Full Moon of Werewolves: Theories of Lycanthropy

April 1, 2009 | Werewolves | 26 comments

Full Moon of Werewolves Schedule

About today’s guest: Margaret L. Carter

Margaret L. Carter received a B.A. from the College of William and Mary, M.A. from the University of Hawaii, and Ph.D. from the University of California, Irvine, all in English. She has taught literature and composition courses at various colleges and presently works as a part-time proofreader for the Maryland General Assembly.

One lucky commenter will win a PDF download of Margaret’s novel SHADOW OF THE BEAST.. Just leave a comment on this post to be entered. Winner will be announced at end of Full Moon promotion. Last day to enter Saturday, April 25th at midnight central U.S. time.

I’m always interested in authors’ theoretical backgrounds for their vampires or werewolves—origins, needs, powers, vulnerabilities. The more detailed and biologically consistent the explanation (even if on magical terms), the better I like it. I love a “nature of the beast” expository lump. Different authors’ approaches vary widely, just as folklore offers many ways of becoming a werewolf. The bite of another werewolf, by the way, isn’t one; that concept was invented by the movies, probably on the analogy of vampires.

A child can be destined to lycanthropy (or vampirism, depending on the region of birth) by having a Christmas birthday, on the premise that being conceived on the same day Mary conceived Jesus is an affront to Heaven. (THE WEREWOLF OF PARIS, by Guy Endore, incorporates this legend.) In Portugal, a seventh son was expected to become a werewolf. An unlucky traveler in the wilderness can be transformed by drinking from a stream frequented by wolves or from a puddle in a wolf’s footprint. In some cultures, even sleeping with the moonlight shining on one’s face can condemn one to this fate. A person might be cursed to be a werewolf as punishment, or an entire family line might be condemned to lycanthropy to atone for an ancestor’s evil deed. A wicked witch or wizard sometimes uses magic to attain the power of changing into a wolf; such rituals often include the wearing of a wolf-skin belt. A unique, moving story called “Wolves Don’t Cry,” by Bruce Elliott, employs this device in a tale of reverse lycanthropy. A wolf in a zoo inexplicably wakes up in his cage as a man. He retains a wolf’s mind and instincts, with no language ability. After being educated enough to fit into society to a limited extent, he’s still miserable in human form. A werewolf film gives him the idea of changing back. He finds a ritual in the public library, performs it, and happily returns to the zoo as a wolf. However, one day a woman he raped during his early weeks as a man walks by his cage with a baby who has a strangely feral look. . . .

I can’t remember reading any werewolf fiction in which a normal human character uses magic to become a voluntary lycanthrope, though I suppose some must exist. Anthony Boucher’s “The Compleat Werewolf,” one of my favorite stories of all time, features a college professor named Wolfe who discovers he is a hereditary werewolf; however, the act of shifting requires a magic word. The premise of suffering lycanthropy as the result of a curse doesn’t seem too common, either, although the movie LADYHAWKE offers a good example of this approach. Most contemporary fictional werewolves acquire their condition through either heredity or a werewolf attack. Either type can vary as to whether they control the change, need the full moon to transform, retain human consciousness while shifted, remember the actions of their animal form after they change back, or live as pack members rather than solitary predators. Also, hereditary werewolves differ as to what age the power to shapeshift develops. The protagonist of Jack Williamson’s classic novel DARKER THAN YOU THINK discovers that he belongs to a species of “witch men,” Homo lycanthropus, living secretly among us since prehistoric times, but he can’t transform until another witch-werewolf awakens him to his true nature.

In Suzy McKee Charnas’ story “Boobs,” the teenage narrator enters puberty by spontaneously become a wolf a couple of nights each month instead of having a period. Tanya Huff’s series starring detective Vicki Nelson and vampire Henry Fitzroy includes a novel about a pack of hereditary werewolves, who seem more like wolves that occasionally become human rather than the reverse. The alternate-present urban fantasies of Laurell K. Hamilton and Patricia Briggs feature werewolf packs composed of people transformed by biting. Lycanthropes in the Harry Potter series are solitary predators transformed by the bites of other werewolves. If Remus Lupin is typical, they consider their condition a curse and normally don’t remember what they do in lupine shape. (Remus takes a potion that gives him some control over his behavior while shifted.)

In my novel SHADOW OF THE BEAST from Amber Quill Press lycanthropy is hereditary. The change normally begins in the late teens, and it’s involuntary until the young werewolf learns to control it. The ability doesn’t depend on the full moon. The heroine’s father had no idea of his nature until he began to transform. The same trauma happens to her, except that it starts when she’s a bit older, because she is only half werewolf. These creatures heal quickly, but they can be killed by any normal method, not just silver bullets. And I don’t embrace the premise of some authors that lycanthropy confers abnormal longevity. (In fact, I’ve read a couple of stories in which a hapless werewolf spends so much time as an animal that he or she ages at a canine rate and therefore dies prematurely of old age.) I’m currently working on a story about werewolves with similar traits but pack-living rather than solitary. I’ve also had a few non-lycanthrope shapeshifter tales published, e.g. “Dragon’s Tribute,” a short were-dragon erotic romance, and LOVE UNLEASHED, an erotic romance novel in which a wizard is cursed into the form of a St. Bernard except for a few hours each evening, both from Ellora’s Cave. The fantasy of enjoying the freedom of an animal’s lifestyle yet retaining a human mind, while subject to the risks and temptations of that existence, offers almost endless possibilities for stories.

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  1. Victoria Janssen

    What an interesting post! Thanks!

    I love the Christmas birth thing–as a nod to that, I have a werewolf character named “Noel,” even though I didn’t reference the Christmas thing directly.

  2. Lisa W.

    Hi Margaret,

    I really enjoyed the different legends and the breakdown of each possiblity. I had never heard of the one of the weres living and dying at the canine rate very interesting.

  3. Julie Robinson

    Wow, Margaret! I am going to have to print this out and save it in my werewolf lore. You have very nicely summarized much of the movie, book, and country legend of the origins of the werewolf. Thanks you. I shall have to read your story to see how you do it.

  4. Kait Nolan

    Great snapshot of the lore! Oh, and is the date for the contest wrong? Because the 25th was last weekend.

  5. Ashley Madden

    I also never heard of a were dying at a canine age, that’s interesting.

  6. Jody F.

    Very interesting lore. A lot of these I’d never heard of before.

  7. raonaid luckwell

    I like the variety of veneers one can use when it comes to were-wolves and lycanthropy.

    How each nature has its own myth about it and such. It’s great with authors go outside the normal, find some obscure myth about it and make it their own. They break the same ol same ol, and those are the authors that I tend to follow.

    Lori Handeland did that with some, she did the Rom way, Native American. Why I loved them so much

  8. Colleen

    I honestly did not know that there were so many different theories out there… I guess I need to read a bunch more werewolf books! Thanks for the interesting post! :D

  9. kanarytx

    Thank you for your post. I am enjoying everyones posts. It is all informative.

  10. Ley

    One the the reasons werewolf fiction is so addictive for me anyway. There’s just so many variations! Sherrilyn Kenyon’s is naother favortie of mine, with the Katagaria and Arcardians. Two sides of the same coin. The Arcadians grow up human and gain the ability to shift to their animal form at puberty, and the Katagaria are just the opposite, growing up in animal form and gaining human form with puberty. Fun stuff. :lol:
    Gonna have to print this off here…

  11. Estella

    Very interesting! I had not heard some of the the ways to become a were before.

  12. Pam P

    Interesting post on different theories, Margaret, and more interesting to see what various authors choose to use in their stories.

  13. Jamie

    Wow what a great post. I love how you explored many different theories on lycanthropy.

  14. Barb P

    Hi Margaret! Very interesting post. I enjoyed hearing about the different lycanthropy legends and lore.

  15. Zita

    Great post! One of my favourites is a short story by J.A. Konrath called “SA” and features a gypsy curse to turn the protagonist into a werewolf. Turns out Christopher Cringle (yes, Santa) was created by God to teach the first werewolf, Bob, a lesson. Bob was too prideful, you see, so God sicced Santa on him and they’ve been feuding ever since. Fast-forward to today and poor Weston (the cursed one). I don’t want to spoil it for those of you who might want to read it…you can find it in “Wolfsbane and Mistletoe” edited by Charlaine Harris and Toni L.P. Kelner (Oct-08)

  16. Cathy D

    I had not heard of most of this lore, thanks for the info. Looking forward to reading your work, your stories sound really interesting.

  17. Julie Robinson

    I was wondering that myself, Cait. Glad you asked!

  18. Carmen R

    I haven’t heard of this lore before. Now I’m running off to look up even more to see I know who will be or is a werewolf lol.

  19. LadyVampire2u

    Great post. So many different legends and takes on how a person ultimately becomes a werewolf. Some I knew, others I didn’t. And I thought I would mention that Peter David wrote a book called Howling Mad that I so enjoyed and followed a similar story where a real wolf is bitten by a werewolf and becomes human on occasion. He however learns to live in peace with his human condition.

  20. Linda McKenzie

    Great breakdown of werewolf types and legends. I dearly love paranormal romances,especially shape-shifters. Thanks for the insights.

  21. pamk

    the drogon shifter i would love. but darn it a St bernard shifter that is really unusual

  22. Margaret L. Carter

    Thanks for the comments! I assume the actual cutoff date for winning the book is APRIL 25 (right, Lori?). I’ve read WOLFSBANE AND MISTLETOE, also — cool stories.

  23. Lori

    Oops! Thanks for catching that Margaret. Starting in March and ending in April got me a bit confused! I fixed the prize date at the top. :eek:

  24. Karin

    Great post. It had a lot of information about werewolf myths and origins that I had never heard of before. Thanks for sharing it with us.