Saturday, March 19, 2011

What is a Werewolf?

Of course, there are many assumptions that people bring to subjects like this one, especially when one considers how much the original concepts have been corrupted and literalized in popular culture, going back hundreds of years. Therefore, here are some general descriptions of what I am talking about.

Lycanthropy: this is the central issue here, so I need to talk a bit about what it is and what it isn't. “Werewolf” is a word that means “man-wolf”. This doesn't mean, however, that there is a literal assumption that the person is a human-looking wolf.

Ceci ne pas une loup-garou.

Instead, werewolves were understood as a particular social institution. We'll be discussing that in detail as time goes on, but for now it is easiest to think of them as bands of youths, predominantly boys but also some girls, who lived for periods of time outside of the community. During this time, they would frequently learn particular secrets and mysteries associated with the ancestors, death, combat, fertility and sexuality, and a number of related matters. Due to their association with the ancestors and death, they are identified with wolves, as canines are understood (for a number of reasons) to be the guardians of the afterlife and channels of exchange between this world and the otherworld. In addition, their frequent association with combat and violence are similarly compared to a supposed ferocity characteristic of wolves, and their tendency to gather in small groups is seen as similar to the packs in which wolves organize themselves. Many of these groups self-consciously identify with wolves, adorning themselves with wolfskins, composing songs and battle cries that resemble the howling of wolves, giving themselves names that refer to wolves, styling hair in manners that recall wolves, acting in ways that are associated with wolves (deserved or not), and so on. However, not all of the lycanthropic groups do these things, and few do all of them. Some groups, indeed, do not seem to identify with wolves, though they fulfill all of the other functions of the werewolf groups.

What is most interesting is that the werewolf activities can be found over most of the world, even in places that do not seem to have had enough contact to transmit such a specific set of ideas and practices. Thus, we find aspects of werewolf practices in Europe and India, of course, but also in China and Japan, Central Asia, the Pacific Northwest and Northern Forests (among other places) of North America, Africa, and so on. Moreover, we find that certain specific motifs keep recurring in all of these far-flung areas, such as an association of mountains and mountain-spirits with magical or esoteric secrets of fighting or hunting.

I intend to concentrate on the European manifestations of lycanthropic practice, and will probably have a tendency toward the Gaelic areas, but I do hope to cover at least some aspects of the matter that come from other areas, such as the shugendō teachings of the ubasoku-yamabushi, the hamatsa, the Tonkawa wolf dance, the budulak, and so on. I'd also appreciate anyone with more information about such groups to let me know about them.

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