf.
Old though the story of Romulus and Remus might be, it is certainly not the oldest known story concerning men and wolves. Indeed, perhaps the most ancient tale comes from the second millennium BC and involves an actual transformation into an animal. The celebrated Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest existing texts that we know about, and was originally written for the ancient Kings of Uruk (later Mesopotamia), later being translated into Akkadian. It tells of the exploits of Gilgamesh, a god-king and son of Lugalbanda, the fifth king of the first dynasty, who supposedly reigned around 2600 BC. The Epic was little more than a collection of ancient oral tales put into some form of order for the amusement and delectation of the court, and also to give both status and glory to its former kings. Gilgamesh was supposedly loved by the goddess Ishtar, who made advances toward him. The hero, however, rejected her because of her treatment of former suitors. A young shepherd had also fallen in love with the goddess some time before and made copious offerings to her at a shrine on a mountainside. At first, the vain Ishtar encouraged him, but, being the capricious entity she was, she soon tired of his devotions and turned him into the guise of a wolf. He was then torn to pieces by his own hounds. This ancient story may have formed the basis for the later Greek myth of the hunter Actaeon—the most famous hunter in all of the Greek states—who surreptitiously spied on the goddess Artemis as she bathed in a woodland pool. Discovering what he had done, the goddess became enraged and turned the hapless Actaeon into the form of a stag; similar to the shepherd, he too was torn to shreds by his own hounds.
Although the Gilgamesh story is often cited as the most ancient recorded werewolf story available, some scholars dismiss it as not being an actual werewolf tale, saying that no actual transformation occurs within the tale. They point instead to a detail in the Satyricon, a work written by the Roman writer Petronius (AD 27–66), a scribe at the court of the Emperor Nero. The work was written around AD 61, but was not published until 1664 when it was only sporadically circulated. It details the escapades of two homosexual friends—Encolpius and Gita—but also contains the story of Niciros, a soldier who traveled with an acquaintance to a distant city. On their journey, they stopped off in a deserted graveyard to relieve themselves. To the soldier's horror, his companion, with an evil laugh, made a circle of urine around himself, threw off his clothes (which turned to stone), changed into the guise of a wolf, and bounded off to do harm in a neighboring settlement. There, he was wounded in the throat by a spear wielded by one of the populace and was forced to flee; Niciros was treated for the wound in a nearby house. There are, of course, many subtexts in the tale—to urinate within the precincts of a graveyard was an insult to the dead and would invite some sort of supernatural consequences. Also, the idea that the companion might turn into a ravening wolf shows how much ancient perceptions of the animal persisted even into classical times.
Indeed, the wolf still featured largely as a creature of both terror and admiration throughout the ancient world. In classical Greece, for example, there was the mysterious ritual on the top of Mount Lykaon, a remote spot in the highlands of Arcadia in the Peloponnesus peninsula. Mention of this place and of the clandestine rituals that went on there comes down to us from the Greek writer Pausanius (a Lydian geographer who died in the kingdom of Sparta somewhere between 470 and 465 BC). At the time of his writing, the lower slopes of the mountain were covered by thick forests, which were the home of predatory wolves, making it a most dangerous area indeed. The upper slopes, however, were bare and rocky, and the boulders there were said to conceal a strange shrine dedicated to the Lykaian Zeus, where strange rites were carried out. The name given to the mountain has its origins in ancient Greek legend. Lykaon was originally said to have been a person—a prehistoric king, in fact, who ruled Arcadia in the years before the Great Deluge. In an attempt to ingratiate himself with the god Zeus, the king invited the deity to a feast on the high mountainside at which he served up human flesh—said by some versions of the story to be that of his own son, Nyktimos, or of his nephew Arkas. When Zeus found that he'd been eating human flesh, he was outraged and in a fit of anger turned Lykaon into a wolf. The transformation would last nine years, after which Lykaon would turn back into a man, provided he had not tasted human flesh while in the wolf guise. If he had eaten human flesh, he would remain a wolf forever. The ritual at which Pausanius hinted possibly involved the worship of Zeus in the guise of a wolf. This led some writers to assume that it may have involved human sacrifice and cannibalism.
However, the Greek cultural writer Walter Burkert, basing his theory on the writings of Pliny, suggests that the ritual may have been a kind of "rite of passage" practiced by young males in certain Arcadian communities or families. Pliny suggests that a young man was chosen from among the family and taken to a remote spot, where he hung his clothes on an oak tree, swam across a lake, and went into the wild to live like a wolf for nine years, whereupon he swam back, dressed himself, and resumed his human life as a full-grown man. In those nine years, he was not to have tasted human flesh, else he become a beast of the forest and beyond humanity. The notion of the swimming across water is significant, as it suggests, according to cultural anthropologists, a break with the human world. There may, of course, have also been some sort of human sacrifice involved, but the exact nature of this is unclear. Although not doubting this, Pausanius is extremely sceptical of the metamorphosis of human into wolf.
He does, however, mention another connected story (the exact veracity of which he also doubts) concerning an Arcadian boxer named Damarchus, who was a champion of the Olympic Games around 400 BC. He competed after having been changed into a wolf and back to human form again nine years later. However, many other Greek writers were not so skeptical as Pausanius—Arcadia was, after all, a geographically enclosed and often mysterious place usually associated with the supernatural and witchcraft. His skill and prowess were, of course, linked to the fact that he was in some way connected to a wolf.
Worshipping of the Gods
But boxers were not the only martial wolves of the ancient world. Pliny also states that at the foot of Mount Soracte in Eturia, Italy, roughly 26 miles from Rome, a peculiar ceremony was carried out once a year in honor of the goddess Feronia. She seems to have been some sort of fertility goddess, sacred to growing plants and to some species of animal—although these are not exactly specified. The festival was known as that of the Hirpi Sorani or of the Soranian Wolves, and drew large crowds, not only from all the surrounding villages, but also from the city of Rome. During the festival certain men, known as Wolf Wizards or Wolf Soldiers, who were possessed by the spirits of wolves, would walk barefoot across burning coals without any apparent harm. As a consequence of this act, they were exempted by the civil authorities from any sort of public service or duty, and were held in high esteem by the populace. These men were considered to be invincible and performed great feats of strength and daring at a carnival associated with the event, still under the possession of the wolf spirits.
There was much debate among ancient writers as to whether this ritual was conducted in honor of the goddess Feronia at all. Pliny and Virgil argued that this formed part of a much older form of worship, which long pre-dated the goddess, directed toward the god of the mountain whose name was Soranus. This was later changed into the name of the god Apollo, although there is a suggestion that in his original form, Soranus may have appeared in the guise of a wolf. Another Roman writer and follower of Livy and Virgil, Silus Italicus (AD 25 or 26–1017) speaks of men passing through fire following a human sacrifice, carrying human entrails in their hands—this act conferring on them a supernatural "touch" and giving them the status of "wizards." Whether this is at the festival of Feronia at Mount Soracte, however, is unclear.
Excerpted from Werewolves by Bob Curran, Gina Talucci. Copyright © 2009 Dr. Bob Curran. Excerpted by permission of New Page Books.
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