So there’s a common trope with werewolves. You may have heard about it. It’s pretty simple – they eat people.
Now, obviously, not all werewolves hold to this, especially today with the rise of teen paranormal romance – and especially the cuddlier ones, like, say, MTV’s Teen Wolf, which generally aren’t known for eating people. But hey, it’s still pretty common, especially in horror and definitely in video games (like Elder Scrolls).
But did they do that in folklore? Let’s find out.
Now I know somebody will ask, or at least be thinking it, so I’ll go ahead and answer right now: Mav, do you like werewolves that eat people?
Yes I freaking do. I’m a terrible person, see, and I love horror and drama and terror surrounding werewolves and the very idea of them. I like them being scary and powerful and a very real threat that, the moment someone even says the word “werewolf,” people get afraid at the mere concept of something that horrifying.
However, I also like goodguy werewolves far, far, far more than badguy ones (you may have noticed?), and those don’t always eat people for entirely obvious reasons, which is also totally fine. But goodguy werewolves can eat people, too, you know. They just have to eat the bad people. And I love werewolves with depth, internal conflicts, rage problems, and a whole lot more. There’s plenty of potential development and room for anxiety and self-hatred in the eating people front. But that’s a whole ‘nother topic and definitely a separate post, because I can basically go on about that kind of thing forever. (But you can read some of that in some of my ask answers, like this one and this one and also this one.)
Anyway! Moving on to folklore…
Often times, being a werewolf, first of all, wasn’t even considered a bad thing or a problem, and it definitely wasn’t considered a disease.
Just ask all of the lots of werewolves throughout folklore history – the overwhelming majority, and in fact basically all of them, never had much trouble from being a werewolf. Or, at least, that trouble didn’t come from something like werewolf hunters (which were not a thing in folklore at all: see this post). Take a look at Bisclavret, just as one example, wherein the king is perfectly, 100% happy to have a werewolf knight in his court. If anything, he seems to think it’s pretty awesome.
However, the concept of werewolves eating human flesh was directly addressed (which was very rare, at least up until the Renaissance/Early Modern period; more on that later) in at least two legends that we have: the Arcadians and King Lykaon, both very closely connected.
In the Arcadian legends, turning into a wolf was considered a trial. In this trial, it was a challenge to not eat human flesh, in order to return to a human form.
In King Lykaon’s case, Zeus turned him into a wolf as a result of cannibalism (and/or attempting to trick Zeus into cannibalism), so Lykaon was up to naughty things before Zeus even did that to him.
In ancient times but especially during the Middle Ages, werewolves didn’t eat people – they were often allies in some capacity or another: knights, healers, sages, and protectors (like in the story of the werewolves of Ossory; I plan to tell that one here sometime!). They were helpful, more often than not. They’d hunt animals for food and return that food to their friends.
So what do werewolves in folklore eat? We see werewolves eat animals (cattle, sheep, etc.) a lot, but we virtually never get an actual depiction of a werewolf eating a person from these time periods.
More often than not, being a werewolf was either just kind of a thing that no one raised a great big stink about, or else it was considered a kind of trial – a challenge to see if someone was a good person. This was, I want to make very clear, not always intended to see if the werewolf was a good person. It was also a challenge to those around the werewolf: could they not judge a book by its cover?
Werewolves, at one point in medieval folklore, were very closely associated with being a good Christian and treating others well regardless of who or what they are and what they may appear as physically (like, say, if they were wolves or wolves with hands), if their souls were true (and these werewolves were always specified to “behave with good Christian manners,” etc.).
The Renaissance/Early Modern period, however, had a real knack for turning perceptions of werewolf legends into terrible, horrible things. They became associated with cannibalism in particular: diseased mad-men who ate human flesh. It’s that perception that’s endured today into modern pop culture.
Now, don’t get me wrong: wolves and werewolves alike have always had very close connections to hunger, eating, swallowing things and people whole, and all that fun stuff. But the actual eating of human flesh, in itself, wasn’t really a thing. Not for werewolves. Sometimes wolves would swallow people whole (like in Norse myth, when Fenrir will eat Odin), but that’s not quite the same connotation as werewolves performing “cannibalism” (is it really cannibalism if they’re in werewolf form a the time? That’s considering werewolves people, which most people who hunt and hate werewolves don’t do, isn’t it? Food for thought! Hypocrisy in pop culture! I also know my Wulfgard werewolf protagonist would disagree and say yes it’s definitely cannibalism and it’s terrible, but details).
For more on the connection between werewolves and wolves and their voracious habits (which is definitely huge in folklore and myth), see this lovely post I had way too much fun writing a while back. (And just to clarify, the Big Bad Wolf, he isn’t actually a werewolf, he is a wolf. It’s only every modern thing under the sun trying to be clever wherein he is actually any form of werewolf instead of just a talking wolf, like he is in the actual fairytale, where he eats Red Riding Hood and the story ends and I prefer that version. And even so, he is very much an outlier in his desire to eat a person – probably because bla bla literary examinations bla bla metaphor and whatever, more negativity on wolves, gosh I hate “big dumb evil wolf has absolutely no brain” fairytales).
But did werewolves in folklore generally eat people?
The answer is… No. Were they directly associated with eating people and was that a huge part of being a werewolf? No.
Was that a thing that largely came about in the Renaissance/Early Modern period and was definitely absolutely (like the whole “evil” and “disease” things and the association with madness, which I recently detailed in this post right here) picked up and popularized by Hollywood to give them even more of a negative image? Hard yes.
Was that originally to make them scarier, also? Probably, and to make them more evil and Satanic, as both secular and (some) religious organizations wanted them to be during the Early Modern period, when they were turning people against all the old folklore beliefs. And it worked for a while, up until werewolves quickly started being turned into a joke by modern (around the 1980s) entertainment, primarily Hollywood. But that, again, is a topic for another time.
But now you know: in folklore, no, werewolves don’t really eat people.