Daniel Pinkwater, a writer of children’s and young adult fiction, contends that “Werewolves are much more common animals than you might think.”
That is easy to believe at this time of year. Reports were rampant last week of all types of strange creatures roaming the Island. There were witches, goblins, ghouls, ghosts and, possibly worst of all, those werewolves.
Though you might consider werewolves an unusual wildlife sighting, they are by no means rare. If history — and Daniel Pinkwater’s observations — are taken into consideration, reports of werewolves have been common for thousands of years.
During the medieval period in Europe, accounts of werewolves were often reported. Trials of werewolves in Switzerland were recorded as early as the 15th century and continued though the 18th century. The stories (and creatures) came to the New World with the colonists. Those thought to be werewolves were persecuted much like witches.
An even earlier mention comes from about 60 C.E., in the Latin work of prose Satyricon. One of the characters tells the story of a fiend that turned into a wolf, “When I look for my buddy I see he’d stripped and piled his clothes by the roadside... He pees in a circle round his clothes and then, just like that, turns into a wolf!... After he turned into a wolf he started howling and then ran off into the woods.”
Another description of werewolves is from Richard Verstegan in 1628. He describes them as “certayne sorcerers, who having annoynted their bodies with an ointment which they make by the instinct of the devil, and putting on a certayne inchaunted girdle, does not only unto the view of others seem as wolves, but to their own thinking have both the shape and nature of wolves, so long as they wear the said girdle. And they do dispose themselves as very wolves, in worrying and killing, and most of humane creatures.”
Werewolves, also called lycanthropes, are humans that can ‘shape shift’ into a wolf or wolf-like creature. They might have gotten this affliction in a variety of ways. It is believed that one can become a werewolf by being scratched or bitten by another werewolf. A person can also become a werewolf because of a curse or as a punishment. Often the punishment is for a heinous crime such as murder and the consumption of human flesh.
According to the experts, werewolves can be identified by some telltale physical traits. Look for their curved fingernails, low-set ears, swinging stride and a uni-brow (the meeting of the eyebrows at the bridge of the nose). These are the field marks of a werewolf. If you think that you have one in your care, you can look for bristles under their tongue or cut into their flesh and see fur under their skin.
The actual transformation of human to beast is a painful one, and is believed to occur by a variety of means. Though I am not certain you want to try these methods, here is how others are said to have made the change. One way was to remove your clothes and don a wolfskin belt (the aforementioned ‘girdle’). Another method was to rub oneself with a magic salve or drink rainwater from the hoof print of a real wolf. Sleeping out on a Wednesday or Friday night in the summer and letting the full moon shine directly on your face are also suggested methods for transformation. (No word yet on the millions of campers who do the latter). Don’t worry if any of these methods work — there are remedies, though none have been proven definitively. Medicinal methods suggest using the herb wolfsbane to keep the werewolf side at bay. Surgery is also mentioned as an option, as is striking werewolves in the forehead with a knife or piercing their hands with nails. Exorcism is always a last resort. The famed silver bullet method for protecting oneself from a werewolf is nothing more than a Hollywood invention, so don’t bother if you are faced with a werewolf. The only foolproof method of killing this beast is the destruction of its heart or brain; otherwise, werewolves are known to return to life.
Sometimes, not surprisingly, people were unfairly branded as werewolves. A few medical conditions mimic the characteristics of a true werewolf, including rabies, porphyra (a skin and neurological disorder that reddens teeth and causes psychosis), and hypertichosis, a genetic condition that causes extreme hair growth.
But don’t count on recognizing werewolves by appearances alone: as Warren Zevon warned us, the ones who walk among us can have hair that is perfect. Thus, you can never be certain of the presence of a true werewolf. My advice is to always beware of the creatures of the night.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.