Man-Wolf, Snake-Woman: on Clinical Lycanthropy


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.

Volkodlak znamka 0Stories 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 [1].

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Two Werewolf Stories

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness. It was an unexpected apparition, and Van Cheele found himself engaged in the novel process of thinking before he spoke. Where on earth could this wild-looking boy hail from?

That’s from “Gabriel-Ernst,” a 1909 short story by Saki. It’s in the style of Saki that I like best: dry, slightly sarcastic humor, sinister undertones. And perhaps, just a touch erotic.

The boy turned like a flash, plunged into the pool, and in a moment had flung his wet and glistening body half-way up the bank where Van Cheele was standing. In an otter the movement would not have been remarkable; in a boy Van Cheele found it sufficiently startling. His foot slipped as he made an involuntarily backward movement, and he found himself almost prostrate on the slippery weed-grown bank, with those tigerish yellow eyes not very far from his own. Almost instinctively he half raised his hand to his throat. …

A strange, naked boy on the protagonist’s property, who talks about feeding on flesh. I wonder what that means? The narrative’s suspense doesn’t come from wondering what’s going to happen; just how. The story’s end is harsh and unsentimental (Saki endings usually are), but it feels exactly right.

NewImageImage: Wikipedia

Perhaps the erotic touch is mostly in my imagination, partially from knowing Saki’s history, and partially because I read “Gabriel-Ernst” after having read another humorous and sexy werewolf story, “The Refugee,” by Jane Rice.

Two brown hands pushed aside the foliage to allow a pair of broad, brown shoulders to come through.

Milli gave an infinitesimal gasp. A man was in her garden! A man who, judging from the visible portion of his excellent anatomy, had—literally—lost his shirt.

Instinctively, she opened her mouth to make some sort of an outcry. Whether she meant to call for aid, or to scare the interloper away, or merely to give vent to a belated exclamation of surprise, will forever be debatable for the object of her scrutiny chose that moment to turn his extraordinarily well-shaped head and his glance fixed itself on Milli. Milli’s outcry died a-borning.

To begin with, it wasn’t a man. It was a youth. And to end with, there was something about him, some queer, indefinable quality, that was absolutely fascinating.

He was, Milli thought, rather like a young panther, or a half-awakened leopard. He was, Milli admitted, entranced, beautiful. Perfectly beautiful. As an animal is beautiful and, automatically, she raised her chin so that the almost unnoticeable pouch under it became one with the line of her throat.

The youth was unabashed. If the discovery of his presence in a private garden left him in a difficult position, he effectively concealed his embarrassment. He regarded Milli steadfastly, and unwaveringly, and admiringly, and Milli, like a mesmerized bird, watched the rippling play of his muscles beneath his skin as he shoved the hedge apart still farther to obtain a better view of his erstwhile hostess.

Confusedly, Milli thought that it was lucky the windows were locked and, in the same mental breath, what a pity that they were.

I really, really like Jane Rice, but it’s next to impossible to find her work. She’s rather like Shirley Jackson: her prose is literary, and her topics run to the weird and fantastic. She published primarily in pulp magazines. “The Refugee” was published in Unknown (also known as Unknown Worlds) in 1943 — the very last issue, as it happens. If you can get your hands on the 2003 collection The Idol of the Flies (probably in a library; it was published as a 500 copy hardcover run right before Ms. Rice died, and as far as I know, never reissued) — do so. It’s great.

“The Refugee” has a terrific start. It’s a sharp little sketch of the heroine, Milli, an American expatriate stuck in Paris during the German occupation, and it gives a flavor of Paris during that time (at least for people of Milli’s class). The twist ending is cute, but vaguely unsatisfying. I think it’s because the pace of the story up until the end is leisurely, rich, descriptive. The ending, like many twist endings, is abrupt. Rhythmically, it doesn’t quite fit.

It’s a pleasure to read, though. I wonder if Ms. Rice ever read “Gabriel-Ernst.” Not that it matters, and even if she did, she took the plot to a different place. It’s fun to read them back-to-back (as I just did) and compare.

Both stories recommended. Enjoy.