Werewolves and Swan-maidens

The mediæval belief in werewolves is especially adapted to illustrate the complicated manner in which divers mythical conceptions and misunderstood natural occurrences will combine to generate a long-enduring superstition  

It is related by Ovid that Lykaon, king of Arkadia, once invited Zeus to dinner, and served up for him a dish of human flesh, in order to test the god's omniscience. But the trick miserably failed, and the impious monarch received the punishment which his crime had merited. He was transformed into a wolf, that he might henceforth feed upon the viands with which he had dared to pollute the table of the king of Olympos. From that time forth, according to Pliny, a noble Arkadian was each year, on the festival of Zeus Lykaios, led to the margin of a certain lake. Hanging his clothes upon a tree, he then plunged into the water and became a wolf. For the space of nine years he roamed about the adjacent woods, and then, if he had not tasted human flesh during all this time, he was allowed to swim back to the place where his clothes were hanging, put them on, and return to his natural form. It is further related of a certain Demainetos, that, having once been present at a human sacrifice to Zeus Lykaios, he ate of the flesh, and was transformed into a wolf for a term of ten years.

These and other similar mythical germs were developed by the mediæval imagination into the horrible superstition of werewolves. A werewolf or loup-garou, was a person who had the power of transforming himself into a wolf; being endowed, while in the lupine state, with the intelligence of a man, the ferocity of a wolf; and the irresistible strength of a demon. The ancients believed in the existence of such persons; but in the Middle Ages the metamorphosis was supposed to be a phenomenon of daily occurrence, and even at the present day, in secluded portions of Europe, the superstition is still cherished by peasants. The belief, moreover, is supported by a vast amount of evidence, which can neither be argued nor pooh-poohed into insignificance. It is the business of the comparative mythologist to trace the pedigree of the ideas from which such a conception may have sprung; while to the critical historian belongs the task of ascertaining and classifying the actual facts which this particular conception was used to interpret.

The mediæval belief in werewolves is especially adapted to illustrate the complicated manner in which divers mythical conceptions and misunderstood natural occurrences will combine to generate a long-enduring superstition. Mr. Cox, indeed, would have us believe that the whole notion arose from an unintentional play upon words; but the careful survey of the field, which has been taken by Hertz and Baring-Gould, leads to the conclusion that many other circumstances have been at work. The delusion, though doubtless purely mythical in its origin, nevertheless presents in its developed state a curious mixture of mythical and historical elements.

With regard to the Arkadian legend, taken by itself, Mr. Cox is probably right. The story seems to belong to that large class of myths which have been devised in order to explain the meaning of equivocal words whose true significance has been forgotten. The epithet Lykaios, as applied to Zeus, had originally no reference to wolves: it means "the bright one," and gave rise to lycanthropic legends only because of the similarity in sound between the names for "wolf" and "brightness." Aryan mythology furnishes numerous other instances of this confusion. The solar deity, Phoibos Lykegenes, was originally the "offspring of light"; but popular etymology made a kind of werewolf of him by interpreting his name as the "wolf-born." The name of the hero Autolykos means simply the "self-luminous"; but it was more frequently interpreted as meaning "a very wolf," in allusion to the supposed character of its possessor. Bazra, the name of the citadel of Carthage, was the Punic word for "fortress"; but the Greeks confounded it with byrsa, "a hide," and hence the story of the ox-hides cut into strips by Dido in order to measure the area of the place to be fortified. The old theory that the Irish were Phœnicians had a similar origin. The name Fena, used to designate the old Scoti or Irish, is the plural of Fion, "fair," seen in the name of the hero Fion Gall, or "Fingal"; but the monkish chroniclers identified Fena with Phoinix, whence arose the myth; and by a like misunderstanding of the epithet Miledh, or "warrior," applied to Fion by the Gaelic bards, there was generated a mythical hero, Milesius, and the sobriquet "Milesian," colloquially employed in speaking of the Irish. So the Franks explained the name of the town Daras, in Mesopotamia, by the story that the Emperor Justinian once addressed the chief magistrate with the exclamation, daras, "thou shalt give": the Greek chronicler, Malalas, who spells the name Doras, informs us with equal complacency that it was the place where Alexander overcame Codomannus with δορυ, "the spear." A certain passage in the Alps is called Scaletta, from its resemblance to a staircase; but according to a local tradition it owes its name to the bleaching skeletons of a company of Moors who were destroyed there in the eighth century, while attempting to penetrate into Northern Italy. The name of Antwerp denotes the town built at a "wharf"; but it sounds very much like the Flemish handt werpen, "hand-throwing": "hence arose the legend of the giant who cut off the hands of those who passed his castle without paying him black-mail, and threw them into the Scheldt." [Tayler, Words and Places, p. 93] In the myth of Bishop Hatto, related in a previous paper, the Mäuse-thurm is a corruption of maut-thurm; it means "customs-tower," and has nothing to do with mice or rats. Doubtless this etymology was the cause of the floating myth getting fastened to this particular place; that it did not give rise to the myth itself is shown by the existence of the same tale in other places. Somewhere in England there is a place called Chateau Vert; the peasantry have corrupted it into Shotover, and say that it has borne that name ever since Little John shot over a high hill in the neighborhood. Latium means "the flat land"; but, according to Virgil, it is the place where Saturn once hid (latuissel) from the wrath of his usurping son Jupiter. [Virgil, AEn. VIII. 322]

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