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‘Mythical Beasts’ on Science Channel sniffs out werewolf origins

How hallucinogenic plants and rye fungus may have aided in mass werewolf hysteria.

Werewolves are the subject of the ninth installment of Mythical Beasts on Science Channel, and though there was a portion of episode three dedicated to them, we now get to dig a bit deeper into their history. There have been hundreds of werewolf movies, but there’s more to them than a bunch of entertaining films and TV series.

Classicist Miriam Kamil says the origin of the werewolf is ancient, even stemming back to times prior to written language. Early populations through the 19th century would have had more interaction with wolves than modern humans, as their populations grew and they expanded into new areas.

One thing we’ve learned through the Mythical Beasts lens is that people often created myths based on their surroundings and the things they feared. This makes for a fabulous and rather obvious origin point for a wolf hybrid creature.

Two sides of one coin

The earliest known text regarding what we would call a werewolf dates back to ancient Greek mythology. King Lycaon of Arcadia supposedly had his own son cooked and served to Zeus, as a means to test his omniscience. Zeus was angered, restored the child, and turned King Lycaon into a beast to match his twisted mind.

The origin of the werewolf as we know it is a bit harder to pin down, but Mythical Beasts begins by separating out two basic ideas — hybrid creatures and our fear of wolves. The two become linked as the episode progresses, and we pick up with the more traditional werewolf of the Middle Ages, and werewolf hysteria.

Miles Russell explaining the hybrid skeletal remains

In the United Kingdom, archeological digs show that human hybrids were believed to be more than just a myth.  Archaeologist Miles Russell and his team excavate a 2,000-year-old burial site with both animal and human remains. In some cases, bones from different animals like cows and horses were found together.

The animals were dismembered and their parts pieced together by anatomically matching structures in order to resemble a human skeleton. Russell says a woman was sacrificed to the awkward hybrid god in hopes to give it her spirit; the red liquid “life force” within her would pour onto the beast and then her body rolled over so that only their heads touched.

This shows that hybrid animals were perceived as having great powers, but wolf emulation wouldn’t appear in recorded history until about 1,000 years after the sacrifice to the hybrid god. Archaeologist Aleks Pluskowski examines a runestone near Källby, Sweden, to show the relationship the Vikings had with wolves.

The runestone depicts a human body with what appears to be a wolf head. Legend has it that the mightiest vikings who conquered Norway wore no armor, only a wolf skin that would allow them to act with supernatural abilities and even turn into wolves.

According to comparative anatomist Joy Reidenberg, wolves would have made for good war idols due to their ferocious teeth and the forward placement of their eyes. She provides a comparison between a domestic dog and a wolf skull to express how they could have been viewed as worthy, strong candidates for the Vikings to imitate.

The hysteria takes hold

 

Turning into a werewolf was a punishment for the ancient Greeks, but a blessing for the Vikings. In the 1500s, the idea would become much darker and more sinister. That’s when the link between demons, witches, and werewolves was established, and our pop culture werewolf would begin to take shape.

Pluskowski reads from a document that details the 1598 tale of a man named Peter Stumpp. He was a local farmer that was accused of killing 13 children and two pregnant women by turning into a wolf and mauling them. Not a werewolf, an actual wolf.

The trial of Peter Stumpp

The document also says that witnesses knew the wolf was a shapeshifter because its eyes glowed. Reidenburg dissects a sheep’s eye to show us how the eyeshine phenomenon works, and the gorgeous pearlescent layer that causes the glow. 

Stumpp’s punishment was incredibly brutal, but Mythical Beasts reminds us that the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries were full of religious fear. Pluskowski adds that he believes the Church was a major player in pushing werewolves from revered to beyond feared.

He studies an 800-year-old painting of Hell and notes a wolf biting a woman’s hand, drawn among massive demons tormenting the condemned souls. Being the only animal in the painting is significant because the congregation would have recognized the wolf and associated it with the demonic world.

Similar to the witch trials, werewolf trials also took place during the 16th-18th centuries. Several confessions made the claim they were given a magical ointment, and Pluskowski investigates to see what the ingredients may have been. He turns to a banned book to find answers and discovers some plants with hallucinogenic properties were suggested for potions.

The most likely candidates

He doubts the potions are fully to blame for the werewolf confessionals, and implicates ergot, a fungus that that grows on rye. Plant pathologist Anna Gordon studies infected rye plants to find out if werewolf hallucinations could be caused by ergot poisoning.

Gordon examines ergot from an infected plant

Gordon says it’s likely that people who have ingested ergot could hallucinate themselves as a wolf, but what about those that were only witnesses, claiming they saw the werewolf? Mythical Beasts suggests that perhaps people were actually seeing those who lived at the fringes of society, like modern day mountain men, who grew shaggy beards and weren’t familiar to other townsfolk.

Pluskowski analyzes imagery from churches and finds there may be more credence to the “mountain man” idea than we yet know. The 700-year-old painting shows a hairy hermit who was cast out of his city. People would have been suspicious of him, according to author Winnie M Li, and maybe even have been afraid.

Reidenberg believes some of the accused werewolves may have suffered from hypertrichosis, a disorder that causes excessive hair growth. Porphyria is discussed as a possible explanation to why werewolves come out in the moonlight, since sunlight can cause people with this disorder to blister.

And what about the silver bullets?

Garry Marvin is a social anthropologist and a wolf expert who provides a case study on over one hundred deaths that occurred in Gevaudan, France. His goal is to figure out what killed the people and why was it said that the werewolf was only affected by silver bullets.

He looks on while a musket is fired at a target and decides that not only were the muskets widely inaccurate, the power behind them may not have been enough to kill a wolf. Marvin explains that based on this information, real wolves were likely responsible for all the attacks at Gevaudan, and that the inaccuracy of the musket added to the belief that only one large beast existed.

Mythical Beasts asserts that a silver bullet is highly unlikely to kill because it’s lighter and would be less effective. Historian Brian Regal believes it was added to the story anyway despite this, mainly due to the religious purity associated with silver.

Pluskowski remarks on mass huntings of wolves, as he explores the structure of one of the few wolf pits that remains intact. When communities began to expand and hunt wolves with vigor, the number of wolf attacks and werewolf sightings dropped.

CGI werewolf from Mythical Beasts

Pop culture saves the werewolf

Werewolves in pop culture are typically portrayed as some sort of half-man, half-human shapeshifter, but history shows they can also just be a wolf with a human mentality. They’re pretty scary as monsters, but unlike other hybrids, when you separate the human and animal, the wolf is still a mean and terrifying adversary.

On the whole, this was a fairly entertaining and straightforward episode. It would have been nice to have seen a little more information on the runestone and the properties of ergot, but hey, time constraints and all that. My major complaint is that the CGI is so dark that it becomes difficult to make out the werewolf itself.

It’s not as heated as last week’s episode on demons, but it was great to see them build on it a bit to thread a storyline. The themes are still ringing true, and this extension turned out better than the vampire episode that debuted the werewolf in the first place.

You can catch this howling episode on werewolves tonight at 10/9c on Science Channel.

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