Mankind loves its monsters. They litter our writings throughout history, and they continue to be a popular focal point of modern cinema and storytelling. Even in real life, when we have trouble explaining something, we inevitably invent a monster to fill the gap. It’s almost a quintessential aspect of human nature. And one of the oldest monsters in our collective lore, is the werewolf.
The werewolf, or lycanthrope (which is Greek in origin) has an ancient beginning. While modern telling’s of the legends tend to romanticise and further mythologise the original character, it may have had a more literal beginning.
Common sources suggest that the idea of lycanthropy may actually be pre-historic, but the earliest mentions of such a creature in literature and artwork come from early medieval conflicts between pagan concepts of animalised warriors and the Christianisation of Europe at that time. Many scholars and historians propose different timelines, evolutionary paths for the legend, and origins for the character, and few agree on any one aspect, other than the fact that depictions of wolf-men type creatures are found as far back as Iron-age Europe (1200 BCE – 1 BCE).
There are several mentions of wolf-men type figures in Ancient Greek literature and mythology, and though the similarities are obvious, it’s not generally thought that the Greeks had any part in popular werewolf lore. Most believe that it had a Germanic origin, but there is evidence for the development of such stories from several parts of Europe.
Wherever it began, there’s no denying the obsession we have with these stories and characters, and while pretty much every such story you might hear today is without a doubt fiction, there are some cases in the not-so-distant past that aren’t so easy to dismiss.
The Beast of Gévaudan is one such story.
Some would argue that Gévaudan’s man-eating wolf is not a werewolf story, but if you’ll indulge, you may be rewarded.
It happened in the former province Gévaudan (now the French department Lozère) in southern France over a period of six years, from the summer of 1764 until the final attacks over Christmas of 1769/1770 – though that’s a muddy bit of the story.
The first attacks resulted in the brutal and gruesome death of a young girl named Janne Boulet, and from that point, depending on the source, up to 100 men, women, and children were either killed or seriously injured by the creature.
Sources describe the animal as a massive wolf, or dog-wolf hybrid. It was said to have huge jaws with 42 razor sharp teeth (an important point to refute the claim that it was a hyena), and a red coat with black markings on its back. The animal was apparently as big as a calf, which would make it two or three times as large as any known wolf species.
Embellishments and inconsistencies in the description aside, it’s clear that a beast of mythic proportions was loose in the area of Gévaudan, and it had a taste for human blood.
Many of the victims were said to have had their throats ripped out, and several were partially eaten. Of course, the townsfolk weren’t about to just sit by while a monster killed them, one-by-one. Following an attack on a group of men on January 12, 1765, who managed to fight the beast off by grouping together, King Louis XV intervened by sending two of his best hunters to the region. The following weeks were disappointing, and more royal hunters and agents were dispatched to help in the fight. Finally, on September 20, 1765, a wolf of spectacular proportions was killed by François Antoine, the Lieutenant of the hunt. The creature weighed a whopping 60 kilograms (130 lbs), and was 80 cm tall at the shoulder. In his official report to the King, Antoine claimed that they “…never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one.”
Unfortunately for Antoine, the beast he had not killed. Another attack occurred on December 2, 1769, followed by a dozen more deaths.
Of course, every legend needs a hero, and in this case that hero is a local hunter named Jean Castel. As a member of a hunting party organised by a local nobleman, Castel is credited with killing the creature that had terrorised his village for so long. Some sources claim that Castel took down the beast with a single shot…a blessed silver bullet. A silver bullet he personally made for the job of ending their nightmare.
You’ll no doubt recognise that bit of lore from modern werewolf stories, and there are those who suggest it’s actually an embellishment by previous researchers in an effort to make the stories fit with the legend.
It would have been quite common for people of the time to manufacture their own shot, especially professional hunters, and the notion that silver has an effect on magical creatures was well known in that period. So it is possible that he did shoot the animal with a silver bullet.
So what was it?
The original stories claim that the beast was slaughtered, and when they opened its stomach they found several human body parts, and since the attacks stopped with the death of this animal, it seems clear that this had been the culprit. However, there are still some unanswered questions.
For a long time, the Beast of Gévaudan was widely believed to be a real-life werewolf, even by scholars. Only recently has anyone offered any other hypotheses for consideration. The current contenders are that it was a previously unknown species of wolf that naturally grew to immense size, or that it was a hybrid mastiff-wolf, possibly bred by someone living in the wilderness around Gévaudan. Others have suggested, as mentioned earlier, that it wasn’t a wolf at all, but rather an extant Asian hyena.
The obvious claim that it wasn’t any kind of cryptid type animal, but was actually just a pack of regular European wolves notwithstanding, these explanations seem to satisfy logic, even though they greatly disappoint imagination. The fact remains that to this day we still don’t know what it was that killed up to 100 people in Gévaudan in the 18th century. We know it happened, and we know that people of the time were convinced that it was a fabled werewolf that terrorised their children and their town.
Perhaps that’s all we need to know.