Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Mad science: How werewolves became imaginary.

Over at the Fortean Times web site, writer Brian Regal tracks the history of the werewolf feared monster of Europe's darkest forests to figment of the imagination. The broad arch of the werewolf's lapse into fantasy is familiar, but Regal points out that the extent to which the werewolf became strictly fictional is uniquely notable:

For most of recorded history, the half-man, half-wolf lycanthrope reigned supreme as the creature travellers most feared encountering in the woods and along dark roads at night. Numerous legends concerned werewolves – the awful deeds they committed, how to protect against them, how to kill them – and belief in their reality can be found in many cultures from ancient times to the present. But while the werewolf still holds a place in fiction and films, few people today actually fear meeting one in reality. Many individuals and groups actively search for cryptids, but there are no werewolf-hunting organisations. So – where have all the werewolves gone?

From the late 19th century on, anomal­ous primates like the Yeti, Sasquatch and Bigfoot nudged aside the wolfmen of old and stepped forward to occupy the niche of this fearsome man-like monster. But what accounts for this curious transformation?

Regal starts his story with a discussion of the dog-headed proto-werewolf of Greek legend: the Cynocephali, the race of dog-headed men that even included (in the lore of the Eastern church) St. Christopher, pictured above. He notes that, curiously, Europe started to dismiss the possibility of werewolves even as its belief in demons and witches proved fatally strong:

Despite the widespread cultural acceptance of werewolves as a reality, by the late 1500s some European writers were questioning the concept. While belief in witches flourished with murderous abandon, views on werewolves had little consistency in learned circles, and though werewolves often found themselves associated with witches, no werewolf ‘craze’ ever developed. In fact, there are only a few werewolf trials on record. As the Enlightenment dawned, a debate ensued over whether demons could transmute a human into a werewolf. Philosophers and theologians wondered whether the human soul was capable of becoming genuinely bestial, and such theological reservations posed the same problems for werewolfery as evolution did two and a half centuries later. It was during this period of scient­ific revolution that psychological, rather than physical, explanations for lycanthropy gained currency.

Ultimately, he argues, the rise of Darwin put paid to the wolf man. Evolutionary theory began to kill off the beasts of myth, replacing them with an equally fantastic, but more "scientific" zoo of missing links, prehistoric survivals, and "nature's mistakes" (though Darwin himself was dismissive of any notion of a missing link). Notably, apes - and their cryptid shadow relatives, Bigfoot, yeti, sasquatch, the stink ape, and so on - became the beast-man link of choice.


zoe said...

what a fantastic icon. i stumbled upon stories of a mermaid saint, too (st. murgen). sometimes science is just no fun at all.

Sasquatchan said...

all this talk about werewolves (from the fortean times, no less..) but no chupacabra ?

Now, granted, fortean comes from the X-Files angle, what would a sociologist say about the werewolf ? Myths and bedtimes stories etc used to put a name/face to the scary unknown ?

We've got the church all up against darwin, and now the horror fans are showing the hate too ?

(and yes, there's some strange irony of me posting in this story)

theverysmallarray said...

All of that talk brings Tim "God" Power's "The Anubis Gates" to mind.