A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope
(from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος: λύκος,
lukos, "wolf", and άνθρωπος, anthrōpos, man), is a mythological or folkloric human with the ability to shapeshift into a wolf or an anthropomorphic wolf-like creature, either purposely, by being bitten by another werewolf, or after
being placed under a curse. This transformation is often associated with the appearance of the full moon, as popularly noted by the medieval chronicler Gervase of Tilbury, and perhaps in earlier times among the ancient Greeks through the writings of Petronius.
Werewolves are often attributed
superhuman strength and senses, far beyond those of both wolves and men. The werewolf is generally held as a European character, although its lore spread through the world in later times. Shape-shifters,
similar to werewolves, are common in tales from all over the world, most notably amongst the Native Americans, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves.
Werewolves are a frequent subject
of modern fictional books, although fictional werewolves have been attributed traits distinct from those
of original folklore, most notably vulnerability to silver bullets. Werewolves continue to endure in modern culture and fiction, with books,
films and television shows cementing the werewolf's stance as a dominant figure in horror.
The word werewolf is thought to
derive from Old English wer (or were)— pronounced variously as /ˈwɛər, ˈwɪər, ˈwɜr/— and wulf.
The first part, wer, translates as "man" (in the specific sense of male human, not the race of humanity generally). It has
cognates in several Germanic languages including Gothic wair, Old High German wer, and Old Norse verr, as well as in other Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit 'vira', Latin vir, Irish fear, Lithuanian vyras, and Welsh gŵr, which have the same meaning. The second half, wulf, is the ancestor
of modern English "wolf"; in some cases it also had the general meaning "beast."
An alternative etymology derives the first part from Old English weri (to wear); the full form in this case would be glossed as wearer of wolf skin. Related to this interpretation is Old Norse ulfhednar, which denoted lupine equivalents of the berserker, said to wear a bearskin in battle.
Facsimile of the first seven lines of the 14th century English translation of the 12th century French manuscript
The Romance of William of Palerne
Yet other sources derive the word
from warg-wolf, where warg (or later werg and wero) is cognate with Old Norse vargr, meaning "rogue," "outlaw," or, euphemistically,
"wolf". A Vargulf was the kind of wolf that slaughtered many members of a flock or herd but ate little of the kill. This was
a serious problem for herders, who had to somehow destroy the rogue wolf before it destroyed the entire flock or herd. The
term Warg was used in Old English for this kind of wolf. Possibly related is the fact
that, in Norse society, an outlaw (who could be murdered with no legal repercussions and was forbidden to receive aid) was
typically called vargr, or "wolf."
Werewolves were said in European folklore to bear tell-tale physical traits even in their human form.
These included the meeting of both eyebrows at the bridge of the nose, curved fingernails, low set ears and a swinging stride.
One method of identifying a werewolf in its human form was to cut the flesh of the accused, under the pretense that fur would
be seen within the wound. A Russian superstition recalls a werewolf can be recognised by bristles under the tongue. The appearance of a werewolf in its animal form varies from culture to culture, though they are most commonly portrayed
as being indistinguishable from ordinary wolves save for the fact that they have no tail (a trait thought characteristic of
witches in animal form), are often larger, and retain human eyes and voice. After returning to their human forms, werewolves
are usually documented as becoming weak, debilitated and undergoing painful nervous depression. Many historical werewolves were written to have suffered severe melancholia and manic depression, being bitterly conscious
of their crimes. One universally reviled trait in medieval Europe was the werewolf's habit of devouring recently buried corpses, a trait
that is documented extensively, particularly in the Annales Medico-psychologiques in the 19th century. Fennoscandian werewolves were usually old women who possessed poison coated claws and had the
ability to paralyse cattle and children with their gaze. Serbian vulkodlaks traditionally had the habit of congregating annually in the winter
months, where they would strip off their wolf skins and hang them from trees. They would then get a hold of another vulkodlaks
skin and burn it, releasing the vulkodlak from whom the skin came from its curse. The Haitian jé-rouges typically try to trick mothers into giving away their children voluntarily by waking them at
night and asking their permission to take their child, to which the disoriented mother may either reply yes or no.
Most modern fiction describes werewolves
as vulnerable to silver weapons and highly resistant to other injuries. This feature does not appear in
stories about werewolves before the 19th century. (The claim that the Beast of Gévaudan, an 18th century wolf or wolf-like creature, was shot by a silver bullet
appears to have been introduced by novelists retelling the story from 1935 onwards and not in earlier versions.)
Unlike vampires, they are not generally thought to be harmed by religious artifacts such as crucifixes and holy water. In many countries, rye and mistletoe were considered effective safeguards against werewolf attacks. Mountain ash is also considered effective, with one Belgian superstition stating that no house
was safe unless under the shade of a mountain ash. In some legends, werewolves have an aversion to wolfsbane
Werewolves are often depicted as
immune to damage caused by ordinary weapons, being vulnerable only to silver objects, such as a silver-tipped cane, bullet or blade; this attribute was first adopted cinematically in The Wolf Man. This negative reaction to silver is sometimes so strong that the mere touch of the metal on a werewolf's skin will
cause burns. Current-day werewolf fiction almost exclusively involves lycanthropy being either a hereditary condition or being transmitted like an infectious disease by the bite of another werewolf. In some fiction, the power of the werewolf
extends to human form, such as invulnerability, super-human speed and strength and falling on their feet from high falls.
Also aggressiveness and animalistic urges may be harder to control (hunger, sexual arousal). Usually in these cases the abilities
are diminished in human form. In other fictions, it can even be cured by medicine men or even antidotes.
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