The Transformation of Suppressed Human Immorality

By Sarah W.

Within 16th and 17th century Renaissance cautionary tales, depictions of werewolves aid authors in questioning the extent of separability that exists between the human body and human soul. During my research, I explored what it means when human reason, intention, and identity can be temporarily hidden beneath an animal form, and to what degree early modern people believed that a transformed individual could still manipulate the animal body in which his human soul resided. If human consciousness were present during and after the transformation, then what does the human’s choice to willingly commit pre-meditated crimes against and within society inside of the animal body imply? To what extent does it illustrate suppressed, sinful desires of the human? If so, how does this blur the line that separates human from animal?

Renaissance literature ultimately portrays werewolf transformation as a way in which the immoral human can be punished by the “moral” human. Bacchilega states: “the werewolf or ‘manwolf’ embodies the proverbial peasant distrust of human nature” (55). Due to the difficulty of detecting a werewolf as a human, many focused on identifying the human as the werewolf instead: “Any neighbor or relative could be such a shape-shifter and turn dangerous” (Bacchilega 55). As a result, werewolves began to be associated with the “sub-humans” of society, such as criminals, murders, those possessing deficient levels of intelligence, or overly sexual females. According to 16th century alchemist-magician, Paracelsus, “if man has given way to his carnal and bestial cravings, then his phantasm is earthbound, in the guise of some terrifying and repellent animal – a wolf” (O’Donnell 13).

The poem of Lycaon in Ovid’s Metamorphoses illustrates this idea that an openly immoral human should be punished by “trapping” his sinful desires within an othered body. Hugo Goltizuis’s engraving, entitled, “Jupiter Changing Lycaon into a Wolf-Man” depicts Lycaon, king of Arcadia, who is suspected of committing evil deeds within his society. Indeed, he reveals his brutality by openly slaughtering a hostage and then serving his human flesh to the god Jupiter as a meal. Deemed a punishable act of cannibalism, Zeus retaliates by striking Lycaon’s palace with lightning, frightening him into the wild, where his werewolf transformation occurs.

The lines, “He fled in terror, reached the silent fields,/And howled…Foam dripped from his mouth; bloodthirsty still…/Yet he is still Lycaon, the same grayness,/The same fierce face, the same red eyes, a picture/Of bestial savagery” from Ovid’s poem imply a non-separability in the human soul and body during and after the transformation of Lycaon (Sconduto, 10). This reflection of animal as human and animal as human reveals a suppressed anxiety concerning human’s capability to commit sinful, “animalistic” acts within the human body. Otten states, “To admit the werewolf into human consciousness is to admit the need to examine the moral underpinnings of society” (15).

This study of Ovid’s interpretation of the werewolf illustrates that if the human is able to retain a human soul and consciousness within the animal body of the werewolf then moral-sensitivity is still intact. This is complicated by the fact that the animal does not possess the human brain’s higher-level of intelligence and reason that gives intention to murder, rape, or commit violent acts centered on motives of vengeance or greed. Therefore, my research has allowed me to uncover a human reluctance in acknowledging the evils in which the human mind is capable. Instead, the werewolf works as a body to hide what does not fit in accordance to society. Through the werewolf, the human is able to destroy and punish what he fears in himself.


Image: Goltizuis, Hugo. “Lycaon Changed into A Wolf.” 1558. Engraving. Ovid’s Metamorphoses Book I. Web.

Bacchilega, Cristina. Postmodern Fairy Tales: Gender and Narrative Strategies. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

O’Donnell, Elliott. Werewolves. Wildside Press LLC, 2008.

Otten, Charlotte F. A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture. Syracus University Press, 1986.

Sconduto, Leslie A. Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity Through the Renaissance. McFarland, 2008.


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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