Unbelievably, I never actually did a werewolf fact on this. But… Well, it disturbs me just how many random people on the internet I see making the utterly baseless assertion, as if they actually know, that “werewolves in folklore didn’t have tails.”
That is categorically untrue.
Do werewolves in folklore have tails? The answer is so simple it can be shortened to just one word:
Now, if you ask me, I think it looks totally ridiculous to have a werewolf with a wolf (or whatever modern designs pretend passes as something remotely wolfish; let’s face it, most werewolf designs, especially movie ones, have basically nothing in common with a wolf) head and/or digitigrade legs that doesn’t have a tail. Those need tails. But don’t get me started on werewolf designs. Check that post if you want to hear about modern werewolf designs, though.
I also personally think it’s much scarier for a werewolf to have a tail, and I don’t buy the arguments that they are “scarier without one,” because apparently startlingly bare werewolf butts sticking out like they’re begging to have a tail pinned on them are scary (?), and I’ll tell you why at the end of this post.
Before I get into the folklore meat of this, though, I will say that part of my personal stake in werewolf studies is to push for a less broad definition of the word “werewolf.” Personally, I don’t hold to many scholars’ ideas of calling every single person turning into a wolf a “werewolf,” and this applies doubly to things involving witchcraft.
Personally, I think a “werewolf” needs to fit a certain, meaningful criteria, instead of any old person or thing who has the ability to turn into a wolf.
To start off, I will open with the very simple statement that the overwhelming majority of werewolves in folklore turned into giant wolves. Yes, just wolves. Not wolves walking upright, not wolf-men, just wolves. And what do all wolves have? Tails. Case closed.
If that isn’t enough for you, though, there are many sources that detail exactly the how and why of werewolves having tails in folklore…
Firstly, there’s Henry Boguet in “Of the Metamorphosis of Men into Beasts,” from 1590 (my version was republished in A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture, edited and compiled by Charlotte F. Otten). On page 79 of this edition, Boguet marks a difference between werewolves and witches that have turned into wolves, repeating a common belief that, when witches turn into animals, they have “no tails.”
Notice that the witches do not have tails. The werewolves, however, do, and that is even specified as an identifying attribute.
Secondly, there’s the Malleus Maleficarum, specifically question X of part I, “Whether Witches can by some Glamour Change Men into Beasts.” I’m pulling this from Monatgue Summers’ translation.
They say that, “the devil can deceive the human fancy so that a man really seems to be an animal.” This specifically refers to deception. Thus, illusion. Not a true, physical change as we get with a werewolf.
Furthermore, however, they say that “when it says that no creature can be made by the power of the devil, this is manifestly true if Made is understood to mean Created. But if the word Made is taken to refer to natural production, it is certain that devils can make some imperfect creatures.”
“Imperfect,” in this instance, generally thought to refer to “tailless,” along with a few other legends, such as a witch in animal form still bearing human eyes. Again, witches.
Bear in mind that the Malleus Maleficarum was written and compiled during a time period in which werewolves were considered a form of witchcraft, although not equal to it. One could become a werewolf via a curse, without directly practicing that witchcraft. Long story short, werewolves and witches were NOT the same thing.
This also came from a time period when werewolves were considered negative (obviously), unlike in earlier time periods, and much more like today.
Moving on, we also have Albert the Great in his book On Animals, as cited by Montague Summers, who says that devils can indeed make animals: “they can, with God’s permission, make imperfect animals.” Again on the imperfection.
There is one scholar who disputes this very, very briefly in his writing, and that is actually one of my prime sources: Montague Summers. In his book The Werewolf, he remarks, “many–but not all– authorities hold that the werewolf has no tail.” Like, dude, what? We just established that they do.
Something to remember about Summers is that firstly, he truly believed in werewolves as a form of witchcraft. To him, werewolves are more closely connected with those aforementioned witches (that I think werewolves need to be separated from). Secondly, when he makes this sweeping statement, he provides absolutely no sources whatsoever and doesn’t really make any kind of argument to back up or to defend that idea. I’m calling his BS on that one.
Thirdly, we have an overwhelming number of other sources on werewolves being depicted with tails as opposed to without. We have imagery from various time periods (as appeared in my post on werewolf appearances), in which they are virtually always depicted with tails or mid-transformation into the form of a wolf, which would have a tail. One of the only depictions we have of a tailless werewolf is the wolf-man woodcut of the one eating the baby, which is in itself a rare sight, as werewolves weren’t generally “wolf-men” very often in folklore. And, frankly, I think somebody misnamed that woodcut, because I’ve never seen any sourcing on it and I don’t even know if it’s supposed to depict a werewolf in the first place.
Descriptions of werewolves in folklore frequently refer to tails, or else refer to the werewolf as simply a “wolf” and thus lead us to assume they must have a tail, or such a radical difference would’ve been noticed by the narrator (Niceros’s tale, Bisclavret, Melion, the curse of Lykaon, Chinese legends, and many more).
There are doubtless many more citations/discussions/arguments on this, but I think you get the picture.
Werewolves have tails. And not some funky little cut-off rat tail or some stub sticking out from their spine – a wolf tail.
And you know one reason why werewolves have tails? Because, ages ago, people didn’t see a terrifying werewolf and immediately go “omg puppy uwu must pet good boi go boof” (please never do that around me, by the way) or “werewolves are so corny lol.”
Because, ages ago, the concept of a human turning into something so inhuman was terrifying. Unfortunately, everyone today has reframed like 90% of everything into “that is bad and corny” if it’s remotely fantasy. Regardless, the idea of a human turning into something with a tail – a tail being a markedly inhuman trait – was extremely scary and startling. A werewolf with a tail will always appear much less human than a werewolf without one, and that is something that brings them closer to being terrifying beasts as opposed to just hairy dudes.
So yes, sure it’s an aesthetic choice of the creator, but werewolves in folklore had tails, whether anyone likes it or not. And if they are anything beyond a wolf-man, they’re simply going to look better with tails, and if you ask me, that’s also something that will be the case whether anyone likes it or not. You hear me, Blizzard?