“The Book of Were-Wolves” by Sabine Baring-Gould

It’s easy to “poo-poo” were-wolves as superstitious just-so stories, invented by our ignorant ancestors.

Baring-Gould, while not convinced human beings physically transform into wolf bodies, nevertheless has taken a scholarly, detailed, and anecdote-filled look at this phenomenon. Along with his scientific, 18th-century respect for facts, he brings the Christian insight into human nature to his subject (he’s more famous for writing Onward Christian Soldiers).

The resulting book is fascinating, profound, and sometimes disturbing…both by what it says about were-wolves, and by what it says about ourselves.

A Personal Touch

Mr. Baring-Gould begins his work by explaining why were-wolves came to be of such interest to him. He describes a personal experience in an isolated village in France, where the local villagers were deathly afraid of crossing the heath at night, for fear of the loup-garou.

Baring-Gould poo-pooed the idea of supernatural beings (although he provided himself with a cudgel for use against actual wolves). He says that the persistence of the belief in were-wolves – even into his own time – inspired him to study the phenomenon in depth.

This personal touch persists throughout. The book is stuffed with examples and anecdotes of vicious men, men (and women) who turn into beasts (not limited to wolves), accounts of diabolic interference, and other strange circumstances.

It is now over a hundred years since Baring-Gould composed his work, and yet the intimacy and authority of his source material brings the subject uncomfortably close to home.

Legend – Near and Far

Baring-Gould also strives to include a diverse selection of material. He tells of the savage berserkr in the Norse lands…of a shunned class in North Africa who can take the shape of hyenas…a North American Indian tribe who began when a litter of puppies took off their dog-skins to play as children, and the skins were burned…and, of course, he brings in the idea of reincarnation from India and other Buddhist lands, where a “human” soul may inhabit several different animal bodies on its metaphysical journey.

Baring-Gould is also very clear about the theological significance of each culture’s story. The Eastern peoples believe that the soul is the true person, and the body is simply its “housing”…thus to exchange one living quarters for another is no big deal.

In contrast, the Catholic peoples of Europe were more likely to ascribe were-wolves to the Devil. Several men convicted of being were-wolves admitted – and indeed, claimed – to be in service to “Satan”, and several accounts describe how a salve transformed them into wolves during their Black Sabbath celebrations.

A scholarly treatise anyone can read.

It’s true Baring-Gould often quotes from his sources in their original languages – Greek, Norse, French, etc.

However, he brings enough humor and a conversational tone to the subject that it’s never too dry (although it’s sometimes too unnerving).

Too Close to Home

If you wanted some quaint yet spooky fire-side tales from silly, superstitious people long ago, you’ll probably get more than you bargained for.

Does the Devil have the power to turn men into wolves, the better to rend their fellow humans? Is it solely the result of mental illness, where men either believe themselves responsible for the work of normal wolves – or believe themselves transformed into wolves, and so act according to their new nature? Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy, where people who believe in were-wolves imagine any violent, vicious man to be actually transformed into a wolf?

I imagine the truth is some balance between these possibilities, but there’s no denying the final factor: ordinary human evil.

Mr. Baring-Gould makes this point emphatically. The examples he gives are horrific, while not being explicit or gory.

Without sensationalizing, he lets the facts speak for themselves as he describes historical, document-able cases of cannibalism, torture, or sadism…with no excuse of physical transformation or diabolic possession.

Respectable is not Holy.

The most obvious example is Gilles de Laval, Maréchal de Retz, Marshall of France. Although a war hero to his country, rich beyond imagination, and an advisor to his king, he was not satisfied.

When he read of the cruelties of some of the Roman emperors, he was so thrilled that he determined to imitate – and even surpass – their wickedness.

In 1440, he was arrested, tried, and condemned for kidnapping, torturing, murdering, and beheading over a hundred children (most of them seem to have been about ten years old).

What madness possessed this noble of France? What excuse could possibly be given for this horrific practice? None. He did it because it was fun — and admitted as much at his own trial.

Now, he also protested repentance, begged to be sent to a monastery to purge his soul, and sermonized at his own execution about the forgiveness of God.

Was he sincere? Only God can know. But as Mr. Baring-Gould sagely points out, “‘If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments,’ said our Lord. How many hope to go to heaven because they have pious emotions!”

The Were-Wolf In Our Hearts

While first published in 1865, this book rang true and relevant to me today. How easy it is to relegate savagery and cannibalism and child sacrifice to the heathens of long ago! But these evil impulses still lurk among us today…they lurk in my heart, and in yours.

What would it take to bring them to the surface?

Do a web search for “man eats girlfriend”. You’ll find a slew of news stories from this very year. Just reading the preview text is probably enough to make your stomach turn.

But it’s important to face these issues and think about them. Because, if we ignore and deny the wickedness in our own hearts, we’ll never think we need the Cure.

Onward, Christian soldiers!

"The Book of Were-Wolves" by Sabine Baring-Gould

Image from Wikipedia.

The Book of Were-Wolves is in the public domain and available on Project Gutenberg. Please check the copyright laws in your own country.

It’s also available as a free ebook on Amazon (here) or as a paperback (here). Find also on Barnes&Noble (paperback), Kobo, and the Book Depository (free worldwide shipping).

Sabine Baring-Gould was an Anglican priest, hagiographer, antiquarian, and writer of several hymns in the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Find out more on Wikipedia.

Cover image above is from Amazon.

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