It seems that the night is full of things that we do not see in the light. And it is those things, that it seems, we have been taught to fear, through the ages. All those bumps and thumps, all those shadows and whispers, even the creaks and moans of the night send shivers down our spines. Why is it that we fear the creatures of the night?
Even older than the tells of vampires and ghouls are the legends of were-creatures or shape-shifters. Creatures that by choice, design or fated curse have the power and or ability to change the form of their appearance. For those that were always shape-shifters the power to change their outward appearance is something they do at will. It seems that they usually take the form of an animal, bird or even sea creature, as suits their needs, at the moment. Those shape-shifters that seem to be merciful and or helpful seem to not take forms that would scare us. Yet, it has been known that others are not so kind.
There are creatures that have been cursed, usually by an encounter with a were-creature, that sentences them to a life of torture and solitude. According to some of the lore, one becomes a were-creature by being bitten or scratched by a were-creature. This of course raises the question of where the first were-creature came from, if you must be bitten or scratched by one to become one.
The most famous were-creature is the werewolf or lycanthrope. There are many legends from the Fox tribe of the Americas to the Epic of Gilgamesh that contain references to wolf-man or man-wolf creatures. In addition, Ovid and the Icelandic Sagas contain the werewolf within their lines. In some stories, such as the Fox tribe lore, the ability of man to become wolf was a gift; however, in other lore, such as with Ovid, it was punishment from the gods for bad behavior.
There are many accounts of persons be tried for being a werewolf. Some of these cases we can now more intelligently reassess as serial killers, which steals Jack the Ripper’s fame as the first. And some of these cases were simply the over zealous furor of the witch hunters!
Another theory, as to the origin of the werewolf, is the affliction of rabies in humans that were attacked by rabid animals. There is also the relations between the behavior of the accused and the behavior of animals. Such as in the case of cannibalism. This behavior was one of the confessed behaviors of some of the executed werewolves of the Middle Ages. It was also cannibalism that was the act that punished King Lycaon (the origin of the word Lycanthrope) who offended the gods by serving human meat to them at dinner.
We may never know the true origin of the story, but it seems that if it were merely a tale that it would have lost its appeal by now. So what is the truth that keeps this legend alive? For, I believe there must be some truth, more than just the lure of a good tale, by the fire, in the dead of night, that keeps us looking up at a full moon and peering into the darkness, searching the shadows, for those things that go bump, in the night…..