At first glance, why would anyone want to be a werewolf? Does anyone really want to be able to change their shape, to have to hunt and kill? Common legends do not paint them as very congenial creatures, and how comfortable can it be to grow hair and have to run around on all fours? How many hands up out there? Ok, mine’s one of them. Guilty! But I’ve always found shape-shifting endlessly fascinating.
The origins of the werewolf legend trace back to the ancient world. The Epic of Gilgamesh, out of Sumeria, relates how the hero refused to knock boots with the Goddess Ishtar, because she’d turned a former lover into a wolf. From Greece we have Lycaon, King of Arcadia. The basic tale has Lycaon killing his son, cooking him and offering him up for dinner to Zeus, King of the Gods. Zeus is understandably angered by his host’s menu choice and transforms King Lycaon into a wolf in punishment. I guess the lesson from this is…don’t piss off a deity! It’s from the King of Arcadia that we get the word lycanthropy.
The wolf has had a bad reputation for a very long time. In early European cultures the wolf was a dangerous enemy, a threat to livestock and humans both. Not surprising that someone who did damage to the community would be characterized as a wolf. Werewolf legends abound throughout Europe of men changing into wolves and terrorizing the countryside. Retrospective analyses have offered us a multitude of explanations for this creature, it’s motives and behaviors; ergotism, hypertrichosis, porphyria have all been suggested. Superstition and suspected witchcraft have also contributed. It’s been suggested that the werewolf legend sprang up to explain the actions of serial killers; a supernatural cause to a horrific act would have made sense to religiously bound ideals of the Middle Ages.
How did we make the transition then, from serial killer to superhero? Today, we have Jacob Black, Richard Zeeman and Alcede Herveaux to name just a few. Hundreds of thousands of women now lust for these guys, and yeah, I’m one of them! The literal and virtual bookshelves are crammed with paranormal romance featuring everyone’s favorite shapechanger. Now, they’re devastatingly attractive, powerful men (or women!) who are as irresistible to us as to the heroine (or hero!) of the story.
Obviously, numerous factors have contributed to this change, but as our understanding of wolves and their environment has grown, so has our love affair with the werewolf. It’s only fairly recently that human perception of the wolf has turned. With a better understanding of wolf behavior that has come from research, we now know that, instead of being slavering mindless killers, the wolf is in fact a dedicated family animal. Wolves are loyal, and live in loving family groupings. They act together as a team, cooperating to provide food and protection for their pack. Pack dynamics can be harsh, involving growling, lunging and slashing teeth, but looking closely at these interactions shows that these fierce displays are usually just that, display. Physical conflict is typically brief, and injuries rare. More commonly, pack members are physically affectionate with each other, offering grooming, cuddling and playful behaviors to the members of their pack. Yes, they do kill other animals, but for food, not excessively or wastefully. They do not kill solely for the joy of killing. Seems to me humans could do a little more modeling of their own behavior after the wolf’s.
The modern werewolf has grown to fill a much-loved niche in our world. Striding confidently out from the fearful fringes of superstition, the werewolf has gone from terror-inducing villain to mainstream hero. But, the modern shapeshifter has also allowed us to reconnect with an often-forgotten part of ourselves, the part that is wild and animalistic. In our frenetic, technology-driven world, we often lose sight of the fact that we are natural creatures. A part of us mourns a little when we are cut off utterly from the earth that sustains us and seeks to reconnect with it. And it’s a little bit like rediscovering the divine when you do find it.
The werewolf walks in both worlds, the human and the natural, giving us that outlet, that connection.
I cast the werewolf into the protagonist’s role in my novel, Becoming Pack, to show that humans are inextricably bound to the natural world, and our actions have consequences. We need this bond, to remind ourselves that we are not alone, we do not exist in a vacuum. We require the wild, open spaces and the animals that live there. Evidence mounts on evidence that each ecosystem is linked to the other, what affects one affects the next and damage to one eventually harms all.
The wolf is an icon of how man can affect the natural world. In North America, the wolf was the object of a sustained program of eradication, and they nearly succeeded. It wasn’t until 1973 that the gray and red wolves received federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Wolf reintroduction programs began in 1995 in Idaho/Yellowstone. Today, wolf populations are growing, and their resurgence has helped restore their native habitats.
I have a very close bond to wolves; I used to work with them, well, two to be specific. In Becoming Pack, I’ve tried to bring you into the world of the wolf, and what it would feel like to be able to experience the world through the senses of another. Ultimately, that’s what the werewolf protagonist does for us, gives us a glimpse of the natural world through the eyes of one immersed in it.
Who is your favorite werewolf? What’s your fascination with the werewolf mythos? Leave me a comment and tell me about your love of lycanthropy!