There hath indeed been an old opinion of such like things; For by the Greeks they were called λυκανθρωποι which signifieth men-wolves. But to tell you simply my opinion in this, if any such thing hath been, I take it to have proceeded but of a natural superabundance of Melancholy, which as we read, that it hath made some think themselves Pitchers, and some horses, and some one kind of beast or other: So suppose I that it hath so viciat [damaged, tampered with] the imagination and memory of some, as per lucida interualla, it hath so highly occupied them, that they have thought themselves very Wolves indeed at these times: and so have counterfeited their actions in going on their hands and feet, preassing [attacking] to devour women and barnes [children], fighting and snatching with all the town dogs, and in using such like other brutish actions, and so to become beasts by a strong apprehension, as Nebuchadnezzar was seven years: but as to their having and hiding of their hard and schellie sloughes [scaly skins, like snakeskin], I take that to be but eiked [fabricated?], by uncertain report, the author of all lies.
— Daemonologie of King James, 1597 (I modernized the spelling)
Medical descriptions of clinical lycanthropy — the delusion that one has turned into a wolf or other animal, along with corresponding animal-like behavior — date back to classical antiquity. As far back as the second century AD, the Greek physician Marcellus of Side described lycanthropy sufferers as melancholics who “roam out at night and mimic the ways of the wolves or dogs and mostly loiter by the grave monuments until daybreak.” Marcellus considered them harmless, both to themselves and others.
Arab physicians expanded on the Greek concept of lykanthropoi, splitting it into two. The harmless kind they called qutrub, after a type of jinn or ghoul who haunted graveyards and ate corpses. They also described another condition, mania lupina, a more violent malady whose sufferers behaved wildly and wolfishly, and often could only be restrained with shackles.
Stories of humans transformed into various animals, including wolves, appear in Greek and Middle Eastern mythologies, but the werewolf as we understand it today probably had its origins in Nordic mythology. From Scandinavia the motif spread, showing up widely in the rest of Europe by about the 14th century, not just as folktale or legend, but as superstition. In Western Europe werewolves were associated with witchcraft; in Eastern Europe, with vampires (according to Baring-Gould the Serbian term vlkoslak denotes a creature both werewolf and vampire).
Given the association with sorcery, werewolf trials did occur during Europe’s witch hunt period (roughly the 15th through 18th centuries), but the view of lycanthropy as a mental illness also overlapped the superstition, as shown in the quote from Daemonologie that began this post — and James was pretty credulous about the existence of demons and witches. Even during the witch trials, the courts sometimes recognized self-confessed werewolves as mentally ill, rather than demonic beings .
As with schizophrenia and other delusional conditions, lycanthropy has a definite cultural component: which animal a sufferer believes that they turn into varies by region and era and personal life experience. Wolves would be a fearsome predator to people who lived near forests, dangerous to livestock, and humans; and so transformations into wolves and other canines were common throughout Europe up through early modern times (hence, the name). It’s interesting to note in this context that wolves were extinct in England by the fifteenth century, and so werewolves hardly appear in English folklore or English witch trials. In other times and places, people turn into other animals.
The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, according to the Book of Daniel (Chapter 4), believed himself an ox for seven years, and the Persian physician Avicenna (980-1037) also reported a patient who thought he was a cow, and bellowed like one . From Southeast Asia, Africa and South America come reports of transformations into tigers, crocodiles, hyenas and sharks. In Japan, where foxes play a prominent role in folklore, they have the notion of kitsunetsuki: the belief that a fox can possess a person and drive them mad. The folk belief entails actual possession by foxes, but from a medical point of view, it sounds similar to clinical lycanthropy. In modern times (from the mid-20th century on), transformations into wolves have been in the minority of reported lycanthropy cases. This is where folklore and the symbology of different animals in a given culture come into play.
Which brings us to snakes. I found a couple of cases of “ophidanthropy” in the medical literature, one case from India, the other from Lebanon. Snakes feature prominently in many mythologies; could we see the connection between folklore and delusion in these cases?
The patient in India, a 24 year old woman, believed that she had died fifteen days before she appeared for treatment. She described herself as covered in snakeskin, and apparently saw herself as a snake in the mirror. She thought her incisors were fangs. She tried to bite other people, and claimed that her saliva was poisonous. She did think that her interior spirit was still human, and despaired of ever turning back into her real self. She manifested symptoms of depression, and tried to kill herself three times, twice in the hospital ward. Unfortunately, at the time of the paper’s publication, her doctors had not been able to free her of her delusion, and she was still under treatment.
The patient in Lebanon, a 47 year old woman designated “Ms. A” in the paper, had a history of depression and was on antidepressants after a major depressive episode; she then developed a strange tic where she would stick out her tongue at random times, for no reason. Then she became mute and refused to take her medication, because they were “Ms. A’s medications.” She told her family that she was a snake, and Ms. A was dead. Her family, believing her to be possessed, took her to a priest for an exorcism. When that failed, they took her for medical treatment.
At the hospital, she attacked and tried to bite members of the medical staff, saying that she wanted to kill them. She claimed that she had died two weeks earlier, and that she heard the devil telling her that he had transformed her into a snake. She felt she had a “poisonous substance” circulating in her head. Her doctors persuaded her to take her medications, and eventually her delusions disappeared.
So why a snake? What did it mean? Doctors, naturally, are more concerned with treating their patients and with diagnosing their underlying condition (lycanthropy is not considered a disease as such, but one of the symptoms that might be seen in any of a number of affective or schizophrenic conditions ). Why a person decides that they are a particular animal is less relevant to the doctors, but it was interesting to me.
Ms. A was (I think) Christian, described as quite pious, and evidently came from a pious family. The doctors in Lebanon hypothesized that the snake in Ms. A’s case might represent the devil: the snake in the Garden of Eden. We have no information about the Indian patient’s religion or level of piety, but there are Christians and Muslims in India, and certainly snakes occupy a prominent position in Hindu mythology and symbology, both positive and negative. Ananta-shesha is the snake on which Vishnu rests. I think in some stories he also holds up the world. But on the other hand, Shesha’s brothers were largely malevolent.
I also wondered about the fact that both these women thought themselves dead — could that be part of a folk motif, too? The delusion of being dead isn’t part of the most commonly accepted diagnostic criteria for lycanthropy. That they both thought themselves dead for about two weeks at the time treatment began I put down to some sort of incubation period of whatever mental or neurological process caused the delusion, but I did wonder if there was a myth to go with that detail.
Probably not. There is a condition called Cotard delusion, where the sufferer believes that they are dead or don’t exist; they sometimes think that their bodies are putrefying. Though neither of the snake patients were described as having Cotard’s delusion, at least two cases of combined lycanthropy combined with Cotard delusion exist in the literature (the doctors in Lebanon were aware of these cases). So the detail about being dead likely has medical, rather than folkloric, origins.
One of the lycanthropy/Cotard cases was that of an Iranian man. Apparently, his illness started two years before his family brought him in, but the symptoms had worsened over the previous two weeks. This patient not only thought that he had died and become a dog, he thought his wife had also transformed into a dog, and that his two daughters had become sheep .
As the doctors who reported this case point out, in Persian culture (and Middle Eastern culture more generally) the dog is both a symbol of loyalty and of impurity . A group of researchers from the United Arab Emirates make the same point when reporting on eight modern lycanthropy cases from “Babylon and adjacent areas” (Babylon, Iraq, and the UAE): of the eight cases, seven were dogs, and one a cow. Perhaps the victims who “chose” to turn into a dog did so because a dog, to them, invokes fear or repulsion. Perhaps the same is true in the snake cases.
But I still can’t quite figure out the cow.
 Sabine Baring-Gould describes two examples, the 1598 case of Jacques Roulet and the 1604 case of Jean Grenier, in Chapter VI and VII of The Book of Were-Wolves (1865). Both claimed to turn into a wolf with the help of an ointment, and to devour children. It seems, from Baring-Gould’s accounts, that both really did attack and eat children. (Return to text)
 Avicenna’s cure consisted of binding his patient hand and foot, then dressing as a butcher. In this guise, Avicenna told his patient that he was too skinny and had to be fattened before butchering. He then untied the patient, who began to eat enthusiastically. As the patient regained his strength, his delusions disappeared, and he was completely cured. (Return to text)
 Many (though not all) of the cases I read involved patients with a history of depression. Researchers have noticed the association of lycanthropy with feelings of unresolved guilt, often around sexual issues; lycanthropy is sometimes preceded by a stressful event in the patient’s life. In the snake cases, Ms. A’s sister had married and emigrated two months before the episode, and her diabetic father had the toes of his right foot amputated. Ms. A’s depressive episode just before the onset of her snake delusions was due to her feelings of guilt and responsibility around her father’s amputation. The Indian patient had no history of depression or other issues, but she was the sole wage-earner for a family of four. (Return to text)
 This patient refused to sleep near his wife and daughters, because he was afraid that he might sexually assault his daughters. He didn’t want to have sex with his wife, apparently from guilt over “previous sin.” He also admitted to a sexual encounter with a sheep as a teenager, which he felt guilt about. (Return to text)
 The Quran speaks favorably of dogs (particularly hunting dogs), but some Islamic traditions see dogs, specifically their saliva, as ritually unclean. There is a folk belief that an angel won’t enter a home that has a dog, and another that black dogs are a manifestation of evil. (Return to text)
References and Further Reading
A really interesting paper on the connection between the medical view of lycanthropy and the werewolf in culture and folklore; worth reading.
- Metzger, Nadine. “Battling demons with medical authority: werewolves, physicians and rationalization,” Hist Psychiatry, 24(3). September 2013. Abstract and links to full text on PubMed Central.
The papers on the ophidanthropy cases:
- Kattiman, Shivanand, Vikas Menon, Manohar Kant Srivastava and Aniruddha Mukharjee, “Ophidianthropy: the case of a woman who ‘Turned into a Snake’”, Psychiatry Online, Priory.com. Link
- Khalil, Rami Bou, Pierre Dahdah and Sami Richa. “Lycanthropy as a Culture-Bound Syndrome: A Case Report and Review of the Literature,” Journal of Psychiatric Practice, 18(1), January 2012. Read online.
The lycanthropy and Cotard delusion case:
- Nejad AG and K Toofani. “Co-existence of lycanthropy and Cotard’s syndrome in a single case,” Acta Psychiatr Scand 111(3):250-2, March 2005. Abstract at PubMed Central. I was able to get the full text via Academic Search Complete, courtesy of the San Francisco Public Library.
- Fahy, T.A. “Lycanthropy: a review,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 82, January 1989. Links to full text on PubMed Central.
- Garlipp, P, T Godecke-Koch, DE Dietrich, and H. Haltenhof. “Lycanthropy – psychopathological and psychodynamical aspects,” Acta Psychiatr Scand. 109(1):19-22. January 2004. Abstract at PubMed Central. Full text via Academic Search Complete.
- Keck, PE, HG Pope, JI Hudson, SL McElroy, and AR Kulik. “Lycanthropy: alive and well in the twentieth century,” Psychol Med., 18(1):113-20, February 1988. Abstract at PubMed Central. This is the seminal review, and the paper that puts forth the common diagnostic criteria for lycanthropy. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get my hands on it.
- Younis AA and HF Moselhy. “Lycanthropy alive in Babylon: the existence of archetype,” Acta Psychiatr Scand, 119(2):161-4, February 2009. Abstract at PubMed Central. Full text via Academic Search Complete.
- Baring-Gould, Sabine. The Book of Were-Wolves, 1865.
- Clinical Lycanthropy at the Psychology Wiki
- Rosenstock, Harvey and Kenneth R. Vincent. “A Case of Lycanthropy,” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 134(10), October 1977. Link. Actually a wolf, this time.
German woodcut of werewolf, 1722. Source: Wikimedia
Slovenian stamp depicting the Volkodlak. Source: Wikimedia
Nebuchadnezzar, William Blake, 1795. Source: Wikimedia
Nure-onna, Sawaki Sūshi, 1737. Source: Wikimedia
Vision, Mikalojus Ciurlionis, 1905. Source: WikiArt
Dog Vincent van Gogh. Source: WikiArt