You’ve probably heard a lot – in media or otherwise – about werewolves in relation to magic skins, and vice versa. What’s up with that? Just how do animal skins relate to werewolves? Let’s find out…
Magic skins are actually pretty commonplace in werewolf folklore and mythology. The biggest source about them that you’ll hear of, no doubt, is Norse myth. Norse myth is pretty loaded with all kinds of stories related to animal skins – not least of which are the berserkers, of course, and the ulfhednar/ulfhedinn (depending on plural/singular). But I have a separate post on those. I recently expanded it a little! Be sure to check it out, because “berserker” doesn’t refer to a “bear warrior” like you probably think it does.
But I won’t go into that here; check the other post for that. For things bear-related (and more on magic skins, but not in relation to werewolves), also be sure to check my post on bear shapeshifters/”werebears.”
All that aside, though, one of the biggest actual stories we have that talk about magic skins is a story involving legendary figures Sigmund and Sinfjotli, who donned wolf skins one night that turned them into wolves – and then they couldn’t take them back off and reassume their human forms. They went on what’s now occasionally referred to as the “wolfs-ride,” (originally gandreið, which has nothing at all to do with wolves because it means more like “wand ride,” and means basically “staff ride,” more in association with the Wild Hunt – and again we see the negative bias inherent in modern scholars and translators against wolves), basically giving in to their bestial instincts and challenging each other to kill a certain number of people within an allotted time.
That, of course, didn’t always happen to everyone who turned into wolves using wolf-skins. Nor did everyone who donned a wolf skin directly turn into a wolf/werewolf, like Kveldulf, a warrior who was never actually described as changing shape (though he was said to do so!). He didn’t have to change shape, either, to have the strength of many men and beat up tons of people who made him mad. He’d get grouchier as the day went on, until, in the evening, his temper was terrible. But he was considered noble and good. I totally love Kveldulf, he’s awesome.
Generally speaking, a lot of werewolves and werewolf-like figures in Norse myth were associated with magic skins. You can find many lineages of various folks with Ulf (Norse for “wolf”) names, all of whom could turn into wolves. Or, as they say, “don the wolf shape.”
Now, not all werewolves and wolf shapechanging of any type in Norse myth involved skins! Sometimes it involved transporting one’s mind and/or soul into an animal’s body, entering a shamanic trance, and sometimes it was totally different than either example. But all of that is details for another time.
Generally, these skins – which could come in many forms, but generally were cloaks, cowls, and girdles – were somehow magically enchanted, cursed, or both, depending on whom you asked and whom was in control of them. Others, like Kveldulf, clearly didn’t necessarily need these skins to gain the might of the wolf and had it even in their human form. In fact, it’s implied most berserkers did.
Turning into a wolf with the skins and/or any other variety of werewolfish things, rituals, and shapechanging acts – including becoming a berserker – wasn’t always considered necessarily “bad” or “evil,” nor was it directly always considered “good.” Wolves themselves in Norse myth are perceived very mixed. Often, they are considered good and people and warriors all look up to them for their cunning, ferocity, strength, wisdom, and all their other amazing majestic incredible strong and brave qualities (can you tell I’m biased? But really, they loved them, too, for – in a word – their sheer badassery).
This can be seen in the case of Odin having dominion over wolves, as well as having his own two wolves, Geri and Freki, who were meant to be the progenitors of wolves everywhere. But then, conversely, you have not so good wolves – you have evil wolves like Fenrir, destined to swallow Odin and slay him during Ragnarok (basically he was the scariest thing about Ragnarok, don’t let any movies tell you otherwise…), and there were plenty of other bad wolves, too.
To a warrior, though, having the strength and ferocity of a wolf was pretty desirable, and plenty of positive figures in Norse writings had wolf associations. So, no, they weren’t all always evil by any means, and they were also frequently associated with wisdom and sages.
Much later in history, other werewolf legends began to re-adopt this concept of wolf skins. Specifically, in the Renaissance/Early Modern period, the concept of wolf skins arose again in several werewolf trials – most notably Jean Grenier, who claimed he received a wolf skin given to him by the “man of the forest,” a big creepy dude who was quite possibly Satan or, at the very least, some kind of demon or guy with lots of very close demonic dealings. He didn’t exclusively use this wolf skin, though, as there was a salve and some other ritual involved to assuming his wolf form.
This was also, as I’ve mentioned, the time period when concepts of werewolves (and wolves themselves – real ones, actual living animals) began to be warped forever – and they’re still that way today. In that time period, they became associated with crazy people, cannibals, serial killers, etc., and all other variety of undesirable people. Werewolves, essentially, became associated solely with madmen and often with Satan. This was not an exclusively Christian doing, either, as there are plenty of positive Christian portrayals of werewolves (not all of which are covered in this post, either). While Christianity certainly warped many legends, werewolves were not actually one of them, despite what some people might tell you. There are many, many positive Christian depictions of werewolves, and you can find several covered in other werewolf facts (I did one just recently on the werewolves of Ossory). And then there are werewolf knights, whether they were all directly Christian or not.
But I covered all that in other posts, too – most of them, in fact. But especially this one, on the descent of the werewolf into what we think of them as today (unfortunately). I think the honestly rather crappy modern perception of werewolves was shaped entirely too much by this shoddy time period and that helped people forget all the original legends and assume they know them without really knowing them at all.
Oops. How’d that soapbox get there? Let me move that.
Anyway, getting back to the skins, that mostly covers it! There’s so much to be said, of course, but that’s the basic overview.