â€śThe Book of Werewolvesâ€ť by Sabine Baring-Gould covers the western roots and original folklore of lycanthropy, and I highly recommend this fascinating book to anyone with an interest in the subject. Published in 1865, a time when many people still believed such monsters existed, it offers a unique perspective on the origin of these superstitions.
It covers a broad range of traditions, from Ovidâ€™s Lycaen and the Beserkirs of Scandinavia, to a collection of tales from throughout Europe, Russia, the Mideast, and even touches on Native American folklore. However, the majority focus on stories from the Middle Ages that are typified by the French Loup-Garoux.
Unlike our modern conception of the werewolf, which is mostly a creation of Hollywood, this villain was more akin to a fabled witch. In a pact with the Devil, he exchanges his soul for the power to become a terrifying beast so he may kill and eat his victims. The transformation could be effected by any number of rituals such as donning the skin of a wolf, or rubbing a magic salve over bare skin. Gone are the hapless hero, with his arcane curse, aversion to silver, and fetish for the full moon.
In the second half of the book, Gould details cases of historical accounts of murder and cannibalism, often attributed to the work of a werewolf. In some cases the killer was caught and even condemned under the law to be such. The most notable of which was Jean Grenier, a thirteen-year old boy, who admitted in court to attacking, killing, and eating several young girls. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in a monastery, where he exhibited obvious signs of insanity before dying at a young age. There is also a chapter on the insanity known as Lycanthropy, where the subject is stricken with hallucinations that he or she is a wolf.
One of Gouldâ€™s most fascinating conclusions is that these stories of supernatural wolf men (and women) merely stem from cases of murderers who killed and cannibalized their victims. Before the development of science, let alone modern psychology, the only way witnesses could explain these inhuman actions was to cast the murderer as a non-humanâ€”to act like a beast is to become a beast. What Gould describes in the werewolf of folklore bears a striking similarity to the modern day serial killer.