We Already Have the Wheel.
Werewolves and Toxic Masculinity. Growing Hair in Funny Places.
The western werewolf myth has been incredibly stable for most of its history up until the turn of the last millennia. Most of the stories, legends, and court cases reflect the same understanding of what it means to be a werewolf going back to the Greek legends of King Lycaon.
The main stream of the King Lycaon story, with many regional differences is this: Zeus (sometimes with Hermes) appears in the city of King Lycaon. The king doubts that the person claiming to be Zeus is actually a god so he tests him. The king offers Zeus a meal of meat that includes the flesh of a young boy. Sometimes the king’s sons are the ones that commit the blasphemy. Often another one of the king’s sons named Nyctimus is the sacrifice. Zeus is outraged at the blasphemy and transforms King Lycaon into a wolf. Those of his sons who were complicit in the killing are sometimes also turned into wolves and other sources have them killed by lightning. His son Nyctimus is spared; if the version had Nyctimus as the victim Zeus restores him to life.
The tropes which persist from the time of the Greeks, through the Romans and the Mediaeval Europeans, through the witch hunts to American Werewolf in London are such. Werewolves are cursed. This curse can come through their own actions or can be inherited. Werewolves are male. Werewolves are cannibals.
Looking at the later tropes, werewolves became symbols of human males who lose the qualities of civilization after the rise of Christianity. They are driven by lust, gluttony, and rage. During the witch trials, there were a sub-category of men who were believed to have sold their souls to the Devil. But while the women sold their souls in exchange for mystical powers the men sold their souls in exchange for being relieved of their conscience. The trial of Peter Stumpf in 1590 reflects these themes in the understanding of the people of the time. He was executed for being a murderer, committing incest, cannibalism, and selling his soul to the Devil. We are too far separated from this period to be able to have an objective analysis of what was real and what was legend.
There are two major different types of werewolf or shape changer story. The version that is most common in East Asian and some Native American cultures is that of the predator who disguises itself as a beautiful woman. The only pre-twentieth century version of this legend in western culture I’ve come across is ‘The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains’ published in 1839. There are a few versions of a good man who is cursed to become a wolf but regains his humanity after proving his worth.
In the Breton Lai, Bisclavret, written sometime between 1150 and 1170 by Marie de France, a nobleman is required to become a wolf for three days every week. He has to keep his clothes safely hidden to make the change back to human. (This detail also shows up in Irish legends of the Selkie.) When he confesses to his wife that he changes into a beast, she is horrified. The story goes to some great length to state that a Bisclavret (a Breton word) is not at all the type of savage mindless killer that a ‘garwalf’ is (the word in the French of the 12th century for werewolf, modern French uses Loup-garou). His wife conspires with a knight who had been pressing her to commit adultery to steal his clothes. After her husband disappears the two marry and inherit the estate of the missing man.
Sometime later when the king is hunting in the forest the Bisclavret in his wolf form approaches the king and licks the king’s feet as a sign of surrender. The king takes the wolf with him back to the castle where he sleeps at the foot of the king’s bed.
Sometime later, the knight who had stolen the werewolf’s clothes appears at the castle and is attacked by the wolf. Since this was the first and only time the wolf had ever attacked anyone the wise man of the king deduces that the wolf must have a grudge against this particular man. After the wolf also attacks his former wife, biting off her nose, the woman is put to the question where she reveals the story. The clothing is returned to the wolf – who doesn’t change back.
The wise man suggests that the wolf may want his privacy. So the king puts the clothes and the wolf into his own bedroom and leaves them there. Later that night the king returns to the bedroom and finds a handsome man sleeping in his bed. The king embraces him. The woman and the knight are exiled but not punished otherwise.
And so we have an m/m fic written by a woman in the 12th century.
A special thank you to Ms. Patricia Postle scholar and musician of mediaeval culture for telling me the story of Bisclavret.
John Allenson is a pen name for someone who has a horribly insulting real life name he does not use on social media. He has had a long process in trying to be an author but may actually be making some progress. He’s a gender-queer Jew who lives in Toronto.
This column is a tour through some of the bits and pieces of Queer themed Speculative fiction over the past few millennia.