The Metaphorical Werewolf

By Alisha L.

Throughout Renaissance folklore, the werewolf was a figure of controversy. Can humans physically transform into werewolves, or is the transformation purely symbolic? Are they in control of their transformations? Once these questions are presented, new questions arise: how is a person’s humanity affected by his transformation, and can the extent of his metamorphosis change the degree of his humanity?

Wayne Shumaker explains that transformation from human to beast was not literal according to the Christian faith. Shumaker states, “The reasoning soul given to man by God cannot enter an animal, and it is impossible to believe that the soul is restored when human shape is resumed” (93). Because God created the soul, the devil must influence the human to do mischief without affecting the soul. According to Shumaker, early modern Christians believed that the devil transformed humans into werewolves by one of two means: either he assumed the persona of a witch and transformed himself, or he possessed the witch and forced them to morph. In both cases, the soul remains intact because the human was not the creature performing the metamorphosis.

S.J. Wiseman supports Shumaker’s claims by saying, “wolves consistently represent those who had fallen so far from God that it was safe to assume that they were damned” (51-52). To clarify this statement, Wiseman presents the myth of Stubbe Peeter. The myth states that, after generating a contract with one another, the devil presented Peeter with a girdle that transformed him into a werewolf; when Peeter removed the girdle, he transformed back into his human form. Like Shumaker’s argument, Wiseman’s relation of the myth shows that the transformation of humans into werewolves is completely controlled by the devil (53).

Alternatively, Kristin Poole argues that the transformation of humans into werewolves is not a true metamorphosis. Although she concurs that European Christians believed in the devil’s ability to transform into other animalistic forms, she claims that when humans appeared to transform, it was simply an illusion used by witches, but especially the devil (196-197). This illusion, in turn, is a metaphor for some deep desire inside the human, and the devil—simply fulfilling the wish of the human—appears to transform him into a creature that represents this desire. If a man were to appear to turn into a werewolf, a creature known for consuming the flesh of humans and being extremely brutal, the werewolf form would be a metaphorical representation of the man’s desire to violate another human or perhaps fulfill a primitive bloodlust.

A person’s humanity becomes complicated when that individual is associated with lycanthropy. If someone transforms into a creature that is a mix between human and animal, has that person completely lost his/her humanity or is it only partially diminished? To answer this, it is important to look at Lucas Cranach’s “The Werewolf or the Cannibal.” In this woodcut, the werewolf first appears to be entirely human. But one notices that, while he is not completely covered in fur, his hair is long and shaggy, and his back is furry, suggesting that he is partially animalistic. Furthermore, he is on all fours like an animal and, without the use of his hands, has his victim clenched in his teeth just as an animal would eat. Despite having the initial appearance and qualities of a human, the humanity of a werewolf—much like Cranach’s subject—is weakened by the animalistic qualities that he displays.

Humanity is further complicated when we remember that the devil is often a contributing factor for transformation. If a person is forced into transformation by the devil, has he lost any of his humanity? If he worships the devil but still is unaware of his transformation, is he somehow less human than those not associated with the devil? Or is the desire to become a werewolf simply enough to diminish the humanity that he believes differentiates him from animals?


Image: Cranach, Lucas. The Werewolf or the Cannibal. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 17 Apr 2012.

Poole, Kristen. “The Devil’s in the Archive: Doctor Faustus and Ovidian Physics.” Renaissance Drama. 35 (2006): 191-219. Print.

Shumaker, Wayne. The Occult Sciences in the Renaissance: A Study in Intellectual Patterns. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1972. Print.

Wiseman, S. J. “Hairy on the Inside: Metamorphosis and Civility in English Werewolf Texts.” Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures. Ed. Erica Fudge. Urbana: University of Illinois, 2004. 50-67.


About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

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