A werewolf1 is an inherent wolf - human shapeshifter, also known as a lycanthrope2. In the European tradition, the werewolf is the most common of the lycanthropes - and probably the original - given how widely they appear. Originally the werewolf shifted only between the shape of a wolf (albeit often a tailless wolf3) and a human, but later accounts - especially modern cinema - add an extra man-wolf hybrid shape, often with very un-lupine claws. Werewolves are sometimes classed as undead (although not on this wiki) - partly due to cinematic laziness, but partly due to authentic legends from some parts of Europe that give them more-or-less obscure connections to vampires. As usual with legends this is inverted, subverted and generally messed about with.
Origins of the werewolf vary - a divine curse (such as in the case of the Mythical Greek King Lycaon4) or a form of demonic possession but in some cases it is inherited or even consciously sought out through such methods as drinking from the footprint of a wolf or wearing a garment made of wolfskin5. In some cases the werewolf changed to and from human form by taking off (and/or turning inside out) its wolfish skin6 or putting on human clothes7, in others it is triggered by moonlight and/or nightfall and may be undone by sunlight. The idea of the contagious werewolf - one whose curse is spread by his infected bite - is relatively modern and doesn't appear much before the 20th century.
In most original tales the werewolf takes on the (perceived) characteristics of the wolf as a savage and implacable predator, relentlessly hostile to humanity and a voracious hunter of people and livestock alike. This was not always the case however, as some traditions indicate that a werewolf could be driven off - or even cured - by addressing it by its baptismal name or getting a priest to tell it off. Modern interpretations own more to a less fearful attitude towards wolves and are occasionally inclined to make the werewolf a sympathetic or even heroic figure. The werewolf may or may not be aware of what he does as a wolf - the involuntary werewolf is less likely to be self aware than the voluntary one in many cases, but may notice evidence of his nocturnal activities such as mysterious bloodstains, missing clothing or simple exhaustion. Often the werewolf in animal form will recognise those known to him as a human, but is sometimes said to know only the strength of an emotional bond, not the character so a loved one and an enemy appear more or less the same.
Of course, the origin of the werewolf's lycanthropy will have bearing on a number of issues - not least of which being the small matter of whether an werewolf should be counted as human for any relevant purpose - such as determining whether a werewolf that eats people is a cannibal or merely an anthropophage … and equally if wearing a werewolf skin (which in some traditions retains the werewolf's immunities - see below) is more like a wolfskin cloak or more like a necklace of ears.
In some accounts the werewolf is immune to any weapon not made of silver8, in others they shrug off wounds when changing form - but in many early accounts they are vulnerable to normal weapons and could be identified in one form by wounds they took in the other. The herb wolfsbane was said to be particularly effective against them - but then wolfsbane is highly toxic and quite effective as a poison against humans as well.
Symbolically the werewolf can take a variety of roles - of the beast within Man9 - or equally as a symbol of man's enduring connection to nature (a very much more modern interpretation). Alternatively he can be the fifth columnist extraordinary - not just a wolf in sheep's clothing but a wolf disguised as a man. In some instances he may also represent paganism (especially in early Christian hagiography) or the predatory aspect of male sexuality (Little Red Riding Hood's wolf often seems to be a lot more than just a wolf - and that story is definitely about sexual predation). More prosaically, a clan of werewolves make a handy upgrade of the traditional Redneck cannibal.
The image of the werewolf was used as an icon by the resistance movements opposing the Allied Occupation of Germany and Austria following WW2, partly due to Mad Uncle Adolf's obsession with wolves10 and partly due to the idea of something deadly wearing a human face.
The White Wolf Werewolf games are (unsurprisingly) all about werewolves.
The British indy movie Dog Soldiers sets up a Sawney-Bean like clan of anthropophagus11 werewolves in the Scottish Wilderness.
There are other movies featuring werewolves … some of which are more socially acceptable than others.
Game and Story Use
- The gap between what PCs think they know and what is actually true can kill them. Especially if players use out of character knowledge.
- There could be legends about many ways of becoming a werewolf for a reason - perhaps there are lots of ways, resulting in different kinds of werewolf.
- Witness the Dresden Files, where four different kinds of "werewolf" appear in one book… possibly five if some fan theories are correct.