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.”

New York Public Library

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.” 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.

It was in this way that the constellation of the Great Bear received its name. The Greek work arktos, answering to the Sanskrit riksha, meant originally any bright object, and was applied to the bear—for what reason it would not be easy to state—and to that constellation which was most conspicuous in the latitude of the early home of the Aryans. When the Greeks had long forgotten why these stars were called arktoi, they symbolized them as a Great Bear fixed in the sky. So that, as Max Müller observes, “the name of the Arctic regions rests on a misunderstanding of a name framed thousands of years ago in Central Asia, and the surprise with which many a thoughtful observer has looked at these seven bright stars, wondering why they were ever called the Bear, is removed by a reference to the early annals of human speech.” Among the Algonquins the sun-god Michabo was represented as a hare, his name being compounded of michi, “great,” and wabos, “a hare”; yet wabos also meant “white,” so that the god was doubtless originally called simply “the Great White One.” The same naïve process has made bears of the Arkadians, whose name, like that of the Lykians, merely signified that they were “children of light”; and the metamorphosis of Kallisto, mother of Arkas, into a bear, and of Lykaon into a wolf, rests apparently upon no other foundation than an erroneous etymology. Originally Lykaon was neither man nor wolf; he was but another form of Phoibos Lykegenes, the light-born sun, and, as Mr. Cox has shown, his legend is but a variation of that of Tantalos, who in time of drought offers to Zeus the flesh of his own offspring, the withered fruits, and is punished for his impiety.

It seems to me, however, that this explanation, though valid as far as it goes, is inadequate to explain all the features of the werewolf superstition, or to account for its presence in all Aryan countries and among many peoples who are not of Aryan origin. There can be no doubt that the myth-makers transformed Lykaon into a wolf because of his unlucky name; because what really meant “bright man” seemed to them to mean “wolf-man”; but it has by no means been proved that a similar equivocation occurred in the case of all the primitive Aryan werewolves, nor has it been shown to be probable that among each people the being with the uncanny name got thus accidentally confounded with the particular beast most dreaded by that people. Etymology alone does not explain the fact that while Gaul has been the favorite haunt of the man-wolf, Scandinavia has been preferred by the man-bear, and Hindustan by the man-tiger. To account for such a widespread phenomenon we must seek a more general cause.

Nothing is more strikingly characteristic of primitive thinking than the close community of nature which it assumes between man and brute. The doctrine of metempsychosis, which is found in some shape or other all over the world, implies a fundamental identity between the two; the Hindu is taught to respect the flocks browsing in the meadow, and will on no account lift his hand against a cow, for who knows but it may be his own grandmother? The recent researches of Mr. McLennan and Mr. Herbert Spencer have served to connect this feeling with the primeval worship of ancestors and with the savage customs of totemism. The worship of ancestors seems to have been everywhere the oldest systematized form of fetichistic religion. The reverence paid to the chieftain of the tribe while living was continued and exaggerated after his death. The uncivilized man is everywhere incapable of grasping the idea of death as it is apprehended by civilized people. He cannot understand that a man should pass away so as to be no longer able of communicating with his fellows. The image of his dead chief or comrade remains in his mind, and the savage’s philosophic realism far surpasses that of the most extravagant medieval schoolmen; to him the persistence of the idea implies the persistence of the reality. The dead man, accordingly, is not really dead; he has thrown off his body like a husk, yet still retains his old appearance, and often shows himself to his old friends, especially after nightfall. He is no doubt possessed of more extensive powers than before his transformation,1 and may very likely have a share in regulating the weather, granting or withholding rain. Therefore, argues the uncivilized mind, he is to be cajoled and propitiated more sedulously now than before his strange transformation.

This kind of worship still maintains a languid existence as the state religion of China, and it still exists as a portion of Brahmanism; but in the Vedic religion it is to be seen in all its vigor and in all its naïve simplicity. According to the ancient Aryan, the Pitris or “Fathers” (Lat. patres) live in the sky along with Yama, the great original Pitri of mankind. This first man came down from heaven in the lightning, and back to heaven both himself and all his offspring must have gone. There they distribute light unto men below, and they shine themselves as stars; and hence the Christianized German peasant, fifty centuries later, tells his children that the stars are angels’ eyes, and the English cottager impresses it on the youthful mind that it is wicked to point at the stars, though why he cannot tell. But the Pitris are not stars only, nor do they content themselves with idly looking down on the affairs of men, after the fashion of the laissez-faire divinities of Lucretius. They are, on the contrary, very busy with the weather; they send rain, thunder, and lightning; and they especially delight in rushing over the housetops in a great gale of wind, led on by their chief, the mysterious huntsman, Hermes or Odin.

It has been elsewhere shown that the howling dog, or wish-hound of Hermes, whose appearance under the windows of a sick person is such an alarming portent, is merely the tempest personified. Throughout all Aryan mythology the souls of the dead are supposed to ride on the night-wind, with their howling dogs, gathering into their throng the souls of those just dying as they pass by their houses.2 Sometimes the whole complex conception is wrapped up in the notion of a single dog, the messenger of the god of shades, who comes to summon the departing soul. Sometimes, instead of a dog, we have a great ravening wolf who comes to devour its victim and extinguish the sunlight of life, as that old Wolf of the tribe of Fenris devoured little Red Riding-Hood with her robe of scarlet twilight. Thus we arrive at a true werewolf myth. The stormwind, or howling Rakshasa of Hindu folk-lore, is “a great misshapen giant with red beard and red hair, with pointed protruding teeth, ready to lacerate and devour human flesh; his body is covered with coarse, bristling hair, his huge mouth is open, he looks from side to side as he walks, lusting after the flesh and blood of men, to satisfy his raging hunger and quench his consuming thirst. Towards nightfall his strength increases manifold; he can change his shape at will; he haunts the woods, and roams howling through the jungle.”

Now if the storm-wind is a host of Pitris, or one great Pitri who appears as a fearful giant, and is also a pack of wolves or wish-hounds, or a single savage dog or wolf, the inference is obvious to the mythopoeic mind that men may become wolves, at least after death. And to the uncivilized thinker this inference is strengthened, as Mr. Spencer has shown, by evidence registered on his own tribal totem or heraldic emblem. The bears and lions and leopards of heraldry are the degenerate descendants of the totem of savagery which designated the tribe by a beast-symbol. To the untutored mind there is everything in a name; and the descendant of Brown Bear or Yellow Tiger or Silver Hyena cannot be pronounced unfaithful to his own style of philosophizing, if he regards his ancestors, who career about his hut in the darkness of night, as belonging to whatever order of beasts his totem associations may suggest.

Thus we not only see a ray of light thrown on the subject of metempsychosis, but we get a glimpse of the curious process by which the intensely realistic mind of antiquity arrived at the notion that men could be transformed into beasts. For the belief that the soul can temporarily quit the body during lifetime has been universally entertained; and from the conception of wolf-like ghosts it was but a short step to the conception of corporeal werewolves. In the Middle Ages the phenomena of trance and catalepsy were cited in proof of the theory that the soul can leave the body and afterwards return to it. Hence it was very difficult for a person accused of witchcraft to prove an alibi, for to any amount of evidence showing that the body was innocently reposing at home and in bed, the rejoinder was obvious that the soul may nevertheless have been in attendance at the witches’ Sabbath or busied in maiming a neighbor’s cattle. According to one medieval notion, the soul of the werewolf quit its human body, which remained in a trance until its return.

The mythological basis of the werewolf superstition is now, I believe, sufficiently indicated. The belief, however, did not reach its complete development, or acquire its most horrible features, until the pagan habits of thought which had originated it were modified by contact with Christian theology. To the ancient there was nothing necessarily diabolical in the transformation of a man into a beast. But Christianity, which retained such a host of pagan conceptions under such strange disguises, which degraded the “Allfather” Odin into the ogre of the castle to which Jack climbed on his bean-stalk, and which blended the beneficent lightning-god Thor and the mischievous Hermes and the faun-like Pan into the grotesque Teutonic Devil, did not fail to impart a new and fearful character to the belief in werewolves. Lycanthropy became regarded as a species of witchcraft; the werewolf was supposed to have obtained his peculiar powers through the favor or connivance of the Devil; and hundreds of persons were burned alive or broken on the wheel for having availed themselves of the privilege of beast-metamorphosis. The superstition, thus widely extended and greatly intensified, was confirmed by many singular phenomena which cannot be omitted from any thorough discussion of the nature and causes of lycanthropy.

The first of these phenomena is the Berserker insanity, characteristic of Scandinavia, but not unknown in other countries. In times when killing one’s enemies often formed a part of the necessary business of life, persons were frequently found who killed for the mere love of the thing; with whom slaughter was an end desirable in itself, not merely a means to a desirable end. What the miser is in an age which worships mammon, such was the Berserker in an age when the current idea of heaven was a place where people could hack each other to pieces through all eternity, and when the man who refused a challenge was punished with confiscation of his estates. With these Northmen, in the ninth century, the chief business and amusement in life was to set sail for some pleasant country, like Spain or France, and make all the coasts and navigable rivers hideous with rapine and massacre. When at home, in the intervals between their freebooting expeditions, they were liable to become possessed by a strange homicidal madness, during which they would array themselves in the skins of wolves or bears, and sally forth by night to snap the backbones, smash the skulls, and sometimes to drink with fiendish glee the blood of unwary travellers or loiterers. These fits of madness were usually followed by periods of utter exhaustion and nervous depression.

Such, according to the unanimous testimony of historians, was the celebrated “Berserker rage,” not peculiar to the Northland, although there most conspicuously manifested. Taking now a step in advance, we find that in comparatively civilized countries there have been many cases of monstrous homicidal insanity. The two most celebrated cases, among those collected by Mr. Baring-Gould, are those of the Maréchal de Retz, in 1440, and of Elizabeth, a Hungarian countess, in the seventeenth century. The Countess Elizabeth enticed young girls into her palace on divers pretexts, and then coolly murdered them, for the purpose of bathing in their blood. The spectacle of human suffering became at last such a delight to her, that she would apply with her own hands the most excruciating tortures, relishing the shrieks of her victims as the epicure relishes each sip of his old Cháteau Margaux. In this way she is said to have murdered six hundred and fifty persons before her evil career was brought to an end; though, when one recollects the famous men in buckram and the notorious trio of crows, one is inclined to strike off a cipher, and regard sixty-five as a sufficiently imposing and far less improbable number. But the case of the Maréchal de Retz is still more frightful. A marshal of France, a scholarly man, a patriot, and a man of holy life, he became suddenly possessed by an uncontrollable desire to murder children. During seven years he continued to inveigle little boys and girls into his castle at the rate of about two each week, (?) and then put them to death in various ways, that he might witness their agonies and bathe in their blood; experiencing after each occasion the most dreadful remorse, but led on by an irresistible craving to repeat the crime. When this unparalleled iniquity was finally brought to light, the castle was found to contain bins full of children’s bones. The horrible details of the trial are to be found in the histories of France by Michelet and Martin.

Going a step further, we find cases in which the propensity to murder has been accompanied by cannibalism. In 1598 a tailor of Chálons was sentenced by the parliament of Paris to be burned alive for lycanthropy. “This wretched man had decoyed children into his shop, or attacked them in the gloaming when they strayed in the woods, had torn them with his teeth and killed them, after which he seems calmly to have dressed their flesh as ordinary meat, and to have eaten it with a great relish. The number of little innocents whom he destroyed is unknown. A whole caskful of bones was discovered in his house.” About 1850 a beggar in the village of Polomyia, in Galiicia, was proved to have killed and eaten fourteen children. A house had one day caught fire and burnt to the ground, roasting one of the inmates, who was unable to escape. The beggar passed by soon after, and, as he was suffering from excessive hunger, could not resist the temptation of making a meal off the charred body. From that moment he was tormented by a craving for human flesh. He met a little orphan girl, about nine years old, and giving her a pinchbeck ring told her to seek for others like it under a tree in the neighboring wood. She was slain, carried to the beggar’s hovel, and eaten. In the course of three years thirteen other children mysteriously disappeared, but no one knew whom to suspect. At last an innkeeper missed a pair of ducks, and having no good opinion of this beggar’s honesty, went unexpectedly to his cabin, burst suddenly in at the door, and to his horror found him in the act of hiding under his cloak a severed head; a bowl of fresh blood stood under the oven, and pieces of a thigh were cooking over the fire.

This occurred only about twenty years ago, and the criminal, though ruled by an insane appetite, is not known to have been subject to any mental delusion. But there have been a great many similar cases, in which the homicidal or cannibal craving has been accompanied by genuine hallucination. Forms of insanity in which the afflicted persons imagine themselves to be brute animals are not perhaps very common, but they are not unknown. I once knew a poor demented old man who believed himself to be a horse, and would stand by the hour together before a manger, nibbling hay, or deluding himself with the pretence of so doing. Many of the cannibals whose cases are related by Mr. Baring-Gould, in his chapter of horrors, actually believed themselves to have been transformed into wolves or other wild animals. Jean Grenier was a boy of thirteen, partially idiotic, and of strongly marked canine physiognomy; his jaws were large and projected forward, and his canine teeth were unnaturally long, so as to protrude beyond the lower lip. He believed himself to be a werewolf. One evening, meeting half a dozen young girls, he scared them out of their wits by telling them that as soon as the sun had set he would turn into a wolf and eat them for supper. A few days later, one little girl, having gone out at nightfall to look after the sheep, was attacked by some creature which in her terror she mistook for a wolf, but which afterwards proved to be none other than Jean Grenier. She beat him off with her sheep-staff, and fled home. As several children had mysteriously disappeared from the neighborhood, Grenier was at once suspected. Being brought before the parliament of Bordeaux, he stated that two years ago he had met the Devil one night in the woods and had signed a compact with him and received from him a wolf-skin. Since then he had roamed about as a wolf after dark, resuming his human shape by daylight. He had killed and eaten several children whom he had found alone in the fields, and on one occasion he had entered a house while the family were out and taken the baby from its cradle. A careful investigation proved the truth of these statements, so far as the cannibalism was concerned. There is no doubt that the missing children were eaten by Jean Grenier, and there is no doubt that in his own mind the half-witted boy was firmly convinced that he was a wolf. Here the lycanthropy was complete.

In the year 1598, “in a wild and unfrequented spot near Caude, some countrymen came one day upon the corpse of a boy of fifteen, horribly mutilated and bespattered with blood. As the men approached, two wolves, which had been rending the body, bounded away into the thicket. The men gave chase immediately, following their bloody tracks till they lost them when, suddenly crouching among the bushes, his teeth chattering with fear, they found a man half naked, with long hair and beard, and with his hands dyed in blood. His nails were long as claws, and were clotted with fresh gore and shreds of human flesh.”

This man, Jacques Roulet, was a poor, half-witted creature under the dominion of a cannibal appetite. He was employed in tearing to pieces the corpse of the boy when these countrymen came up. Whether there were any wolves in the case, except what the excited imaginations of the men may have conjured up, I will not presume to determine; but it is certain that Roulet supposed himself to be a wolf, and killed and ate several persons under the influence of the delusion. He was sentenced to death, but the parliament of Paris reversed the sentence, and charitably shut him up in a madhouse.

The annals of the Middle Ages furnish many cases similar to these of Grenier and Roulet. Their share in maintaining the werewolf superstition is undeniable; but modern science finds in them nothing that cannot be readily explained. That stupendous process of breeding, which we call civilization, has been for long ages strengthening those kindly social feelings by the possession of which we are chiefly distinguished from the brutes, leaving our primitive bestial impulses to die for want of exercise, or checking in every possible way their further expansion by legislative enactments. But this process, which is transforming us from savages into civilized men, is a very slow one; and now and then there occur cases of what physiologists call atavism, or reversion to an ancestral type of character. Now and then persons are born, in civilized countries, whose intellectual powers are on a level with those of the most degraded Australian savage, and these we call idiots. And now and then persons are born possessed of the bestial appetites and cravings of primitive man, his fiendish cruelty and his liking for human flesh. Modern physiology knows how to classify and explain these abnormal cases, but to the unscientific medieval mind they were explicable only on the hypothesis of a diabolical metamorphosis. And there is nothing strange in the fact that, in an age when the prevailing habits of thought rendered the transformation of men into beasts an easily admissible notion, these monsters of cruelty and depraved appetite should have been regarded as capable of taking on bestial forms. Nor is it strange that the hallucination under which these unfortunate wretches labored should have taken such a shape as to account to their feeble intelligence for the existence of the appetites which they were conscious of not sharing with their neighbors and contemporaries. If a myth is a piece of unscientific philosophizing, it must sometimes be applied to the explanation of obscure psychological as well as of physical phenomena. Where the modern calmly taps his forehead and says, “Arrested development,” the terrified ancient made the sign of the cross and cried, “Werewolf.”

We shall be assisted in this explanation by turning aside for a moment to examine the wild superstitions about “changelings,” which contributed, along with so many others, to make the lives of our ancestors anxious and miserable. These superstitions were for the most part attempts to explain the phenomena of insanity, epilepsy, and other obscure nervous diseases. A man who has hitherto enjoyed perfect health, and whose actions have been consistent and rational, suddenly loses all self-control and seems actuated by a will foreign to himself. Modern science possesses the key to this phenomenon; but in former times it was explicable only on the hypothesis that a demon had entered the body of the lunatic, or else that the fairies had stolen the real man and substituted for him a diabolical phantom exactly like him in stature and features. Hence the numerous legends of changelings, some of which are very curious. In Irish folk-lore we find the story of one Rickard, surnamed the Rake, from his worthless character. A good-natured, idle fellow, he spent all his evenings in dancing, — an accomplishment in which no one in the village could rival him. One night, in the midst of a lively reel, he fell down in a fit. “He’s struck with a fairy-dart,” exclaimed all the friends, and they carried him home and nursed him; but his face grew so thin and his manner so morose that by and by all began to suspect that the true Rickard was gone and a changeling put in his place. Rickard, with all his accomplishments, was no musician; and so, in order to put the matter to a crucial test, a bagpipe was left in the room by the side of his bed. The trick succeeded. One hot summer’s day, when all were supposed to be in the field making hay, some members of the family secreted in a clothes-press saw the bedroom door open a little way, and a lean, foxy face, with a pair of deep-sunken eyes, peer anxiously about the premises. Having satisfied itself that the coast was clear, the face withdrew, the door was closed, and presently such ravishing strains of music were heard as never proceeded from a bagpipe before or since that day. Soon was heard the rustle of innumerable fairies, come to dance to the changeling’s music. Then the “fairyman” of the village, who was keeping watch with the family, heated a pair of tongs red-hot, and with deafening shouts all burst at once into the sickchamber. The music had ceased and the room was empty, but in at the window glared a fiendish face, with such fearful looks of hatred, that for a moment all stood motionless with terror. But when the fairy man, recovering himself, advanced with the hot tongs to pinch its nose, it vanished with an unearthly yell, and there on the bed was Rickard, safe and sound, and cured of his epilepsy.

Comparing this legend with numerous others relating to changelings, and stripping off the fantastic garb of fairylore with which popular imagination has invested them, it seems impossible to doubt that they have arisen from myths devised for the purpose of explaining the obscure phenomena of mental disease. If this be so, they afford an excellent collateral illustration of the belief in werewolves. The same mental habits which led men to regard the insane or epileptic person as a changeling, and which allowed them to explain catalepsy as the temporary departure of a witch’s soul from its body, would enable them to attribute a wolf’s nature to the maniac or idiot with cannibal appetites. And when the myth-forming process had got thus far, it would not stop short of assigning to the unfortunate wretch a tangible lupine body; for all ancient mythology teemed with precedents for such a transformation.

It remains for us to sum up, — to tie into a bunch the keys which have helped us to penetrate into the secret causes of the werewolf superstition. In a previous paper we saw what a host of myths, fairy-tales, and superstitious observances have sprung from attempts to interpret one simple natural phenomenon, — the descent of fire from the clouds. Here, on the other hand; we see what a heterogeneous multitude of mythical elements may combine to build up in course of time a single enormous superstition, and we see how curiously fact and fancy have co-operated in keeping the superstition from falling. In the first place the worship of dead ancestors with wolf totems originated the notion of the transformation of men into divine or superhuman wolves; and this notion was confirmed by the ambiguous explanation of the storm wind as the rushing of a troop of dead men’s souls or as the howling of wolf-like monsters. Medieval Christianity retained these conceptions, merely changing the superhuman wolves into evil demons and finally the occurrence of cases of Berserker madness and cannibalism, accompanied by lycanthropic hallucinations, being interpreted as due to such demoniacal metamorphosis, gave rise to the werewolf superstition of the Middle Ages. The etymological proceedings, to which Mr. Cox would incontinently ascribe the origin of the entire superstition, seem to me to have played a very subordinate part in the matter. To suppose that Jean Grenier imagined himself to be a wolf, because the Greek word for wolf sounded like the word for light, and thus gave rise to the story of a light-deity who became a wolf, seems to me quite inadmissible. Yet as far as such verbal equivocations may have prevailed, they doubtless helped to sustain the delusion.

Thus we need no longer regard our werewolf as an inexplicable creature of undetermined pedigree. But any account of him would be quite imperfect which should omit all consideration of the methods by which his change of form was accomplished. By the ancient Romans the werewolf was commonly called a “skin changer” or “turn-coat” (versipellis), and similar epithets were applied to him in the Middle Ages. The medieval theory was that, while the werewolf kept his human form, his hair grew inwards; when he wished to become a wolf, he simply turned himself inside out. In many trials on record, the prisoners were closely interrogated as to how this inversion might be accomplished but I am not aware that any one of them ever gave a satisfactory answer. At the moment of change their memories seem to have become temporarily befogged. Now and then a poor wretch had his arms and legs cut off or was partially flayed, in order that the ingrowing hair might be detected. Another theory was, that the possessed person had merely to put on a wolf’s skin, in order to assume instantly the lupine form and character; and in this may perhaps be seen a vague reminiscence of the alleged fact that Berserkers were in the habit of haunting the woods by night, clothed in the hides of wolves or bears. Such a wolf-skin was kept by the boy Grenier. Roulet, on the other hand, confessed to using a magic salve or ointment. A fourth method of becoming a werewolf was to obtain a girdle, usually made of human skin. Several cases are related in Thorpe’s “Northern Mythology.” One hot day in harvest-time some reapers lay down to sleep in the shade; when one of them, who could not sleep, saw the man next him arise quietly and gird him with a strap, whereupon he instantly vanished, and a wolf jumped up from among the sleepers and ran off across the fields. Another man, who possessed such a girdle, once went away from home without remembering to lock it up. His little son climbed up to the cupboard and got it, and as he proceeded to buckle it around his waist, he became instantly transformed into a strange-looking beast. Just then his father came in, and seizing the girdle restored the child to his natural shape. The boy said that no sooner had he buckled it on than he was tormented with a raging hunger.

Sometimes the werewolf transformation led to unlucky accidents. At Caseburg, as a man and his wife were making hay, the woman threw down her pitchfork and went away, telling her husband that if a wild beast should come to him during her absence he must throw his hat at it. Presently a she-wolf rushed towards him. The man threw his hat at it, but a boy came up from another part of the field and stabbed the animal with his pitchfork, whereupon it vanished, and the woman s dead body lay at his feet.

A parallel legend shows that this woman wished to have the hat thrown at her, in order that she might be henceforth free from her liability to become a werewolf. A man was one night returning home with his wife from a merry-making when he felt the change coming on. Giving his wife the reins, he jumped from the wagon, telling her to strike with her apron at any animal which might come to her. In a few moments a wolf ran up to the side of the vehicle, and, as the woman struck out with her apron, it bit off a piece and ran away. Presently the man returned with the piece of apron in his mouth, and consoled his terrified wife with the information that the enchantment had left him forever.

A terrible case at a village in Auvergne has found its way into the annals of witchcraft. “A gentleman while hunting was suddenly attacked by a savage wolf of monstrous size. Impenetrable by his shot, the beast made a spring upon the helpless huntsman, who in the struggle luckily, or unluckily for the unfortunate lady, contrived to cut off one of its fore-paws. This trophy he placed in his pocket, and made the rest of his way homewards in safety. On the road he met a friend, to whom he exhibited a bleeding paw, or rather (as it now appeared) a woman’s hand, upon which was a wedding-ring. His wife’s ring was at once recognized by the other. His suspicions aroused, he immediately went in search of his wife, who was found sitting by the fire in the kitchen, her arm hidden beneath her apron, when the husband, seizing her by the am, found his terrible suspicions verified. The bleeding stump was there, evidently just fresh from the wound. She was given into custody, and in the event was burned at Riom, in presence of thousands of spectators.”

Sometimes a werewolf was cured merely by recognizing him while in his brute shape. A Swedish legend tells of a cottager who, on entering the forest one day without recollecting to say his Pater Noster, got into the power of a Troll, who changed him into a wolf. For many years his wife mourned him as dead. But one Christmas eve the old Troll, disguised as a beggar-woman, came to the house for alms and being taken in and kindly treated, told the woman that her husband might very likely appear to her in wolf-shape. Going at night to the pantry to lay aside a joint of meat for to-morrow’s dinner, she saw a wolf standing with its paws on the window-sill, looking wistfully in at her. “Ah, dearest,” said she, “if I knew that thou wert really my husband, I would give thee a bone.” Whereupon the wolf-skin fell off, and her husband stood before her in the same old clothes which he had on the day that the Troll got hold of him.

In Denmark it was believed that if a woman were to creep through a colt’s placental membrane stretched between four sticks, she would for the rest of her life bring forth children without pain or illness; but all the boys would in such case be werewolves, and all the girls Maras, or nightmares. In this grotesque superstition appears that curious kinship between the werewolf and the wife or maiden of supernatural race, which serves admirably to illustrate the nature of both conceptions, and the elucidation of which shall occupy us throughout the remainder of this paper.

It is, perhaps, needless to state that in the personality of the nightmare, or Mara, there was nothing equine. The Mara was a female demon, who would come at night and torment men or women by crouching on their chests or stomachs and stopping their respiration. The scene is well enough represented in Fuseli’s picture, though the frenzied-looking horse which there accompanies the demon has no place in the original superstition. A Netherlandish story illustrates the character of the Mara. Two young men were in love with the same damsel. One of them, being tormented every night by a Mara, sought advice from his rival, and it was a treacherous counsel that he got. “Hold a sharp knife with the point towards your breast, and you’ll never see the Mara again,” said this false friend. The lad thanked him, but when he lay down to rest he thought it as well to be on the safe side, and so held the knife handle downward. So when the Mara came, instead of forcing the blade into his breast, she cut herself badly, and let us hope, though the legend here leaves us in the dark, that this poor youth, who is said to have been the comelier of the two, revenged himself on his malicious rival by marrying the young lady.

But the Mara sometimes appeared in less revolting shape, and became the mistress or even the wife of some mortal man to whom she happened to take a fancy. In such cases she would vanish on being recognized. There is a well-told monkish tale of a pious knight who, journeying one day through the forest, found a beautiful lady stripped naked and tied to a tree, her back all covered with deep gashes streaming with blood, from a flogging which some bandits had given her. Of course he took her home to his castle and married her, and for a while they lived very happily together, and the fame of the lady’s beauty was so great that kings and emperors held tournaments in honor of her. But this pious knight used to go to mass every Sunday, and greatly was he scandalized when he found that his wife would never stay to assist in the Credo, but would always get up and walk out of church just as the choir struck up. All her husband’s coaxing was of no use; threats and entreaties were alike powerless even to elicit an explanation of this strange conduct. At last the good man determined to use force; and so one Sunday, as the lady got up to go out, according to custom, he seized her by the arm and sternly commanded her to remain. Her whole frame was suddenly convulsed, and her dark eyes gleamed with weird, unearthly brilliancy. The services paused for a moment, and all eyes were turned toward the knight and his lady. “In God’s name, tell me what thou art,” shouted the knight; and instantly, says the chronicler, “The bodily form of the lady melted away, and was seen no more whilst, with a cry of anguish and of terror, an evil spirit of monstrous form rose from the ground, clave the chapel-roof asunder, and disappeared in the air.”

In a Danish legend, the Mara betrays her affinity to the Nixies, or Swanmaidens. A peasant discovered that his sweetheart was in the habit of coming to him by night as a Mara. He kept strict watch until he discovered her creeping into the room through a small knot-hole in the door. Next day he made a peg, and after she had come to him, drove in the peg so that she was unable to escape. They were married and lived together many years; but one night it happened that the man, joking with his wife about the way in which he had secured her, drew the peg from the knot-hole, that she mighit see how she had entered his room. As she peeped through, she became suddenly quite small, passed out, and was never seen again.

The well-known pathological phenomena of nightmare are sufficient to account for the medieval theory of a fiend who sits upon one’s bosom and hinders respiration; but as we compare these various legends relating to the Mara, we see that a more recondite explanation is needed to account for all her peculiarities. Indigestion may interfere with our breathing, but it does not make beautiful women crawl through keyholes, nor does it bring wives from the spirit-world. The Mara belongs to an ancient family, and in passing from the regions of monkish superstition to those of pure mythology we find that, like her kinsman the werewolf, she had once seen better days. Christianity made a demon of the Mara, and adopted the theory that Satan employed these seductive creatures as agents for ruining human souls. Such is the character of the knight’s wife, in the monkish legend just cited. But in the Danish tale the Mara appears as one of that large family of supernatural wives who are permitted to live with mortal men under certain conditions, but who are compelled to flee away when these conditions are broken, as is always sure to be the case. The eldest and one of the loveliest of this family is the Hindu nymph Urvasi, whose love adventures with Purûravas are narrated in the Puranas, and form the subject of the well-known and exquisite drama by Kalidasa. Urvasi is allowed to live with Purûravas so long as she does not see him undressed. But one night her kinsmen, the Gandharvas, or cloud-demons, vexed at her long absence from heaven, resolved to get her away from her mortal companion. They stole a pet lamb which had been tied at the foot of her couch, whereat she bitterly upbraided her husband. In rage and mortification, Purûravas sprang up without throwing on his tunic, and grasping his sword sought the robber. Then the wicked Gandharvas sent a flash of lightning, and Urvasi, seeing her naked husband, instantly vanished.

The different versions of this legend, which have been elaborately analyzed by comparative mythologists, leave no doubt that Urvasi is one of the dawn-nymphs or bright fleecy clouds of early morning, which vanish as the splendor of the sun is unveiled. We saw, in the preceding paper, that the ancient Aryans regarded the sky as a sea or great lake, and that the clouds were explained variously as Phaiakian ships with bird-like beaks sailing over this lake, or as bright birds of divers shapes and hues. The light fleecy cirrhi were regarded as mermaids, or as swans, or as maidens with swan’s plumage. In Sanskrit they are called Apsaras, or “those who move in the water,” and the Elves and Maras of Teutonic mythology have the same significance. Urvasi appears in one legend as a bird; and a South German prescription for getting rid of the Mara asserts that if she be wrapped up in the bedclothes and firmly held, a white dove will forthwith fly from the room, leaving the bedclothes empty.

In the story of Melusina the cloud-maiden appears as a kind of mermaid, but in other respects the legend resembles that of Urvasi. Raymond, Count de la Forêt, of Poitou, having by an accident killed his patron and benefactor during a hunting excursion, fled in terror and despair into the deep recesses of the forest. All the afternoon and evening he wandered through the thick dark woods, until at midnight he came upon a strange scene. All at once “the boughs of the trees became less interlaced, and the trunks fewer; next moment his horse, crashing through the shrubs, brought him out on a pleasant glade, white with rime, and illumined by the new moon; in the midst bubbled up a limpid fountain, and flowed away over a pebbly floor with a soothing murmur. Near the fountain-head sat three maidens in glimmering white dresses, with long waving golden hair, and faces of inexpressible beauty.” One of them advanced to meet Raymond, and of course they were betrothed before daybreak. In due time the fountain-nymph became Countess de la Forêt, but her husband was given to understand that all her Saturdays would be passed in strictest seclusion, upon which he must never dare to intrude, under penalty of losing her forever. For many years all went well, save that the fair Melusina’s children were, without exception, misshapen or disfigured. But after a while this strange weekly seclusion got bruited about all over the neighborhood, and people shook their heads and looked grave about it. So many gossiping tales came to the Count’s ears, that he began to grow anxious and suspicious, and at last he determined to know the worst. He went one Saturday to Melusina’s private apartments, and going through one empty room after another, at last came to a locked door which opened into a bath; looking through a keyhole, there he saw the Countess transformed from the waist downwards into a fish, disporting herself like a mermaid in the water. Of course he could not keep the secret, but when some time afterwards they quarrelled, must needs address her as “a vile serpent, contaminator of his honorable race.” So she disappeared through the window, but ever afterward hovered about her husband’s castle of Lusignan, like a Banshee, whenever one of its lords was about to die.

The well-known story of Undine is similar to that of Melusina, save that the naiad’s desire to obtain a human soul is a conception foreign to the spirit of the myth, and marks the degradation which Christianity had inflicted upon the denizens of fairy-land. In one of Dasent’s tales the water-maiden is replaced by a kind of werewolf. A white bear marries a young girl, but assumes the human shape at night. She is never to look upon him in his human shape, but how could a young bride be expected to obey such an injunction as that? She lights a candle while he is sleeping, and discovers the handsomest prince in the world; unluckily she drops tallow on his shirt, and that tells the story. But she is more fortunate than poor Raymond, for after a tiresome journey to the “land east of the sun and west of the moon,” and an arduous washing-match with a parcel of ugly Trolls, she washes out the spots, and ends her husband’s enchantment.

In the majority of these legends, however, the Apsaras, or cloud-maiden, has a shirt of swan’s feathers which plays the same part as the wolfskin cape or girdle of the werewolf. If you could get hold of a werewolf’s sack and burn it, a permanent cure was effected. No danger of a relapse, unless the Devil furnished him with a new wolfskin. So the swan-maiden kept her human form, as long as she was deprived of her tunic of feathers. Indo-European folk-lore teems with stories of swan-maidens forcibly wooed and won by mortals who had stolen their clothes. A man travelling alone on the road passes by a lake where several lovely girls are bathing; their dresses, made of feathers curiously and daintily woven, lie on the shore. He approaches the place cautiously and steals one of these dresses. When the girls have finished their bathing, they all come and get their dresses and swim away as swans; but the one whose dress is stolen must needs stay on shore and marry the thief. It is needless to add that they live happily together for many years, or that finally the good man accidentally leaves the cupboard door unlocked, whereupon his wife gets back her swan shirt and flies away from him, never to return. But it is not always a shirt of feathers. In one German story, a nobleman hunting deer finds a maiden bathing in a clear pool in their forest. He runs stealthily up to her and seizes her necklace, at which she loses the power to flee. They are married, and she bears seven sons at once, all of whom have gold chains about their necks, and are able to transform themselves into swans whenever they like. A Flemish legend tells of three nixies, or watersprites, who came out of the Meuse one autumn evening, and helped the villagers celebrate the end of the vintage. Such graceful dancers had never been seen in Flanders, and they could sing as well as they could dance. As the night was warm, one of them took off her gloves and gave them to her partner to hold for her. When the clock struck twelve the other two started off in hot haste, and then there was a hue and cry for gloves. But the lad would keep them as love-tokens, and so the poor nixie had to go home without them; but she must have died on the way, for next morning the waters of the Meuse were blood red, and those damsels never returned.

In the Faro Islands it is believed that seals cast off their skins every ninth night, assume human forms, and sing and dance like men and women until daybreak, when they resume their skins and their seal natures. Of course a man once found and hid one of these seal-skins, and so got a mermaid for a wife; and of course she recovered the skin and escaped. On the coasts of Ireland it is supposed to be quite an ordinary thing for young sea-fairies to get human husbands in this way; the brazen things even come to shore on purpose, and leave their red caps lying around for young men to pick up but it behooves the husband to keep a strict watch over the red cap, if he would not see his children left motherless.

This mermaid’s cap has contributed its quota to the superstitions of witchcraft. An Irish story tells how Red James was aroused from sleep one night by noises in the kitchen. Going down to the door, he saw a lot of old women drinking punch around the fireplace, and laughing and joking with his housekeeper. When the punch-bowl was empty, they all put on red caps, and singing

By yarrow and rue,
And my red cap too,
  Hie me over to England,

they flew up chimney. So Jimmy burst into the room, and seized the housekeeper’s cap, and went along with them. They flew across the sea to a castle in England, passed through the keyholes from room to room and into the cellar, where they had a famous carouse. Unluckily Jimmy, being unused to such good cheer, got drunk, and forgot to put on his cap when the others did. So next morning the lord’s butler found him dead-drunk on the cellar-floor, surrounded by empty casks. He was sentenced to be hung without any trial worth speaking of; but as he was carted to the gallows an old woman cried out, “Ach, Jimmy alanna! Would you be afther dyin’ in a strange land without your red birredh?” The lord made no objections, and so the red cap was brought and put on him. Accordingly when Jimmy had got to the gallows and was making his last speech for the edification of the spectators, he unexpectedly and somewhat irrelevantly exclaimed, “By yarrow and rue,” etc., and was off like a rocket, shooting through the blue air en route for old Ireland.

In another Irish legend an enchanted ass comes into the kitchen of a great house every night, and washes the dishes and scours the tins, so that the servants lead an easy life of it. After a while in their exuberant gratitude they offer him any present for which he may feel inclined to ask. He desires only “an ould coat, to keep the chill off of him these could nights”; but as soon as he gets into the coat he resumes his human form and bids them good by, and thenceforth they may wash their own dishes and scour their own tins, for all him.

But we are diverging from the subject of swan-maidens, and are in danger of losing ourselves in that labyrinth of popular fancies which is more intricate than any that Daidalos ever planned. The significance of all these sealskins and feather-dresses and mermaid-caps and werewolf-girdles may best be sought in the etymology of words like the German leichnam, in which the body is described as a garment of flesh for the soul. In the naïve philosophy of primitive thinkers, the soul, in passing from one visible shape to another, had only to put on the outward integument of the creature in which it wished to incarnate itself. With respect to the mode of metamorphosis, there is little difference between the werewolf and the swan-maiden; and the similarity is no less striking between the genesis of the two conceptions. The original werewolf is the night-wind, regarded now as a man-like deity and now as a howling lupine fiend; and the original swan-maiden is the light fleecy cloud, regarded either as a woman-like goddess or as a bird swimming in the sky sea. The one conception has been productive of little else but horrors; the other has given rise to a great variety of fanciful creations, from the treacherous mermaid and the fiendish nightmare to the gentle Undine, the charming Nausikaa, and the stately Muse of classic antiquity.

We have seen that the original werewolf, howling in the wintry blast, is a kind of psychopomp, or leader of departed souls; he is the wild ancestor of the death-dog, whose voice under the window of a sick-chamber is even now a sound of ill-omen. The swan-maiden has also been supposed to summon the dying to her home in the Phaiakian land. The Valkyries, with their shirts of swan-plumage, who hovered over Scandinavian battle-fields to receive the souls of falling heroes, were identical with the Hindu Apsaras; and the Houris of the Mussulman belong to the same family. Even for the angels, — women with large wings, who are seen in popular pictures bearing mortals on high towards heaven, — we can hardly claim a different kinship. Melusina, when she leaves the castle of Lusignan, becomes a Banshee; and it has been a common superstition among sailors, that the appearance of a mermaid, with her comb and looking-glass, betokens shipwreck, with the loss of all on board.

  1. Thus is explained the singular conduct of the Hundu, who slays himself before his enemy’s door, in order to acquire greater power of injuring him.
  2. Hence in many parts of Europe, it is still customary to open the windows when a person dies, in order that the soul may not be hindered in joining the mystic cavalcade.