A werewolf, also known as a lycanthrope (from the Greek lykánthropos, lykos, “wolf”, and anthrōpos, “man”), is a mythological or folkloric human with the ability to shape shift into a wolf or a hybrid wolf-like creature, either purposely or after being placed under a curse or affliction (e.g. via a bite or scratch from another werewolf).
The concept of a man being changed into a wolf has been found mentioned in early Ancient Greek Literature, for example the myth of Lycaon, who was a king of Arcadia who tested Zeus by serving him the roasted flesh of a guest from Epirus in order to see whether Zeus was truly omniscient. In return for these gruesome deeds Zeus transformed Lycaon into the form of a wolf, and killed Lycaon’s fifty other sons with lightning bolts.
Werewolves were a widespread concept in European folklore, existing in many variants which are related by a common development of a Christian interpretation of European folklore which developed during the medieval period. From the early modern period, werewolf beliefs also spread to the New World with colonialism. Belief in werewolf develops parallel to the belief in witches, in the course of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period. Like the witchcraft trials as a whole, the trial of supposed werewolves emerges in what is now Switzerland (especially the Valais and Vaud) in the early 15th century and spreads throughout Europe in the 16th, peaking in the 17th and subsiding by the 18th century. The persecution of werewolves and the associated folklore is an integral part of the “witch-hunt” phenomenon, albeit a marginal one, accusations of werewolf being involved in only a small fraction of witchcraft trials.
They were believed to only be able to turn in during a full moon
During the early period, accusations of lycanthropy were mixed with accusations of wolf-riding or wolf-charming. The case of Peter Stumpp (another post) led to a significant peak in both interest in and persecution of supposed werewolves, primarily in French-speaking and German-speaking Europe. The phenomenon persisted longest in Bavaria and Austria, with persecution of wolf-charmers recorded until well after 1650, the final cases taking place in the early 18th century and finding it way to American folklore.
An example of American werewolf folklore is in the Louisiana legend of the Rougarou which has been spread through many generations of French settlers or through Canadian immigrants centuries before. Rougarou represents a variant pronunciation and spelling of the original French lou-garou. Both words are used interchangeably in southern Louisiana.
In the Cajun legends, the creature is said to prowl the swamps around Acadiana and Greater New Orleans, and possibly the fields or forests of the regions. The rougarou most often is described as a creature with a human body and the head of a wolf or dog, similar to the werewolf legend.
Following the end of the witch-trials, the werewolf became of interest in folklore studies and in the emerging Gothic horror genre; which brought about the trappings of horror literature in the 20th century and became part of the horror and fantasy genre of modern times which we know today.