Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What Did Werewolves Do?

There are a number of activities which were associated with werewolves. In Togail Bruidne Dá Derga we find that there is a group of young men whose activities are described as fáelad “werewolfing”. This is related to their activities as díberga, a term that is also associated with the fianna warrior-bands. These practices of werewolfing were enough to scare a swineherd, who was said never to have seen such a thing before.

In 17th century Guernsey, the young folk enjoyed engaging in practices that the Calvinist authorities (and perhaps others) called vouarouverie “werewolfery”. This included guising, carousing, singing, dancing, and engaging in somewhat erotic games (such as painting the faces of the young men black with soot, and then they would chase the young women around in an attempt to get some of the black on their faces; this may be related to a song recorded in the Child Ballads called “The Twa Magicians”, in which a blacksmith attempts to gain the maidenhead of a “lady fair” wearing “robes of red”, or in another version a “coal black smith” attempts to marry a maid who is “white as any milk” - in the traditional versions, the smith is successful in his aim, but there are more recent variations in which she escapes). There is quite a lot of information on these practices in the article “Night Revels and Werewolfery in Calvinist Guernsey”.

These boisterous nighttime vigils are, of course, very interesting, but we have another important source that describes what werewolves did in some detail. In a trial before the Inquisition at Jürgensburg, Livonia in 1692, a peasant named Thiess testified that he was a werewolf, and described the activities in which they engaged in considerable detail. Three times a year, he said, they put on wolf skins and went off to a cave he called Hell, which was “at the end of the sea” (later, presumably under the influence of the learned men questioning him, he changed his mind and placed Hell under the ground), to fight with sorcerers who were out to steal the harvest. Many of the details of his testimony are very fascinating and connect the practice to other known practices of the Ancient and early Modern worlds, such as the Maenad followers of Dionysos, the Benandanti of Friulia, the Táltos of Hungary, and many others. It is especially the connection to the Benandanti that is of interest to us here, as there were some elements of that practice which were connected to the ancestors, such as the procession of the dead and contact with the dead.

The procession of the dead is widespread throughout Europe, and is recently most well-attested as the Perchtenlauf (notice the figure of Death at about 1:55), in which guisers dress up in monstrous costumes and parade through the streets, dancing, making noise and music, and so forth. This is, of course, a ritual reenactment of the Wild Hunt, which is the true procession of the dead. The cognate in Wales is the pack of the cwn annwfn, led by Gwyn ap Nudd (who, despite his name's meaning of “fair”, was said to have a blackened face – which could easily have a connection to the games played on Guernsey in the 17th century). Gwyn's name is a perfect linguistic cognate of Fionn. Since Fionn's maternal grandfather was Nuada, even the surname finds its cognate.

According to Daniel Gershenson (in Apollo the Wolf-God), wolves are associated with the dead and the otherworld possibly due to the fact that they often lair in the mouths of underground streams where the streams come up to the surface, during the season in which the streams are dry. Since air blows out of these mouths, they were believed to be passages to the underworld, and the origin of wind – and wind is the breath of the world, making it the Spiritus Mundi. Regardless of the reason, however, the fact is that wolves were so associated. It is this connection, in fact, that makes the werewolves important to the harvest (pace Ginzburg, above), as it is from the dead that fertility springs. In Ireland, this is evident in the correlation between the ancestors and the fairies, who are closely tied to harvest activities, but it is also apparent in the fact that Pluto, the lord of the dead in Rome, was also the source of wealth (and so the source of the English word plutocracy “rule by the wealthy”).

That connection with the ancestors is manifested among the Benandanti as a sort of “spirit medium” ability to perceive and converse with the dead. This ability, necromancy proper, is of critical importance to the lycanthropic practitioner. It is by conversation with the ancestors that the werewolf can reinforce links between the present and the past, and so revitalize the world. How this is done specifically is a topic for another time.

Another important source we have for what werewolves did in the past comes from the Kalash people of northern Pakistan. These people are in danger from the wars in the region, surging fundamentalist Islam, and the normal economic and social pressures that move against traditional ways in the modern world. To quote from the article on Wikipedia:

[In] the Festival of the Budulak (buḍáḷak, the 'shepherd king')… a strong prepubescent boy is sent up into the mountains to live with the goats for the summer. He is supposed to get fat and strong from the goat milk. When the festival comes he is allowed for a 24-hour period only to have sexual intercourse with any woman he wants, including even the wife of another man, or a young virgin. Any child born of this 24-hour rampage is considered to be blessed. The Kalash claim to have abolished this practice in recent years due to negative worldwide publicity.

This ritual has many similarities to the lycanthropic bands of other Indo-European areas, such as the period of time (the Fianna were said to be active and out in the wilderness, separated from the community, from the beginning of summer to the beginning of the other half of the year), the association with dairy products (as at the Lupercalia), and the association with fertility. This shows, as with the vouarouverie of Guernsey, the association of sexuality, especially unrestrained or playful sexuality, with these lycanthropic youths. It also emphasizes the sacred nature of their activities.

So, to summarize, werewolves are a medium between the world of the living and that of the dead. They are essential to the harvest, and so to prosperity in general. They operate outside the bounds of society, but to its general benefit. They are supposed to be virile, sexual people, often young men (or women, as we shall see) in their sexual prime. They are frequently assumed to be active during the night time, and to associate with each other during that period. They are commonly involved in rituals which involve a procession of masked or otherwise costumed figures. That's a good beginning, but what does it mean for us, now, in the 21st century? In the coming weeks, I'll be giving a basic outline of how I approach these ideas.


  1. Really loving the blog!

    This post reminded me of Aita, the Etruscan Haides who has a wolf-skin cap.

  2. Thanks! I'm hoping that, after I get some of the basic stuff out of the way, I can spend some time also commenting on current events in the polytheist world. For now, though, since I'm seeing so few (if any) people talking about these particular things, I feel like I have to get some of this out of the way first.

    That is very interesting information. I knew that Haides was tied to this material (Kerberos, if nothing else, is indicative there), but the Etruscan images make it all much more obvious.