Spiritual werewolves. Spirit projection. Astral projection? What do we call it? Anyway, these are werewolves that do not undergo a physical transformation – instead, they project their souls outward from their unconscious human bodies and into the forms of wolves.
So does that make them still “werewolves”? Yes. Personally, I much prefer werewolves that undergo a physical transformation, but I’m a very… organic and visceral person, I guess? But yes, these are still werewolves, so here they are in a werewolf fact!
So this is pretty much what it says on the tin: there are some stories about werewolves in which the werewolf in question undergoes not a physical transformation, but a spiritual one – in which their human form is unaffected but they still physically become a wolf.
In other words, this generally happens when they sleep – not too unlike turning into a werewolf at night (which, of course, is not always how it works in legends) and/or the transformation in itself being a kind of out-of-body experience since your body literally changes.
While the werewolf’s unconscious body lays there “asleep,” their soul leaves said body and instead assumes the form of a wolf (often, again as per werewolves, a giant and/or exceptionally large wolf). The person retains full control in most situations, or at least that’s implied and anything otherwise isn’t often stated. They also, of course, retain their intelligence, which is also a standby of werewolf myths.
It is implied in stories that this wolf form, however, comes seemingly from nowhere – that is to say, the wolf form does not exist when the werewolf is not “occupying” it/asleep and projecting their soul outward as a wolf.
The idea of the soul leaving one’s body as a werewolf is very Germanic, more often than not (there are, of course, many other cultures around the world that have various forms of spiritual projection), especially since they maintained a concept of a spiritual ‘double.’ There are several examples of this throughout various Scandinavian myth and also Scottish and Irish, among other cultures, but – interestingly – these cultures also had myths of physical werewolf transformations, as well. It was by no means a replacement.
To cover two example legends real quick here…
In The Wonders of Ireland, we have a passage that says…
certain people in Ireland … who go in the shape of wolves when it pleases them … And they leave their own bodies
If they are wounded in their wolf form, the wounds appear on their human body – and when they eat raw meat as a wolf, the meat can be seen in the teeth of their human form. These things seem pretty universal across legends of this nature.
In Scotland, it is implied that people becoming werewolves wasn’t all that unusual, but in this case, their transformations are spiritual projections. In the writings of Bishop Patrick from the eleventh century, we hear about another interesting case of these sorts of werewolves, wherein if their human body is disturbed, they cannot actually return to their human form…
There are some men of the Scottish race,
Who have this wondrous nature from ancestry and birth,
Whensoever they will, they can speedily turn themselves,
Into the form of wolves and rend flesh with wicked teeth,
But whilst they act thus, they leave their true bodies,
And give orders to their women not to move them,
If this happens, they can no longer return to them.
If any man harm them or any wound pierce their flesh,
The wounds can be plainly seen in their own bodies,
Thus their companions can see the raw flesh in their jaws,
Of their true body: and we all wonder at the sight.
This isn’t limited to wolves, either; as I covered in my post on “werebears” (which were, of course, never called werebears in legend, as that’s a modern derivative of the word “werewolf”), there was a guy named Bodvar, who appeared in many legends including some from Denmark, who could enter a trance and “become” a bear – but his body would remain in the trance and a bear would appear under his control. If he was awoken, the bear would disappear. More details in the bear shapeshifter post!
Overall, however, there are many more werewolf myths in which a physical transformation takes place. There were certainly plenty of these, too, though – but pop culture didn’t really latch onto this idea quite as much, probably due in no small part to the fact that it’s overall less dramatic and also less of a curse (though that doesn’t stop some things from having it be spread by bite).
I guess the most popular examples of this right now in media would be Game of Thrones (with its “warging,” which by the way “warg” is not a verb, for the record, it just means “wolf”) and Wolfwalkers.
In Wolfwalkers, though, the werewolves can bite people in their wolf form and apparently turn them into wolfwalkers – just for the record, this wasn’t a thing in legends. Oh, and they are called “wolfwalkers,” not werewolves, in the show – which I admit made me sad, especially since they went with the bite thing. More “we can’t use the word werewolf.” But anyway.