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The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture

Matthew Beresford

(Reaktion; US: Nov 2013)

When Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series was shown on the silver screen, Twihard fans had to decide whether they were on Team Edward (vampire) or Team Jacob (werewolf). Both monsters were heroes and potential love interests of Bella Swan. But not all werewolves are Jacob Black. Quite unlike Black, the history of the mythological werewolve is gruesome, disturbing, and puzzling.


Matthew Beresford’s The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture brings to life the legacy of the werewolf by exploring the myth of this human beast. He utilizes historical, literary, medical, psychological, and anthropological sources as well as other data to narrate the story of the werewolf, or, as he calls it, the “white devil” (10). The werewolf is a perennial figure looming in the shadows of European history. Beresford closely examines the transformation of this beast from prehistory to modern Europe.


There’s evidence that the wolf had an important place in prehistory and in the Greco-Roman world, as well. For example, from the prehistory period, “at the excavation site Pavlov I in Moravia, a number of scorched wolf skeletons were found that appear to have had their legs bound together. This could well be part of a ritual involving the sacrifice and burning of wolves” (25). One of the strangest rituals surrounding the wolf involves cannibalism. Beresford claims that in “many cultures ‘eating flesh was the cause of the transformation into a wolf, and thus abstaining was the key to reverting back’” (26). As evidence, he notes that “many sites throughout Europe revealed human bones that have been smashed to extract the marrow, or have slash marks on them that point to the ‘defleshing’ of the body… [and] signs that the brain has been removed from the skull” (27).


Beresford speculates that hunter magic and hallucinations played a role in forming ideas about the power of the wolf. He also suggests that the half-man/half-beast motif common in Greek and Roman mythology may have contributed to the creation of the werewolf. In the 1865 classic The Book of Werewolves, Sabine Baring-Gould “points out that changing into wolves, or into any other beast for that matter, in the classical period should not come as a shock as classical accounts are full of such transformations—Actaeon, for example, was turned into a stag, Hecuba into a dog, the daughters of Proteus became cows and Jupiter himself a bull” (44).


Beresford discusses the Faunus/Lupercus festival (Lupercalia)-–also known as Wolf Festival. This is named after the Roman horned god Faunus, who is known as Lupercus, which means “‘he who wards off the wolf’” (44). This holiday was originally on 15 February, which may have an historical connection to, of all things, St. Valentines Day. During this holiday, “young males dressed in wolf and goat costumes chased women through the streets playfully ‘whipping’ them with leather thongs in a fertility ritual” (44).


This, Beresford claims, is further related to the god Pan, who was half goat and half man and associated with sexuality (44). Pan’s alternative name was Pan Leaks (wolf-Pan). St. Augustine’s City of God (426) would later claim that the god Pan “held the key to the mystery of men becoming wolves: ‘the epithet Lycaeus was applied in Arcadia to Pan and Jupiter for no other reason than this metamorphosis of men into wolves, because it was thought it could not be wrought except by divine power” (45). Here Beresford shows that in both Greek and Roman culture the wolf also had a powerful influence on lore. Furthermore, The Greek historian Herodotus discusses the Neurians, people who had the ability to change from human to wolf and vice versa (53).


Vikings, who had their own Norse folklore on werewolves, brought the myth to Christianity once they converted. Through Christianity, the werewolf became associated with man’s battle with the devil. In the medieval period, literature on the wolf depicted it “as a symbol of the carnal, bestial wrongs of society, from which God alone can protect Man” (105). The werewolf was the seen as an abomination of God, causing people to cling to their dark sides and commit heinous, unimaginable crimes against their fellows. According to Beresford, “the height of werewolf hysteria in Europe’s Middle Ages occurred in the mid- to late 16th century, and in France alone, a high number of people were ready to confess to being a werewolf” (110). Beresford presents some horrific, haunting cases of werewolf crimes in Europe. For example, Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun, who both believed they were werewolves, “attacked and killed a seven year old boy, a woman out collecting peas and a four year old girl, whom they ate except for one arm” (144) and continued to attack others in a similar manner. In the 17th century, lyncathropy (werewolfism) was seen as a “mental melancholy rather than a ‘beastily-induced’ transformation brought on by the devil” (151). This changed the perception of werewolf crimes, and werewolves were no longer burnt at the stake (155-156).


Alongside the history of beliefs about werewolves, Beresford discusses fiction about werewolves, which helped to perpetuate the werewolf myth. He looks at authors like Charles Perrault, who wrote Contes (1697), the earliest recorded version of the classic Little Red Riding Hood. In Perrault’s story, the wolf eats the little girl, whereas in the Brothers Grimm’s Little Red Cap (1812) the little girl is not eaten but defeats the wolf by feeding him stone. Both stories make the point that children must not talk to strangers, who are represented by the wolf.


The wolf also became a medium through which authors explored morality and the evil lurking within man, until other “monstrous” creations such as Frankenstein were developed (161). Beresford explains that in the nineteenth century the werewolf, especially in England, began to lose its role as a vehicle for showing man’s double-sided nature, but it arguably inspired other literary works on this theme, such as Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde (161-162).


Beresford’s analysis ends with a discussion of illnesses and conditions that could have caused people to act like werewolves. Possible medical explanations for werewolfism include being bitten by a rabid animal and accidental consumption of ergot (a disease of rye and other cereal grasses). Beresford also considers genetic conditions such as seizures and porphyria, a nervous system disorder that can cause hallucinations and paranoia. Without contemporary medical knowledge, the behavior of those afflicted with these conditions would have seemed mysterious, even dangerous. There is a condition called congenital generalized hypertrichosis, also known as “werewolf syndrome” which causes excessive bodily hair growth. While this condition is strictly genetic, those afflicted with it in the past might seem to have resemble the mythical werewolf.


Science challenged the idea of the werewolf when Charles Darwin wrote On the Origins of Species (1859), which laid out the theory of evolution. Darwin dismantled the image of the werewolf by proving that it was impossible, from an evolutionary standpoint, for a human to evolve into a wolf over a short period of time.


However, Beresford demonstrates that despite scientific advances the idea of the werewolf has not been lost, but still exists in our imagination. The werewolf can be found today in such films as An American Werewolf in London (1981) ,The Howling (1981), The Company of Wolves (1984), The Wolfman (2010) and of course, the aforementioned Twilight films.


As a whole,The White Devil is riveting, but one wishes that Beresford had extended his study to American culture and explored how the American image of the werewolf differs from the European. After all, in American popular culture some werewolves are likeable. How did we come to more admirable werewolves, like Scott in the TV series, Teen Wolf (2011), Monroe in Grimm (2011), Jacob in the Twilight Saga (2010), and Wayne Werewolf in Hotel Transylvania (2012)? What would Beresford say of this transformation of the villainous beast into an endearing character? Does America just have a softer spot for the untamed beast?


Beresford’s The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture may cause Twihards to re-examine their love of werewolves, but for the cultural historian in us all, it is a significant work on the religious and socio-cultural development of an idea that sheds light on the basic psychology of humankind. Beresford shows us that sometimes our fear of monsters is actually a fear of the world that we made.

Rating:

Allison Schottenstein is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Texas at Austin in American History. She is currently working on her dissertation. Allison has published other articles on American Jewish history, religion, and race.


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