Hairy-handed gents run amuck no more

>> Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Professor Brian Regal has accused Charles Darwin of driving the common lycanthrope to extinction.1 Professor Regal's proposal is that Darwin's Theory Of Evolution made the existence of werewolves so illogical that Bigfoot and other apemen replaced werewolves as "wildmen of the woods" in the popular imagination.

"The spread of the idea of evolution helped kill off the werewolf because a canid-human hybrid makes no sense from an evolutionary point of view," he says. "The ape-human hybrid, however, is not only evolutionarily acceptable, it is the basis of human evolution."

Granted that it's hard to really critique a notion when it's presented in a digested bit'o'news like that--maybe the prof really has his werewolf lore down--but I'm not inclined to buy in. The problem, as I see it, is that traditional werewolves were not generally viewed as some kind of natural creature at all; up until relatively modern times, as I understand it, the traditional werewolf in western cultures was a fellow who made a deal with Satan in which he was granted the power to become a wolf whenever he dressed himself in a wolf hides. An obvious root for the legends are the Nordic berserkers, warriors who allegedly dressed up in bear or wolf pelts and went completely nuts (you know, berserk) on their enemies' asses. Also frequently ascribed as a root for werewolf legends are mental illness and/or physical disabilities such as porphyria. Certainly, some of the "true" accounts of "werewolfery," if not completely apocryphal, appear to be possible early descriptions of sociopathic serial killers or sex offenders--a strange and shunned individual whose behavior leads to suspicions he trafficks with demons is subsequently found to have killed women or children in the region when angry and suspicious townspeople hammer down his door.

I won't pretend to possess a great deal of expertise, more of a lay interest, really, but I don't recall any "true" European accounts that involve werewolves allegedly hanging out in the woods, unless the accused werewolf just happened to have a house or hovel in the forest, away from the prying eyes of townspeople. What I'm getting at, really, is that the werewolf of folklore isn't really analogous to Bigfoot or other fabulous apemen.

So why don't people believe in werewolves anymore, if they ever really did all that much? Western populations have become increasingly secularized, for one thing, and even among religious segments of the population, belief in a personal Satan (one who makes appearances to hand out magical wolf hides) is on the decline. And aberrant mental (or physical) states have been increasingly subject to medical and scientific attention since well before Darwin--in the West, attempts were being made to treat mental illness as illness by the 18th Century and the first European madhouses had been chartered before Darwin even boarded the Beagle.

In short, one suspects that Europeans stopped believing in werewolves for much the same reasons most of them stopped believing in vampires and fairies and unicorns. Indeed, one has to note that, in a way, nobody has stopped believing in werewolves, but rather the nature of the belief changed in ways alluded to in the previous paragraphs: people no longer believe in actual werewolves, but they've sought explanations in psychiatry and medicine for people who think they're werewolves or have been mistaken for werewolves.

For whatever it's worth, Wikipedia provides a nice rundown of some of the best werewolf traditions. Take a gander--does this sound like a creature that's been "replaced" by Bigfoots and Yetis?

1H/T to The Skeptic's Dictionary!


Jim Wright Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 10:20:00 PM EDT  

I think the nuts have replaced weres and other such creatures with space alien abductions and such.

Which is just wrong, of course, because I saw a werewolf just the other day - he was drinking a pina colada at Trader Vic's, and his hair was perfect

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