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Where did werewolves come from? The ‘wolf-man’ of the Slavic imagination

Posted on 21 Sep 2023

This extract from ‘The Slavic Myths’ explores the intriguing and changeable position of the werewolf in Slavic Mythology – at times god, vampire and butterfly.

Count Jan Potocki was one of Poland’s most revered writers and Enlightenment intellectuals. His masterpiece, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, first published around 1805, is considered among the nation’s greatest works of prose storytelling, in the vein of the Arabian Nights. Hailing from one of Poland’s wealthiest aristocratic families, Potocki was a world traveller and polyglot who wrote his masterwork in French. He was educated in Switzerland, served as captain of the engineers in the Polish army and was recruited as a Knight of Malta and a Freemason.

On 23 December 1815, this brilliant, worldly man absconded with one of his mother’s silver teapots, made out of it a bullet, had this silver bullet blessed by a priest and then shot himself in the head with it. Jan Potocki was entirely convinced that he was doing the world a great favour and saving many lives by taking his own, because Jan Potocki believed that he was a werewolf.

While in the modern, Western imagination werewolves and vampires are distinct mythological monsters, in Slavic legend they are inextricably linked. It could be argued that they are two words for the same mythical monster. Many pre-20th-century stories, even those ostensibly including the term for werewolf, vukodlak, describe what we would today call a vampire. That includes the legend presented here, which draws upon an 1839 story called La Famille du Vourdalak (roughly translated as ‘The Werewolf Family’) by Alexei Tolstoi. Tolstoi’s story has also inspired several classic horror films including Black Sabbath (1963, starring Boris Karloff, which in turn inspired the naming of the rock band) and 1972’s Night of the Devils, as well as a BBC radio production. But while a wolf does appear, the actual threat comes from creatures we would identify as vampires. Recall that the Serbian word vukodlak was considered too terrifying to utter, so vampir was used in its place; we chose this legend because it reflects that typically Slavic blurring of the line between vampire and werewolf.

The fluid nature of the vampire/werewolf figure can be better understood once you appreciate the exceptional position of the wolf within Serbian mythology. In the Slavic world, not only is the wolf the main totem animal of Serbs and other southern Slavs but the wolf god, Vuk, is their supreme god – the cosmic ruler, to which various origin stories are related. There are countless male and female names, as well as names of places, incorporating the word ‘wolf’. Serbia’s rich linguistic and ethnographic literature explains that vampir is a replacement for the ‘sacred’ name of werewolf, vukodlak. The term nepomnik, ‘the one who should not be mentioned’, is another alternative to the unmentionable werewolf, as is the simple vuk, a wolf. Vampires in Slavic legend can take the form of a wolf or a black dog. The Slavic demon Psoglav (‘Doghead’), who appears in legends in Bosnia, Montenegro and Istria, has a dog’s head, a horse’s legs and only one eye.

We also see an interweaving of pagan Slavic legend into the nascent Christian traditions adopted by southern Slavs from the 9th century onwards, eastern Slavs from the 10th, and western Slavs between the 9th and 12th centuries, owing to the cultural and missionary work of two brothers from Thessaloniki, Cyril and Methodius (both later canonized). They invented the Cyrillic alphabet and spread Christianity along with literacy among the Slavs. The Devil, in the Christian Slavic tradition, often looks like a vukodlak. Saint Christophor is meshed with Psoglav, represented with a dog’s head in some frescoes and icons in Serbia, Macedonia and Greece. This figure is also linked to an apocryphal story about Roman soldiers who were fighting a dogheaded tribe, when one of the prisoners converted to Christianity. The Romans tortured and killed him, and he became a saint with the name of Christophor. He is not the same figure as Saint Christopher in the Catholic tradition, but as their names are so similar it is easy to see how the stories have melted together.

The butterfly is also one of the vampire’s forms, as seen in the story ‘Black Butterfly’ in this book. A vukodlak is able to attract clouds and change weather, and one of his synonyms is zduhać, a demon (sometimes a human magician) who can affect the weather – in some legends, vampires can transform into fog. Vukodlak usually appears with the full moon, but in some stories he is a solar deity.

A wolfskin was a key component of many Slavic rituals and holy days all over the Balkans. These holy days included a whole week of wolf-related festivities called Mratinci, held in November. Youngsters wearing wolfskins would appear before the house of a maiden who had been promised in marriage. Petar Skok offers a convincing semasiology, or linguistic meaning, for vukodlak – ‘the one who skins’ (it could also mean ‘the one who is wearing the skin’). In his book on vampires, Nick Groom offers the less convincing etymological combination of vuk (wolf) and dlaka (a hair).

According to Sabine Baring-Gould in his 1865 Book of Were-Wolves: ‘The Serbs connect the vampire and the werewolf together, and call them by one name, vlkoslak. These rage chiefly in the depths of winter: they hold their annual gatherings, and at them divest themselves of their wolf-skins, which they hang on the trees around them. If anyone succeeds in obtaining the skin and burning it, the vlkoslak is thenceforth disenchanted.’

These Slavic rituals of Mratinci are the probable origin of the concept of the wolf-man, a human who becomes a wolf/man hybrid, as opposed to transforming into a wolf proper. The donning of a wolfskin was a shamanistic practice of the pagan Slavs. The shaman would take on the role of the wolf, singing and dancing, in a ritual likely augmented with alcohol or hallucinogenic herbs. This wolf-man was taken up as the Hollywood concept of a werewolf, from Lon Chaney in The Wolf Man (1941) to An American Werewolf in London (1981) and beyond. The difference between the ancient Slavic idea of a vampire and one embraced by Western pop culture is small, while the Slavic werewolf is very different from the pop-culture version. The closest union of the two appears, probably unwittingly, in the Twilight books and films, in which forever-teenaged vampires are locked in an eternal struggle with forever-teenaged werewolves who transform into giant wolves, not wolf-man hybrids.

Jan Potocki suffered from what is called ‘clinical lycanthropy’, a recognized psychiatric syndrome in which the patient is wholly convinced that he or she is a werewolf. This (presumable) misconception cost him his life. In order to understand the term lycanthropy we must first go back to ancient Greece, where many a legend can be found of humans transforming into wolves, before seeing where the Slavic tradition adopted a version of this linked to Vuk, the wolf, the king of the Slavic pantheon, and the idea of the anthropomorphic wolf-man – as opposed to an animagus, a man (as we shall see, there are traditionally no female werewolves) who can transform, or who is cursed to transform against his will, into a wolf.

To read more, discover The Slavic Myths.

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The Slavic Myths

Noah Charney, Svetlana Slapšak