Where Does the Werewolf Come From?
Antonietta Gonsalvus who had hypertrichosis, one possible origin of werewolf mythology
It is a common task of folklorists to try and pin down the origins of a given subject, to find a real-world analog or starting point to account for a mythological belief. Werewolves are an attractive subject for this treatment, stories of their existence being so widespread (especially in Europe) that surely there must be some basis in reality. As yet, no satisfactory explanation has been found, the subject interrogated by folklorists, medical doctors, witchcraft historians, and literary scholars alike. Part of the problem has to do with a basic tenet of folklore: mythologies are unstable, with the werewolf’s appearance and behavior varying from culture to culture.
The popular image of the werewolf is a composite of many different sources. In 1963, physician Lee Illis documented a number of werewolf characteristics from existing literature: broken and yellow skin, red mouth, abundant hair, etc. However, Illis’ source was a Dutch 19th report on stories of a shape-shifting creature in Indonesia, distinct from werewolf mythology. When werewolf trials were conducted beginning around the 15th century, hairiness was rarely mentioned regarding the accused, but it is an integral part of the modern image of werewolves, owing to films like 1935’s Werewolf of London.
Timelapse woodcut of Stübbe's execution for being a werewolf
The exact symptoms of lycanthropy vary, but the basic outline of the mythology is solid: a human who shapeshifts into a wolf creature and terrorizes their community before reverting back to human form. A number of diseases have been put forth to account for this supposed transformation: hypertrichosis (causing excessive hair), porphyria (liver disease causing skin problems), and of course rabies. Ergot poisoning causing hallucinations or feral wild children inspiring werewolf stories has also been suggested, but these and other theories still cannot account for just how widespread werewolf stories are.
Werewolf origins were not just cultural but also political. During the European witch trials, a number of werewolf trials took place, the transformation thought to be a Satanic illusion. Peter Stübbe, a 16th-century German farmer, confessed under torture to killing multiple children in his wolf form and was executed on October 31, 1589, supposed symptoms of lycanthropy used in his conviction. Nailing down the exact source of werewolf mythology might ultimately be fruitless: some features were invented, some were imported from separate cultures, and some are simple products of storytelling that are not based on any real-world medical disorder.
That said, sometimes werewolf attacks were not entirely works of fiction, like the Beast of Gévaudan...