Welcome back to the Fiction Reboot (and its counterpart, the Daily Dose)! In addition to promoting smart, edgy fiction, we also encourage those intersections of literature and history or medicine on which this blog is built. Today, I am pleased to bring you: The Tattooed Wolf, a werewolf tale of remarkable depth and interest, playing with our concept of what it means to be human (and monstrous). The author, the talented Kim Bannerman, speaks to us about the werewolves of history–and those that continue to haunt or speak to us today.
Kim Bannerman lives on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where she writes short stories, novels, and plays. She is the author of four novels, including The Tattooed Wolf, a contemporary fairy tale of wolves, true love, and divorce lawyers, and released by Hic Dragones Press in 2014. Learn more about The Tattooed Wolf –and check out our feature of the tale!
Werewolf: Monster or Victim?
When it comes to the werewolf, that question isn’t so easy to answer.
The first mention of werewolves in literature appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written over 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia. Ishtar, the goddess of love, attempts to seduce King Gilgamesh, but the wise king is suspicious of her advances. He reminds her of the fate of her former lover, saying:
“You have loved the shepherd of the flock; he made meal-cake for you day after day, he killed kids for your sake. You struck and turned him into a wolf; now his own herd-boys chase him away, his own hounds worry his flanks… And if you and I should be lovers, should not I be served in the same fashion as all these others whom you loved once?”
Not only is this the first mention of a werewolf in writing, but it’s also the first link between werewolves and malicious women, a theme which reoccurs throughout European myths. Ishtar’s former lover has been punished unfairly for his affection; his bestial form is a curse placed upon him by a fickle woman who can not be trusted.
“These herbs of bane to me did Moeris give,
In Pontus culled, where baneful herbs abound.
With these full oft have I seen Moeris change
To a wolf’s form, and hide him in the woods,
Oft summon spirits from the tomb’s recess,
And to new fields transport the standing corn.”
Here, the werewolf is neither evil nor monstrous nor a victim of fickle love. Instead, his transformation helps to describe the perils of eating these ‘baneful herbs’; he is a mere example in a field guide. The casual nature in which Virgil mentions the werewolf causes one to wonder if transformation into a wolf was considered a plausible, and perhaps even mundane, possibility in Greek society. Virgil shows no sense of amazement, or astonishment, or fear. He uses transformation as a matter-of-fact consequence of eating these plants, much like he’d mention a rash or indigestion: turning into a slavering beast is a side effect, so be careful. To be honest, I wish he’d said more. I’m left wondering why Moeris needs to hide in the woods so often. What was that boy up to?
Forty years later, Ovid released The Metamorphosis, a series of fifteen books which cover over 250 myths, and which became one of the most influential books in Western literature. In Book One,King Lycaeon of Arcadia mistrusts a guest who has arrived in his home, who claims to be the god Zeus. Determined to find out whether the guest is truly a god or a mortal, Lycaeondecides to play a gruesome trick: he kills a man, cooks the flesh, and feeds it to the guest.
Zeus isn’t pleased. He destroys the palace with a thunderbolt and turns Lycaeon into a wolf, a permanent and complete transformation. The change is an extension of Lycaeon’s personality: savage, dangerous and cruel. While the two previous references to werewolves were representations of animals in a natural environment, without agency or malice, Ovid provides the first connection between werewolves and evil.
The Metamorphosis was widely read and highly influential in medieval storytelling, and fueled an interest in human transformation. Throughout the literature of this period, animals were used as models for human behavior, and the popularity of this concept is demonstrated by bestiaries, books which used animals as symbols for personality traits. Dogs were loyal and faithful, tigers were vain, and pelicans were devoted to their children.
Wolves were greedy and rapacious, lustful and lascivious. The wolf took what it wished and rejected any restrictions to its passion. Its carnal desires followed no rules. In a society which functioned on the constant suppression of desire, where man had been set apart from the animals by his reason and intellect, the wolf provided a poignant example of rampant sexuality.
Throughout medieval stories, then, werewolves straddled the distinction between human and animal, earthly and heavenly, saint and sinner. These tales cemented the concept of transformation as a punishment or curse, revealing the inner nature of the person who had been changed. Early medieval tales portrayed werewolves as monsters who ate children and destroyed livestock, who were unable to resist their bestial desires, and who gave themselves over to their animal rage. They followed the model set forth by Lycaeon and his savage impulses.
But later tales began to focus on the involuntary werewolf, victims of the whims of others – most often capricious women, similar to Ishtar and her poor shepherd lover. While they were savage and could be taken over by brute desires, they struggled to retain their sanity and rationality. In many late medieval werewolf tales, the victim is transformed by an outside person – usually a wife or a stepmother. They return to human form after performing a good deed or befriending a clever king, who recognizes the werewolf’s true, noble nature and helps him return to human form.
In 1187, Gerald of Wales tells story of the Wolf of Ossary in his workTopographia Hibernica, in which an Irish priest traveling through the woods meets a talking wolf.The priest asks what sort of creature ‘in the shape of a beast utters human words’. The wolf explains that he and his wife were placed under a curse by an abbot, and for seven years, they must take the form of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they’ve both survived, another couple will take their place and they’ll be able to return to civilization. Sadly, the wolf’s wife is dying, and he asks the priest to follow him into the woods to administer her last rites.
Gerald presents the story as a fact, but it shows the struggle to pair church doctrine with local, oral folk tales. The idea that the transformation is placed by an abbot, rather than a witch or demon, tells the audience that this is a punishment to be pitied, rather than a curse to be feared.
So, then, how did the medieval audience view the werewolf? Looking at the diverse range of transformation stories, one sees that these tales played with the ideas of truth, identity and change. Readers were invited to wonder about their own humanity while staying safely within the boundaries set by Christian doctrine. Culturally, metamorphosis tales also revealed a new fascination with the idea of social change, in which one thing is replaced with something else, for better or worse.
We live in a time of constantly changing technologies and interaction with other cultural viewpoints, but for the medieval mind, adaptation was difficult to comprehend. Many social changes were happening in Medieval Europe, such as increased trade and contact with the Islamic world; more translations of Greek and Roman text available, including scientific works; and a rediscovery of the humanistic works of Aristotle. But changing one’s social role was not easy and led to questions of identity and self. These tales of transformation, springing first from the Epic of Gilgamesh and flowing through to The Metamorphis, into oral folk histories and the romantic poetry of the troubadours, allowed people to explore an expanded interchange of ideas, revolutionary concepts, and the possibility of a much bigger world than previous generations had known.
To return to the original question, are werewolves monsters or victims? For the medieval audience, they were a channel to better understand and adapt to a transforming world. Werewolves were a prism through which one could examine human nature, play with the possibility of shifting social roles, and discover connections to nature, society, and the divine. Werewolves were neither monsters nor victims: they were the symbol of an evolving social philosophy, and recognizing themselves in the plight of the werewolf, the medieval audience found hope and inspiration in the face of a changing world.