The ‘horrifying and never before heard’ news of 300 female werewolves (lycanthropes), who terrorised the Duchy of Jülich after making a pact with the devil was published in a sensational broadsheet by Georg Kress in 1591 in Augsburg (now in Germany). These lycanthropic women attacked men, boys and cattle, adopting lupine form and slaughtering their victims until 85 of them were apprehended and burnt at the stake in Ostmilich on May 6th, 1591.
The other day I was browsing Tumblr and I turned up a post on Irish werewolves. I knew Irish mythology and folklore had lots of shapeshifters, but I had never heard of werewolves. Better still, it turned out that not only does Ireland have werewolves, but also its own form of Úlfhéðnar, the berserker-like wolf-warriors of Scandinavian legend.
There are no real wolves in Ireland any more, but they were once a very real menace, which would explain the large number of stories about them.
The ambiguity of wolves comes through again in the two groups of humans identified with them: warriors and outlaws. What both groups have in common is bloodshed; the difference is between legitimate and illegitimate violence. (The difference, so to speak, between Oðin’s pet wolves and Fenrir.)
Wolves, as predatory animals and carrion-eaters, had a somewhat grim reputation among the Norse. There was the Fenris Wolf, who would devour Oðin at Ragnarok, and on a more human level, outlaws were called vargr, wolves.
At the same time, though, Oðin had two as pets, and in one Eddic poem he praises the killer wolf Garm as the “best of hounds”. Warriors gave themselves wolf-names, and in addition to the well-known berserker, Úlfhéðnar were men imbued with the ferocity of wolves.
In my next three posts, I will be taking a closer look at the ambivalent mythology surrounding wolves in Norse myth. In particular, I want to look at three aspects of the wolf-mythos:
- Mythological wolves, such as Fenrir and Garm, and their relation to Loki.
- Metaphorical wolves, such as outlaws and warriors.
- Magical wolves, associated with giantesses and witches.
The image of the wolf goes to the heart of the Eddic story of creation and eventual doom, and exposes some of the fractures at the heart of the society the Æsir created. I hope you will enjoy reading these posts. If you find them interesting, please feel free to comment or like them.
If you liked the image at the top, click here.