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What does a werewolf look like?

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2008-09-25 03:48:40

Most legends have had some basis in fact, and the legend of the

werewolf is no exception. However the werewolf of popular

fantasy/horror novels and films is an imaginary beast, based on

extravagant interpretations of past superstitions. Wolves have been

both feared and worshipped by past civilisations. The Ancient

Egyptians feared the wolf god Ap-uat, who was associated with the

Lord of the Dead. Ancient Greeks believed that wolves were sacred

to Apollo and Ares, and a bronze statue of a wolf ornamented the

oracle at Delphi. The legend of the founding of Rome is well known,

with the abandoned twin babies Romulus and Remus being saved and

succored by a wolf. Being suckled by a wolf is a notion that

persisted into the Celtic civilisations, a legendary King of

Ireland supposedly nurtured in this way. One Irish tribe claimed to

be descended from a wolf. The werewolf story has roots at least as

far back as the Ancient Romans. One of Ovid's shape-shifting

stories tells of a King of Arcadia who turned into a wolf. This was

a punishment because he tried to trick the god Jupiter into eating

human flesh. Other ancient Greek writers including Herodotus and

Pliny wrote about shape-shifting human/wolves. What could have led

to such stories in the first place? There are various theories. The

legend is too widespread and has been so for too long a time to

have no basis in fact at all. A rare genetic mutation can produce

excessive body hair, in females as much as males. Varieties of this

disorder were probably responsible for the unfortunate 'bearded

ladies' and 'wolfmen' in travelling freak shows in less enlightened

times than ours. It is a mutation of the X chromosome so can be

passed to future generations by either parent. It is easy to see

how such conditions could have frightened people in past centuries,

especially in remote country areas (where inbreeding could have led

to an intensification of the disorder). Lycanthropic Disorder is a

mental illness which causes the victim to believe that they are

actually a werewolf. If someone truly believes that they turn into

a werewolf under the full moon, they may be capable of committing

crimes consistent with this delusion - thus perpetrating the

werewolf legend into modern times. Ergot, the fungus which

frequently affected the grains that were used to make bread

throughout Europe for many centuries, is well known for its

hallucinogenic properties. In a modern case in France in 1951, over

100 people suffered from ergot poisoning after eating bread made

from infected rye. Many of them suffered from hallucinations about

being attacked by or turning into wild animals. Such poisoning

could have been another cause for the development of the werewolf

myth. One final possibility lies in the diseases Rabies and

Porphyria. Rabies, however, only lasts for a short while once the

symptoms have developed, and then the victim dies. Rabies might

have caused victims to briefly take on the appearance of a mad

beast, but they would not lived to attack beyond this short

timeframe. Porphyria, if untreated, leads to extreme sensitivity to

light and degredation of the skin, thus producing a victim who

rarely ventures out before nightfall and whose physical appearance

is sinister. Mental disturbances accompany the physical symptoms.

This disease is also genetic and therefore could have given rise to

the notion of cursed families, as it often does not manifest until

an age whereby the victim would have reproduced. There have been a

few celebrated cases of feral children, such as inspired Mowgli in

The Jungle Book. Many cases have been reported over the centuries

but there is little documentary evidence for most of them. However

some have been documented, in which children have been found in the

depths of the jungle or forest, apparently having been raised by

wolves, and then returned the human civilisation (usually by

missionaries or other religious people). These children seen to

have retained a propensity to run on all fours rather than walk

upright, to eat raw meat rather than cooked meals, and have extreme

problems learning any human language. It is difficult to say

whether the children already had a mental disorder, whether one was

induced by their upbringing, or anything else about them. But they

undoubtedly add another thread to the enduring notion of the

werewolf. Just how enduring this legend is can be well born out by

the proliferation of popular novels, films and television

programmes about werewolves. And a quick Internet search on

werewolves throws up a wide variety of sites, some dealing with

legends and possible causes such as outlined above - and some

apparently written for werewolves, by werewolves!

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