Unlike the belief in vampires, the modern reality of werewolves – which is to say people actually being perceived as shape-changers – does not stem from Eastern Europe, but rather from Switzerland, and is most prevalent in French and German-speaking parts of Europe. Arising alongside the idea of witchcraft, the accusation of being a werewolf or lycanthrope could get a person just as persecuted and killed.
One of the most prominent such cases was that of Peter Strump, the Werewolf of Bedburg. The farmer was accused in 1589 of being a shape-changer serial killer. One of his victims, according to the accusations held against him, was his son, no less.
The word lycanthropy stems from the Greek and is usually associated with the ability to transform into a wolf. However, late antiquity also included a form of psychological affliction. Lycanthropy in this sense was known as someone having a wolf-like appetite and insatiable hunger that knew no boundaries.
Entering the sphere of myth and legend, it should be said that both Greek and Roman authors have told stories of men being changed into wolves. These stories usually refer to someone being punished by the gods for misbehaviour, being forced into the form of a wolf as opposed to voluntarily changing into one.
The Middle Ages know hardly any literature about werewolves as such. Aside from the odd legend, Christian faith proved to be quite successful at repressing pagan fiction. The same is not quite as true for nordic cultures, where wolf-like warriors are described in several sources.
Later on in that era – at least as far as Europe was concerned – there was a sort of division into two types of werewolves. While the western parts believed into shape-shifters, more or less stemming from pagan believes of witchcraft in a broader sense, there was also the more eastern approach, intertwining werewolves with the legends and stories about vampires: these undead creatures could change into the form of a wolf at will.
So let’s face it – in large parts of Europe werewolves have been nothing but the bad guys: serial killers at best, flat-out witch-crafters at worst. And very much executed and dead either way. Who could blame the people? To peasants, wolves meant trouble, mostly for scaring and killing their cattle and in some rarer cases even humans (which is also the very likely reason the wolf became the creature of evil in fairy tales).
However, other cultures had a different approach to wolves. To them they were something held in high regard, perhaps as their totem or heraldic animal. Shamans could perform specific rituals to transform themselves into wolves. A feat very much respected by their peers.
What about modern times? While most of us grew up with horror movies that really meant horror when they were talking about werewolves, we are now presented with the wolf 2.0, where more times than not the wolf ends up being the hero.
Is it a good thing or a bad one that the image of the wolf changed that much? Wolves are very social animals and like most others, they do protect their young and they need to feed. Despair and hunger can drive any creature beyond what is considered acceptable. Besides, take a cat: it can play with a mice until it kills it, yet it doesn’t keep them from being a favourite amongst pets. Personally, I’m all for the new view, and at least it can remind us that dogs really are just wolves in a different coat.