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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

"Úlfhéðnar" - or Ravaging Lunetics? Manbeasts and Shapeshifting in the Nordic Tradition

“Once there was so mighty a man, that his equal was not to be found; already as a youngster, he ravaged with the Vikings. […] He was a good farmer, and had a habit of getting up at dawn, tending to the livestock, his craftsmen and his fields. Many were those who sought his counseling, and as he was wise man, he had good advice for them all.

Every evening however, when darkness fell, he became spiteful, with an erratic temper. Early at nightfall, he became sleepy, and word got around that he frequently changed his human shape and form, earning the name Kveldulv (“Nightwolf”).
From the Saga of Egil Skallagrimssons
Nowadays, the creatures we call werewolves, are mostly known from glossy television shows and motion pictures, or from classic literature such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The stories are most often about a man who is transformed at full moon, either as a wolf larger than a real wolf or an anthropomorphic figure resembling a wolf. In some stories, the werewolves have been portrayed more positively, with the premise that the human mind continues to work within the beast itself, such as the comedic but tortured protagonist David Naughton in An American Werewolf in London (1981), and a less anguished and more confident and charismatic Jack Nicholson in the 1994 film Wolf

Within the ancient myths and legends however, the actual belief in shape-shifting were regarded as the consequence of a real molt.

Although the strange notions of werewolves has never reached the same widespread distribution in Europe as witchcraft, they are in many ways closely connected. In both cases, the narrative traditions revolve around a condition which could be actively produced, by using an ointment or the like. In the terms of the “shape-shifting” tales however, there are a few other factors to be considered.

Already from Greek antiquity, there was a living notion of certain people being able transform themselves into wild animals, in order to perform wicked deeds.  As in any rural community, at large consisting of farmers and shepherds often having to fight of predators attacking their herds, an intimate knowledge of and a strong fear of the wolf has probably contributed to these notions. 

"I'm so hungry, my intestines are shrieking," said the wolf.

Painting by Theodor Kittelsen (1900)

Concurrently however, these notions are often been associated with cases of insanity or psychosis, in which the indisposed themselves believed to be a wild animal – in many cases, a wolf. According to Norwegian medical historian Fredrik Grøn (1871-1947), there are several things that indicate that the belief in werewolves is also associated with the illness, which we also know from our time, called rabies. It is an utterly ghastly disease that attacks dogs, and occasionally other animals such as wolves – bitten by a diseased animal, the condition can also be transmitted to humans. The illness achieved international reputation through the work of French biologist Louis Pasteur, for his remarkable efforts to find a remedy for it – in 1885 he successfully developed effective vaccine.

This illness was undoubtedly far more prevalent in the past, and even if one assumed that it was the bite of "old dogs" that evoked the disease, unfounded beliefs had a free rein. For the diseased conducted in a most peculiar way, with severe cramps, biting and barking like dogs, in short; behaving like animals. In retrospect, it is no wonder that ideas of something supernatural emerged. Even as late as the 16th century, pursuits for presumed werewolves were conducted, and those who were caught condemned mercilessly to the fires, just as the witches and warlocks.

Perhaps it was no wonder, when a learned man like Swedish scholar Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) during the mid-1500s concluded that "that kind of wolves really are people transformed into wolves" still appeared numerous in the Nordic border region and the Baltic States. Especially during Christmas, it was believed that these creatures ravaged worse among humans and animals than the "real and natural wolves." The Swedish folklorist Ella Odstedt interpreted this phenomenon as violent orgies instituted by licentious and starving people whom, taking advantage by the folk belief, acquired food and drink on any farm at close range. During the war in 1808, rumors even spread that the Russians transformed the Swedish prisoners into werewolves and sent them home to plague the country!

Researchers have also pointed to the Old Norse tradition of the Vikings era’s berserker; furious, invulnerable warriors who bet in the shield and hooted like dogs when they went to battle. Presumably, they also clothed themselves in the pelts of wild animals to scare the enemy and take part in the animal's ferocity and strength.

King Harald Hairfair's berserker were called Úlfhéðnar (wolfs’s skin), and the word berskerk can in fact be interpreted as ber (bear) serk (clothing) - that is, bjørneham, or bear vesture. The word werewolf is associated with the old Norse word for man – verr – straightforward translated to "man wolf". 

An engraving of an image shown on a Vendel era (550-793) bronze plate discovered in Öland, Sweden. Depicted are a berserker about to decapitate his enemy on the right and Oden on the left. Oden's famous characters markers are not present.
From Oscar Montelius, "Om lifvet i Sverige under hednatiden" (Stockholm 1905)

These notions indicate that the berserk cult was an ecstatic and imitating devotion to the war god Odin, who was the master in the art of procreating different shapes and forms, making travels “in mind and spirit" while the body seemed apparently lifeless. This ability could also acquired by the use of sorcery, or witchcraft. Both the Edda poems and saga literature serve as examples of that the belief in shape-shifting were regarded as the consequence of a real molt.

For anyone wanting to be free from their animal vesture, could manage to do so, either by themselves or the help of others. In the ancient sagas and fairytales, love and marriage were important aids. Most common however, was to burn the vesture or mention the animal by its human name if you recognized it. Then it would shed the animal flesh and become human again. If you felt sorry for the creature and fed it, the same effect could the obtained.

Even from our own day and age, there are records of “shape-shifters”. In Danish Sjælland, the belief in werewolves lived on well into the 19th century. As late as 1911, there is a record from a village in Østfold in the eastern part of Norway, where there lived a man who was supposedly a werewolf. According to the folktales, “something” suddenly came over him, and he disappeared for a fortnight. There was to record of his disappearance, and nobody knew when he would return. But he was doing, was not known, yet people assumed that he was running about in the woods.

From the western region of Norway, from Sunnfjord, there is a similar story of a man who owned a bear vesture, and when he wore it, no one was safe from his ravaging. If there was moonlight, he went out into the field and killed goats. If it was a bright summer night, he was found brawling with the horses. At last, when he was out for an errand, his wife found his bear vesture and burned it up. After that, the man was never quite the same. 

Illustration by Joakim Skovgaard (1889 el. 1890). 'The Werewolf".

The National Museum of Art: The Fine Arts Collection

  • Egil Skallagrimssons saga. I Norrøn saga, bind 1. Aschehoug, 3. opplag 1990 
  • Fredrik Grøn (1933). Varulvtroen (av overtroens eventyrsaga). In Folkeminner no. 65, november 2016 
  • Ørnulf Hodne (2012). Vetter og skrømt i norsk folketro. Cappelen Damm.