Werewolves and diseases

Werewolves and diseases

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Figures from the history of myths, historical anthropology and cultural tradition often have an approach in reality. In the centaur, half human, half horse, for example, the encounter of farmers with riders is reflected. The question is whether real observations of the figure of the werewolf are based. Trance and ecstasy and the wolf transformation of the witch trials, which is assumed for ideological reasons, are just as much an indication of werewolf beliefs as physical and mental illnesses.

The use of ointments had a real background, since, for example, thorn apple ointments are hallucinogenic, lead to twilight conditions and change the body's perception in such a way that the person concerned thinks that he is wearing fur on the skin. Preparations containing hemlock, fly agaric or henbane could also trigger intense and uninhibited trance states. Deadly cherries trigger strong hallucinations. It was also known as wolfberry, an association between wolf and madness. Taking aconite reduces the sensation on the skin, "as if you were wearing a fur". Eisenhut appears in connection with wolves.

The rabies

Rabies is a disease that wolves and humans suffer and are transmitted by wolves and humans. Its nature as an infectious disease was not known until the 19th century. In fact, in 1445 near Cologne, the werewolf actually referred to "only" rabid wolves, who were not considered to be transformed people even then. Her bite wounds were treated with divine blessings.

The Middle East points to connections between rabies and ideas about transformation. The Arabic word "calab" means rabies, but also "dog transformation" and symptoms such as frenzy are analogous to the behavior attributed to werewolves. In Europe, rabies was called dog rage. The portrayals of demonic wolves in the early modern period were more similar to rabies than healthy wolves: They are described as aggressive towards all other living things and with their tongues sticking out of their mouths and sparkling eyes. They penetrate villages and are not shy. The wolves of the early modern period had learned to fear humans, they retreated and avoided human settlements. In fact, healthy wolves almost never attack humans, but rabid wolves do. Animals with rabies lose their fear of people. There are credible records of rabies wolves that ran into villages and bit all the animals that came towards them.

Rabies - symptoms and course of the disease

The course of rabies in humans is similar to that of animals, especially wolves: in the first stage they become nervous and irritable, after about 3 days they become aggressive and spit, bite, kick and cry out for help. Due to the paralysis that occurs during the course of the disease, the lips are pulled upwards and bare the teeth. Speech paralysis leads to vocalizations which, according to Rougemont, have been interpreted as howling or barking. Other symptoms such as sexual hyperactivity and bloody saliva are reminiscent of werewolves.

In his "Treatise on Hundswuth" published in 1794, the doctor Joseph Claudius Rougemont reported that the behavior of rabies sufferers was equated with the behavior of rabid dogs and wolves. The connection between an animal bite and the rabies that occurred was made and led to the idea that he would become a werewolf who had been bitten by a wolf. The notion in popular belief that he would become a werewolf who ate meat from animals that had been torn by a rabid wolf or a werewolf fits this interpretation scheme. Virus transmission is also possible in this way and the people concerned could develop rabies.

The symptoms in rabid people, whose mood changes between hyperactivity and total despair, have also been described as typical behaviors of "werewolves". This also applies to the "hydrophobia", which manifests itself as a panic state of excitement and is triggered by the visual perception of water that despite burning thirst due to the swallowing paralysis it is impossible to drink. According to Rougemont, "the elderly" interpreted the despair of the sick when they saw water as fear of seeing a dog's image as a reflection.

The spastic twitches were interpreted as an assumption of dog behavior, said Rougemont. Another daring interpretation approach makes an association between "werewolfism" and rabies seem logical. The risk of infection in a wolf bite is immense, because the sick wolf tears deeper wounds than an infected fox, an infected cat or bat. The appearance of a wolf - also in the literal sense - in a village was an event even in historical times and more impressive than a biting infected cat. In addition, there are the much more rabid dogs and whether they were differentiated from wolves in doubt is questionable. Here we are in the area of ​​speculation that I want to expand.

The trauma to the sick is an indication. In Vaulargeot in 1783 a wolf bit several people. Three fell ill with rabies. The patients warned of their own rage attacks and developed fantasies of raging wolves. The rabies treatment shows a close connection to werewolf myths. The rabies was supposed to bring about the wolf transformation as well as to protect against rabies. Sick people should be healed by throwing on a wolf fur. Wolf liver should cure rabies.

Some doctors and veterinarians tend to see unilaterally misinterpreted diseases in the history of myths. This is contradicted by the fact that early modern medical doctors distinguished between the devilish werewolf transformation and the insania lupicana. The delusion of being a wolf was considered an independent disease from an early age. The disease rabies has been known to scholarly medicine since ancient times. Medical knowledge rarely reached the people, and diseases became magical. Magical thinking logically leads us back to the same origin. So it is possible that rabies experiences were incorporated into werewolf tales. In a worldview in which diseases could be caused by demons, there was the devil, wolves could be disastrous spirits and everyday reality flowed into each other with witchcraft belief, a common illness, transmitted from wolves to humans, is more than a side aspect.

Rougemont described the cruelty of human rabies in compassionate words: (...) The twitches often come with seizures. The sick, weakened by such violent torture, often look forward to the moment that ends their sad existence, usually by violent twitching. ”The treatment of rabies by the population and the authorities was consistent with the treatment of supposed werewolves: People with rabies were suffocated, drowned, burned or slain until the 19th century. In no illness was euthanasia performed as regularly as in rabies until the murder of mentally ill people under National Socialism. Unfortunately, the evidence on the overlap of rabies and werewolfism is poor.


In addition to rabies, other physical illnesses that are responsible for the werewolf ideas are worthy of discussion. Porphyria, which occurs only very rarely and can therefore only be used to a limited extent as an explanation for the widespread belief in werewolves, should be mentioned. Porphyria sufferers destroy their gums, making their teeth the size of predators, their skin dries and breaks open, their joints stiffen, their fingers twist and they can only leave the house at night because their bodies cannot tolerate daylight. Since these symptoms of the disease are combined with unbearable pain, the sick roar and scream, so that the overall view that there is a wolf transformation is absurd, but was not illogical based on the existing state of knowledge. Werewolf researcher Peter Kremer found, however, that the narrators of werewolf sagas were unfamiliar with porphyria in his research. There is a risk of projecting too much rationality into past epochs.

Mental illness

Mental illnesses were at least known to doctors in the early modern period and they distinguished the werewolves from them. Of the mental illnesses, psychoses, epilepsy, schizophrenia and autism are those whose symptoms are very similar to "werewolfism": epileptics fall into a trance-like state (aura) before they develop an attack. Schizophrenics feel like they are split off from their bodies and commit actions that they have no control over. Autistic people isolate themselves as much as possible from the surrounding human society and live in their own world. Some of them scream or howl. In psychosis, the boundary between external reality and inner experience, between time and space, images of the subconscious and material reality, disappears. Psychiatry today has a disease called Lycorexia, in which the sick think they are wolves or dogs. Some of these diseases have been associated with wolves - wolf tongue was used to treat epilepsy. Tearing the heart out of a wolf should suddenly cure epilepsy.

In alcohol delirium and cocaine rush, users report that they felt “small animals” on their skin, felt their skin peel off. Fixers are known to think their skin will burst when the heroin's effect wears off. In early modern times, drug-like substances such as ergot, henbane in alcoholic beverages came to extreme psychological states, caused by malnutrition.

Mental illnesses that are associated with extreme conditions such as mania represent a distorted element of the states of shamanic animal transformation. Such states can have been incorporated into the werewolf myth. However, it is problematic to partially or generally link the accusations in the werewolf processes with analogue clinical pictures: Why should it be that psychologically ill people with "werewolf" symptoms or mentally ill people who considered themselves werewolves to have been objects of the witch trials? This could only have been the case if such a person offered to "set an example". Such charges of mentally ill do not fit into the schema of social discipline.

For this reason, Rudolph Leubuscher's argument in his publication "About the Weir Wolves and Animal Transformations in the Middle Ages", published in 1850, is questionable. For Leubuscher, the delusion of being a wolf was an expression of a "wild mind." Leubuscher equated the imagination of being a wolf with cannibalistic tendencies, incest desires, necrophages and necrophilic symptoms of illness. Leubuscher immediately recognized a whole list of diseases that corresponded to the stereotype of the werewolf in the witch trial. What we are experiencing is the shift of interpretive power from theology to science. In the 19th century, a rational explanation had to be found for everything. The exclusion of the "wild, barbaric, pagan", the contempt of nature for civilization remained. The last convicted werewolves no longer went to the stake in the 18th century, but to the madhouse.

As a bourgeois scientist, Leubuscher took the allegations in the witch trials seriously and regarded the accused as mentally ill from the start, but was unable to critically question the constitutive function of the witch trials. This is where the loyal citizen speaks, for whom that which stands outside or even against the existing rule of law is wild. The term savagery implies something for the citizens of the 19th century that must be cultivated, cleared, ordered. The interpretation of the witch trial, the Devil's Pact, was now considered wrong - but not the basic assumption that the victims were "guilty".

Even after the French Revolution, the werewolf remained alive as a metaphor for undesired social conditions: Karl Marx mentioned in the "Critique of Political Economy" the werewolf as a synonym for the insatiable greed of the capitalists to want to devour the earth and its inhabitants. The werewolf was no longer a reality, but an allegory, a metaphor, a satire. The shaman's animal transformation had arrived in the feature section.


The pursuit of werewolves in the early modern period should not be dismissed as atavistic superstition. Witch persecution centers were not the most backward, but the most advanced regions of Europe. It was not backwoods farmers, but intellectuals who developed the process tools. The werewolf myth lives on: after the First World War, horror stories were told in the old town of Hanover. A werewolf should devour children in dark basements. There were no rumors: Fritz Haarmann murdered 27 boys. He bit his throat and is known as the "Werewolf of Hanover". The Nazis used the term in a similarly gruesome context: They wanted to use incited young people as "werewolves" against the Allies. Today's neo-Nazis call themselves - probably as a derivative - werewolves resin. However, wolves do not hit baseball clubs, nor do they set people on fire. The animal is abused here to justify its own brutality.

Such hideousness has nothing to do with the soul that roams through the invisible world in animal form. Not with the wolf either. But wolf myths that do no harm to people or wolves also continue to exist: Papenburg farmers know the world dog that roams the moor at night. In the role-playing game "Werewolf- The Apocalypse" you play a werewolf as a character. The werewolf does not seem to be disturbed by the geographic or biological limits of the wolf: near Fortaleeza in Brazil, there is a man who has experienced something special today: he saw the wolf man! And in the movie Howling III, bag werewolves unsettle Australia's outback. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


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