Thursday, March 11, 2010

Legends & myths. The werewolf

A friend of mine has taken Gothic style to the big leagues: he believes that vampires live among us and has done everything to look like one, from sharpen her teeth to make blood pacts of eternal love with every boyfriend she’s got to the point that now her hand looks like a map. Now, since vampires exist for sure, she reasons, that means their archenemies the werewolves also exist. She quoted me her sources with the loudest voice: Anne Rice (Interview with the vampire), the movie Underworld and the Twilight saga.

The basics: no one knows where does the myth of the werewolf come from or what try to explain. According to some anthropologists, in different variants werewolves are the most widespread myth worldwide. In places with no wolves peoples resorted to werehyena (Africa), weretiger (India) and werejaguar (America). My friend hasn’t been able to explain me if hatred of vampires for other species includes the wereocelot, but I suspect a positive answer. It has been said that the myth tries to explain serial murders, diseases such as porphyria, mass poisoning with LSD-like fungi and even that is nostalgia for the price man has paid for civilization: the abandonment of his instincts and the disconnection from a basic sense of pleasure. No explanation is satisfactory.

The most popular version of the werewolf today (the one my friend vampire stalks in the streets of a place as unlikely as Bogota) comes from Germanic mythology, reissued by nineteenth-century literature and cinema of the early twentieth century. The most common elements: the werewolf is always a lycanthrop, that is, his condition is hereditary or due to the bite of another werewolf. It is anthropomorphic: bipedal, with a monstruous human face vaguely like Michael Jackson’s (on Thriller, I mean) Only a silver bullet can kill him and the moon seems to have something to do with the whole issue.

Lets go to the pieces: there are were-animals all over the world, in cultures with no contact between them and long before any folklore of northern Europe. The first registered werewolf is Lycaon, son of Pelagius and Melibea and first king of Arcadia. For some reason this guy, father of fifty sons, decided to invite Zeus, king of the Olympian gods, to lunch. Cool, but the idea became deliciously brilliant when Lycaon decides to play a joke on his guest and served one of his sons as lunch (the king’s, not the god’s, for that it would not have been funny at all).

Let's see ... If I invite a deity to eat at my house, and he sits at my table, I would not be in the mood for jokes. As a matter of fact, I’d be deadly serious and ready to make profound questions about heaven or angels or the trinitarian question or something, trying not to look like a moron. And if I made an occasional pun, I’m sure I wouldn’t cross the line with a joke as bad as serve the flesh of my son to my guest; my grandmother called these experiments in humor "flirt with the devil". Anyway, Zeus realized what happened and proceeded to turn Lycaon into a wolf (his name is now synonymous with an African wild dog) and killed with his thunderbolts all his offspring. What do the Greeks wanted to show by including in the slaughter the brothers of the deceased boy, I do not know, but Greek myths did not sell well if they neglected to include gallons of blood.

Ovid's Metamorphoses also talks about werewolves in Arcadia, where seems to be the producing plant. And the Greek Herodotus told that all Neuried tribe, who lived in what is now southern Poland, turned into wolves every nine years. Arcadia was so dangerous that even with no fault at all you can end up as a werewolf: Pliny the Elder told the story of a man who hung his clothes in the branches of a tree and jumped into a lake; when he reached the other side surprise! He came out from the lake as a wolf and he was told told that if he let go nine years without attacking any human he could swim back and regain his form. And his clothes, I suppose.

The implication is clear: there’s no need to involve another werewolf to become one. In fact, in traditional myths, this condition comes from a divine curse, delivered ex oficio by God or through the intervention of a saint: a Welsh king was turned into a wolf by St. Patrick after the king refused to convert (to Christianity, not a wolf, which was mandatory after the curse of the saint). I wonder how many missionaries today wouldn’t use this power very happily if they had it. Until the fourteenth century there is no tale of lycanthropy, ie, a werewolf who makes another with a bite or scratch. The usual ways to become one of these creatures were to wear a belt (or the whole skin) made of leather of wolf, drink water from a footstep of a werewolf in the woods or drinking a beer chanting certain spell.

And the other implication: the mythical werewolf is more wolf than man. That is, one turned into a beast bigger, faster, more evil, stronger than any wolf ... but wolf. Quadruped. With muzzle. With bushy tail. A werewolf didn’t walk upright, neither had grasping hands. The humanoid werewolf was basically a creation of the horror genre.

In traditional stories (and the documentation my friend got in Underworld) the lycanthrop becomes wolf at will: not only he doesn’t need moon but if he wants he converts himself (painfully: imagine your jaws stretching to form a snout) at ten in the morning while waiting for the bus. In general, how to kill the werewolf was more blunt than a silver bullet: a stick. Although according to stories from the thirteenth century a silver stick was occasionally included in the beating and since progress never stops, the stick became a bullet as soon as it was possible. What any gunsmith will tell you is that it is impossible to make a bullet with silver 100% pure: it will deform at the very moment it is shooted. But apparently, those like my friend think it is rather that the art is lost or today gunsmiths are incompetent people who barely can make air-ground missiles.

The feelings of the orthodox and mainstream thinking towards these creatures are ambivalent unlike vampires, who are always considered creatures of darkness. Gubernatis’ Zoological Mythology , for example, told about a pack of werewolves who smashed some monks for holding heretical opinions. These ambivalent feelings allowed a man accused of witchcraft to use the legal defense that he and a group of friends were werewolves, yes, made pacts with the devil, yes, but with permission of the angels so they can go down to hell to fight the demons. This defense led the judge to have him whipped for idolatrous, which isn’t nice but better than dying scorched.

An aside: Shakira has recently used a Colombian expression to name one of her songs "she-wolf", which is the derisive and pejorative way to refer to certain female specimens, very generous to display attributes already quite generous with plunging necklines, tight minis and stiletto boots. The origin of the saying is medieval and Italian: families would make their children look after the herds. Many sheperds were teenagers and every now and then sold under the counter a sheep to pay a brothel and then report to his parents the sheep as taken by the wolf. The parents (specially the father) knew the truth, having passed themselves by this kind of initiation into adulthood and they accepted it as a sort of occupational cost calling it "the portion of the wolf". The she-wolf, more precisely

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