Paranormal Phenomenon Omnibus


Essay by Matt Allair

Shapeshifters: Myth vs. Reality

Legend Origins / Medieval Creatures / Beast of Gevaudan /Contemporary Sightings /
Manitou Legend / Some Explanations

The mythology of the werewolf has been in existence for ages. The first written account of a werewolf appeared in the scriptures of the Book of Daniel (4:15 - 33), when King Kebuchadnezzar exhibited symptoms of being a werewolf for nearly four years. The Greek legend of King Lycaon of Arcadia had him become transformed into a Wolf by Zeus after offending the gods by serving them a meal of human flesh. The legend gave birth to the scientific term for werewolf, "Lycanthrope" or "Lycanthropy". In the fifth century BC, the celebrated Greek historian Herodotus reported on the Neuri, a strange people who became wolves for a brief period once a year. In the first century AD, noted Roman poet Virgil described a sorcerer who could transform himself into a wolf through the use of secret herbs. During that same period, renowned Roman author Gaius Petronius Arbiter wrote of shape shifters in his compilation of short stories, "Satyricon".

The belief in Lycanthropy in many cultures is nearly universal. This belief in human-animal transformations, also include other fierce animals such as Bears, Hyenas and other big cats, yet the werewolf and the wolf are the best known in the West. Wolves were the most feared predators by Europeans, with medieval chronicles describing attacks on humans. Most Zoologists today attest that wolves are harmless to humans, that mankind has been more of a threat to wolves than the reverse; wolves' experience with modern firearms has led to an instinctual caution from most wolf breeds towards men. The belief in wolves as man eaters can be traced back to hunting books from the fifteenth to eighteenth century, thus the origin of the name "Werewolf" could be found from this period. In northern Europe, wolfmen or berserkers - warriors dressed in suits made from wolf skin - were savage and deeply feared, thus adding to the belief in such creatures. In Germany it was believed that after death, honored ancestors became wolves. In the Baltic and Slavic regions of Europe, a wolf deity was worshipped; a deity that could protect or could turn on its faithful without warning. As Christianity rose, the priesthood condemned such pagan beliefs as Satanic.

Legend Origins / Medieval Creatures / Beast of Gevaudan / Contemporary Sightings /
Manitou Legend / Some Explanations

Werewolves became seen as agents of Satan. The consensus of religious theologians as to whether men could actually turn into wolves or not, led many theologians to believe that Satan caused men to perceive themselves as wolves. The theological consensus held that only God could affect a physical change of any species. Persons who believed themselves to be werewolves, and confessed so, often rubbed themselves with a salve prior to transformation -- a salve which contained hallucination-inducing plants such as henbane and deadly nightshade. An example of this can be found in the account of a French woman from the eighteenth century who used such a salve; after rubbing the substance all over her body, she lapsed into a three hour coma. When she revived, she believed she had turned into a wolf and killed a cow and a sheep. Animal remains were found near her home which seemed to confirm her beliefs. Lycanthropy was also associated with persons that would be considered today to be murderously mentally ill. Stubbe Peeter, a serial killer who was tried in 1589, Germany for twenty-five years of crimes, including the murder of adults, children - including his own son, incest, and attacks on animals -- claimed to have made a pact with the Devil who provided him with a girdle that transformed him into a wolf.

Around 1598, French authorities arrested a beggar named Jacques Roulet. They found him crouched in a brush, covered in blood beside the badly mutilated body of a 15-year-old boy. During the confession, he stated he had slain the boy while a werewolf, which was brought on by the application of an ointment.

Legend Origins / Medieval Creatures / Beast of Gevaudan / Contemporary Sightings /
Manitou Legend / Some Explanations

The most infamous documented werewolf attacks occurred in Gevaudan, France between 1764 until 1767, with an estimate of 210 attacks. Many of the victims were partly eaten, mutilated, or decapitated. Some believed the attackers were two small wolves, a liger (the hybrid of a tiger and lion), or a hyena. Others believed it was a gigantic wolf. The first victim was a woman named Jeanne Boulet. What truly frightened the wave of villages that suffered from these attacks was that the beast did not attack livestock but seemed to target humans. By 1765, sent by King Louis XV, a professional wolf hunter named Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d'Enneval and his son killed a very large grey wolf. But the killings continued until a local hunter named Jean Chastel killed this second beast, as the legend would tell, with a silver bullet. When the carcass of the animal was opened, human remains were said to have been found. Chastel was regarded a hero by local villagers after the attacks ended. Most eyewitness accounts of this period do not seem to be credible, and the entire matter might have been driven out of hysteria.

Recently investigator George Deuchar, for the History channel, looked into the Gevaudan Beast affair and arrived at a number of theories. The State and Church were heavily involved in this matter, and might have ratcheted up the fear of these attacks to keep local parishioners in line. Regarding the legend that Chastel killed the beast with a silver bullet as a ballistic of choice, it should be noted that silver is three times harder than lead, and is far less accurate and deadly. Thus the probability lessens that Chastel could have killed such a beast with that kind of ballistic, especially if the beast was in motion. One possibility could have been that a tribe of men dressed in wolf skins terrorized a swath of villages during this period. This incident could have also involved what would be described today as a mass serial killer. One theory is that Castle might have trained a pack of African Striped hyenas to attack humans. Hyenas have the necessary power to mutilate and decapitate their victims. Prior to his heroism, Chastel was seen as an outcast and accused of hearsay by local church leaders and was rewarded well after the beast fell. It has been speculated he might have engineered these attacks, so as to be seen as a savior in the end.

Legend Origins / Medieval Creatures / Beast of Gevaudan / Contemporary Sightings /
Manitou Legend / Some Explanations

There has been a relatively minor percentage of modern sightings of werewolves. Most actual sightings reported are poorly documented; even sightings that come from credible sources may be subject to other interpretations. In July of 1958, Mrs. Delburt Gregg of Greggton, Texas had an encounter with what she claimed was a shape shifter; it was later documented in a 1960 issue of Fate magazine. While her husband was away on business, Mrs. Gregg moved her bed near a screened window with the hope of catching a cool breeze from a thunderstorm brewing from the southwest. Dozing off, she heard a scratching sound on the screen. She saw a "huge, shaggy, wolf-like creature... clawing at the screen and glaring at me with baleful, glowing, slitted eyes. I could see its bared white fangs." She leapt from her bed and got a flashlight. The wolf had fled through the yard and into a clump of bushes. After a short period, a tall man came out of the bushes and walked hurriedly down a road and into the darkness.

There have been other scattered incidents of sightings even through the early seventies. One incident involved a sighting in Mobile, Alabama in 1971 from neighbors of a woman who seemed to be a half beast. There was another account from Defiance, Ohio in October 1972 from a witness describing a six foot to eight foot tall creature described as human with an oversized wolf like head and elongated nose. During the early morning hours, it allegedly sneaked up behind a trainman and hit him with a two-by-four. In all probably it was a prankster or a madman. In January 1970, Four Gallup, New Mexico there was a sighting of what was described as a werewolf by several youths, running along the side of a road near Whitewater. It managed to keep pace with their car, which was traveling at a speed of 45 miles per hour. They shot at the creature and hit it, yet couldn't find the creature and found no blood. This account has been considered an example of a "Skin-walker", a name that the Navajos of the southwest have used to describe werewolves. In 1936, from a source in Yale Publications in Anthropology, William Morgan recounted an interview with a Navajo named Hahago. The Navajo commented that Skin-walkers "go very fast...They can go to Albuquerque in an hour and a half". According to Mr. Morgan, such a trip by automobile takes four hours.

Legend Origins / Medieval Creatures / Beast of Gevaudan / Contemporary Sightings /
Manitou Legend / Some Explanations

The X-Files episode from season one, Shapes, deals with a native American variation on the werewolf, The Manitou. This great spirit is a Algonquin term, often inaccurately described as spirit monster. The Manitou combines the meaning of spirit, mystery and magic and is applied to the manifestation of powers not understood. A summarization by Jacques Marquette in 1674 stated that each person had their own God, which they called their Manitou. Marquette stated it could be a serpent, a bird or something similar that a person had dreamed of while sleeping and which they place all confidence in the success in their warring, their fishing, or hunting. In Illinois, native men and women interacted with the supreme deity, Kitchesmanetoa, by way of personal spirits called Manitous. A Manitou could take the form of a bear, bison, wolf, mountain lion, bobcat, deer or bird. Often this would involve a vision quest where a Native American would wander into the wilderness, often striving to envision a Manitou in a dream within seven days. Often an individual's belief in becoming an animal was triggered by hallucinogenic drug use, regardless of the culture.

Legend Origins / Medieval Creatures / Beast of Gevaudan / Contemporary Sightings /
Manitou Legend / Some Explanations

There is a scientific basis in some cases for the origin of the public's superstitious belief in Werewolves. Some medical theorists have speculated that some individuals accused of being werewolves suffered from a rare genetic disease called Porphyria. People who suffer from this disease experience tissue destruction in the face and fingers, skin lesions, and severe photosensitivity. With their facial skin taking on a brown pigmentation, they may fall victim to personality disorders, and an aversion to light might cause the victim to only wander at night. Thus, these features described, fit in well with some historical accounts of Werewolves. Modern psychologists regard Lycanthropy as a serious mental disorder, brought on by drugs, brain damage or schizophrenia. Psychoanalyst Nandor Fodor wrote that the origin of 'Lycanthropy' could not be traced in historic time or to particular civilizations; it is part of the human psyche, from our human experience, that Lycanthropy is born. Such deep-seated beliefs could trigger some people's belief in becoming wolves -- animals that represents nature at its most fierce.

As of this writing, there has never been any evidence, from the standpoint of physiology, that such transformations are possible. Regardless of any historical proof or evidence, Werewolves are important for they ultimately symbolize - the duality of man's nature. The struggle to overcome our animal nature, as Jungian psychologist Robert Eisler has pointed out, the archetype of the wolf lies deep in our collective unconscious, serving as a kind of racial memory from a time that men were killer-hunters. This duality could be seen as threatening or as an avenue to explore and integrate, to keep us connected to nature and our basic primal instincts.

"Unexplained! 347 Strange Sightings, Incredible Occurrences, and Puzzling Physical Phenomena" by Jerome Clark, © 1993 Visible Ink Press Mysts of Darkness Occult Investigator

Page Editor: XScribe

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