Werewolves and the Creation of Society
Werewolves are some of the most well-known popcultural monsters, probably only second to vampires. Beliefs about their existence are widespread among all Indo-European peoples, but they are part of the same pattern present on all continents – the belief that man can change into a wild predator spreading violence, rape and destruction. In Europe, this “alpha” predator was the wolf, but on other continents it was the tiger, lion, panther, jaguar…
Vampires are much more mysterious and have a parasitic nature, whereas wolf-men are a symbol of pure evil, of cruelty and savage behavior. Practically all monsters from the ancient Slavic bestiary are types of the undead. Zombies, vampires, babies that died at birth, virgins that got drowned, stories about ghosts wandering lost in this realm – all of it was obvious effect of the fear of the uknown, the greatest mystery of them all.
Werewolves are totally different in that respect. They are not undead, do not have a chtonic nature, and have no role or attributes other than that of the ultimate predator. They actually stand in opposition to the chtonic world as fully immersed in all that is earthly. Wołos/Veles, who is represented in Slavic countries as Saint Nikola (Santaclaus) is the bear, the protector of humans, cattle and Otherworld. In traditional Russian spells Saint Nikola is asked to protect cattle and horses from the wolves and the wild dogs. Veles is also the snake – Żmij/Zmay (meaning ‘snake,’ but in some Slavic languages evovled to mean ‘dragon’), who in medieval Christianity symbolized hell itself (hell was sometimes depicted as being inside the snake/worm). However, snakes were welcome in Slavic houses as they were believed to be spirits of the ancestors taking care of their descendants, bringing wealth and protection.
There is a godly oppossition to Wołos/Veles or Saint Nikola – that is the Grom/Perun or Archangel Michael(Saint Elijah among orthodox Slavs), who is the thunder god fighting the snake in the Indo-European myth. Vitality, creation and order fighting against death, stagnation and voidness. All monsters are, one way or another, part of the domain of the Veles. He is the greatest of monsters, able to scare off even the evil itself. He is the “Cerberus” protecting the gates of the Otherworld. But where did the stories of werewolves come from if they are not related to the great mystery of death and afterlife? Because werewolves are not supernatural monsters.
Stories related to werewolves are not numerous, and most of them – especially in the case of the area around the Mediterranean – come from the period of the birth of the state. There is certainly a relation between government or ruling class having a monopoly on violence, but lycanthropy is even older than states, and present even among the most primitive societies.
The Romans are certainly a great example of the symbolism of the wolfman. Their state and nation was started by two mythical boys who here raised by a she-wolf, and their legionaries were also known for wearing wolf skins. It’s probably hard to find a better example of the armed and organised males enforcing their will in a brutal and cruel manner over others.
In Greece there is a mountain called Likaion, to which almost all Greek stories about lycanthropy reference. It is situated in the territories of the Arcadians, descendants of Achayans, and they were considered to be more primitive and ancient by other Hellenics. They were the ones who kept the pre-Hellenic myths alive for the longest time. For example, they had their own version of the supreme god, called Zeus Likaios and depicted as wearing wolf hide (just like Jupiter was sometimes depicted by the Romans).
There is legend of king Likaion, who was making the olympics called Likaies. He is the symbolic ruler-civilizer. One day he sacrificed a newborn child to Zeus Likaios and so he was turned into the wolf. It’s very clear here that the baby represents the innocent and the helpless, people who are unable to protect themselves. This metamorphosis supposedly took place on the mount Likaion, where, as the legend says, there was a sanctuary with two pillars for human sacrifices to Zeus Likaios to be performed. What’s interesting is that it has been archaeologically confirmed that there indeed was a sacrificial circle there, and traces of the two columns were found. According to another version of this legend, king Likaon had fifty sons from different women (by rape), who were known for being violent and savage. Zeus decided to test them: he came to them dressed as a poor worker. The brothers killed some little child and mixed its insides with animal meat which they gave to the guest. So Zeus smote down the whole royal family of cruel monsters with thunders, except for the youngest of the sons, who became the king.
Now, the connection between the thundergod and a violent government is different in different parts of Europe. For instance, Perun was the main god of the ruling class of Kievan Russ, while Veles was the god-protector of the people. On the other hand, in the version where the thundergod kills the murderers, there is no mention of transformation into the wolf. It is possible that there is relation between the way how the state was created and the affiliations of the ruling class to the gods of order or predatory animals.
In another version of the myth, Likaon and his sons turn into wolves and kill the youngest one. Very clear here is the parallel to the primal, tribal tradition described by James Frazer in his legendary work “Golden Bough”. A tradition by which the ruler had the right to his power only as long as he was able to protect it with violence. The old leader had to be killed by a new one, who was often of his own blood, and the ruler could extend his time by killing his competitors.
This prehistoric tradition is found in many European myths. For instance, in Ynglinga saga we learn that Aun, king of Uppsala, was promised by Odin that he will rule as long as he would sacrifice one of his own sons every nine years. In northern Europe, the situation with wolfmen was a bit different. One of the proto-Slavic tribes called Neuri was famous for the fact that their warriors were dressing into wolf skins. According to Herodotus, the Scythians, who were culturally related to their neighbors the Neuri, believed that they are changing into wolves once a year. Dressing as the wolf was also traditional of Scandinavian berserkr warriors and Pomeranian pirates who had the ritual of howling before combat.
We may multiply examples here, but I think it’s not necessary. It’s pretty clear that the belief in werewolves comes from the prehistoric times, when bands of young men were hunting together and preying on not only animals, but also started to prey on other people. The werewolf is a symbol of violence done by organised groups, very often not blood-related, which gave start to the first social structures other than the family. Those groups became the first types of primitive ruling classes. The wolf, as the supreme predator operating in packs, became a natural reference and symbol for those primal gangs and later, organized government.
While undead monsters are mostly dramatic in their own way, being born through tragic death of often innocent people, werewolves have been attributed with rape, murder and preying on humans. Maybe that’s why vampires are more popular in pop-culture than werewolves. People like evil, but they also like depth and reason behind that evil. Vampires are dramatic creatures, while werewolves are simply something everybody would like to be. At least sometimes. For example twice a month during the full moon?