I’ve been asked before about how old werewolf legends – the belief in werewolves in general – really are. It’s a question I get quite a lot, actually. I talked about it once, in a werewolf fact, but I didn’t go into as much detail as I could have.
So let’s talk about the oldest werewolf legends.
For starters, werewolves are a universal legend. That means that, wherever wolves lived (which is WAY more places than they live today), there was a belief in werewolves.
This was worldwide in every wolf region and across all time periods, even dating back to prehistory. Everywhere wolves lived, we have found evidence of a belief in werewolves – all of Europe, most of Asia, the Mediterranean, India, China, North America…
People have always believed in werewolves.
Even before recorded history, werewolf legends were told in cultures all across the world. Scholars often argue over what represents the “first werewolf,” since there’s no real way to know. We can’t know the exact age of the legends that get passed down to us over time or just how many rich oral legends we’ve lost.
From pre-humans to Greeks and Romans to every other known culture that shared its existence with wolves, we have at least some proof of belief in werewolves. From Greece and Rome and Scandinavia and other civilizations, of course, we have many legends, including but not limited to the berserkers, the Arcadians, King Lykaon (often argued as the “first werewolf” that we at least have the written story for, though clearly a belief in them existed long before that), and many more across many other regions.
The prehistoric werewolf takes many appearances across many cultures, spanning basically the entire world. Werewolf legends do not seem to have spread from a single source. Many cultures came up with their own werewolf legends individually, instead of picking them up from another nearby or conquering culture.
Most werewolf scholars agree, though, that werewolves can be traced back to prehistory, though unfortunately we – obviously – don’t have the actual stories. But carbon dating of cave paintings and prehistoric artifacts puts werewolf beliefs going back as far as 45,000 BP – “Before Present,” a term used by carbon dating systems. So we’re talking around early Paleolithic Age or so.
Studying werewolves, though, will inevitably lead you also to studying wolf cults and ancient beliefs in animal transformation. Many prehistoric cultures revered the ability, even ever since the days of shamanistic hunter-gatherers, who doubtlessly had their own werewolf legends. These beliefs, though, have little to no bearing on werewolves in pop culture today, though it’s interesting to look at them and realize that werewolves have much older roots than anyone gives them credit for today. You see cases of ancient peoples revering wolves and wanting to turn into them for their power and their hunting ability and the like.
You’ll hear some scholars, like Matthew Beresford, infer that the reason people believe in werewolves all across the wolf’s prehistoric range is because it would have allowed people to take the form of the animal they feared most. What he doesn’t mention, though, is the important note that yeah, they certainly feared them, but they also respected and revered them. Wolves were something to aspire to being, for savage humans. To turn into a wolf was a respected thing, because while wolves were feared, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were “hated” so much as “respected.” Today, we equate fear with hate, but that doesn’t have to be the case.
One may ask, then, who or what was the “first werewolf?” To claim that one can trace werewolf legends – many of which predate recorded history – back to the “first” one is surely a combination of arrogance and ignorance, but, today, it has become a popular notion to assert that King Lycaon, from Greek mythology, was the “first” werewolf. Other scholars claim there are other “first” werewolves, but I won’t bother going into those, because frankly most of them are immensely silly and aren’t werewolves at all. It’s reaching. And many of them are downright silly and totally irrelevant to werewolves, and scholars mention them just because there happens to be a wolf involved at some point (and for no specific reason; in the case of one legend, you can literally substitute any animal, as other legends similar to it do in later ages).
Ultimately, defining the “first werewolf” depends largely upon how exactly one wants to define a “werewolf” – which I’ve already done here as far as I’m personally concerned – along with a willingness to acknowledge that records of whichever legend truly told of the “first werewolf” could not possibly exist.
But either way, we can certainly acknowledge that from what we have seen, a belief in werewolves does seem to predate history.
So next time someone says werewolves are “silly,” remind them that they’re just saying that because it’s in human nature to be absolutely terrified of them. And some people want to laugh at things that scare them, I suppose.
For real, though, now you know!