What is a Werewolf?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

A werewolf is a mythological creature that is sometimes a person and sometimes a wolf, usually believed to prey on people. In different versions of folklore, the werewolf is either a magician or the object of a curse. In much modern literature and film, the werewolf is said to shape-shift under the influence of the full moon and to be vulnerable only to a silver bullet. The word werewolf derives from Old English wer-wulf, meaning "man-wolf."

The werewolf is said to shape-shift under the influence of the full moon.
The werewolf is said to shape-shift under the influence of the full moon.

Tales of werewolves abound in cultures from all over Europe, from Russia to England and from Norway to Italy. Werewolves appear in some of the earliest literature of these regions. Because the legend spans such a vast geographical and cultural area, there are many variations.

A werewolf is a mythological creature that is believed to turn from human to wolf in the presence of a full moon.
A werewolf is a mythological creature that is believed to turn from human to wolf in the presence of a full moon.

A person may become a werewolf in many different ways, according to different cultures. The curse may be effected by engaging in cannibalism or Satanism. Alternatively, stripping and wearing articles made of wolf skin, drinking water from a wolf's footprint, or being bitten by a werewolf may cause the change. A superstition arose in Portugal and later in Brazil that the seventh son, or the seventh son of a seventh son, would be born a werewolf. To this day, the President of Brazil is officially the godfather of all seventh sons, a practice resulting from the tendency in earlier times of parents to abandon such children.

Some versions of the werewolf tale claim that there are cures for the condition, while others hold that death by silver bullet is the only solution. One such cure is to remove the wolf skin, if wearing it brought about the condition. Other remedies include religious methods, such as reproaching the werewolf or making the sign of the cross. Magical cures include drawing three drops of blood and striking the creature with a knife three times on the head. Strangely, while most people no longer believe in werewolves, there is a medical condition known as clinical lycanthropy in which the sufferer believes himself or herself to be a werewolf.

Tales of werewolves abound in cultures from all over Europe.
Tales of werewolves abound in cultures from all over Europe.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments


Well, after reading comments of treeman and all others, I can surely say that werewolves are not any phenomena any more. They are reality. Now it depends on us what we saw and what we assume and what we tell after what we saw.


@TreeMan - I have to also agree that the werewolf legend persists everywhere and because of this fact it has made its way into popular culture and movies. However, my question is why is the werewolf not represented as much as the vampire, if the legend of the werewolf is more persistent world wide than the vampire?

Besides "The Wolfman" and "An American Werewolf in Paris" I do not know of many famous movies that feature a werewolf being the main focus.

Yes, they are included in the Underworld movies as well as the Twilight movies, but both of these have vampires as the main focus and this seems to be the role that werewolves seem to play in movies in regards to vampires.

They always seem to play second fiddle to vampires and do not have a lot of movies where they are the only focus. I am wondering if anyone knows why this is the case or can explain what other well known movies have werewolves as the main focus?


@titans62 - I have to agree with you on that. Besides in New Orleans I do not hear very much about vampire legends in the United States, but I do know of many werewolf legends in the United States and there is even one in my own hometown of Effingham Illinois.

As the legend goes a werewolf appears during full moons around the caves of a state park. Caves are rare in my area and the werewolf legend has existed since the caves were found in the 1850's.

I find it interesting that there is even a werewolf legend in a small town surrounding by cornfields in the Mid-western part of American. This right here shows that the werewolf legend can persist anywhere and that this legend refuses to die and is spread all around the world, even in places that people would not see as having such a legend.


@titans62 - You are correct in your observation. I study history for a living and I have read stories about people with this condition being cast out of their village for simply being too hairy.

I have heard a legend that the bearded lady in the circus originated from a woman who had a beard and the townspeople believed her to be a werewolf and cast her out of her village.

These instances are not unusual throughout history and they still exist in some remote places in the world. What I find to be interesting is that these legends seem to erupt everywhere in the world as I have even heard stories of werewolves in the United States!

I really find the legend of the werewolf to be on par with legends of vampires or other types of creatures of the night, but I find the werewolf legend to be more common across the world as opposed to the vampire legend that seems to persist only in certain areas.


I find the myths of werewolves to be very interesting simply because there were cultures that believed so much in them that they would actually shun people from the village that were deemed to be too hairy to be a human and that they have to be a werewolf in disguise.

I know that there is a condition out there in which a person grows a lot of body hair and in some cultures this results in people believing them to be werewolves.

I know that there is a group of traveling trapeze artists that have this condition, in which they have hair all over their body, including their face, and they are believed to be werewolves in some places that they perform in.


The Twilight movie series has brought back a lot of interest in werewolves. Werewolf myths have been around for quite some time but this series of movies based on novels by Stephanie Meyer has sparked much interest from the teenage population.

Meyer relied on historical information regarding Native Americans into her books. Particularly, the Navajo tribe’s legend comes from the “skinwalker” which are the shape-shifters. Legend has it that to acquire this shape-shifting ability one must kill a member of his or her own family.

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