Werewolves. Shapeshifters. The magical, fearsome, often unholy combination of man and beast has been showing up in stories in some form since we began telling each other stories. The earliest surviving written literature in existence, Gilgamesh, tells of Gilgamesh’s battle with a hairy, bestial man named Enkidu. (The two of them first fight, then become friends--and isn’t that just like men? 1
) That’s from 2000 B.C. An ancient Persian calendar from around the same time named one month Varkazan —literally, Month of the Wolf-Man 2
Every culture in the world has its tales of shapeshifters, beings able to change between human and animal forms—and of these shifters, the most common are the wolves. There are werewolf legends in Russia, Sweden, England, Germany, Greece, Italy-- throughout Europe and beyond.
Aztecs and other ancient peoples of the Americas had their nahuaks.
Native American tribes have their own version, which we translate as skin-walkers. (If you’ve read Patricia Briggs’ books, you’ve seen the term. What an intriguing take she has on this form of shifting!)
Serbia managed to combine two horrors in the wurdalak—a werewolf who dies and becomes a vampire.
Ireland was so saturated with tales of werewolves that until the 18th century, the English sometimes referred to it as “the Wolfland.” 3
(China is a big, fat exception. In Chinese folklore you find people turning into tigers, not wolves. I suspect this says something deep and fascinating about the Chinese psyche, but that’s meat for another article.)
Werewolf. The word itself is at least a thousand years old, derived from a now-extinct language (the Goths in Germany) that knits together wair for man . . . and wulf. 4
Strange how the word “wolf” has survived so long with so little alteration, isn’t it?
Why wolves? Why this ages-long fascination? And why are werewolves showing up on bookshelves all over the world now? What’s hot about werewolves?
Some of the answers are easy and obvious, yet still true. I’m betting none of you have read a paranormal romance or urban fantasy that features a cringing, subordinate wolf. We like the alphas. The ones in charge.
And—let’s face it—we like dogs. No, we love dogs. They’ve been our helpers , our partners, an essential part of our economies, for perhaps 15,000 years. Now they’re likely to be part of our families. Here in the U.S., there’s one pet dog for every four men, women, and children in the country. Twenty-seven percent of dog owners buy their pets birthday presents; fifty-five percent buy them holiday presents. 5
But wolves are not dogs. They’re close cousins—but dogs are tame. We know dogs, or think we do, just as we think we know our own, domesticated selves. Wolves represent the wild side, the hidden aspect, of dogs . . . and us.
All works of fiction explore what it means to be human. The lightest, fluffiest book, one we consider pure escapism, has us laughing at ourselves. That dark, tragic book walking on the literary side of things has us crying for ourselves. Erotica explores our sexuality. Murder mysteries, our need for order and justice. Romances, the ways we come together to form a new bond, a new family. Stories that purport to be about a different time—Star Trek, anyone?—are really about how we’re navigating today’s problems. And stories that seem to be about nonhumans—werewolves, vampires, demons—are still really all about us.
That’s humans for you. We can’t stop talking about ourselves.
But why now? Why are werewolves—and vampires, demons, whatever—so hot right now? What in our collective psyche makes these books so appealing?
I think it’s because today’s real-life monsters are human. Because they look like us, live with us, seem to be like us—and then go on a killing spree at a high school. Or blow up a subway. Or aim jet planes at tall towers and kill thousands.
These real-life monsters are human, yet Other. And that’s the essence of the monster-plus-man tales we’re seeing today—stories about those who are human, yet Other. Some of the heroes of these stories are fighting the monsters. Some of them are fighting the monsters inside them. All, even the funny ones, explore the conjunction of monster and human. They make use of the archetype Christopher Vogler calls the Shadow.
Folktales, archetypes—these are expressions of primeval essences that sit in our back-brains and howl. Joseph Campbell compiled folktales and archetypes from all over the world. Christopher Vogler boiled down much of Campbell’s work to a single, lovely book called The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. In it, he writes, “The archetype known as the Shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something. Often it’s the home of the suppressed monsters of our inner world.”
Vampire stories look directly at the monster’s side of things. Traditionally, vampires are beings who embrace death as a way of life—and sustain themselves on the blood of others. Stories with a demon protagonist look at the meaning of good and evil—and often carry the message that the two can’t be defined based on where we’re born (Hell?) or who our parents were. (Daddy was Satan? That’s rough, but you still have a chance to make good yourself—literally.)
And werewolf stories—ah, they’re about the two-natured, aren’t they? Instinctive and rational. Wild and domesticated. Good and evil, violent and tender, lustful and faithful . . . werewolf stories can explore any or all of these apparent contradictions we carry around within us. We are all two-natured.
Yeah, okay, you’re thinking. But why is this sexy?
There’s the alpha thing, of course. And the strength, the agility, the physical courage and power of the werewolf appeals to a lot of us. Wolves are experts at survival—lots of us find that sexy. And their intense focus on the physical is deeply erotic.
But there’s one more thing: they’re shifters.
The Shifter, according to Vogler, is the archetype that speaks directly to the mystery we always confront in the opposite sex. In The Writers Journey, he writes, “It’s natural for each sex to regard the other as ever-changing, mysterious. Many of us don’t understand our own sexuality and psychology very well, let alone that of the opposite sex.”
Shifters are the archetype for romance. They’ve one more function: they are the agents for change. For transformation.
Romance stories, like love itself, are always about transformation. Fall in love and you find yourself in a strange, shifting landscape, a new world where much is unknown. Make a commitment to that love, and your world changes again.
And so do you.
Folktales the world over include some version of Beauty and the Beast. Perhaps this is because we all feel the need to tame our own, inner beast with love and compassion. Perhaps it is also because this is the essence of romance—meeting and mating with the Other--mysterious, dangerous, and powerful.
Sounds a lot like a werewolf to me.
Yes, this is a footnote. Sorry about that, but I’m big on attribution, so there are a few of these. Though this one's mostly a test run. Additional apologies to English teachers everywhere, because I’m not doing footnotes in the approved way.
Online Etymological Dictionary; article by Douglas Harper
The Werewolf Book: Brad Steiger
The Random House Dictionary of the English Language: Second Edition; Unabridged
American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA) 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey