Category: Mysterious Creatures


Werewolves

 

Besides being a recluse, Gilles Garnier was also a mass murderer who devoured children when they strayed from home. Witnesses who saw him committing these atrocious crimes said he sometimes took the form of a wolf. Once captured Garnier confessed that he had indeed changed himself into a wolf and killed and eaten children. He was charged with the abominable crimes of lycanthropy and witchcraft and burnt alive at Dole, in eastern France, on 18 January 1573.

Usually only starving or rabid wolves attack people, and in the sixteenth century these were assumed to be werewolves (from the Old English word wer, meaning man). Garnier came from a wolf-infested area where four people were tried as werewolves between 1520 and 1575. Elsewhere in Europe trials were less common, though many more accusations were made. England had none, as wolves had been eliminated by 1500. A notorious werewolf came from near Cologne, Germany. Peter Stubbe was convicted of murdering and eating 13 children (including his own son) and two pregnant women. He boasted that the devil had given him a magic belt, which he used to turn himself into the likeness of a devouring wolf. Stubbe was broken on the wheel, beheaded, and burnt on 28 October 1589.

During the witch craze of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, female witches were said to ride to their sabbats on wolves, and male witches to change, or shape-shift, into wolves when attacking people and animals. If a transformed wolf was injured, the person’s body would still bear the wound when it returned to human form. A 1588 story from the French Auvergne tells of a huntsman who cut off the paw of a wolf and placed it in his bag. Later, when showing it to a local nobleman, he was astonished to find that it had changed into a hand wearing a golden ring. The horrified nobleman recognized the ring and rushed to his kitchen where he found his wife nursing her wounded arm. She was promptly burnt as a witch. In many werewolf trials, such as the Gilles Garnier case, the defendant was judged to be genuine shape-shifter and was condemned to a painful death. But since ancient times lycanthropy – the belief that one is turning into a wolf – has also been recognized as an abnormal mental condition. Afflicted people howl, frequent graveyards and crave human flesh.

In 1603 a 14-year-old shepherd boy, Jean Grenier, was tried at Bordeaux in France for attacking and eating children. In court the boy claimed that the lord of the forest had given him a wolf skin and a salve with which to turn himself into a wolf. He admitted eating a dog, a baby and two little girls. But detailed questioning during his trial showed that Grenier was given to inventing all manner of wild stories. After consulting with medical specialists, the judge pointed out that the unfortunate Grenier was clearly mentally retarded and called for a verdict of insanity. Instead of being burnt at the stake, he was imprisoned in a monastery, where he died at the age of 20.

While most convicted werewolves do seem to have been psychotic serial killers, werewolves also have a more benign side. In 1692 an 80-year-old peasant named Thiess told the judges of Jurgensburg, Livonia – at that time a province of Russia – that three times a year he turned into a wolf. It was his destiny, announced at his birth, to change into an animal and fight on behalf of his people. On the nights of Saint Lucy, Saint John and the Pentecost, Thiess claimed he joined the other Livonian werewolves on a journey to hell to fight with the devils and sorcerers over the harvest for the coming year. Thiess seems to have been continuing an ancient tradition of dream battles for fertility undertaken by special people in the form of animals.

Wolves were traditionally associated with the realm of the dead and werewolves were thought to be most active during the 12 nights after Christmas, when the dead were supposed to roam the earth. In hunter-gatherer societies the ability to change temporarily into the shape of an animal was one of the sources of a shaman’s power. The belief that some people can change themselves into wild animals seems almost universal. In areas where wolves do not exist, other creatures fulfill this role. In South America they change into were-jaguars; in Africa into were-leopards, were-hyenas, and even were-crocodiles; in India into were-tigers; and in Japan into were-foxes and were-badgers.

 

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On the eve of a battle that changed Scotland’s history, a bizarre incident was a horrifying omen of the slaughter to follow. On 15 April 1746 at Culloden Moor in the Highlands, British troops prepared to engage the army of Charles Edward, the Stuart prince who sought to recover the British throne.

At the Scottish camp that night the air was suddenly filled with spine-chilling screams, and the troops saw a monstrous, harpy-like apparition hovering overhead. It resembled a great bird with leathery bat-like wings, burning red eyes – and the head of man. Later dubbed the skree, the creature seems to have been more than just a pre-battle hallucination. A reliable eyewitness was Lord George Murray, a general renowned for his level-headedness. The horrendous apparition eventually departed and was never seen again. The next day’s battle brought disaster for the Scots – with the skree had gone the hopes of the Young Pretender and the Stuart dynasty.

 

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In 1732 Johannes Fluckinger, an army medical officer, went to the village of Medvegia, in the former republic of Yugoslavia, to investigate reports of vampire killings. The villagers told him about Arnod Paole, who had fallen off a wagon and broken is neck some five years earlier, Paole had claimed to be troubled by a vampire, and had smeared himself with its blood and eaten earth from its grave to get rid of it.

When Paole had been buried, people began complaining of being persecuted by him, and four died. Forty days after his death, the villagers dug up Paole’s corpse and found fresh blood flowing from the eyes, nose, mouth and ears. Skin and nails had fallen off, but there was new growth. Fluckinger reported that since the people “saw from this that he was a true vampire, they drove a stake through his heart, according to their custom, whereby he gave an audible groan and bled copiously.” They burnt the body before exhuming and dealing with the other four corpses who, having been killed by a vampire, were now themselves vampires.

The villagers assured Fluckinger that even people who ate the flesh of cattle attacked by vampires became vampires. When Fluckinger opened the graves of 17 people who had died in the previous three months, he found corpses with similar features to Paole’s.

Had Fluckinger found vampires? Most of the traditional vampiric marks on the corpses can be plausibly explained as the result of normal postmortem processes. Such macabre effects are most noticeable when graves are shallow – not surprisingly, people destined for folkloric vampire status, such as murder and plague victims, were often buried hastily.

According to folklore, the vampire – a living corpse – drinks blood not only to drain the vitality of the living and spread infection, but also to be reanimated. The belief that vampire-like beings spread epidemics existed as early as the twelfth century, when a chronicler wrote that “the air became foul and tainted as this fetid and corrupting body wandered abroad, so that a terrible plague broke out.” People used garlic to ward off vampires. Its smell was also said to dispel the odor of corpses and prevent them from spreading disease.

True vampires belong to Eastern Europe – vampir in the Magyar language of Hungary, nosferatu in Romanian. They can supposedly be destroyed by the methods thought to stop ghosts “walking” – burial at a crossroads, a stake through the heart, burning or decapitation. Like other evil creatures, it is believed they can be killed with a silver bullet and routed with a crucifix. Sinners, suicides, sorcerers, and alcoholics are thought particularly likely to become vampires. Others at risk include children born with teeth, murder victims whose death goes unavenged, and corpses not given Christian burial.

Eroticism has long been part of the vampire legend. Balkan tales speak of married vampires rising from the grave to force their attentions on terrified wives and husbands. Unmarried vampires visit young innocents of the opposite sex. In the late eighteenth century this erotic element was one reason for the appearance of vampires in Gothic horror novels and poems by romantic poets. To fit their new role vampires were upgraded from peasant stock to the aristocracy.

In the anonymous best-seller of 1847, Varney the Vampire or The Feast of Blood, Sir Francis Varney had eyes that looked like metal, talons, sharp teeth and a penchant for ladies. Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla, published in 1870, introduced a beautiful young lesbian vampire who was finally unmasked by a supposed long-dead countess. Carmilla inspired Bram Stoker to begin researching his famous vampire-hero Dracula, whose story was published in 1897. Part folklore, part history, part fantasy, Stoker’s gaunt Transylvanian count was loosely based on Vlad V of Wallachia (now part of Romania). In the six years of his rule, 1456-62, Vlad earned the nickname “the Impaler,” for having allegedly impaled tens of thousands of his people. His victims included captives from his wars against the Turks. He was also known as Draculaea, Romanian for “son of the devil,” hence “Dracula.”

With his hypnotic eyes and long canines, Dracula has since appeared in numerous plays an films. Always elegant and sexually predatory, as portrayed by the actor Christopher Lee, among others, he has become the model for the modern vampire.

 

 

 

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