Our ancestors were faced with numerous dangers, hidden in the dark on the border between reality and fantasy. Witches made pacts with the devil, strigoi, or revenants returning to the world of the living were a real threat for people as a plague or the enemy’s army marching through the land. In the catalog of impure forces marauding the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, there is a place for a monster that rules the human imagination also today: a werewolf.
The European myth about werewolves has its roots in old Indo-European beliefs. The wolf, a predatory and dangerous animal, was on the one hand a threat to people, and on the other hand, a symbol of the strength of warriors. Tales of the transformation of man into a wolf can be found in the works of ancient writers. Herodotus wrote about a mysterious tribe of Neuri that would take the form of wolves once a year. Interestingly, some researchers identify this clan with the Baltic Yotvingian tribe, who lived in the vicinity of the Narew River.
With the progressive Christianization of the continent, old pagan beliefs and traditions began to be adapted to new needs. Some have been transformed into Christian holidays or saint figures, but others have been pushed into the devilish world. This is what happened with the werewolves. The early Christian philosopher Saint Augustine of Hippo mentions them in his work The City of God. Inside, he described old beliefs about witches that could turn people into wolves. This famous doctor of the Church linked faith in such a phenomenon with paganism, for according to him only God was able to cause such a physical transformation. Sometimes it was believed that turning into a werewolf was divine punishment for sins.
Echoes of this belief could still be found in Polish folklore in the 19th century. Władysław Kosiński wrote the following story in his Materials on the ethnography of the Beskid highlanders (Kraków 1881):
The Lord Jesus, with Saint Peter, wandered around the world, was glad to inquire about what is also happening among people and how they are doing. Hearing complaints that, many greedy people take other people’s belongings and like to eat only meat, he turned them into werewolves as a punishment. For a time being those werewolves stood on two legs, like wooden pegs, as they came from the humans. They were covered with twisted fur in gray stripes. When the Lord Jesus appeared to people after his resurrection, he turned werewolves into real wolves.
In the Middle Ages, werewolves settled for good in the role of the hellish evil force that harassed people. The stories differed from region to region. Transforming into a werewolf could be a curse by a witch or a divine punishment for sins: werewolves could be the souls of unfortunate wrongdoers trapped in wolf bodies. Sometimes a curse could be activated by drinking a special potion. In other places, it was the innate skill of some tribes or families. The Irish kingdom of Ossory was ruled by kings whose progenitor was Laignech Fáelad – a warrior who could turn into a wolf.
The peak of human interest in werewolves started in the early modern era. It was in the 16th century that the burning fever of the witch-hunting broke out, which also affected people accused of lycanthropy. Reports of werewolves were linked to cannibalism, brutal murders, cattle mutilation, and attacks by wolves, which were a serious problem for human communities at the time. Especially many trials of this type took place in France and the lands of the Holy Roman Empire. The most famous cases of that era were Peter Stumpp, the Werewolf of Bedburg, and Gilles Garnier, the Werewolf of Dole.
The first mentions of werewolves in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth can be found in the 16th century when a man captured by the authorities claimed that he turned into a wolf twice a year. We cannot say with certainty whether this phenomenon was planted in Poland as an import from Western Europe, or was it a core element of Slavic folklore – perhaps these two elements merged? Certainly, the Polish term wilkołak or wilkołek had similar roots as in other Indo-European peoples. Researchers propose the following reconstruction of the etymology of the Slavic werewolf:
vľ̥kodlakъ = *vľ̥kъ + *dlaka
It is a combination of the words wolf and hair or fur, so we can read this as someone with wolf skin. The Czech vlkodlak, Serbo-Croatian vukodlak, and Ukrainian vovkulaka have the same origin. A similar term was used among the Norse Vikings who used the word ulfhéðinn (the one in wolf’s clothing).
“Werewolf” of the Mikołaj Rej, founder of Polish literary language
The werewolf quickly found its way not only to folklore but also to the canon of Polish literature, thanks to Mikołaj Rej (1505-1569). This Renaissance poet and nature lover gained literary and social skills at the court of Andrzej Tęczyński, the voivode, and castellan of Kraków. In his work, he was one of the first to use exclusively the Polish language. He had a simple, sometimes vulgar style, thanks to which he reached a wide audience. In 1562 in Kraków, Rej’s work entitled Zwierzyniec (The Bestiary) was published, to which a collection of epigrams entitled Figliki was attached. One of the short pieces is entitled O Wilkołku (About the werewolf). He described a scared woman, who experienced cattle mutilation. The village wójt (head of the village) accused the werewolf of this wrongdoing. Soon a man with a wolf’s tail was spotted in the hamlet. A young girl noticed this, and she asked her mother to hide all the sheep.
The beast in the old-polish encyclopedia
In 1689, during the reign of King Jan III Sobieski, an extraordinary work was published in Kraków. It was a Warehouse of excellent secrets of the landowners’ economy, whose author was Jakub Haur. The son of a high-ranking Warsaw burgher, he received a thorough education at the Krakow Academy and spent several years traveling around Europe, gaining experience. After obtaining the nobility, Haur entered the service of magnate Stanisław Skarszowski, with whom he dealt with matters related to the management of his vast estates. Learning about the landed gentry’s life inspired Haur to pick up his pen and write guides on running the farm. First, he wrote the Generalna Oekonomika (Kraków 1675), and he continued the topic in a book published a few years later.
Warehouse of excellent secrets of the landowners’ economy was intended by the author to be an encyclopedia intended for landowners. However, in his many treatises, he dealt with many more issues, such as describing exotic animals: lions, tigers, elephants … or dragons. This unusual Old Polish encyclopedia is a great source of learning about the mentality of the Polish nobleman at the end of the 17th century, especially since Haur’s work was highly appreciated by the king himself, who read and supported him. Haur mentions the werewolf in the twentieth treaty, devoted to wild animals living in primeval forests, woods, groves, and deserts. Describing the wolf, a harmful and aggressive animal, Haur devoted a lot of space to drugs that could be produced thanks to the wolf’s insides. For example:
Distilled wolf’s blood, made into vodka, should be drunk by people who spit blood, as this is very useful and effective.
It is the skin of the wolf that effectively soothes colic, and puts it away. You have to put it in a painful place and keep it warm.
Right after mentioning several remedies, Haur mentions werewolves. However, he does not fully believe in the existence of such monsters. Looking for an explanation, he proposed solution in sleepwalking:
About the werewolf, the people say many stories, but I find changing man into wolves to be rather a fairy tale. There is a particular ailment (defect of Nature) among some people, who are sleepwalking at certain times of the month, especially when the moon is very well visible. Among them are people who went wild and became almost mad, and this insanity gave them strength and power, so they attack and murder cattle. I could write more about them, but remember this: if someone like this will come into your household, you have to treat him kindly, without annoying the evil one, and give him what he wants, to avoid his revenge against the cattle.