So how does someone become a werewolf, anyway? Ask almost any Hollywood movie, video game, TV show, novel, and what-have-you, and they’ll say: “Being bitten, of course!” And there are always tons of other wild answers people come up with, too. Here’s a coherent list of some from legend – and some that aren’t, just to point out a few more of those pop culture creations.
I’m going to preemptively say please don’t trust any of the silly lists you see everywhere on the internet or consider them a reputable source. Those make werewolves cry and then go eat someone out of frustration.
Also, this list will obviously not include quite every obscure possibility inside or outside of folklore. There are simply too many around for me to list all of them here (especially some of the wacky things in more obscure legends – as well as some of the even wackier things in pop culture today). Feel free to send me an ask about something if I left it off!
Did NOT appear in folklore:
You’ll notice the majority of this list associates them specifically with disease in some way and turns being a werewolf into an infection. (Keep that in mind for next week’s werewolf fact.)
- Being bitten – Some scholars claim there were a few old, obscure legends in which claims were made that a werewolf’s bite could spread the curse – and I’ve seen some around, myself (including some French ones that seem to possibly actually have some basis behind them). But the real question is, are they reputable? I’m personally going with probably not, which is why “being bitten” is exclusively in the section of NOT appearing in folklore. Werewolves transferring their curse via bite was almost certainly created by Hollywood (namely Cut Siodmak again) and then picked up by every form of media imaginable. This is just another of those generally modern ideas that brought them closer to being a disease instead of a curse (looking at you, rabies).
- Being scratched – This one is very, very recently contrived (and as you may have noticed honestly kind of irks me for various reasons). There’s not a lot to say about it other than that. I’m not sure who exactly made it up or when, but I wish they hadn’t. It’s become quite prolific – for some reason.
- Werewolf sex – Rawr. It’s fine (I mean unless you wanted it?), ladies, having hot werewolf sex won’t give you your partner’s curse, unlike what some pop culture would tell you. This is just another one of those things popular media made up to make werewolves more closely associated with “infection” of various types (yes, including STDs), and to try to associate them more with sex in some way. So have all the werewolf sex you want! You can even get kinky with scratching and biting (disclaimer: depends on your lore, also the werewolf might transform and eat you in a not-fun way during it in most modern media)!
- Drinking/otherwise being exposed to werewolf blood – Once again an association with disease, nobody exposed to werewolf blood in folklore was ever at risk of becoming a werewolf, themselves.
- Genetics – And lastly, an equivalent to a hereditary disease. This was never a thing in folklore, either. There were no werewolf “genes,” for assorted obvious reasons. All of this is very Hollywood, and very “let’s make monsters into science.”
Appeared in folklore:
- Magic skins – A very common one, especially in Scandinavian folklore, someone could always just don a wolf skin and become a werewolf. Usually the skin is in some way enchanted (blessed or cursed, depends on your story and viewpoint). Most often they were wolf skin cloaks, though belts also made some appearances. The hard part, sometimes, was getting them back off, such as what Sigmund and Sinfjotli went through (Sinfjotli himself was later accused of being a werewolf, in the Poetic Edda).
- Potions, salves, etc. – Another relatively common one, though this appeared much more often in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern period than any other time frame. One could drink a potion to become a werewolf, or else rub a magical salve all over their body to immediately transform.
- Curse from a witch – Watch out for those witches, because they can turn you into a werewolf if they don’t like you. And when it comes to a witch’s curse, you might not necessarily be turning back into a human until you break it.
- Curse from a god – Much like the witch’s curse, a curse from a god could result in a permanent or semi-permanent werewolf form, with little (very well spaced out, over a matter of weeks) or no regular shifting back to a human form. For example, Zeus cursing Lycaon to be a wolf – Lycaon was never turning back from that. This isn’t always the case, though.
- Performing certain rituals – This is a very broad category, because plenty of werewolves became werewolves after they did some ridiculous ritual or another. For instance, in Arcadia, you had rituals that required someone to swim all the way across a lake under the light of a full moon and they would emerge a werewolf on the other side. Note that none of these rituals involved anything sexual, and generally didn’t even involve violence either (sacrificing virgins has nothing to do with werewolves), unlike modern depictions.
- Gift from God – This is an unusual one, pretty much only exampled by the court case of a man named Thiess who came to court admitting he was a werewolf, after multiple eye-witnesses saw him turning into one. However, Thiess said he is a Hound of God. He was released from the court because no one could find fault in him. (You’ll be hearing about Thiess in more detail here in the future! I love his story.)
- Test from God – This also didn’t result in evil, feral werewolves trying to kill people. In this case, quite simply, people were either forced to turn into werewolves or even opted to turn into werewolves in order to test the goodness and humanity in others. There are multiple accounts from Christian monks on this subject, of werewolves approaching someone (often a monk, themselves, and the subject of the test) and asking for help, or else helping that person. Their reaction to this kind-hearted, gentle wolf would be the test of their goodness. Because if a man cannot treat a kind, gentle wolf the way he would treat any kind, gentle man, he isn’t really a very good person, now is he?
- Deal with the Devil – This started up fairly recently, when werewolves took a turn into being evil – in the Early Modern period, well after the rise to power of the Catholic church (which, in later periods, decided werewolves were evil, unlike the medieval accounts told by the monks). Plenty of people claimed they made a deal with the Devil to receive a salve or a skin that would allow them to take the shape of a wolf. Since they were dealing with Satan, they of course wanted this shape so they could romp about and murder and cannibalize people with the power of a wolf – and also a disguise, since no one would recognize them.
- Family curse – There were times, of course, when a family in legend was kind of ambiguously cursed – and this would result in someone being born a werewolf.
- Being born on Christmas – Here’s some fun Russian folklore for you: if someone dared to share the birthday of Christ, they would be born a werewolf as punishment. Or, alternatively, according to one account, this was actually an awesome blessing (I’d take it).
- Being conceived during a new moon – Again from Russian folklore, if you were conceived during a new moon, you would be born a werewolf. I was born on a new moon… does that count, I wonder?