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With Halloween just around the corner, many people are watching spooky movies, picking out their costumes, and getting worried about the bumps in the night. But where do these legends that creep up on us this time of year come from? 

Every story started somewhere…. And this is the legend of the werewolf. 

Werewolves have their origins from all over the world, but their oldest known origin comes from Mesopotamia in 1200 BCE (Before Common Era). Here, werewolves are seen mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, where Gilgamesh rejects his lover because she turns a previous spouse into a wolf. 

Later, werewolves made an appearance in Greek Mythology. The son of Pelagius, known as Lycaon, angered Zeus after he fed remains of a sacrificed young boy to the god. Zeus, as punishment, turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves. 

Elsewhere, in Nordic myths, in the Saga of the Volsungs, there was the story of a father and son who discovered animal pelts that had the ability to turn them into wolves for ten days when worn. The two turned into wolves and went on a killing spree. 

For centuries, different stories of men who could turn into wolves travelled across the globe. As time went on, more and more legends surfaced, eventually turning into the various different legends of the werewolf that we know today. 

Legends of werewolves were popular in Europe through the 15th-18th centuries, often being known for having ties to witches or the devil. For example, in 1521, two Frenchmen were believed to have sworn allegiance to the devil and were given an ointment that allowed them to turn into wolves. These men confessed to killing several children and were eventually burned at the stake. 

Years later, another Frenchman made the same claims of an ointment allowing him to turn into a wolf. He killed and ate several children and was also burned at the stake. Today, we are better able to understand that events such as these are committed by various types of people. But to Europeans in the 1500s, such murders could only be committed by horrible beasts such as werewolves or vampires. 

The Bedburg Werewolf is arguably the most famous in history. Peter Stumpp was a farmer turned serial killer and cannibal in the 1580s, who claimed to have practiced dark magic since he was a child. Legend has it he turned into a wolf at night and devoured the people of Bedburg. He claimed the devil gave him the powers to transform into a wolf-like creature. He was accused of eating fourteen children and two pregnant women, with one of the fourteen children being his own son. In 1589 Stumpp was executed. His case is still the most well-known werewolf trial in history. 

Werewolf mania continued throughout history, mainly within Europe. Many used werewolves as a means to explain the inexplicable. Cases of hallucinations, lycanthropy, or physical illness would lead many to believe that they themselves were wolves, or others to believe they were some kind of monster. 

In 1725, a young boy was found naked on all fours and was believed to be some kind of half man-half wolf. He was adopted by King George I and was kept as a pet in England. Modern understanding of diseases and illness allow us to understand now that the young boy likely had Pitt-Hopkins Syndrome. 

Modern understandings of history give us the bigger picture, allowing us to understand the myths and legends behind many of these spooky creatures. Whether it was illness, hallucinations, serial killers, or more, people of the past had no knowledge other than the beasts they believed existed. 

Although who knows…. We may never know what’s going bump in the night. 

Maddie is a fourth year student at the University of Ottawa majoring in History. She is a major fan of Friends, and The Office and is a geek for all things history. Maddie loves food, relaxing, and her cat.
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