She-Wolf: the cultural history of female werewolves – review

She-Wolf: a Cultural History of Female Werewolves, ed. Hannah Priest. Manchester UP, 2015

The Wolf-Man, and other movies, told the story of a man who was cursed to transform into a wolf every full moon, but in modern times female werewolves have taken their place on stage, in everything from movies to books to role-playing games to songs by Shakira. She-Wolf, a one-stop shop for all things feminine and lycanthropic, covers all these and more.

History of Female Werwolves

Priest dates the first female werewolf to a story told by Gerald of Wales about the werewolves of Ossory. He was sent to Ireland after the Norman invasion, and his Topography of Ireland (pdf here) includes many strange stories, none of which are to the credit of the Irish.

According to this one, in Chapter 19, every seven years a man and a woman of Ossory would change into wolves, and stay that shape until the seven years were up, when two others took up the burden. The male werewolf sought out Gerald because the female was dying, and needed a priest. The most interesting part of the story tells how she peeled back her wolf-skin to show the elderly woman underneath, and rolled it back up afterward.

After Gerald’s story, dating from the 12th century, there are no female werewolves in any tales (from Western Europe) until the publication in 1839 of a novel called The Phantom Ship. The werewolf in that story is hardly a good Christian: she murders her children, and digs up a grave to eat a corpse’s flesh.

Bringing it into the real world, the sad case of Perette Gandillon gives us someone who believed she was a wolf, a belief that led to tragedy. She attacked two small children, and killed one, before being killed herself by an enraged mob. (Sabine Baring-Gould includes her story in The Book of Were-Wolves, available at Gutenberg and Sacred Texts.)

How are female werewolves different?

With male werewolves, we sense that they have reverted from man to beast, with all the savagery and smelliness that implies. (In the nineteenth century, with its interest in hereditary taints and “throwbacks”, the wolf-man had slid back; perhaps a modern interpretation would see the apex predator beneath the civilized skin.)

The moon-triggered change suggests a sort of “menstruating man”; Peter Hutchings suggests in Chapter 10 that one of the humiliations of being a male werewolf is being bound to this monthly cycle, which feminizes him. This implicit connection becomes explicit with female werewolves. The movie Ginger Snaps links becoming a werewolf with the heroine’s periods. (The book Kitty and the Silver Bullet considers werewolf pregnancy and its difficulties.(13))

Peter Hutchings also notes how female werewolves retain an attractiveness and poise that the male versions lack. It’s as if the female characters gain in strength and assertiveness even as they become monstrous beings. Barbara Creed also explores this ambivalence in her chapter on the femme animale, a part-animal, part-human like the Sphinx, harpy or siren, a being who violates cultural boundaries.

Angela Carter’s femmes animales and subversive Red Riding Hoods pop up throughout, since her book The Bloody Chamber and Neil Jordan’s film The Company of Wolves were trailblazers in this genre. Willem de Blécourt analyzes Carter’s story, in which the wolf turns out to be Grandma, and the movie, which changes the wolf to a man.

Hannah Priest’s chapter on “Boobs, Blood and Sacrifice” uses Jordan’s film as a starting point for considering werewolves in Young Adult fiction. While these stories often use the trope of the heroine becoming a werewolf after she gets her period, the heroines often find that the change is good one – they have more control over their lives as werewolves than they do in the normal world.

She also finds a theme of sacrifice – in the Wolves of Mercy Falls series Grace has to give up being a werewolf to keep her humanness, and the female werewolves in the Twilight sagas make their own sacrifices out of loyalty. These characters have more freedom, and more control, than the traditional werewolf, even if they still have to negotiate between human and beast.

Perhaps this explains the attraction of the she-wolf: at a time when women are becoming more powerful but still find themselves enmeshed in gender norms about their bodies and the “naturalness” of women, the female werewolf is one way to think about female strength and violence, and a way of questioning the equation woman = nature.

8 thoughts on “She-Wolf: the cultural history of female werewolves – review

  1. Leenna Naidoo

    I agree with Kathleen Rollins!
    Terry Pratchett’s Sargeant Angua of Discworld also makes for an interesting she-wolf/werewolf. Despite being set in a fantasy world, he conveys the difficulties of being a career wolfwoman in a modern relationship very well!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. solsdottir Post author

      Yes, I considered including a quote from her on the downsides of being a werewolf, but I couldn’t fit it in. I do like how often people malke assumptions about her as an attractive woman only to find out that she’s far from helpless.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Leenna Naidoo

        LOL! Yes 😀 And I love how she and Carrot make their relationship work–most of the time. The main thing, I think, was that she found her niche in life and way to use her strengths in a way she found purposeful.


  2. ceridwensilverhart

    Fascinating! Your point about how female werewolves often gain power without losing attractiveness makes me think of She-Hulk, how she gains strength but stays the expected female shape while regular Hulk is considered monstrous-looking.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. solsdottir Post author

      I hadn’t thought about She-Hulk, but she’s another example of this trope. I suppose part of it is that the female monsters have to look female as well as monstrous, but there’s more to it than that. It seems like women gain power by releasing the inner beast, perhaps because women are seen as being closer to nature.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. lilaiamoreliwordsaresacred

    Thanks for sharing this. Werewolves are certainly a fascinating topic of the fantastic, especially female ones. They offer much fertile ground for all sorts of symbolism and connotations. I’ve enjoyed both Marryat’s The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains and Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories. I’ll add the other stories and movies you mentioned in my list.


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