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A werewolf. Art by Dustmeat.
Werewolves. Art by Marc Schirmeister.

A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope in folklore and mythology, is a person who changes into a wolf, caused by purposefully using magic, by being placed under a curse or affliction (often a bite or the occasional scratch from another werewolf) with the transformations occurring on the night of a full moon.

The medieval chronicler Gervase of Tilbury associated the transformation with the appearance of the full moon, but this concept was rarely associated with the werewolf until the idea was picked up by modern fiction writers. Most modern references agree that a werewolf can be killed if shot by a silver bullet, although this is more a reflection of fiction's influence than an authentic feature of the folk legends. A more realistic approach that seems to be closer to the truth, and has been incorporated into more recent works of fiction and movies, is that, for all the supernatural aspects of these creatures, they are still beings of flesh and blood, so they can be killed with any weapon that does enough damage. In many forms of fiction and media, werewolves can either be portrayed with or without tails.

Further inner belief[edit]

Some people call themselves weres or therians and believe they can physically or spiritually shift into a (were)wolf or other (were)animals (though some cases can be classified as clinical lycanthropy), although the therians strongly disagree with the physical side of this and seek to disprove any physical aspect of shifting, making it a purely spiritual phenomenon. This, however, is not a subculture within the furry fandom, but rather a separate phenomenon unto itself. Werewolves are also popular amongst transformation fans.


The word werewolf comes from the Old English word werwulf, that means "man-wolf", a compound of wer, meaning "man," and wulf, which means "wolf."


The ability of a human to undergo transformation into a wolf or werewolf is classically known as lycanthropy (deriving from the Greek words lykoi for wolf and anthropos for man). In common usage, it can refer to the transformation of a human into any animal form; though a more specific term for this is therianthropy. Remus Lupin, from the Harry Potter books, suffers from lycanthropy.

The term takes its name from an Arcadian king named Lycaon in Greek mythology who, with his fifty impious sons, made an inappropriate sacrifice of human flesh to the god Zeus. The god, displeased with the sacrifice, either killed them all immediately with a lightning bolt or, more popularly in myth, turned the king and his sons into wolves.

In psychology, lycanthropy (referred to as clinical lycanthropy) is a mental illness diagnosis where the patient believes that he or she is a wild animal.

Werewolves in fiction[edit]

Werewolves have been portrayed in many works of fiction in the media of literature, comics, drama, and film.

Werewolf literature includes folklore, legend, saga, fairy tales, gothic and horror fiction, fantasy fiction, and poetry. Such stories may be supernatural, symbolic, or allegorical. The archetypal portrayal of a werewolf in popular consciousness is probably that in the horror film The Wolf Man (1941) in which Lon Chaney, Jr. transforms into a werewolf at the full moon, and in later films teams up with Frankenstein and Dracula, as one of the three famous horror icons of the modern day.

However, werewolf fiction is an exceptionally diverse genre with ancient folkloric roots and manifold modern re-interpretations. Werewolves have also been featured in comic books with four of them being Spider-Man's John Jameson, son of J. Jonah Jameson, who has a werewolf form called the Man-Wolf from a gemstone called the Godstone, Wolfsbane, who is part of the X-Men, Warwolf, and Werewolf by Night in the Marvel comic books.


In some stories (derived from folk tales and medieval theology), the werewolf was demonic, part of Satan's army of darkness, inimical to the human race and having a craving for human flesh. This appears as a theme of the Gothic horror story The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains (1839) by Frederick Marryat which features a monstrous spirit-being that transforms from wolf to woman.

The legendary Viking warriors Berserker and Ulfhednar were considered to be shapeshifters, changing into bears and wolves in combat. They were closely associated with the worship of the pagan gods and were outlawed when Scandinavia converted to Christianity. After that, anyone claiming or showing such behavior was deemed to be an outlaw. Outside the protection of the law and hunted down and killed. Modern historians deny that any such phenomenon ever actually existed. They tend to suggest that the behavior was the result of drug use and pagan ceremonies, though experiments have produced no drugs available in Scandinavia which would account for it.

In medieval romances, such as Bisclavret and Guillaume de Palerme, the werewolf takes on more innocent traits, appearing as the victim of evil magic and aiding knights-errant.

In fairy tales, such as Little Red Riding Hood, the figure of the werewolf is more ambiguous and subject to an allegorical or Freudian interpretation. These tales are the inspiration behind modern fiction such as The Company of Wolves by Angela Carter and the film Ginger Snaps which deal with female sexuality.

In other stories beginning with Wagner the Wehr-Wolf (1847) by George W. M. Reynolds, the classic theme of a man cursed to be transformed into a werewolf at the time of the full moon is reintroduced: representing the split personality and evil, bloodthirsty, dark side of humanity itself. This theme of lycanthropy as a disease or curse reached its standard treatment in the film 1941 The Wolf Man movie, which contained the now-famous rhyme:

Even a man who is pure in heart

And says his prayers each night: May become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms: And the autumn moon is full and bright.


This movie is often credited with originating several aspects of the legend which differ from traditional folklore such as the vulnerability of the werewolf to a silver bullet.

The process of transmogrification is portrayed in such films and works of literature to be painful. The resulting wolf is typically cunning but merciless and prone to killing and eating people without compunction regardless of the moral character of the person when human. The first feature film to use an anthropomorphic werewolf was Werewolf of London (1935) (not to be confused with the 1981 film of a similar title) establishing the canon that the werewolf always kills what he loves most. The main werewolf of this film was a dapper London scientist who retained some of his style and most of his human features after his transformation.

A very popular modern subgenre consists of stories that treat werewolves as a separate race or species (either science fictional or magical) or as persons using magic in order to deliberately transform into wolves at will. Such current-day werewolf fiction almost exclusively involves variations of lycanthropy as being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like a disease caused by the bite or scratch of another werewolf.

The form that a werewolf takes is not always an ordinary wolf, but is often anthropomorphic or may be otherwise larger and more powerful than an ordinary wolf. Sometimes the beast form of the werewolf will have some physical characteristics borrowed from an animal species other than the wolf, as can be seen in the boar-like werewolf of Wild Country and the cat-like werewolves of Underworld. While some werewolves are portrayed with tails, there are also others that don't have them. Many modern werewolves are also supposedly immune to damage caused by ordinary weapons, being vulnerable only to silver objects (usually a bullet or blade). This negative reaction to silver is sometimes so strong that the mere touch of the metal on a werewolf's skin will cause burns.

More recently, the portrayals of werewolves has taken a more sympathetic turn in some circles. With the rise of environmentalism and other back-to-nature ideals, the werewolf has come to be seen as a representation of humanity allied more closely with nature. A prime example of this outlook can be seen in the role-playing game Werewolf: The Apocalypse, in which players roleplay various werewolf characters who work on behalf of Gaia against the destructive supernatural spirit named Wyrm, who represents the forces of destructive industrialization and pollution. Author Whitley Strieber previously explored these themes in his novels The Wild (in which the werewolf is portrayed as a medium through which to bring human intelligence and spirit back into nature) and The Wolfen (in which werewolves are shown to act as predators of humanity, acting as a "natural" control on their population now that it has been removed from the traditional limits of nature). The heroic werewolf has also returned via the paranormal romance genre, where wolf-like characteristics such as loyalty are shown as positive traits in a prospective mate.

Despite the recent upsurge in the motif of heroic werewolves, unsympathetic portrayals of werewolves as monsters also continue to be common in popular culture. This is especially true in movies, which are only slowly incorporating trends in written fiction. There are very few werewolf movies outside the horror genre.

Further reading[edit]

  • Black, George Fraser. A List of Works Relating to Lycanthropy. New York: New York Public Library Publications, 1919. (earliest published list of werewolf fiction)
  • Du Coudray, Chantal Bourgault. The Curse of the Werewolf. London : I. B. Tauris, 2006. ISBN 1-84511-158-3 (book on literary symbolism of the werewolf)
  • Flores, Nona C. Animals in the Middle Ages: A Book of Essays. New York: Garland, 1996. ISBN 0-8153-1315-2 (contains learned commentary on William of Palerne)
  • Frost, Brian J. The Essential Guide to Werewolf Literature. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press 2003. ISBN 0-87972-860-4 (contains long lists of novels and short stories, especially pre-1970s ones, with excerpts)
  • Hall, Jamie. Half Human, Half Animal: Tales of Werewolves and Related Creatures. Bloomington, IN: Authorhouse, 2003. ISBN 1-4107-5809-5 (contains long lists of movies and novels)
  • Steiger, Brad. The Werewolf Book: The Encyclopedia of Shape-Shifting Beings. Visible Ink Press, 1999. ISBN 1-57859-078-7 (contains long list of movies, medium list of novels)

See also[edit]

External links[edit]

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