Classical literature

In medieval romances, such as Bisclavret, and Guillaume de Palerme the werewolf is relatively benign, appearing as the victim of evil magic and aiding knights errant.

However, in most folk tales, (influenced by medieval theology) the werewolf was demonic, part of Satan’s army of darkness, inimical to the human race and having a craving for human flesh. This appears in such later fiction as “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains“: an episode in the novel The Phantom Ship (1839) by Marryat, featuring a demonic femme fatale who transforms from woman to wolf.

Sexual themes are common in werewolf fiction; the protagonist kills his girlfriend as she walks with a former lover in Werewolf of London, suggesting sexual jealousy. The writers of Wolf Man were careful in depicting killings as motivated out of hunger.

In the fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood, the figure of the werewolf is more ambiguous and subject to an allegorical or Freudian interpretation.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses

The story of Lycaon is the very first metamorphosis — or transformation — among the many dozens in Ovid’s encyclopedic collection of classical myths. Jove (or Jupiter) is on a rampage in the Olympian council of gods, insisting that “the entire human race must be destroyed” . Having heard “Scandalous rumours concerning the state of the times”, Jove disguised himself as a human and roamed the earth. Lycaon, determined to find out if this traveler is really a god, wants to try to kill him in his sleep, but instead, he took a hostage …, slit the man’s throat with his sharp blade, cooked his limbs, still warm with life, boiling some and roasting others over the fire. Then he set this banquet on the table. No sooner had he done so, then I with my avenging flames brought the house down upon its household gods, gods worthy of such a master. Lycaon fled, terrified, until he reached the safety of the silent countryside. There he uttered howling noises, and his attempts to speak were all in vain. His clothes changed into bristling hairs, his arms to legs, and he became a wolf. His own savage nature showed in his rabid jaws, and he now directed against the flocks his innate lust for killing. He had a mania, even yet, for shedding blood.

Jove ends his case: “You would think men had sworn allegiance to crime” . The gods are ready to comply with his wishes, “Yet all were grieved at the thought of the destruction of the human race” . “They inquired who would bring offerings of incense to their altars, whether Jove meant to abandon the world to the plundering of wild beasts”. Jove promises “a new stock of men” .

Arthur and Gorlagon

This 14th-century Latin story begins with allusions to the elaborate protocol of eating. Such rituals, however extreme, serve to maintain a human separation from beasts. The progression of the story repeatedly refers to, “as it chanced” further intrusions into dining scenes. Gorlagon tells the story of a king whose pet sapling is the same height as he. If anyone were to chop it down and hit someone else on the head with it, saying, “Be a wolf and have the understanding of a wolf,” that unfortunate would indeed become a wolf. The king is obsessively concerned about preserving the sapling, and would “partake of no food until he had visited it, even though he should fast until the evening” . But, “it is customary for a woman to wish to know everything”, so the queen nags the secret out of her husband, hacks down the tree, and bungles the incantation, saying accidentally, “have the understanding of a man”. She actually sets hounds on him .

The werewolf lives the life of a wolf for two years and eventually becomes the trusted dog of another king who “detected some signs of human understanding in him”). But, “it so often happens that the wife hates whom the husband loves” , and since this king’s wife is having an affair with a servant, which the wolf knows about, tensions are thick in the household. The truth comes out: “The sewer was flayed alive and hanged. The Queen was torn limb from limb by horses and thrown into balls of flame”.

Finally, the wolf-king’s wife is given to tormentors, “to be daily tortured and daily exhausted with punishments, and allowed … neither food nor drink” . The wolf transformation is reversed at last, and we end with our attention drawn to a mourning woman “holding before her in a dish a human head bespattered with blood”. This, of course, was Gorlagon’s own story, and the woman is the unfaithful woman (or one of the many). Let’s eat.

Marie de France’s The Lai of the Were-Wolf

In Brittany is a baron and his “very worthy dame” — all fine but “For three whole days in every week her lord was absent from her side” . The husband must maintain a separate self for the success of the marriage, but she badgers him into telling her that he becomes Bisclavaret, running wild as a beast in the woods. And it’s important that he have access to his clothes. She cannot cope with this dark side of him, nor can she keep a secret, so she tells a knight, thereby betraying her husband. Bisclavaret becomes a loyal dog to another king, until one day, “He became as a mad dog in his hatred and malice. Breaking from his bonds he sprang at the lady’s face, and bit the nose from her visage”. The king is reminded that this is very unlike the wolf. Presented with his clothes, and offered some privacy, Bisclavaret transforms back into his human form. His former wife goes into exile with her noselessness.

Here and in the Arthurian story is the association of werewolfism with adulterous women; yet what the women do seems incidental. Causes are obscure: the curse is there notwithstanding the infidelities and betrayals. Who was responsible for the sapling in the Arthurian story? The women seem to remain true to the “sewers,” perhaps because marriages were political arrangements