One of the most enduring beliefs is that the full Moon can cause some people to go a little crazy, thus the common refrain of “must be a full Moon” when things start to go haywire. This idea even made its way into our language, with words like “lunacy” and “lunatic” born from the Latin word “luna” for “Moon.” As we approach Halloween, though, another full Moon legend begins to loom large: the werewolf. Popularized on screen by everyone from Lon Chaney Jr. to Michael J. Fox, Jack Nicholson, and teen heartthrob Taylor Lautner, the idea of werewolves—men who shapeshift into wolves, often during a full Moon—goes back at least to the ancient Greeks.
The idea of men who turned into wolves appears in battle accounts written by Greek historian Heroditus, as well in works by Roman writers such as Ovid, Virgil, and Pliny the Elder.
The Greek Myth of the Werewolf
In fact, one popular term for werewolves, lycanthrope, comes from Greek word lykos, meaning “wolf.” One Greek myth concerns a man named Lycaon who was turned into a wolf by the gods as a punishment for trying to trick the god Zeus into eating human flesh.
Depending on the culture and the time, lycanthropy is seen variously as a gift or an affliction. Among the Norse people, who coined the term werewolf, or “man wolf,” it was once believed that a warrior could improve his ferocity by donning a wolfskin belt and taking on the spirit of the wolf, while people in parts of western Europe said that anyone could transform into a wolf by sleeping out under the full Moon on certain days of the year.
Elsewhere, being a werewolf was seen as an affliction, brought on by a pact with the devil, divine punishment, or just having the misfortune to be born that way. The idea of werewolves creating other werewolves by biting ordinary people isn’t actually part of the old lore, but was a later addition by Hollywood, probably inspired by a similar belief surrounding vampires.
Among those who saw lycanthropy as a negative thing, cures were varied, including exorcism, potions (usually including the plant wolfsbane), having a witch doctor chant over the victim, surgery, piercing the suspected werewolf’s hands with nails, or simply saying the person’s name three times.
Though folklore includes some disturbing tales, werewolves, vampires, ghosts, and ghouls are fun to think about at this time of year. Here’s hoping the only ones you see are looking for a candy handout …