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Definition: werewolf from Collins English Dictionary

n pl -wolves

1 a person fabled in folklore and superstition to have been changed into a wolf by being bewitched or said to be able to assume wolf form at will

[Old English werewulf, from wer man + wulf wolf; related to Old High German werwolf, Middle Dutch weerwolf]


Summary Article: Werewolf
from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

A ‘man-wolf’ (Old English wer, ‘man’), i.e. a man who, according to ancient superstition, was turned, or could at will turn himself, into a WOLF (the loupgarou of France). It had the appetite of a wolf and roamed about at night devouring infants and sometimes exhuming corpses. Its skin was proof against shot or steel, unless the weapon had been blessed in a chapel dedicated to St HUBERT.

Ovid tells the story of LYCAON, king of ARCADIA and, by some accounts, father of CALLISTO, who was turned into a wolf because he tested the divinity of ZEUS by serving up to him a ‘hash of human flesh’ (either one of his own sons or the child of a hostage or even Callisto's son, Arcas). Another version of the tale relates how Lycaon offended Zeus by sacrificing a child on the altar to Zeus that Lycaon had founded. From that time, each time a sacrifice was made on the altar of Lycaean Zeus, a man was turned into a wolf but if, after eight years, he had not eaten human flesh he became a human again. Herodotus describes the Neuri as having the power of assuming once a year the shape of wolves. Pliny relates that one of the family of ANTAEUS was chosen annually, by lot, to be transformed into a wolf, in which shape he continued for nine years, and St PATRICK, it is said, converted Vereticus, king of Wales, into a wolf.

Hence the term ‘lycanthropy’ (Greek lukos, ‘wolf’, and anthropos, ‘man’) for this supposed transformation and for the form of insanity in which the subject exhibits depraved animal traits.

Tigers, hyenas and leopards had the same associations in other parts of the world, and after the disappearance of the wolf in England witches were commonly ‘transformed’ into cats.

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2012

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