The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould

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The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould

Postby Stephen Morgan » Thu Mar 31, 2011 3:57 pm

It was a dark and stormy night. A phrase introduced to our language by the legendary Bulwer-Lytton, inspiration for both the Bullwer-Lytton Bad Fiction Prize and the Vril Society which allegedly tried to contact aliens for the Nazis based on the Bulwer-Lytton tale "Vril: The Power of the Coming Race", a tale which includes Shaver Mystery elements, a race of ancient super-humans ruled by women, and various other occult related tropes. But that's got absolutely nothing to do with this book, except that it starts with a tale about the Reverend Baring-Gould roaming the French country-side on a night of the aforementioned type. Which alarms the locals, who believe the local country to be dangerous at night due to the infestation by werewolves.

Very interesting, in that it would never happen today. Besides the unhealthy decline in the belief in were-wolves, he gets to a hamlet and goes into the local pub to find the priest, mayor and yokels all sat in there, few if any of them speaking French, despite being in France. See the relevant episode of QI, the widespread use of the unifying common language is a recent development in France. Several of them also claim to have seen a werewolf, at least one very recently.

But Baring-Gould's idea of what a werewolf really is doesn't include transmogrifying wolf-men. He thinks they're merely serial killers, some of them hallucinatory ones who think they go hairy when they kill. Obviously a common part of the werewolf mythos is the ability to become a werewolf through the application of a magical balm or item of clothing, the lotion may possibly have some hallucinogenic properties. It's commonly believed that berserkers, bear-skinners, used Fly Agaric to make themselves angry and fearless. The werewolves may be something similar.

A series of examples of lycanthropy are given from the ancient world, Greece and Rome and their writings about neighbouring lands. Not much in common, some become werewolves through curses, defying the gods, eating sacrificial offerings, the application of a "magical salve", as in the sagas and the Golden Ass, spells cast by malicious old women, or simply through an act of will. A couple of tribes even seem to have been possessed of the "wild talent" of becoming werewolves. Similarly it was sometimes possible to stop being a werewolf, through an act of will, or the expiration of a time limit, and so on. One could also become a were-donkey or were-cow, etc., and it may or may not be the case that one maintains ones own mind while in the wolf-form.

However all had in common the belief in the genuine change in shape of the person into a beast. In the later Norse mythos this is no longer the case, the belief in the change of bodily form is balanced with a belief in the transmigration of the soul, and mass hypnosis. The soul may leave the body and become an ethereal creature, or the body and mind may continue the same with only their perception by others changing. Nor is there generally the ancient limitation to one form, unless achieved by a magical amulet of some sort the ability to become a beast was an ability of the individual, and could be used to become one of a number of creatures. The norse were-wolf keeps his human mind but may also assume the predatory nature of a wolf. The eyes, reflecting their mythological place as the window to the soul, can never be changed.

A very odd story from the sagas is recounted, a king's mother is tricked into putting her tongue into the mouth of warrior Sigmund while in her witchly wolf-form, at which point he bites it out. Echos of the putative prowess of Shaka the Zulu, killing a leopard with his bare hands by ripping its tongue from its head. A badass that Shaka. Supposedly because in his adolescence his fellows taunted him for his undersized penis.

The story from Hrolf-Kraki's saga is retold, of the boy called "bear" who is torn from his love by a curse by the queen, his evil step mother if you will, who is a Finn and therefore assumed to have magical powers, similar to the assumption that Judith wife of Hereward wrongly called "the Wake" must be "skilled in the mechanical (magical) arts" because she was a fleming. But it sells books. Anyway, bear is turned into a bear, impregnates his human woman then gets killed and eaten, partly by her. Which causes birth defects, as you might expect. One of the children has a hound's feet, not sure how that might relate to the later king of England hare-foot. Of course the saga of Hrolf-Kraki, which is crying out for a movie adaptation, culminates in a battle between a were-bear backed by an army of vikings and a were-boar backed by an army of zombies. Should any Hollywood producers be reading I'm available to pitch ideas for casting next Thursday.

Baring-Gould gives his entirely false etymology of the term were-wolf. He believes, or so he claims, it merely means a criminal, that "were" comes from a word meaning a violent criminal and that wolves were invariably associated with villainy. In reality it's widely accepted that "were" refers to man, as in "were gild" and wolves were ambiguously seen, hence for example the great bishop Wulfstan titling his greatest work "The Sermon of the Wolf to the English". But the core of his position is that werewolfism is a series of superstitions which have accrued around the practice of outlaws disguising themselves in animal skins, so he's trying to support that.

It must be said this catalogue of lycanthropy eventually gets a bit samey. St Patrick turned the King of Wales into a wolf, you say? Well, that's nice to know. Let's just believe for a moment that a unified monarchy over wales existed at that time, under the suzerainity of Powys, maybe. And St Natalis made a prominent Irish family prone to werewolfery too, yeah terrific. And the Duke of Prussia... Alright, alright!

Anyway the book eventually takes a turn from the study of mythology to looking at gangs of werewolves in historical documents, often getting accused of witchcraft. A suitable approach, as he believes werewolves to be outlaws and gangs of werewolves to be criminal gangs roaming the countryside... eating people, for some reason. As they say:

1) Fancy dress
2) Cannibalism
3) ???
4) Profit!

The humourous scene of a sceptical clergyman being convinced by a talking wolf that his dying mother deserves the last rites, if only after she has peeled back her fur to show the old woman beneath. Rogueishly the priest thinks opposable thumbs better evidence of humanity than that the lupine beasty can talk perfectly good French. Going back to The Occult Causes of the Present War, why does this stuff always happen in France?

Slightly replacing the prevailing narrative of were-wolves as disguised outlaws and mentally-ill cannibals, possibly sometimes both, the next few chapters go for a more witchcraft-related aesthetic. Tales of frustrated peasants selling their souls to satan for the ability to go lupy. You know the stuff, black masses, child murdering, serial-killing, kissing satan's ring, that sort of thing. The usual. One Pierre sells his soul to satan to keep wolves from his sheep, only to go back to church after a couple of years, at which point satanists rub him all over with fatty lotions which turn him into a wolf. Witches, were-wolves, berserkir and so forth all share the quality of being exhausted in the aftermath of their activities. Reminds me of the ultraterrestrials in Keel's Mothman Prophecies. He believed mystical lights hypnotised people, and while they experienced hypnotically induced trances in which they flew to mars with friendly space men in reality their bodies were doing who-knows-what for the UTs.

Several cases on the standard witch-child-killer lines. More than one keeping the body parts in their own home, as did du Retz, but most of them have smaller homes. Lots of deals with men in black, popular description of the devil at the time. Tales from India, Ethiopia, Armenia. Very odd tale from Ethiopia, where it's claimed the natives believe blacksmiths can become Hyaenas. Werehyaenas, that is. Blacksmiths are often associated with supernatural events, hence the good luck associated with horse shoes. They also have major mythological counterparts, Hepheastius, Weyland the Smithy, who was famously involved in a romantic legend but also plays a homosexual on The Simpsons. There's also an obscure legend that a blacksmith refused to make nails for the crucifiction of Christ. This probably isn't the correct forum to point out how the Longinus and company got around that. Also, I notice the story was collected by a man called Coffin, a name of Masonic significance, as well as being the name of one of the high-born occultists behind the Seneca Falls conference. Don't know if there's any relation there. Very common name, probably.

OF course three chapters of the book are given over to the Sire du Retz, a man whose castle was found to be full of the mutilated remains of children. Don't think it mentions d'Arc extensively, although the two were close colleagues. Three chapters seems a bit over the top considering he wasn't a werewolf, and this is The Book of Were-Wolves. Baring-Gould is continuing with his thesis of were-wolf as deranged killer who ravens on the blood of the innocent, into which category du Retz falls. The agonies of mothers whose children have been kidnapped, tortured to death and disposed of. The confessions of his two servants to their master's acts. The search executed on his castle, and the bodies it discovered. The fear of the dark lord amongst the country-folk. The trial, of course, and executions.

A chapter is given over to a general theory of human cruelty. Serial-killers listed, tyrants who murder for entertainment, other reasons to kill. A chapter on myths and souls. Strange tales of beavers and brahmins.

You get the idea.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. -- Lawrence of Arabia
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Re: The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould

Postby stefano » Fri Apr 01, 2011 4:51 am

The Leopard Men
Aniota (sorry in French)

I was sure I'd read a news story about a Kenyan serial killer / were-leopard in the past year but couldn't find it now and might be confusing older stories with news about Philip Onyancha, who has a brain tumour and blames a cult and spirits for his 19 murders.

I also learned last week that Mobutu used to keep leopards for totemic reasons (same reason he wore those little hats).
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Re: The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould

Postby Stephen Morgan » Fri Apr 01, 2011 9:23 am

Also that Canadian Wendigo stuff from a bit back.
Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. -- Lawrence of Arabia
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Re: The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould

Postby sunny » Mon Aug 08, 2011 11:19 pm

Choose love
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Re: The Book of Were-Wolves, Sabine Baring-Gould

Postby Stephen Morgan » Tue Aug 09, 2011 11:50 am

Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that all was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, and make it possible. -- Lawrence of Arabia
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