Lycanthropy, Wolf Cults, and Totemism


1. Introduction

The ability to change or metamorphose into any animal in general is known as theriantropy, but specifically into a wolf it is called lycanthropy. Lycantropy is a belief held worldwide that magicians, sorcerers and shamans can metamorphoses into animals including the practice of lycanthropy. The word theriantrope means ‘beast-man’ whereas ‘wolf-man’ is used for a lycanthrope, which in classical mythology is the werewolf. Lycanthropy is the theory to explain the strange behaviour and appearance of supposed werewolves (Illis, 1964), where “…lycanthropes and vampires…the majority suffer from serious mental illness and personality disorders.” (Fahy, 1988).

2.  Lycanthropy

Medical scholars , some writing from the 16th and 17th centuries described the physical symptoms of lycanthropy. In addition to a number of physical characteristics the condition also displayed a number of behavioural disturbances. In may instances the features described, both physical and mental, were also attested to by lawyers. The condition therefore encompasses “…a delusion of metamorphosis into a wolf-like animal.” (Fahy, 1988).

These accounts referred to partial transformations but where only the teeth and hands of the afflicted took on a wolf-like appearance. Physical descriptions referred to a yellowish complexion and dryness of the eyes in individuals who tended to wander about during the night-time. That disturbed behaviour was accompanied by distortions and facial deformities. They had a redness of the teeth as well as the sore covered hairy skin known as hirsutism. In modern terms such signs and symptoms are believed to represent cases of the inherited disorder of congenital porphyria. It is a moot point as to how many unfortunates were executed because they were not werewolves but porphyriacs, or when their plight may have been also due to cultural and neurological influences underlying their animal-human transformation belief.


Clinical lycanthropy is a very rare psychiatric condition or syndrome which has been connected for a number of reasons with the mythical condition of the same name. and one where the affected individual entertains the delusional belief they can transform or have become an animal, or wolf (Garlipp, 2004; Keck, 1988). Case reports of lycanthropy in the 20th century are rare but stress the relationship with mental illness where the sufferer “…may howl and bark, move about on all fours, visit graveyards and woods at night, become preoccupied with religious themes and develop a yearning for raw flesh.” (Fahy, 1988).

In the realm of psychosis clinical lycanthropy can be seen as an idiosyncratic aspect of other conditions. These can include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or a clinical depression. Modern symptoms and signs include the delusion of metamorphosis after sexual activity that may coincide with the full-moon (Rosenstock, 1977), with other cases exhibiting the effects of brain tumours, erotomania, schizophrenia and hallucinogens.

3.  Wolf Cults

In ancient Greece the meaning of the word lycus is wolf. In ancient Egypt the god Upuat, or Ap-Uat, was depicted as a wolf. For the ancient Greeks, according to Pausanius and Plato, the deity Zeus Lykaios shared his sovereignty with the god Pan. According to Greek mythology the king of Arcadia, a certain Lycaon, was transformed into a ravenous wolf. This transformation, this shape-shift, was his punishment for attempting to serve up his son to celebrate the visit of Zeus.

It was Pliny who averred that the members of the wolf-clan of Arcadia were werewolves. This clan claimed they could transform themselves into wolves. This is an example of an early totemistic wolf-cult that sacrificed a wolf annually accompanied by ritualised mimicry. In this ritual the clan became one with the sacred wolf and explains why they called themselves Lukoi. The annual festival required a sacrifice that took place in Arcadia on Mount Lykaios.

In the mythology of ancient Rome the she-wolf who suckled Romulus and Remus was called Lupa. Hence the wolf-festival or Lupercalia is in part honour of Lupa. Lupa’s temple harlots were called lupae and sometimes also Queens or High Priestesses. In Rome the wolf is regarded as sacred to the gods Sylvanus and Ares, the Roman god Mars. The Lupercalia is a Spring-cleaning festival, in origin a pre-Roman pastoral ritual, that has connections to the Lykaia of the Greek Arcadia. The Lupercalia was celebrated in the Grotto of the She-Wolf with orgiastic fertility rituals. It follows that the worship of the Roman god Faunus is linked to that of the Lycaean Pan. In the mythology of Rome the god who is equivalent to, or identified with Faunus, is called Lupercus.

4.  Wolves and Totemism

The totemic system seems to have arisen during the Palaeolithic era. In its most developed form it was a feature of the tribal system. [See: Totemism Revisited.]. The totemic system was based on the belief that the tribal ancestress, or ancestor, possessed features of both humans and animals.  At this period humans and animals were not yet perceived as distinct from one another. Several groups of kin, or clans, were regarded as intimately linked to a species of animal or plant. The progenitor animal-human or ancestor was therefore represented by the clan members, who n rituals wore the appropriate disguises and masks. The shamans of totem clans often dress themselves as their totem ancestors in animal guises during ritual performances.

In the mythology of ancient Greece the god Apollo was associated with the wolf-clan. The relationship stemmed from the belief that the mother of Apollo was a she-wolf. These totemic cults are seen where the wolf-god was the primitive deity amongst Arcadian clans “…in which case the human sacrifices were the cannibalistic feasts of a tribe of wolf-men whose totem was the wolf.” (Summers, 1935). The primitive deity was probably Zeus Lykaios. The sacrifices were probably of the totem animal rather than a clan member. It was Herodotus who, when writing of the Neuri tribe in what is now modern Poland and Lithuania, noted  their reputed annual ritual of transformation into wolves. They became wolves for a day or two and then reverted back to human form.

In the Mabinogion of Wales the son of Mathonwy was called Math. It was his brothers Gydion and Gilfaethy who were punished by their transformation into a she-wolf and he-wolf for a year. Again, the Irish hero, who was always accompanied by wolves, called Cormac was suckled, like Romulus and Remus, by a she-wolf. The transformation of man to wolf and wolf to man was by a process known as repercussion. Sometimes this role reversal required incantations and the recitation of spells. Another method necessitated that the change take place in moonlight. Some werewolves changed by dressing in the skin of a wolf which indicates a shamanic and ritualistic connection. Repercussion could also be brought about by the werewolf being wounded or killed whilst in wolf form.

It was during the transitional period, from the matrilineal to the patrilineal form of social organisation, that the matrilineal wolf clans came to be regarded as disreputable and outmoded. It followed that werewolves were seen as an infringement against the hallowed and sacred kinship taboos and no longer acceptable. The werewolf did however remain as an expression or an echo of ancient totemic belief. During the so-called Dark Ages, as well as the medieval period, the official church fulminated against werewolves and their belief as a sin. The reason was because it was recognised by religious authorities that the belief was an echo of ancient belief in totemic and its underlying social organisation. Therefore belief in werewolves was condemned and its so-called practitioners reviled as sorcerers.

In ancient Roman mythology Romulus and Remus were wet nursed by a she-wolf and the myth thus is an example of the onetime existence of a wolf clan. Both the Turks and the Romans possessed totemic wolf clans. The myth of Romulus and Remus and the she-wolf is a ritualistic representative of an ancient totemic wolf-cult. A statue of the wolf and wins was erected in Rome in 296 BC , moreover the myth was well established from the 4th century BC, proving suggesting “…there is no reason why the wolf should not have been the totem of one of the clans contributing to the ancestry of the Roman population.” (Russell, 1978). In terms of clan ancestry Romulus was the progenitor hero of Rome, the ancestress perceived as the she-wolf called Lupa. In this sense the myth can be conceived of as an indicator of matriarchal organisation and matrilineal descent from totemic wolf clans.

However the situation in northern Europe was somewhat different. Totemic clans were though a feature of the Celtic and Germanic tribes. Compared to southern Europe the patrilineal culture developed later in the north. The matriarchal clans lasted longer. For example, in the culture of the Celts a number of clan totems are wolves. t can be assumed that the totemic wolf totem was once “…a matrilineal symbol reinterpreted in terms of a patrilineal society…” (Russell, 1978). It does appear that in some respects the belief in lycanthropy and werewolves is an echo of onetime ancient totemic wolf clans and wolf cults.

References and Sources Consulted.

Benet, W. R.  (1965).  The Reader’s Encyclopaedia.  Blackie, London.

Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.  (1978).  London.

Cooper, J. C.  (1992).  Dictionary of Symbolic and Mythological Animals.  Thorsons, London.

Fahy, T. Wesseley, S. & David. A.  (1988).  Werewolves, Vampires and Cannibals.  Med.Sci.Law.  28 (2).

Garlipp, P. et al. (2004).  Lycanthropy – psychopathological and psychodynamical aspects. Acta.Psychiatr.Scand.  109 (1).

Illis, I.  (1964).  On Porphyria and the Aetiology of Werewolves.  Proc.Roy.Soc.Med.  57 (23-26).

Keck, P. E. et al.  Lycanthropy: alive and well in the twentieth century.  Psychol. Med.  18 (1).

Porter, J. R. & Russell, W. M. S.  (1978).  Animals in Folklore.  Brewer, D. S.  Folklore Society, Cambridge.

Rosenstock, H. A. & Vincent, K. R.  (1977).  A case of lycanthropy.  Amer. J. Psychiatry.  134 (1147-9).

Russell, W. M. S. & Russell, C.  (1978).  The Social Biology of Werewolves.  In: Porter, J. R. & Russell, W. M. S. (1978).

Summers, M.  (1933).  The Werewolf.  Kegan Paul, Trench Trubner & Co. London.

1 Comment

Filed under Folklore

One response to “Lycanthropy, Wolf Cults, and Totemism

Discussion & Comment Welcome

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s