Time for another vampire fact! This month, physical appearance won the poll on my Patreon, so let’s get right into it.
What did vampires actually look like – in folklore? Everyone knows their variety of appearances in pop culture, but what about what people actually believed?
As always, a quick disclaimer in that this fact will not cover every single possibility in terms of vampire folklore. Vampire folklore, like most folklore but perhaps especially with vampires, is vast and complicated. In this post, I’ll just be covering the most common appearances for vampires to have in legend.
One of the most common uniting aspects of vampire legends is very simple: red eyes. Sometimes these were demonic and otherworldly red eyes – very red, sometimes even glowing. Sometimes they were red because they were bloodshot, because the vampire was so bloated with blood. Either way, red eyes are very much a symbol of the vampire. Now, there are also some tales that say blue eyes are also a sign of a vampire, as well as red hair being a sign of vampirism – most of these concepts come from ancient Egypt and a few from ancient Greece. And, frankly, it doesn’t seem that common at all and I personally have a few doubts about the idea (Egypt clearly didn’t burn all red-haired people at the stake or anything given other accounts we have), but Montague Summers insists it was a thing, so I figured it might as well bear a mention.
As for red eyes, however: red glowing eyes often appeared in the form of a dark “shape” or dark “mist.” Vampires in legend turned into mist fairly frequently (and this is why we have the “vampiric mist” enemy in Dungeons & Dragons). Sometimes this mist was white, or grey, or even black, or just described as “mist” or “shadow,” sometimes in the shape of a man. Similarly, vampires in some legends could send their spirits – in the form of mist or light or even a projection of what they looked like in life – out from their bodies that may have been buried or else were simply dead somewhere.
Many vampires, however, take the form of a corpse that appears red and bloated with blood when it returns to its grave after feasting at night. When they are awake, vampires may look like normal people or may very often be offputtingly pale or strange, with “large” eyes that are “glittering” and disturbing, wrong somehow. Conversely, though, some stories have vampires with dead, dark pits for eyes.
Some, however, seem to have no real difference from their ordinary appearances. Legends do not note anything particularly unique about the way they look when they are walking free from their graves – it’s only when the vampire’s corpse is exhumed that we see the body red and bloated with blood, the face often looking fresh and life-like after the vampire has fed.
Others are a bit more specific, calling vampires very gaunt, with pale or even no skin, and very “thin.”
Not all vampires appear that way, either, though. Sometimes they are exhumed and they look entirely dead – except they haven’t decomposed at all. Sometimes their eyes will be open: a telltale sign of vampirism in a buried body.
Many legends scholars now group as “vampire legends” are not of course about “vampires” (this is a category retroactively put upon them by scholars; again, this happens a lot in folklore, same with werewolves) but are about various evil spirits, demons, and undead, that now fall in line with and/or were inspirations for our modern day takes on vampires.
This is not to say, of course, that all vampires looked like these. But, certainly, these are some of the most common vampire appearances to find in folklore.
My main sources for this post were From Demons to Dracula by Matthew Beresford and Vampires and Vampirism by Montague Summers, but I have read many, many books on vampire folklore over the years, so my knowledge isn’t always precisely cited in my blog posts. You’ll have to wait for me to publish a book on vampire folklore to see all that! (And I probably will someday.)
Until next time! Be sure to check out the rest of my blog – werewolves, vampires, folklore, and even fiction and worldbuilding!
( If you like my blog, be sure to follow me here and elsewhere for more folklore and fiction, including books, especially on werewolves! And please consider donating and/or supporting me on Patreon – not only will you help me keep this blog running, but patrons get cool stuff and rewards in return!
So, really, vampire hunting wasn’t really much of a thing… except in Greece.
In fact, at one point, hunting vampires was considered a career so important and high in society in Greece that it was about equal to healers and scribes. Supposedly, people born on a Saturday could see things like spirits and have “influence” over vampires and thus often hunted them. In his book From Demons to Dracula, Matthew Beresford cites a bunch of ways the Greeks especially on the island of Mykonos would ward off vampires.
And there are still more examples scattered around. According to Montague Summers, in his book The Vampire in Lore and Legend, on page 217…
In no country has the Vampire tradition more strongly prevailed and more persistently maintained its hold upon the people than in modern Greece. To the confirmation and perpetuation of this and cognate beliefs, a large number of factors have lent their varying influences, and not the least remarkable of these has been the quote furnished by the popular superstition of antiquity, legends and practices which were even in Pagan days more or less covertly accepted and employed …
Bear in mind that Summers’ “modern” Greece is in the 1950s, as this book was originally published in 1961. Also bear in mind that Summers is not the nicest or least biased man in the world. At all. Still, he collected great scholarship and went on many travels to different regions to study, even if he wasn’t the best at organizing and sifting through everything.
At any rate, this leads us to the Greek term for “vampire,” which has always been a subject of very hot debate. But that’s not the topic of this post, so instead of going into detail about all that, I will say this instead…
Something to bear in mind: a lot of this is retrospective scholarship. In other words, were they really what we think of as “vampires” today? Probably not, even if they may have had a few similarities (though never things like fangs). I know I always mention this in my posts, but it’s always important to note for all readers that folklore is very hard to pin down – it isn’t possible, really – by modern standards and that when scholars refer to something as a “vampire” or a “werewolf” or even a “dragon” or almost any other creature, chances are it’s a myth that’s been translated to fit into one of those categories. There were certainly situations in which creatures may have been referred to as their name we think of them as today (though they basically never fit all of our new pop culture standards), but that’s especially complicated with the term “vampire” in particular.
Because the creatures in Greece were not referred to as “vampires,” which isn’t surprising at all, and their origins, history, and etymology are very complicated. Again, though, this post is about vampire hunters, so that isn’t something I’ll be going into right now. I did, however, go into it a fair amount in this post, if you’re interested! It’s all very regional and seems to mean a werewolf or a vampire in different regions, or sometimes a werewolf who has become a vampire, or sometimes just a vampire, or… Yeah, it’s all very complicated.
Either way, scholars of today now group some of these Greek concepts with vampire legends thanks to various influences and similarities, so now we have the Greek concept of a vampire hunter. In particular, we have some writings from the seventeenth century that detail some vampires and how to slay them.
Summers then mentions a Professor N. P. Polites of Athens University, who wrote about how Santorini was where people “sent” vampires, and “that the inhabitants of this island enjoy so vast a reputation as experts in effectively dealing with vampires and putting an end to them” (Summers 228).
Summers then goes on to give such a lengthy and detailed set of examples of vampire hunts and slayings (almost all of them cremations, at least at some point after other actions are taken) that to replicate them here would lead to me writing a chapter of my own. And since I try to keep folklore facts at least relatively concise unless I’m doing a particularly large one, maybe I’ll retell those stories in a vampire folklore book of my own someday instead.
It wasn’t, however, always within the law to be a vampire hunter or to cremate people for being a vampire, unlike another case…
Here’s another fun one: until only as recently as 1823 when the law was finally repealed, it was totally legal in England to drive a wooden steak through the heart of someone you suspected of being undead. Yes, any undead, not necessarily “vampires,” which is actually an important note. The law came into being during the Anglo-Saxon period, and people must have been doing that a fair amount for there to be an entire law about it – and one that went overlooked for so long. So, during the Victorian era, we still could’ve had people staking someone under the claim that they were undead, and they could legally get away with it if they could back up their claims somehow.
Did that make anyone an actual “vampire hunter” instead of just people staking their neighbors under claims of them being undead? Not really. So, so far all we really have still is Greece and its vampire hunting profession.
There may have been more “vampire hunters” in the modern sense than we really think about, with events in Eastern Europe related to vampire slaying (not necessarily “hunting” or in a professional sense) even as recently as 2007.
So there you have it! Vampire hunting was, at a few points anyway, actually considered a real profession. This is a very unusual case in folklore and makes vampires quite the unique creature for being so prolific in certain regions – namely Greece – as to have their own dedicated hunters.
Monsters aren’t really what we think of them as being in something like D&D, where there are these categorized creatures arguably overpopulating the entire countryside and you can make an entire profession doing nothing but hunting “monsters,” how ever one may define that. Still, there is surprisingly a little bit of precedent for that with vampires, which one can’t really say with most creatures in folklore, like werewolves. Vampires are one of the only creatures in folklore, even if it was pretty much only in Greece, to have their own dedicated, professional hunters.
Until next time!
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Continuing the series of close looks into specific werewolf legends, let’s examine what’s generally considered one of the most important werewolf legends in history: the story of King Lykaon (Λυκᾱ́ων – or Lycaon, a more Anglicized spelling) of ancient Greece.
A quick summary before we go into more detail: Lykaon was a king of Arcadia in ancient Greece. As the legend goes, Lykaon decided to test the divine omniscience of Zeus by killing one of his own sons, Nyctimus, and cooking him into food to serve to Zeus. Naturally, Zeus realized what Lykaon had done, so he turned Lykaon into a wolf as punishment, killing his other children and bringing Nyctimus back to life.
However, Lykaon wasn’t remembered too negatively despite his actions or his fate. He did plenty of other good deeds, like founding cities and creating a cult dedicated to Zeus, as well as hosting a series of games called the Lykaean Games, among other things. He also had a lot of kids. And, please note, there were a lot of “Lykaon”s in Greek myth. This is merely one of them.
But what I’m going to focus on is the legend of how Zeus turned Lykaon into a wolf and the details thereof – and what impact it’s had on werewolf studies and werewolves in culture forever afterward.
Perhaps the earliest version of Lykaon’s myth was told by Hesiod. However, there are many different versions by an assortment of authors. Several of them recount the tale differently, with various aspects changed, and some even claim Lykaon was never turned into a wolf at all and was instead killed instantly by Zeus’s lightning, among other alterations.
Perhaps the most well-known version of the tale is the one I’ll be quoting from, however: not a Greek author but a Roman one, Ovid, in his Metamorphoses. Ovid, too, alters the story from Hesiod’s “original,” though he retains the most important aspect from the perspective of werewolf studies: Lykaon’s transformation into a wolf and “transformation scene” of sorts.
The edition of Metamorphoses from which I will be quoting is as follows:
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A. D. Melville. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
(Please note for the sake of this post I’m not using perfect MLA citation for each quote. You can find those in my published academic works, but not these posts. But the citations here will be readable, just not totally up to nitpicky academic standards.)
It all began for Lykaon when Zeus – or, in the case of Ovid’s version, in Metamorphoses, Jupiter, generally the Roman equivalent of Zeus- arrives in Acradia. Unlike everyone else, Lykaon had his doubts about the god…
he [Lykaon] / Scoffed at their worship. “A clear test”, he said, / “Shall prove if this be god or mortal man / And certify the truth”, and he planned for me, / At dead of night, when I was sunk in sleep, / Death unforseen–so would he test the truth. (page 7)
Unlike Hesiod’s version, in Metamorphoses, Lykaon kills a “hostage sent / Far from Epirus, slitting his throat, and boiled / Part of the flesh, scarce dead, and roasted part” (7) instead of doing that to one of his own sons. Either way, with that done, he had Jupiter join him for a meal, telling him to eat the flesh of this person he’d just cooked.
Unfortunately for Lykaon, Jupiter was in fact Jupiter the omniscient, and the moment he was offered the flesh…
At once my avenging flame / Whelmed in just ruin that guilty house and him. (7-8)
And now the most important part – Lykaon’s transformation scene! Yes, werewolves have been having transformation scenes since time immemorial. And Lykaon’s is one of the best. It’s very… vivid, moreso than one may expect:
He [Lykaon] fled in fear and reached the silent fields / And howled his heart out, trying in vain to speak. / With rabid* mouth he turned his lust for slaughter / Against the flocks, delighting still in blood. / His clothes changed to coarse hair, his arms to legs– / He was a wolf, yet kept some human trace, / The same grey hair, the same fierce face, the same / Wild eyes, the same image of savagery. (8)
[*: Given that “rabid” literally means “infected with rabies,” which doesn’t really make any sense here, I feel the need to point out that the word “rabies” means “rage” or “madness” in Latin. That’s where we get the name of the disease. This doesn’t mean that Lykaon suddenly was infected with the disease known as rabies – he was filled with rage and madness.]
How fantastic! What a scene, what an image! I love the specificity of the description. That’s classic werewolf material right there. A wolf, a beast, but maintaining some semblance of his humanity. Truly this is one of the foundational legends of how we think of werewolves today.
So the purpose of the legend, obviously, is to punish Lykaon for his actions by turning him into a beast. Whether the Roman Ovid retelling or one of the original Greek versions, the end result is the same, if the wolf form is involved: it’s a form of punishment. Thing is, it actually wasn’t always seen as that bad a thing. As mentioned, there are many werewolf legends in ancient Greece and also Rome, some of which split directly from the legend of Lykaon. One such version included Arcadians who willingly undergo a transformation into a wolf that lasts years, in order to test their humanity (they must not eat human flesh while in their wolf form, or it become permanent), and it was almost a rite of passage of sorts, among many other legends.
Nor were they, by the way, always associated with cannibalism/eating people. Sometimes they were, sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes what separated werewolves from “evil beasts” were that they had the willpower to resist eating people. Even Lykaon himself wasn’t actually a cannibal, he just committed horrible atrocities by testing Zeus using the flesh of one of his own kids! That’s not too bad!… Yeah, it’s beyond terrible.
Anyway, it shouldn’t be assumed from the legend of Lykaon alone that wolves and werewolves were always portrayed negatively in ancient Greece or in Rome. They certainly weren’t. Those are, of course, legends I will detail in other posts, but for the sake of clarity, I want to have the reminder that not all wolves or werewolves were “evil” just because of this legend… like many scholars wrongfully assume.
Werewolf legends were told by many societies throughout time, even before recorded history; indeed, scholars argue over what represents the “first werewolf,” in part because there is no real way of knowing the age of the werewolf legend – particularly since, like many legends, a great deal of werewolf stories were only retold orally. Ranging from the earliest humans and even pre-humans to the Greeks and Romans, the werewolf in ancient times takes many shapes across multiple cultures, spanning, essentially, the entire world, and certainly the entire historical range of wolves. Among perhaps the most important of all werewolf legends, and some of the earliest to be recorded, were the ones told by the ancient Greeks. The belief in werewolves was, naturally, then carried over into ancient Rome, but the werewolf also independently arose in other cultures around the world, including but not limited to Europe, North America, and Asia. However, the belief in werewolves may have existed as early as the Paleolithic Age, around 45,000 BP.
 Beresford 19; the year is given by Beresford as BP (Before Present), due to the carbon dating process of prehistoric artifacts.
Likewise, in the same book, I address the fact that some scholars like to claim the “first” werewolf legend was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2750 BC, when Ishtar turns a shepherd into a wolf so that he is attacked by his own dogs. I refute this as the “first werewolf legend” as opposed to just a legend where a person is turned into a wolf on page 13 in footnote 16 of The Werewolf: Past and Future…
However, counting this instance from the Epic of Gilgamesh as “the first werewolf” is an odd statement. Yes, the shepherd is turned into a wolf, which is the same as many other werewolf legends (even Lycaon’s), but the choice of turning him into a wolf seems insignificant in terms of meaning. The fact that Lycaon’s transformation was intended as meaningful lends more power to the idea that King Lycaon may be the earliest recorded instance of a werewolf legend, since his actions led him to be specifically turned into a wolf, rather than into some other creature. The shepherd in Gilgamesh is only turned into a wolf so that his dogs will attack him, and other animals are substituted in later tales of this exact same type (such as Artemis turning a mortal into a deer so his dogs will rip him apart in a later Greek myth), making the choice of a wolf in the Epic of Gilgamesh feel arbitrary enough that it seems almost unfair to give it such importance in the history of werewolf mythology.
Naturally, given Lykaon is such an important figure in werewolf studies, there’s plenty of discourse about him and his legend across the various werewolf scholars. But, since this post is already insanely long, you can read more about the scholarly discourse and bigger picture of Lykaon’s tale in my first werewolf scholarly publication that I published in 2021, which discusses Lykaon and his scholarly discourse considerably already! And of course you’ll be hearing more about him and his place in werewolf mythology in my future publications, as well.
Back to Lykaon himself: I hope to someday translate my own editions of some of these primary sources, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses – or at least the passages relevant to werewolf studies, in particular – but we’ll see if I ever get around to doing that. Do keep an eye out for future werewolf studies works from me, however, as you will definitely be seeing a lot of those over the coming years.
In the meantime, I hope this post will serve you well enough to give a good idea and a little bit more depth than my previous post about the legend of King Lykaon and how important it is to werewolf mythology – and why you always hear so much about him.
Until next time!
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So why can’t it be cured, per se? Because, in folklore, being a vampire isn’t really an “infection.” Much like werewolves didn’t start out as a “disease” and lycanthropy only became thought of as such much later (I have so many posts on that; see the Werewolf Fact Masterlist), vampirism also has a different tale. Unlike werewolves, however, many vampires are no longer even considered human, to the point that they aren’t always really considered “cursed.” Not in the fashion of “we must lift the curse, so the person will be okay.” Lifting the curse of the vampire in folklore is, simply, destroying the vampire, so that the people the vampire was terrorizing will be okay.
This boils down to something I have mentioned before: in folklore, many vampires are not considered in any way “human” or the person they were before (if they were ever a person).
There are, generally speaking, two “types” of vampires: “living” and “unliving” vampires. This is what folklore scholars will tell you. But to get into all that in a lot of detail, we would have to get into a whole lot more, some of which I discussed in this post.
Basically, there are “undead human”/revenant vampires (or “dead vampires” in folklore studies) and the demon vampires (or “living vampires” in folklore studies).
The first category, the “dead vampires,” are those vampires that were once human and rose from their graves to haunt the living. These vampires were people once, then they fell victim to the vampire curse.
The second category, the “living vampires,” were never human. They are called “living vampires” because they aren’t undead – they are living because they are demons that are alive, instead of people who died and came back as vampires. They were never people. They are, indeed, demons – through and through. These are pure demons that come to haunt mortals, hunt them, and cause them pain and suffering, feeding off blood or vitality or something else humans have (generally something that’s integral to life). Believe it or not, the majority of legends that scholars now group as “vampire legends” actually fall into this category of demons.
There are a few vampires in folklore that stray outside of these two categories scholars have created, but it is true that many of them do fall into one camp or the other, generally speaking. This is especially true of Eastern European vampire folklore, which, of course, is one of our primary inspirations for our modern pop culture vampires, thanks to Bram Stoker writing Dracula.
The vampire types are something I really need to do a separate post about…
I feel the need to point out yet again, as an aside, that folklore is never a clean bill of what is and isn’t a legend about a “vampire” or “werewolf” or “dragon” or whatever else. Most all folklore study looks back on sets of folklore and legends that have no simplistic D&D-style monster systems. This is why many scholars (such as myself) will argue some things shouldn’t beconsidered a werewolf legend, for instance. In a lot of legends, the exact term we think of is never actually used. And this is also how sometimes the line between werewolf and vampire legends can become blurred, like with the vrykolakas. Nothing in folklore is clean-cut like modern fantasy books with their magic systems or something.
So, when we see “dead type” vampires, we are dealing with someone who died, was probably buried (maybe even for days), and then hauntings occurred to their family and loved ones. The vampire rose from their grave physically or spiritually – and, more often than not, this type of vampire will also return to their grave or else they never physically left it.
But these vampires cannot be “cured,” because they are dead. You can’t “cure” what is dead. The only way to “cure” a human vampire in folklore is to kill them, to destroy them, and thus end the curse’s existence altogether. Given the person in question has already died, that’s the only means of lifting the curse.
With the “living type” vampires, the demons, they are different creatures altogether – and you can’t “cure” a demon of being a demon. That’s what they are. So also with those kinds of vampires, you cannot cure them, and if you want to put an end to their evil, they must simply be destroyed. These were never human.
Folklore didn’t really draw many shades of grey with vampires very often, especially in the most popular of legends. I will, of course, provide lots of more specific examples and situations of various legends in different posts, but as far as a general overview is concerned… yeah, in folklore, you can’t cure the vampire. The vampire is simply something that needs to be destroyed.
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I love werewolves so much, you guys. I can’t even convey it to you. Really, I can’t. I’ve fallen into a feverish mood of just how much I love werewolves working on this post and how badly it rends my soul that they are portrayed so poorly across almost all media – and how the legends of them are all but forgotten and the ones everyone remembers are massively misinterpreted.
This really is my calling in life.
So let’s go. This is the longest werewolf fact to date, because this is a big deal to me and I want to get all these facts straight, so try not to get intimidated!
The Howling, the #1 movie that helped a generation think werewolves are similar to the legend of Peter Stubbe
I was preparing a poll for my patrons to decide the topic of the next werewolf fact, since my patrons have now decided that werewolf facts from here on (at least until the upcoming werewolf fact book, Werewolf Facts: A Guidebook to Folklore vs Pop Culture, is compiled and published!) will be deep-dives into specific werewolf legends.
However, while preparing this poll, I figured… why not google the most famous werewolf legends, to see what people would know the best and thus recognize and be interested in hearing more about?
As someone with two options in the poll already – those options being “Bisclavret” and “Peter Stubbe (and how his tale is not a werewolf legend)” – I was… very frustrated by the search results.
I ended up not running a poll this time, because it’s so important to me to knock out these lies about what is and isn’t a werewolf legend, like the nonexistent “wulver” and how the Beast of Gevaudan isn’t actually a werewolf legend, either.
Now, it’s important for me to note that I’ve already touched upon this once in a previous werewolf fact, because I personally find this to be a very big deal in terms of something werewolf studies has so horribly, tragically wrong, and people very seriously need to stop circulating this false concept and amateur misreading of a legend for which we have a very exact historical record. I have also referred to this in greater detail in my book, The Werewolf: Past and Future, because – again – it’s such a massive issue to me that this is considered such a “famous” werewolf legend.
However, I am going to detail it still further, because it’s so important to me that people realize just how much Peter Stubbe was never referred to as “The Werewolf of Bedburg” and was, in fact, never even referred to as a “werewolf” at all, not in the original accounts.
Now, in werewolf legends, not all “werewolves” are referred to as “werewolves.” This is something I’ve coveredseveral times before. This is largely because, when you look at folklore and mythology, you don’t get clear guidelines as to which creature is what.
That being said, Peter Stubbe’s account comes from a time period when people were, in fact, actually using the term “werewolf” and categorized things in a fashion more in the spirit of today, as opposed to so many of the older legends we now refer to as “werewolf legends” because they formed the basis of so many werewolf concepts that we still use.
Peter Stubbe’s account occurred at a time when the Catholic Church was indeed using the terms “werewolf” and “sorcerer” and they referred to very different, very specific things. This is something that separates something like the later-period werewolf trials from much earlier legends that never made use of the word “werewolf,” like various Greek werewolf legends, etc. For more info on that, see my post on What Is a Werewolf?.
For now, let’s get back to all the reasons why Peter Stubbe’s legend – like the also sadly famous Beast of Gevaudan – is not a werewolf legend at all.
First, let’s talk about the account itself. In fact, let’s go over it in some detail. I am getting all quotes from The Werewolf in Lore and Legend by Montague Summers, pages 253-259 in the 2012 Martino Publishing edition (one of the slightly better editions).
Montague Summers opens by claiming Stubbe’s account to be “one of the most famous of all German werewolf trials” (253), despite it not being a werewolf trial at all but in fact the trial of a sorcerer. As Summers himself says, Stubbe goes by many names: “Peter Stump (or Stumpf, Stube, Stubbe, Stub, as the name is indifferently spelled–and there are other variants)” (253). In my case, I’m going to use Stubbe.
Peter Stubbe was executed in Bedburg, near Cologne, on the 31 of March in 1590. At the time, this was a big deal – or, in Summers’ words, it “caused an immense sensation” (253) – and has been referenced since in popular works. A pamphlet detailing the events of Stubbe’s actions and his execution after his capture is published in Summers’ work, and he says he has “reproduce[d] it in full” (253). This seems to be true, as he didn’t feel the need to insert any references to werewolfery into the account.
The pamphlet begins thus, on page 253 of Summers’ work:
A true Discourse. Declaring the damnable life and death of one Stubbe Peeter, a most wicked Sorcerer, who in the likenes of a Woolfe, committed many murders, continuing this diuelish [devilish] practise 25. yeeres [years], killing and de- uouring [devouring] Men, Woomen, and Children. Who for the same fact was ta- ken and executed on the 31. of October last past in the Towne of Bedbur neer the Cittie of Collin in Germany.
Notice he is referred to here as a “Sorcerer.” And again, on the following page, the discourse opens with “Stubbe, Peeter, being a most / wicked Sorcerer” (254).
Sorcerer and sorcery – where do they call him a “werewolf?” They never refer to Stubbe as a werewolf once, nor do they accuse him of “werewolfery,” a term seeing relatively frequent use in this time period.
The fact that Stubbe supposedly turned into a wolf has retroactively made scholars refer to him as a “werewolf,” but he was never even called that. Throughout the account, we only ever see him referred to as a sorcerer. For instance, “the great matters which the accursed practise of Sorcery” (254). He is, in one instance, referred to as a “hellhound” (254), but not as a werewolf. The writer describes Stubbe as having been a man possessed by a “Damnable desire of magick … and sorcery” (254) for his entire life, starting especially since he was twelve years old. He made a deal with the Devil later in life…
The Deuill [Devil/Satan] who hath a readye eare to listen to the lewde motions of cursed men, promised to give vnto him whatsoeuer his hart desired during his mortall life : wherupon this vilde wrtech neither desired riches nor promotion, nor was his fancy satisfied with any externall or outward pleasure, but hauing a tirannous hart, and a most cruell blody minde, he only requested that at his plesure he might woork his mallice on men, Women, and children, in the shape of some beast, wherby he might liue without dread or danger of life, and vnknowen to be the executor of any bloody enterprise, which he meant to commit (254)
So as you can see, Stubbe was a messed up guy. And he only asked for the shape of “some beast.” That doesn’t sound like “werewolf,” does it? Continuing…
[The Devil] gaue until him a girdle which being put about him, he was straight transfourmed into the likenes of a greedy deuouring Woolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkeled like vnto brandes of fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharpe and cruell teeth, A huge body, and mightye pawes : And no sooner should he put off the same girdle, but presently he should appeere in his former shape, according to the proportion of a man, as if he had neuer beene changed (255)
Well, Stubbe liked that a lot, because he was a sicko and wanted to go do sick things. It didn’t matter what animal it was – but the Devil chose to let him turn into a wolf.
Now, a few elements of his story are similar to a few other werewolf trials – like Jean Grenier – of around the same time period, and we also have some older stories of things like skins and salves being used to turn someone into a wolf. So why do I separate this?
Because in this time period, werewolves and sorcerers were both believed in, and Stubbe was not referred to as a werewolf. His legend does not have crucial elements in common with even other werewolf legends of the time period, like a lack of self-control/insanity. Stubbe was fully aware of his actions and willfully doing these things and taking this form. His animal form could have just as easily been some kind of cat, unknown beast, or bear, or whatever, because he’s not a werewolf – he’s a sorcerer.
So Stubbe went around committing his atrocities “in the shape of a Woolfe” (255). He even would walk up and down the streets and “if he could spye either Maide, Wife, or childe, that his eyes liked or his hart lusted after, he would … in the feeles rauishe [ravish] them, and after in his Wooluishe [wolfish] likenes cruelly murder them” (255). Sound familiar? Yeah, that’s The Howling. It’s sad that this has infiltrated many levels of popular culture now. Werewolves were, before Stubbe became retroactively deemed a werewolf, never associated with sexual crimes.
It’s pointed out at this section of the account while detailing how disgusting and lecherous and murderous Stubbe was, going around eating people and babies and lambs and other animals, that he would eat them raw and bloody “as if he had beene a naturall Woolfe indeed, so that all men mistrusted nothing lesse than this his diuelish Sorcerie” (255). Again – sorcery. Not “lycanthropy” or “werewolfery” or “werewolf” or anything like that. And I’m not gonna lie, this guy’s legend is very messed up. It disturbs me to have anything like this associated with werewolves. It was never meant to be, and I am upset that scholars have decided it should be.
The account goes on to detail how Stubbe violated several women, including his own sister, and even begot children as a result. I won’t go into too many details about that, but it’s just more points toward this not being a werewolf legend, as it stands out starkly as the only “werewolf legend” that ever involved anything of the sort. But we once again get the reference to “likenes of a Woolfe” (256) – several more, in fact. We also get a “transformed man” (257), which again is not “werewolf,” as well as referring to him as “this light footed Woolfe” (257) and “this greedy & cruel Woolfe” (257).
Eventually, people did catch Stubbe, but only because they caught him returning to human shape after removing his demonic girdle that gave him a wolf form as long as he wore it. He was then taken and confessed to all his crimes, saying that “by Sorcery he procured of the Deuill a Girdle, which beeing put on, he forthwith became a Woolfe” (258).
Then they sure did mess him up. His execution was that he would “first to haue his body laide on a wheele, and with red hotte burning pincers in ten seueral places to haue the flesh puld off from the bones, after that, his legges and Armes to be broken with a wooddenn Axe or Hatchet, afterward to haue his head strook from his body, then to haue his carkasse burnde to Ashes” (259).
The account concludes…
Thus Gentle Reader haue I set down the true discourse of this wicked man Stub Peeter, which I desire to be a warning to all Sorcerers and Witches, which vnlawfully followe their owne diuelish imagination to the vtter ruine and destruction of their soules eternally, from which wicked and damnable practice, I beseech God keepe all good men, and from the crueltye of their wicked hartes. Amen. (259)
Sorcerers and witches. Not werewolves.
It’s impossible to overstate the importance of mentioning that this trial took place at a time period when other werewolf trials also occurred. Other werewolf trials around the same period referred to their accused as “werewolves.” However, Stubbe was – as mentioned – never once referred to as a werewolf. Careful care was taken to avoid this. He is “wolf-shaped” and “sorcerer.” Always “sorcerer,” never “werewolf.”
Around this same time period, there exist assorted examples of accusations of “werewolfery” and of “being a werewolf.” One such example is the parliament of Franche-Comte issuing a decree in December of 1573 (years before Stubbe’s trial), as detailed on page 146 of Matthew Beresford’s The White Devil,
those who are abiding or dwelling in said places … to assemble with pikes, halberds, arquebuses, and sticks, to chase and pursue the said were-wolf in every place where they may find or seize him
Again, however, Stubbe was never specified as practicing “werewolfery” or “being a werewolf,” but he was on multiple accounts accused of “taking a wolf shape,” “sorcery,” and being a “sorcerer.”
This is because there was a huge difference between the two. Maybe I’ll do a separate werewolf fact on it, but it’s already touched upon across multiple facts of mine, like this one and this one along with others I linked earlier in this post.
Now we reach the point of asking: so why does everyone call Peter Stubbe a “werewolf”? Is it just because he turned into a wolf, which is in itself very sad, because everyone is ignoring the details? That’s certainly part of it.
One of the – possibly the – earliest source to refer to Stubbe as a werewolf is Richard Verstegan in his Restitution of Decayed Intelligence in 1605, on pages 236-237.
Please note these are directly copied from a not super great transcription. The original can be found here. For the sake of clarity, I have not altered the language in any way from the digitized edition, but I will break it down some.
In his definition of “werewolf,” he says,
Were – wulf . This name remayneth Aill knowne in the Teutonic , and is as much to ſay , as mans wolfe ; the Greeke expreſſing the very like , in Lycanthropos .
Ortelius not knowing what Wwere ſignifiech , becaufe in the Netherlands , it is now cleame out of rfe , except thus compoſed with WWolfe , doch miſ – interpret it ac cording to his fancy .
So, in the beginning here, Verstegan says that werewolves are “man-wolves” and refers to the Greek term “lycanthropos.” That’s all well and good. Then he goes out of his way to say that most people “misinterpret” werewolves “according to [their] fancy.” That’s ironic, considering he misinterprets werewolves in his next paragraph…
[werewolves] are certayne Sorcerers , who ha uing annoynted their bodies , with an Oyntment which they make by the inſtinct of the Diuell : And putting on a cercayne Inchaunced Girdle , doe not onely voto the view of others , ſceine as Wolues , but to their owne thin king haue boch che Shape and Nature of Wolues , ſo long as they weare the fayd Girdle . And they doc diſpoſe them felues as very wolues , in wourrying and killing , and moft of Humane Cicatures .
Of ſuch , ſundry haue beene takon , and executed in ſun dry parts of Germany , and the Netherlands . One Peter Stump , for beeing a were , Wolfe , and hauing killed thirteene Children , two VVomen , and one Mao ; was as Beibur , not farre from Cullen , in the yeare 1589 put vnco a very cerrible Death . The Ach of diucrs partes of his bom dy was pulled out with hot iron tongs , his armes , thighes , and legges broken on a Wheele , and his body laſtly burnt . Hee dyed with very great remorſe , deſiring that his body might not be ſpared from any Torment , fo his Coule might be ſaued .
He runs werewolves and sorcerers together. This wholly muddies the hard and fast definition of werewolves that was set during this time period. Sorcerers and werewolves are two very different things. What he describes here, and what Stubbe is, is a sorcerer, not a werewolf. And he takes it upon himself to say that Stubbe is a werewolf and that werewolves are sorcerers. Thanks for screwing entire generations of scholarship, buddy; not that Montague Summers exactly tried to help fix it. All things being equal, though, I can say with confidence that this Verstegan fellow was a very broad scholar and didn’t seem too interested in diving deep into the differences between werewolves and sorcerers or anything about werewolves in particular. Why he even bothered making these assertions about Stubbe being a werewolf is a bit of a curiosity.
To give you an even better idea of just how muddied the entire perception of Stubbe the sorcerer is, we see people today call him the “Werewolf of Bedburg,” but another scholar – Adam Douglas on page 162 of his book The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf – calls him “the werewolf of Cologne” (Bedburg being very near Cologne; but which is he, the werewolf of Bedburg or the werewolf of Cologne? It’s almost like no one ever called him either one), and yet he himself also acknowledges indirectly through the use of quotes that Stubbe himself was – again – never once referred to as a “werewolf” during his own time period. He was always called a “sorcerer” and took a “wolf shape.” Never was he a “werewolf.”
Matthew Beresford is also guilty of spreading the concept of Stubbe as a werewolf in his own book, The White Devil, where he – on pages 146 and 147 – says Stubbe was “convicted of being a werewolf.” He was never convicted of being a werewolf. He was convicted of being a sorcerer. And again, of course, Beresford’s quotations from all primary sources make no mention of “werewolf.”
Even Montague Summers himself, who published the direct account of Stubbe in his book The Werewolf in Lore and Legend or just The Werewolf, claims that “[o]ne of the most famous of all German werewolf trials was that of Peter [Stubbe]” (Summers 253). But even looking at this account, and even elsewhere in his very own book laying out plainly the differences between werewolves and sorcerers and stressing the importance therein, Summers refers to Stubbe as a “werewolf.”
Granted, Summers is not necessarily known for his consistency, or even always his accuracy; regardless, his work to preserve the original accounts of legends is beyond commendable, and without him we may not still have the direct account of Stubbe’s trial with which to fully understand that Stubbe was never once referred to in his own time period as anything to do with a “werewolf.” We also wouldn’t have a lot of other things. I’ve used Summers’ work throughout my life, but his writing is still to be approached with a critical mindset instead of viewed as flawless.
Long – very long – story short…
tl;dr: Peter Stubbe was never, not even once, referred to as a “werewolf” or any other words associated with them in his own time period. The full and detailed account of his actions published the year of his execution never makes mention of anything to do with werewolves or the oft-used “werewolfery” during the time period. He is always referred to as a “sorcerer” and reference is made to his “likeness of a wolf,” but he’s never called a “werewolf.”
A werewolf and a sorcerer are not the same thing. It’s by no means 1:1. Saying that they are the same thing damages the study of werewolf legends and even the portrayals of werewolves in popular culture to an almost irreparable degree. It’s a misconception and a misreading of legend, folklore, and even historic accounts of periods during which such things were truly believed to exist. These misconceptions were popularized by academia and academia’s obsession with “new arguments” and the like. It isn’t a “new argument” to say Stubbe was a werewolf. It’s simply incorrect.
It is so important to note that there was an important distinction during this very time period between “werewolf” and “sorcerer.” This isn’t some kind of academic nitpickery about “well technically no one was a ‘werewolf’ in ancient Greece because the word didn’t exist yet!” or “’dragon’ really just means ‘serpent’“ or whatever. This is a simple, straightforward situation in which in the time period in question there was, in fact, a difference, and that difference is important to note hereafter because otherwise we should just throw all study of specific legends and myths and details of the time period and language and everything right out the window.
Peter Stubbe’s legendary account is one of a sorcerer, not a werewolf. It is not a werewolf legend. It’s a legend about sorcery and demonic magic.
Are there other instances in which we can blur the lines between between werewolf and sorcerer, potentially? Yes, perhaps. And someday I’ll get into those, in a different post. There are potential similarities between Stubbe’s account and some other werewolf accounts, but it’s endlessly important to note whether or not the word “werewolf” or “werewolfery” was used in accounts of this time period, since the word was in fact in use by this point in history.
And in Stubbe’s, those words were never used.
I cannot stress enough the importance of not entangling the account of Stubbe’s sorcery with werewolf legends. To draw one of my previous werewolf facts with a few additions – Peter Stubbe, by and large, just got mixed up in the obsession with “werewolf trials” (court trials), like the trial of Jean Grenier, who was accused of various crimes like cannibalism and “werewolfery” and “sorcery” (notice they are two different things). Grenier, however, was taken pity upon and deemed not responsible for his actions, and was sent to live the rest of his years in a monastery, where he lived peacefully for a time (but remained insane, as werewolves were associated with insanity during the late medieval and early modern period following the rise of scientific rationalism).
Whatever the case, for better or for worse, Peter Stubbe the sorcerer mistakenly remains the most immediate source for our modern horror movie werewolves that rather simplistically go romping about in search of flesh (in every sense of the word) to sate their hunger (also in every sense of the word).
And that’s a shame, because his legend isn’t a werewolf legend by any stretch. He could’ve turned into any animal, but just because his sorcerer animal form was a wolf, scholars have retroactively decided he was a “werewolf” instead of what he was called during his own time: a sorcerer.
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This was an ask response on my Tumblr where I do most of my folklore blogging, but it was popular enough there that I figured I should post it here, too!
Usually when referring to werewolves people tackle them in a pretty broad scope. Referring to Le Lobizon, the loup-garou, King lycaon, etc…but what is the mythology surrounding the werwulf or werewolf specifically? Like the German middle age definition of a werewolf?
That’s a very complicated question – but it’s also not. If that makes any sense at all. Let me elaborate…
What we call “werewolves” has almost become retroactive. We can’t really say that “werewolf” is a uniquely German term, despite being Germanic in nature, because our first recorded use of a variant of “werewolf” wasn’t even recorded in Germany. “Werewolf” never appeared very much in medieval writings, despite originating during the medieval period (more on that in a minute). Yes, you can find people using the term “werewolf” (and its assorted variations), but sadly, it often becomes a matter of asking: is this a real source, or is this something someone is falsifying?
This is a woodcut from 1722 in Germany of a werewolf. It’s one of the few instances we do have that is directly referred to as a “werewolf,” so we can be sure their werewolf legends in the 1700s, at least, weren’t too far off the mark from the kind of thing we have today.
You can find lots of “werewolf legends” in Germany from the 1800s and around that general time period that supposedly throw around the term “werewolf” (again, and its variations), but having read many of these myself and researched their sources and origins, I can tell you that the overwhelming majority of these things are just… nonsense. They weren’t legends. They were basically short stories, fake local tales, and generally untrue “folklore,” for whatever reason people had to be producing it. (What’s one way you can spot these? Several of them mention silver) There is a glut of utterly fake “German werewolf folklore” out there from the 1800s especially.
At any rate, as for the Middle Ages in Germany and what they considered to be werewolves, we have to look at Germanic folklore and mythology for that. In the pre-Middle Ages, early Middle Ages, and even into the mid Middle Ages, much of the Germanic regions of Europe were dominated by the old Germanic concepts – namely berserkers (which, again, were not bear warriors) and related legends.
It wasn’t really until after the Middle Ages that the word “werewolf” became used often across multiple regions. Much of what we call “werewolves” today is a retroactive label or translation.
Much like what happened with the Vikings, as the medieval world converted to Christianity, werewolves were cast in a steadily more negative light. The king of England from 1016-1035, King Cnut, issued the Ecclesiastical Ordinances XXVI, in which he specifically mentions the werewolf in relation to the Devil, saying, “[be watchful, that] the madly audacious were-wolf do not too widely devastate, nor bite too many of the spiritual flock.” This passage marks one of the earliest instances in which the term “werewolf” is virtually equated to the Devil or demons in general in Christianity, which becomes common in later medieval writings – and it also marks the first recorded use of the word “werewolf.” Instead of the wolf being a brother and wolf transformations being desirable, or at least not worthy of condemnation, Christianity altered the view of werewolves, turning them into demonic creatures associated with evil and witchcraft, who romp across the countryside leaving death and destruction in their wake. As stated by Beresford, “[T]he use of the werewolf as a religious scapegoat by the Church throughout the Middle Ages is intrinsic to the development of the myth of the modern beast. What was once … a highly revered and worshipped beast, emerges in the medieval period as a savage creature, poisonous, destructive and wholly evil; a beast to be feared and not imitated.”
Beresford 80, quoting Ecclesiastical Ordinances XXVI by King Cnut of England Beresford 88. However, in this passage, he does not seem to wholly take into account just how many medieval werewolf legends existed, and how some of them were not necessarily demonic – these were, however, more often than not, unrelated to the Church (except for a few cases, which Beresford himself also cites in his book), so his point largely still stands.
Another direct use of the word “werewolf” appears in assorted medieval lays about werewolf knights, such as Marie de France’s Bisclavret, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, written in 1470, etc. So, in many ways, you could even say the proper medieval concept of a werewolf was a noble knight, as they were actually directly called “werewolves!”
It’s all but impossible, in folklore and myth, to nail down certain legends about certain creatures. This is because folklore and myth are very indirect, as compared to the kind of things people create today in pop culture. A true “werewolf legend” spans tons of legends – and simultaneously almost none at all. Scholars have often dictated what is and isn’t a werewolf legend, and their decisions about it frequently don’t even make any sense (especially if you ask me). This applies to so many creatures, including both werewolves and vampires, and that’s why when someone asks me “what were dragons like in folklore?” I can’t give a direct answer. I have to almost write a book on it, because all monsters and creatures in folklore have very complicated backgrounds, many different names, often didn’t go by the names we put on them today at all, etc.
I hope this helped! Sorry I couldn’t give a more direct answer. Some other useful werewolf facts for this topic:
I present to you this month’s folklore fact – a vampire fact this time (werewolves will come around again next month, don’t worry)! The winner of this month’s poll is a fact on vampire intelligence, so let’s get right to it.
How smart are vampires in folklore? Are they the super smart suave immortal beings we’re generally used to from most popular culture?
Well, as it turns out, that’s a complicated answer. Why? It pretty simply boils down to the fact that most people assume it’s way too easy to define what is and isn’t a “vampire” (or what is and isn’t a “werewolf” or a “dragon” or literally every other single folkloric creature) based on legends.
There are a lot of things out there scholars have retroactively classified as “vampires” (again: this applies to all folkloric creatures, very much including werewolves, as I’ve covered before). This is primarily because that’s what scholars do, especially to get things like “new” “research” published and theses written, but also because we basically don’t really know where “vampire” comes from in the first place and thus everyone is scrambling around trying to put together assorted origins and similar legends.
Anyway! Regardless, I will go by some of the more commonly-accepted “vampire” legends. Please note there are way too many vampire legends to fully encompass here, so I’m looking at a general overview. I’ll get into more specific, unique legends later in more in-depth posts!
So, broad spectrum, most vampires in legend don’t really have what you might think of as “varying intelligence levels.” Again, I am referring here to vampires and/or vampiric creatures, because as I’ve gone into before, defining what is and isn’t a “vampire” by modern standards in folklore is extremely difficult, as it is with almost all mythical creatures.
Now, there’s a prevailing theory among modern scholars that many vampires in legend are what one might call “base born,” or of low birth; i.e., commoners, not noblemen, not upper-class. It’s important to note that this isn’t always true. However, it often is, so we’ll go with that. Regardless, though, this does not affect their intelligence, only their education levels and lifestyle, no matter what any rich person ever claimed about them.
That being said, however, many vampires do have odd weaknesses, some of which relate not to intelligence but to specific quirks that some games and settings spin as a dip in their intelligence. Chief among these are things like the obsession with counting, where one can spill a bag of beans and the vampire absolutely must compulsively stop and count every single bean. Thus, you have distracted the vampire.
Of course, most modern things don’t really do that sort of stuff.
At any rate, most vampires were portrayed at least as smart as the average person. Did they have great self-control? No, obviously not, between the occasional compulsive counting and the whole requirement to feed off blood (even if vampires in folklore didn’t have fangs), along with what was often a compulsion not only to drink blood but also to kill people, often certain kinds of people, like women or even children.
Still, none of this is intelligence so much as morals and self-control.
So, there you have it! Like werewolves, vampires are just as intelligent as their human counterparts.
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Since before recorded history, werewolves have captivated human imagination. Simultaneously, they represent our deepest fears as well as our desire to connect with our primal ancestry. Today, werewolves are portrayed negatively, associated with violence, cruelty, cannibalism, and general malevolence.
However, in ages past, legends depicted them not as monsters, but as a range of neutral to benevolent individuals, such as traveling companions, guardians, and knights. The robust legacy of the werewolf spans from prehistory, through ancient Greece and Rome, to the Middle Ages, into the Early Modern period, and finally into present-day popular culture. Over the ages, the view of the werewolf has become distorted. Media treatment of werewolves is associated with inferior writing, lacking in thought, depth, and meaning. Werewolves as characters or creatures are now generally seen as single-minded and one-dimensional, and they want nothing more than to kill, devour, and possibly violate humans.
Hollywood depictions have resulted in the destruction of the true meanings behind werewolf legends that fascinated and terrified humans for so many ages. If these negative trends were reversed, perhaps entertainment might not only discover again some of the true meanings behind the werewolf myth, but also take the first steps toward reversing negative portrayals of wolves themselves, which humans have, for eons, wrongfully stigmatized and portrayed as evil, resulting in wolves receiving crueler treatment than virtually any other animal.
To revive the many questions posed by lycanthropy, entertainment must show respect to the rich history of so many cultures all around the world – and rediscover the legend of the werewolf.
This book represents a lifetime of work, research, and argument. It’s the centerpiece of, essentially, who I am and what I want to fight for in my life. This underwent very close scrutiny by a board of distinguished professors, and I had to defend my research and my arguments before them in order to earn my degree.
If you enjoy my werewolf facts, you’ll enjoy reading this, I can guarantee it, especially if you want to hear my side of things. It won’t be a guide to werewolves, though it’ll certainly have plenty of useful information on various legends in coherent chronological order (all with proper professional attribution, footnotes, discussion, citation, etc.). This is a great place to start to get my perspective on things while also learning about almost all the werewolf legends and info I’ve covered in various facts – and many more that I haven’t!
It means so much to me that I have finally gotten to publish this. I really hope you’ll enjoy it and find it useful, educational, and thought-provoking.
And, from now until November 2, if you back my Patreon at $50 or higher, you will receive a signed copy of The Werewolf: Past and Future along with other goodies! (You do not have to remain a patron at this tier to receive the book; just one month, and you’ll still receive your copy. All current $50+ patrons will also receive a signed copy.)