The Descent of Wolf
Last week, Wired magazine took a look back at scientific theories about the origins of werewolves, and one in particular stands out. Pioneering American ethnolinguist Caroline Taylor Stewart’s theory, outlined in her 1909 essay “The Origin of Werewolf Superstition,” tells a story of werewolf origins that—while both unprovable and unfalsifiable—sounds sensible enough:
“The origins of the superstition must have been an old custom of primitive man’s of putting on a wolf’s or other animal’s skin or dress, or a robe … [T]he animal disguise, entire or partial, was used by early man acting in the capacity of a decoy, firstly, to secure food and clothing. Secondly, he would assume animal disguise, whole or partial, in dancing and singing; and both these accomplishments seem to have arisen from the imitation of the motions and cries of animals, at first to lure them, when acting as a decoy. With growth of culture came growth of supernaturalism, and an additional reason for acquiring dance and song was to secure charms against bodily lld, and finally enlivenment.”
There are alternate explanations, of course. The werewolf has long been a symbol of someone who lives by the covenant of nature rather than the covenant of civilization—an archetype that is at least as old as the Sumerian demigod Enkidu—and as we see civilization break down in times of crisis, that has to be a tempting fantasy. Even in happier times, we are often so restricted by our assigned social roles that the fantasy of breaking free of it all and returning to nature is something that is likely to at least occasionally come to mind.
It’s possible that the werewolf has always served this kind of mythological function, and that by looking for some scientific basis for the myth we’re giving the subject more analysis than it needs. But it’s also possible that there really is some kind of universal, scientific reason why this myth keeps recurring in a wide variety of human contexts. Whatever the explanation, we have a lot in common with wolves; we too are mammals who hunt in packs, feeding on other species while (at best) loving and caring for our own. It is, perhaps, not so much of a stretch to imagine that some of us might one day grow fangs and howl at the moon.