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Myths and legends


Poster for a werewolf horror filmPoster for a werewolf horror film Legends from all over the world tell of men who could turn into wolves and then back into their human form again. They are known as werewolves or man-wolves (wer is the Old English word for "man”). In their animal form, werewolves devoured people, alive or dead—although ordinary wolves seldom attack people. In lands where wolves are unknown, such legends involved different animals instead, such as tigers, bears or even snakes. The European werewolf legend dates from ancient times. For example, the Roman author Ovid wrote in his Metamorphoses about the Greek king named Lycaon, who was turned into a wolf as punishment for serving human flesh to the Zeus, the chief of the gods. People who were thought to be werewolves were persecuted from the Middle Ages through to the 18th century. By the 20th century fear was replaced by fascination, as werewolves became popular subjects for horror stories and films.

A werewolf at full moonA werewolf at full moon

Becoming a werewolf

During the Middle Ages, belief in werewolves was widespread in Europe. It was feared that any baby born with unusual amounts of hair or a strange birthmark could become a werewolf when they grew up. People could become werewolves voluntarily by worshipping the devil. The bite of a werewolf would also turn someone into a werewolf. It was even rumoured that if you were to drink water from a puddle in a wolf’s footprint you would become a werewolf.

Psychologists use the term lycanthropy to describe a mental illness in which the sufferer believes he or she is a wolf or some other animal. The word, which comes from the Greek words lukos (wolf) and anthropos (man), is also used in stories to describe a werewolf's transformation.

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