Transformation Triggers

So you remember I covered how to become a werewolf a while back – but once someone becomes a werewolf, when will they actually transform/shift/shapeshift/turn/change/whatever word you want to use for it?

To put it up front, most werewolves in folklore didn’t go back and forth as often as werewolves in media do today. And the ones who did didn’t have very specific triggers or at least not very well-explained ones. Still, it’s certainly worth taking a look at – you might even be surprised by some of what you find!

Note that, again, these are triggers for people who – unless stated otherwise – are already werewolves. For a list of ways to become a werewolf in the first place, see that other post I mentioned on Becoming a Werewolf.

Did NOT appear in folklore:

  • Alpha/another werewolf howling – Nope, you won’t find this one in folklore. A lot like how the alpha/beta/omega thing kind of isn’t really a thing, werewolf packs were never really much of a thing in folklore, either – if there was more than one werewolf, that was rare on its own. A werewolf with a wolf pack happened before in folklore, too, though. Still, in any case, there’s never been a situation of one werewolf forcing or prompting another to transform using a howl.
  • Sadness/emotions other than rage – There are going to be lots of arguable triggers in this list; this is one of them. Generally, no, werewolves in folklore never turned because they were sad or emotional in any way other than rage. But then, some people equated lycanthropy in the Early Modern period with the condition of melancholy – but that doesn’t necessarily just mean “sadness,” either, that’s for sure. At any rate, I’m going with no on this one.
  • Stress – Similar to above. Unless we count stress as rage, this was never really a trigger, either. Werewolves in folklore also just usually aren’t deep enough characters for us to see them get stressed and turn because of it, anyway, to be blunt.
  • Sex drive – Definitely no. Werewolves got married and were fine in folklore. Werewolves and sex never really went together heavily in folklore in a negative way, despite what you might hear, and any idea of associating them with something as awful as rape came much, much later, closer to the modern period, and was the result of Satanic sorcerer and witch trials and movies like The Howling.
  • Hunger – This is another arguable one. There were some cases of a werewolf getting hungry, turning, and going out to kill some animal to eat, and also hunger is very, very commonly closely associated with the curse itself – but the hunger wasn’t necessarily the trigger of the actual transformation into a wolf. In several cases, the werewolf turned because he wanted to hunt, not because he turned uncontrollably on the basis of having that hunger. This is also if you aren’t going to list the wolf of Gubbio as a werewolf, since he was driven to evil solely by hunger (but it’s pretty plainly stated he’s just a wolf in that story). I’m going to go ahead and go with no on this one (despite how fun it is in stories, as are many of these!).
  • Wolfsbane – Again, werewolves in folklore were never really connected to wolfsbane. This goes for weakness and it also goes as a transformation trigger. All of those ideas were popularized in The Wolf Man in 1941, by our good friend we’re becoming so familiar with now, Curt Siodmak. Some things have a werewolf start transforming when they are near wolfsbane or smell it; that was never a thing, nor was a werewolf transforming when the wolfsbane blooms (like in The Wolf Man).
  • Other visual triggers – Tossing this in mostly because of the TV show Grimm and a case of a “our werewolves are different” creature called a Blutbad (which is totally not just someone else’s weird take on a werewolf, why would you think that, look the name is different and everything). See something red, start getting vaguely werewolfish. Yeah, no. That was definitely never a thing. Ha ha, big bad wolf reference. No further comments.

Appeared in folklore:

  • Full moon – Yep, it was in folklore! True it’s rare and hard to find, but the basis is there. Some scholars argue the basis has been there since before recorded history. But we do have actual proof as well, in the form of some regions of southern France in the 1800s – which, yes, is late, but hey, it’s still there. As cited by Sabine Baring-Gould in his Book of Werewolves, these writings stated that werewolves “transformed into wolves at the full moon. The desire to run comes upon them at night.”
  • Moonlight in general – This is something I’ve argued for before in my research: the connection between the werewolf and moonlight can be found pretty often in folklore. We see it in Greek works (like Niceros’s tale), for instance. While special attention isn’t always drawn to it, I’d say there’s definitely a connection that could be made there. Standing in the moonlight, seeing moonlight… especially if moonlight directly touches one’s skin. That whole thing. True it’s not as gimmicky as it is in modern culture, but the idea remains, we have seen moon imagery with werewolves and their transformations (again, Niceros’s story is my favorite example; I’ll have to detail that one sometime in another fact!).
  • Nighttime/nightfall – Similar to the full moon section, this is rare but findable (even in that same passage quoted just earlier), and sometimes it’s arguable as well, since many werewolves we see in folklore appear at night.
  • At will – This is frankly the most common of all, second to the “certain timeframes” section. Werewolves in folklore could, pretty often, turn when they pleased. There are examples of this all throughout folklore, such as the Neuri people from Greek and Roman myth, as well as a character named Moeris in Virgil’s writings, and plenty of other stories, like another instance of a werewolf transforming to go catch meat and bring it back to his fellow hungry travelers (a personal favorite of mine).
  • Rage/adrenaline – I’m going with a huge, resounding yes on this one. We’ve seen many cases of this in folklore, most notably with the berserkers such as Kveldulf.
  • Traumatic wounds – Yet another arguable one. If we look at berserkers, we might be able to say yes, actually werewolves in folklore have turned because of traumatic wounds. Then again… did they? I’m going to just go ahead and put it under yes, personally, because there are some more obscore stories that seem to imply it when a werewolf warrior goes into battle.
  • Certain timeframes – This is pretty common, actually – a werewolf transforming based on a certain timeframe, but not necessarily related to moon phases or something else. For instance, in the medieval lai Bisclavret, the werewolf transforms “three whole days of every week.”
  • Putting on certain items (rings, skins, etc.) – This is a big one, especially in Scandinavia. Putting on a certain ring (as seen in Melion), putting on wolf skin cloaks, belts, or other items… this has been common throughout the history of werewolf legends, even up to the Early Modern period.
  • Taking off clothes (perhaps under other conditions?) – Again we see that werewolf transformation conditions weren’t super specific in folklore. Sometimes we hear about how it’s necessary for the werewolf to remove their clothes before they turn (thus making the removal of the clothes not the actual trigger), and to put them back on before they can be human again (which was very big in those medieval knight werewolf tales; again, like Bisclavret, where that was the center of the entire story). Then we have some Greek and Roman accounts wherein the werewolf removes their clothes and turns. In one instance, the guy urinated around himself in a circle afterward (charming, right?), but that was just one story among many with the same transformations and conditions, so maybe that writer was just into things. Sometimes the change happens under the moonlight and/or at night, but we can’t really know of any of this is related. Sometimes the clothes would turn to stone afterward.
  • Being blessed – Sometimes gods would bless people and turn them into werewolves. This happened in some old, obscure legends about Zeus and Apollo in Greek myth, and some people into the Middle Ages made this claim that they were a werewolf because they had been blessed by God.
  • Being cursed – Conversely, being a werewolf could also be a curse from a god (including Zeus or the Christian God). The person didn’t always change back, when this was the case (like Lycaon), or sometimes would remain transformed for a certain amount of time (ten years, for example) before becoming human again and never experiencing another transformation.
  • Performing a certain ritual – This is a very, very broad one. There were lots of elaborate (and some not so elaborate) rituals that a person could do to become a werewolf. This is a case in which, however, the person performing this ritual didn’t do it just once to become a werewolf and gain that power to go back and forth – some werewolves in legend had to perform a ritual over and over again in order to actually assume a different form, so this is slightly different than the section in the Becoming a Werewolf post.
  • Eating human flesh – This was pretty common, too. If someone tasted human blood or ate human flesh, they might become a werewolf. Sometimes this also involved certain ritual and a curse from a god (again, often in Greek myth), but not always.

And there you go! I’m sure there are plenty more than these in various forms of media, and of course I’m not detailing every single ritual featured in folklore, just providing examples. If anyone has some specific questions on more, just send them my way!