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Posted on Monday 13 November 2006 at 7:22 pm

Werewolf Lecture Notes

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Many moons ago (OK, just a couple), I went to a lecture on Werewolves and Shape Shifters in the Ancient World by Dr. Debbie Felton of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. I then promptly lost my notes in my mess of an office when one of my office mates moved out and another moved in. I found the notes! And typed them! I'm not certain there is much fic fodder here since it is focused on werewolves in Greek and Roman culture while the werewolves in JKR's universe are more based on a mythology of werewolves that arose in Northern Europe in the Middle Ages. Still, I thought you guys might find it interesting, we might find things to debate and discuss, and maybe some story ideas will emerge. You never know.

Dr. Felton began by outlining the differences between shape shifting and werewolves as well as giving a quick sketch of shape shifters in a few different cultures. Shape shifting, in this case, was defined as the ability to assume an animal form at will and was usually a power of women, though sometimes practiced by men. Classic lycanthropy differs from shape shifting in its involuntary nature and in the preponderance of men as victims. Both these rules were violated on occasion, with Greece and Rome both having several legends or myths regarding men becoming werewolves on purpose and a smaller number of women become werewolves, voluntary or not. Her quick culture sketches include Greek, Japanese, African, and Native American stories of humans assuming animal form, usually to assume the role of a trickster but sometimes to act as a guardian.

The majority of the lecture was given over to examples of werewolf stories. First, Herodotus in the fifth century BC/BCE recorded reports of a tribe of werewolves. He was skeptical that such a tribe existed. According to the stories he reported, every man of the tribe became a wolf for a few consecutive days every year. Like most of the classical myths of werewolves, there is no mention of the full moon in this account.

In his discussion of the qualities of a tyrant in the Republic, Plato briefly mentions Arcadian men who ate human entrails and behaved like wolves. Pliny the Elder (first century AD/CE) also mentioned Arcadian men in association with wolves but elaborated on the theme. Every year, one man was selected by lot. He left the community, went to the edge of a marsh, removed his clothing and hung it on a tree, and crossed the marsh to the forest on the other side where he became a wolf. If, after nine years as a wolf, he had never eaten human flesh, he would resume his human form and return to the community. If he did not abstain from eating humans while a wolf, he would remain one forever.

Another Roman (I didn't catch his name but it started with a P) gave a slightly different account of the Acadians as werewolves. He claimed that their leader had once sacrificed an infant. Any subsequent sacrifices at that altar resulted in the responsible party becoming a wolf. As in Pliny's account, if the werewolf abstained from eating human flesh for a number of years (ten, in this case) he would return to his human form and presumably rejoin the community.

Vergil mentioned werewolves in passing. I didn't get much out of this except there was one mention of a woman using herbs to transform into a wolf. The completely voluntary nature of this makes it seem more like shape shifting than lycanthropy.

The craziest werewolf story of the lecture came from Petronius' Trimolchio's Dinner in the Satyricon. This is the first appearance of what might be a full moon in a werewolf story. In this case, a soldier and a slave were traveling on one of the many roads in the Roman countryside. The moon was "shining as bright as day" (though not explicitly full). The soldier suddenly stopped at a graveyard and removed his clothing. He then urinated in a circle around his clothing, turned into wolf, howled at the moon, and fled into the night. The slave was confused and terrified. After being frozen in place for a bit, he went to investigate the abandoned clothes and discovered they had been turned into stone (presumably by the urine and to prevent anyone from stealing them). The slave proceeded to the villa that had been his initial destination. There he was greeted by an angry woman. She yelled at him for not arriving sooner because a wolf had attacked the herd and killed all the cattle. Someone else at the villa had thrown a spear at the wolf, wounding it in the neck and forcing it to flee. The next day, the salve returned. When he came to the place where the stone clothing had been, he found a puddle of blood. When he came to the soldier's home, the soldier was in bed with a doctor tending a serious wound on his deck. The slave assumed the man was a werewolf and refused to have anything to do with him from then on. (The Satyricon is available here. To find the relevant portion of the text, just do a text find for wolf.)

As to the shape shifting, as stated above, this was largely the preserve of women. Witched were more likely to change men than themselves, but the did sometimes change themselves into animal forms. Women usually assumed the shape of birds or insects and achieved this by rubbing some type of ointment over their nude bodies.

Dr. Felton drew a few conclusions from these stories.

First, she noted that the tendency of men to become wolves and of women to become birds or insects spoke to the perceived gender differences. Men giving in to their animalistic instincts were more likely to be blood thirsty while women were guilty of treachery and sneakiness (easier to spy as birds and insects).

Second, there is a great emphasis on the removal of clothing. This is partly tied to the abandonment of civilization and culture necessary to become an animal. For those voluntarily becoming animals, it is indicative of humanities need to occasionally acknowledge or even exploit animalistic urges while the involuntary speaks to the fear of a failure to control those same urges.

Finally, Dr. Felton discussed the ways to understand these stories as fact versus fiction. She argued that most of the authors reporting these stories did not believe them, but instead dismissed them as hallucinations or the results of mental illness. She also argued that there are many more examples of people "assuming animal forms" in a blatantly metaphorical sense by dressing in animal skins or the like in order to assume one of the traits of that animal, especially in regard to hunting. For the women who supposedly transformed themselves, she argued that many of the ointments they used had hallucinogenic properties, so they might very well have thought they really did transform into an animal. She also made some mention of the women thinking they really were riding brooms due to hallucinogens and she wasn't going to tell us what they were really doing with those brooms. From the way she said it, however, it was fairly obvious what she meant. As a final aside, she argued that, looking back, she believes that it is possible werewolf legends originated as attempts to explain serial murderers. Before modern psychology, it was impossible to conceive of a human mind deranged enough to go on a killing spree. A man becoming a wolf made more sense than a man doing it as a man.

So there you go. Animagi need hallucinogenic drugs, Remus is at heart a serial killer, and he has to strip (preferably without peeing on his clothes, IMO) before transforming.

Sorry it took so long to get this up. Hopefully none of you were holding your breath waiting on it.
Feeling: busy
Exploring: My Office (307 Blair) - William and Mary
Listening: Howling at the Moon - Ramones (I couldn't resist)


author_by_night at 2:01 am on 14 November 2006 (UTC) (Link)
I always just thought people wanted to embrace their inner animal, that we've always sensed that that's where we came from.

Animagi on drugs... hee. That would explain Sirius. ;) (Sirius, you know I lvoe thee, right?)
bratty_jedi at 3:27 pm on 14 November 2006 (UTC) (Link)
That would explain Sirius. ;)
It at least explains why Sirius was so insistent on Dung being in the Order and sticking around Grimmauld for dinner. He wanted to get his hands on whatever Dung has in his pipe!
bratanimus at 12:05 pm on 14 November 2006 (UTC) (Link)
Wow, that lecture sounds very interesting! Thanks for typing up and posting your notes. Dr. Felton's theories make sense from the standpoint of a pre-psychology justification of human behavior. Interesting that the shapeshifters and the werewolves stripped before transforming. That implies a knowledge of what they are about to do, and perhaps a willingness to participate in the transformation. Unless a madness overtakes them and the stripping is just part of it. Of course, the metaphor of shedding one's humanity is there; but I wonder why they didn't simply burst through their clothing during the transformation? Why is the stripping in particular part of the lore? Hmm. I suppose the storytellers needed to show that the option of becoming human again was always there, that the transformation need not be permanent, and the clothing remaining intact was symbolic of that.
bratty_jedi at 3:36 pm on 14 November 2006 (UTC) (Link)
Thanks for typing up and posting your notes.
No problem. I'm just sorry it took so long. I'm sure I would have remembered more and been able to fill in some of the gaps in my written notes if I'd gotten it typed sooner. Oh well.

I suppose the storytellers needed to show that the option of becoming human again was always there, that the transformation need not be permanent, and the clothing remaining intact was symbolic of that.
I think that is particularly true with the last story with the man turning his clothing to stone. He had to, literally, mark it and ensure that it would still be there when he resumed human form. As to the man hanging his on a tree branch before becoming a wolf for a minimum of 9 years, I would be very surprised if his clothing was still intact and on that branch when he regained his humanity. But I guess it's magic, so could be.

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