While transformation of themselves or others was a property common to gods, spirits, giants, and human magic-wielders, there was one form of it which, found all over the world, developed into a belief which for centuries caused terror and is not now extinct among savages and in backward regions of Europe. This is the belief in lycanthropy, the power which certain persons have of becoming wolves or, in some regions, the fiercest animal there existing — bear, tiger, leopard, hyena, etc. The basis of this superstition is the belief in transformation, but its special form is due to mental aberration, persons of diseased mind imagining that they were wolves and the like, acting as such, and preying upon other human beings. Without the belief in transformation this form of mental aberration could not have arisen. The belief in lycanthropy was exploited by interested persons — magicians and sorcerers. It is one of the most deeply rooted of all superstitions and the most wide-spread. We are concerned with it only as far as it existed among the Norsemen and other members of the Teutonic race.1
People who could change their form by the soul’s entering another body or by putting on, e.g., a feather-dress and so becoming a bird, were said in Norway to be eigi einhamir, “not of one form”; they were hamramr or hamhleypa, “changing form.”
The word for Werwolf (literally “Man-wolf”) in Norse was Vargulf, a wolf worse than any other kind of wolf (varg, “wolf”; ulfr, “wolf”). Save for one reference, the Eddas do not speak of the Werwolf, but there are examples of it in the Volsunga-saga.
A she-wolf came night after night and ate one of Volsung’s sons, set in the stocks by their brother-in-law Siggeir. Their sister Signy saved the last of the brothers, Sigmund. This wolf was held to be Siggeir’s mother, who had thus changed her form.2
Signy’s son, Sinfjotli, and his uncle Sigmund, came to a house in the forest where two men were asleep, spell-bound skin-changers. Wolf-skins hung above them, and every tenth day they came out of those skins. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put on the skins, each now howling as wolves, but thinking as men. Each went his way, agreeing that they should risk the attack of seven men, but no more. If more attacked one of them, he must howl for the other’s aid. On one occasion Sinfjotli slew eleven men without seeking help. For this Sigmund bit him in the throat, and then carried him home and healed his wound. They now cast away the wolf-skins, devoting them to the trolls, and later burned them.3
The belief was mingled with and perhaps influenced by the custom of wild warriors and outlaws, e.g., the berserks, wearing wolf-skins or bear-skins over their armour or clothing themselves in these, while they were often victims of frenzy and acted as if they were animals. As the person who had the power of changing his form became preternaturally strong, so the berserks in their fury were very powerful, and, as was said of two brothers in the train of Earl Hakon of Norway, they “were not of the fashion of men when wroth, but mad like dogs and feared neither fire nor steel.”4
The story from the Volsunga-saga is referred to in the Edda when Godmund says to Sinfjotli: “Thou hast eaten wolves’ meat . . . and often sucked wounds with cold mouth, and, loathsome to all men, slunk into the dens of wild beasts.”5
Other examples are found in the Sagas. The Story of Howard the Halt says of the dead Thormod that in life he was thought to have more shapes than one, and men held him ill to deal with.6 The Egils-saga tells of Ulf, grandfather of Egil,
that at times he would be subject to attacks at night, during which he changed his form. Hence he was called Kveldulf, Evening Wolf.7 In the Eyrbyggja-saga Thrand was hamramr in his heathen days, but this fell off him at his baptism.8 Other persons are said to have had this power of changing their form, and a Norse gloss to the Bisclaverit of Marie de France says that in earlier times many men took wolf-form and dwelt in the forests.9
The word hamramr does not always refer to wolf-form. Thus Dubhthach and Storwolf were mighty skin-changers. They quarrelled and were seen by a second-sighted man fighting, one as a bull, the other as a bear. The bear was the stronger of the two. Next day the valley where they had fought looked as if an earthquake had occurred in it. Both men were worn out and lay in bed.10 In a wild tale from Hrolfs-saga kraka Bjorn was transformed into a bear by his step-mother, who shook a wolf-skin glove at him. He lived as a bear and killed many of his father’s sheep, but by night he was a man.11
Among the Anglo-Saxons the existence of the belief is proved by the use of the word “Were-wulf” in the laws of Cnut, e.g., at the council of Winchester, 1018 A.D., where preachers were told to guard their flocks from the fierce devouring Were-wulf, i.e., Satan. Gervase of Tilbury speaks of the English name “Were-wolf” and explains its meaning. He also says that at changes of the moon in England men became wolves.12
In Germany the belief is witnessed to by the OHG wolfhetan, the equivalent of ON ulfhedinn, and meaning one who puts on a wolf-girdle or skin (ulfhamr) in order to become a wolf.13 The oldest literary testimony to the superstition is found in a sermon of S. Boniface (eighth century), who speaks of the belief of the Saxons in fictos lupos, obviously Werwolves.14 Later evidence is supplied in the Penitential of the “Corrector” which speaks of the gift conferred by the Parcae of power to change into wolf-form or any other shape at will. “Vulgar folly calls this creature werewulff” — the German name. The connexion
of this power with the German Parcae, equivalents of the Norns, is curious, but points to popular tradition or to the belief that the power was innate in certain men.15
Modern collections of Scandinavian and German folk-tales contain many Werwolf stories. In later medieval times the superstition was closely connected with witchcraft, and theologians turned their attention to lycanthropy as a branch of sorcery. The power of changing the form, or of deluding the eyes of others so as to make them believe that such a change had taken place, was ascribed to diabolic agency.
In Scandinavian and German belief the change was effected by donning a wolf-skin or a girdle of human skin, or by throwing these over another person. The girdle had sometimes magic signs upon it, and was held in place by a buckle with seven catches. When the buckle was broken off, the transformation ceased. The man was a wolf or bear by night, or he assumed the animal form for nine days, or even for three, seven, or nine years, the eyes alone retaining a human appearance. He howled and devoured like the actual animal.