Skin-changers: Werewolves in the Medieval and Modern Imagination

This Halloween, I’d like to talk about werewolves, one of the classic monsters whose image helps to characterize this—my favorite—holiday.

Werewolves, while sometimes overshadowed by the more frequent and high-profile appearance of other monsters such as vampires and zombies in popular literature, have a mythology that has endured for millennia and still finds a way to haunt our cultural imagination. When they have appeared in popular literature, werewolves often do so in the context of a prescribed, age-old struggle between their kind and vampires. Werewolf-vampire racial animosity is dramatized in the film series Underworld (2003), which injects an unlikely love story into the ancient war between these monstrous groups. This conflict has since become a regular feature of modern vampire films, such as in Van Helsing (2004) and What We Do in the Shadows (2014), and in TV series such as Twilight (2008) and True Blood (2008). Penny Dreadful (2014), a show which delights in Victorian monstrosities, also nods to this tradition when two werewolf characters (Ethan and Kaetenay) are forced to battle a gang of vampires, while Hemlock Grove (2013) alternatively features both a werewolf named Peter and a vampyric upir named Roman who share mutual respect and admiration.

Vampire leader Viktor (Bill Nighy) battles werewolf in Len Wiseman’s ‘Underworld’ (2004).

Generally whenever we see werewolves in modern popular literature, it is in this shared context, which is also true of the the TV series Being Human (2011); however, werewolves have (in a few cases) been given center stage. The classic and most obvious examples are the films An American Werewolf in London (1981) and An American Werewolf in Paris (1997).

More recently, in Harry Potter and the of Azkaban (2004), Remus Lupin, who is one of the wizard professors at Hogwartz and also a werewolf, is a main protagonists in the film, despite that vampires feature nowhere in the series and are rarely mentioned even in J. K. Rowling’s novels. For Teen Wolf (2011), a TV series focused on a teenage boy’s struggle with lycanthropy, the absence  of vampires is a point of pride. Often werewolves have been gendered male, but the TV series Bitten (2014) challenges this stereotype by centering the plot on a female werewolf protagonist and her struggles within a werewolf patriarchy. Unfortunately, and counterproductively, the series is plagued by a consistent hyper-sexualization of her character in a manner all too familiar from the modern vampire craze. I’d like to believe this inconsistent and contradictory messaging might have contributed to the show’s discontinuation in 2016, but somehow I doubt it.

Professor Lupin (David Thewlis) transforming into a werewolf in Alfonso Cuarón’s ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (2004).

Today, we will discuss skin-changing and werewolfism in the medieval literary traditions of Northern Europe, primarily as contained in the context of the Old Norse fornaldarsǫgur. We will also consider how lycanthropy in the Old Norse Hrólfs saga kraka and Vǫlsunga saga inform certain instances of skin-changers in modern literature, especially in the fantasy worlds of J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin.

Numerous academic blogs have explored the topic of lycanthropy, usually—and unsurprisingly—around this same time of year. In fact, the website Sententiae Antiquae has, in years passed, written a blog series on werewolves in the classical tradition, including blogs on Petronius’ werewolf story from Satyricon (62), Pliny the Elder’s emphasis on clothing and description of werewolf superstitions in his Natural History (8.80-4), and an overview of classical lycanthropy producing a list of sources including, Herodotus’ Histories, Plato’s Republic, Pausanias’ Geography of Greece, anonymous Greek Medical Treatises on the Treatment of Lycanthropy, St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God, and the 11th century medieval Latin poem, Poemata 9.841, by a monk named Michael Psellus (which is notably influenced by Greek medical treatises). These blogs have tended to focus especially on classical superstitions, such as nakedness being a prerequisite for transformation and the belief that a wolf’s gaze could paralyze humans.

Miniature of wolves and (below) the man paralyzed by their gaze from the ‘Rochester Bestiary’ in BL, Royal MS 12 F. xiii, f. 29r.

The British Library has also composed a blog on lycanthropy in the context of the influence of classical werewolf mythology on later medieval literature. This blog references classical werewolf stereotypes primarily derived from Pliny’s description of versipelles ‘skin-changers’ (his term for werewolves) in Natural History, and then moves to consider especially Bisclavret, the famous Breton lay by Marie de France, and Gerald of Wales’ description of an Irish folktale concerning lycanthropy in his Topographica Hibernica, both of which present a very positive image of a werewolf, complete with the capacity for human understanding and compassion.

Two werewolves and the priest from Gerald of Wales’ ‘Topographica Hibernica’ in BL Royal MS 13 B. viii, f. 18r.

However, as mentioned earlier, werewolves appear also in the vernacular traditions of medieval Scandinavia, and this blog aims to expand the web-conversation surrounding versipelles ‘skin-changers’ in medieval literature to include examples from Old Norse saga prose literature, which contain numerous references to humans transforming into various beasts, usually wolves or bears.

This Old Norse tradition of skin-changers contributes directly to Tolkien’s character of Beorn, the werebear from The Hobbit (1937). Gandalf describes Beorn in chapter VII “Queer Lodgings” when Thorin and his company are traveling through the Misty Mountains:

“He [Beorn] is a skin-changer. He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard. I cannot tell you much more, though that ought to be enough. Some say that he is a bear descended from the great and ancient bears of the mountains that lived there before the giants came. Other say that he is a man descended from the first men who lived before Smaug or the other dragons came into this part of the world, and before the goblins came into the hills out of the North. I cannot say, though I fancy the last is the true tale. He is not the sort of person to ask questions of. At any rate he is under no enchantment but his own.”

Gandalf (Ian Mckellen) speaks with Beorn in bear-form in Peter Jackson’s ‘The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug’ (2013).

Beorn, like his namesake Bjǫrn (a hero from Hrólfs saga kraka), transforms physically from man to bear—though Bjǫrn’s transformations are the product of a curse by his evil stepmother, Queen Hvít, as opposed to Beorn who seems in full control of his metamorphoses in The Hobbit. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the King Hrolf Kraki reads:

“She [Hvít] then struck him [Bjǫrn] with her wolfskin gloves, telling him to become a cave bear, grim and savage: ‘You will eat no food other than your own father’s livestock and, in feeding yourself, you will kill more than has ever been observed before. You will never be released from the spell, and your awareness of this disgrace will be more dreadful to you than no remembrance at all.’ Then Bjorn disappeared, and no one knew what had become of him…. Next to be told is that the king’s cattle were being killed in large numbers by a grey bear, large and fierce. One evening it happened that Bera, the freeman’s daughter, saw the savage bear. It approached her unthreateningly. She thought she recognized in the bear the eyes of Bjorn, the king’s son, and so she did not run away. The beast then moved away from her, but she followed it all the way until it came to a cave. When she entered the cave, a man was standing there” (37).

This passage describes the power of the queen’s curse to physically transform Bjǫrn, which leads ultimately to his death at the hands of his own father and his warriors. However, it also emphasizes that, while Bjǫrn is dangerous to the livestock, he retains his humanity and at night transforms back into a man.

Beorn in bear-form in ‘The Battle of the Five Armies’ by Justin Gerard (2009).

The character of Bǫðvar Bjarki, son of Bjǫrn (who too shares characteristics and some parallel achievements with Beorn from The Hobbit), also from Hrólfs saga kraka, trances and in doing so is able to inhabit the mind of a bear and control its actions. This is particularly crucial during the saga’s climactic battle between the monstrous army of Hjǫvard and Skuld and the forces of King Hrólf.

The ability to enter into and take over an animal’s consciousness, as a form of shape-shifting through meditation, appears also in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (1991)—and corresponding HBO series Game of Thrones (2011)in the contexts of characters called ‘wargs’ who possess this distinct ability. This group includes a number of those in the Stark family (whose family sigil is appropriately a direwolf). In Martin’s series, characters described as wargs are always from the wintry North, and regularly use their possessed animals to battle their enemies, as in Hrólfs saga kraka.

Robb Stark and his direwolf Grey Wind confront a captured Jaime Lannister in HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ (2011).

The Old Norse Vǫlsunga saga, more famous for its dragon and dwarf (namely, Fáfnir and Regin) than its werewolves, does nevertheless have a section in which Sigmundr and Sinfjǫtli specifically wear wolf-pelts in order to transform themselves into wolves and roam the wilderness together in wolf-form. Jesse Byock’s The Saga of the Volsungs reads:

‘One time, they went again to the forest to get themselves some riches, and they found a house. Inside it were two sleeping men, with thick gold rings. A spell had been cast upon them: wolfskins hung over them in the house and only every tenth day could they shed the skins. They were the sons of kings. Sigmund and Sinfjotli put the skins on and could not get them off. And the weird power was there as before; they howled like wolves, both understanding the sounds’ (44).

This passage describes the ability to ‘skin-change’ into a wolf by literally wearing a wolf’s skin. This version of ‘skin-changing’ is picked up and adapted in two of Martin’s fictional works: his short story “In the Lost Lands” (1982) and his novella The Skin-Trade (1988).

Illustration of Grey Alys from George R. R. Martin’s ‘In the Lost Lands’ (1982).

In Martin’s short story, a character named Boyce travels into the formidable ‘Lost Lands’ to the north, which constitute an endless frozen wilderness, with a witch named Grey Alys (who borrows heavily from mythology of Freya, especially with regard to her cloak of feathers).

I won’t spoil the ending for those who haven’t yet and might be interested in reading this text, except to say that lycanthropy appears initially as a physical transformation, but by the end we learn that wearing the skin of a werewolf can produce the same metamorphosis for those whom the transformation isn’t biological.

Cover of George R. R. Martin’s ‘The Skin Trade’ (1988).

Similarly, in his later novella, The Skin-Trade, Martin establishes a world in which both biology and werewolf skin-wearing can result in lycanthropy. Werewolf fans may be happy to learn that The Skin-Trade is currently ‘in development’ by Cinemax under the direction of scriptwriter Kalinda Vazquez, who has written for other TV series such as Prison Break (2005) and Once Upon a Time (2011). However, particularly because there is currently no clear sense as to when Cinemax and Vazquez will have their version of The Skin-Trade ready for the silver screen, it may still be a while before there is a werewolf series to rival HBO’s True Blood or AMC’s The Walking Dead.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame


Online Resources:

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History (8.80-4)
Petronius’ Satyricon (62)
Marie de France’s Bisclavret 
Gerald of Wales’ Topographica Hibernica
Hrólfs saga kraka

Vǫlsunga saga

Old Norse Saga Translations:

  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki. London, England: Penguin Books, 1998.
  • Byock, Jesse. The Saga of the Volsungs. London, England: Penguin Books, 1999.

Reading Runes in the Exeter Book Riddles

Riddles and runes go together, at least in some of those found in the medieval codex known as the Exeter Book of Old English poetry (Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501).

J. R. R. Tolkien puts their cryptic association to creative use when, in The Hobbit, the dwarves’ map reveals to Elrond in runic ‘moon-letters” a riddle describing how King Thorin Oakenshield’s company will discover the secret door and enter the Lonely Mountain of Erebor once they arrive to reclaim their stolen treasure-hoard from the dragon Smaug.

Moon-letters revealing the riddle of the secret door into Smaug’s lair from Peter Jackson’s film adaption, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012).

As with Tolkien’s moon-letters, runes found in the Exeter Book riddles serve to both obscure and illuminate their riddle and its solution. This is to say—if you are literate and can read the runic alphabet—you have an important clue to solving the puzzle. If not, the riddle’s solution is even further obscured from the solver.

While certainly not every Exeter riddle contains runes, and indeed most do not, there is a higher frequency of runes in riddles than elsewhere in the extant corpus of Old English poetry, suggesting that perhaps runes offered something useful to the playful, puzzling, at times comical, Old English riddle.

Moreover, there is a general instability in the consistency of runic characters, and this further adds another enigmatic layer of obscurity to a riddle, since no runic standard of writing—or carving—ever truly existed in any standardized form. Rather, form and style of runic inscriptions (as well as the orientation of runic characters) varied wildly in medieval England and Scandinavia, which makes reading runes especially difficult even to those with some runic literacy.

So how do runes enhance a riddle? If one can determine what letter a given runic character corresponds to in the Latin alphabet, how does this knowledge illuminate the riddle and its solution? By looking carefully at Exeter Riddle 19 and Riddle 24, we will now explore how runes operate within a broader riddling framework.

Riddle 24 on folio 106v, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501.

Ic eom wunderlicu wiht,         wræsne mine stefne,
hwilum beorce swa hund,         hwilum blæte swa gat,
hwilum græde swa gos,         hwilum gielle swa hafoc,
hwilum ic onhyrge         þone haswan earn,
guðfugles hleoþor,         hwilum glidan reorde
muþe gemæne,         hwilum mæwes song,
þær ic glado sitte.         G mec nemnað,
Swylce. A ond R         O fullesteð,
H ond I.         Nu ic haten eom
swa þa siex stafas         sweotule becnaþ.

“I am a wondrous thing—I change my voice:
sometimes I bark like a hound
sometimes I bleat like a goat,
sometimes I squawk like a goose,
sometimes I screech like a hawk,
sometimes I imitate the grey eagle,
the sound of birds of prey,
sometimes I utter with my mouth the kite’s voice,
sometimes the gull’s song,
where I gladly sit.

G names me,
also A and R.
O supports me,
H and I.

Now I am called as those six letters clearly show.”

The solution to Riddle 24 is higora, or ‘magpie’ in Old English, as the runes indicate when spelled out. In this riddle, runes function to obscure the solution from anyone unable to read these cryptic characters, but paradoxically they function also to illuminate the solution for the literate solver able to read the runes. However, as mysterious as the runes might appear to some, for those who understood them they aided in solving the puzzle.

Another riddle that uses runes is Riddle 19. In this enigma, there is a game of misdirection:

Riddle 19 on folio 105r, Exeter Cathedral Library MS 3501.

Ic seah on siþe    S R O
H hygewloncne,         heafodbeorhtne,
swiftne ofer sælwong         swiþe þrægan.
Hæfde him on hrycge         hildeþryþe
N O M         nægledne rad
A G E W.         Widlast ferede
rynestrong on rade         rofne C O
F O A H.         For wæs þy beorhtre,
swylcra siþfæt.         Saga hwæt ic hatte

“I saw, on a journey,
S R O H,
proud in spirit, head-bright,
running very swiftly over the fruitful plain.
It had battle-glory on his back,
N O M,
A nailed road,
A G E W.
Traveled the far-paths,
run-strong on the road,
brave C O F O A H.

The journey was the brighter, that very expedition.

Say what I am called”

Riddle 19 contains one of the prosopopoetic riddling challenges, enigmatic formulae which conclude many in the Exeter collection and prompt the reader to solve the puzzle: saga hwæt ic hatte “say what I am called.”

In order to answer this enigmatic challenge, one must first understand the riddle of the runes. In this case, if one deciphers and reverses the runic characters, the letters spell out a number of Old English words that allows the solver to understand the riddle in its entirety. The runic words are decoded as follows:

S R O H = hors (horse)
N O M = mon (man)
A G E W = wega (way)
C O F O A H = haofoc (hawk)

Now the riddle becomes more comprehensible, though not totally, as the runic words create syntactic breaks in the poem:

“I saw a horse on a journey,
proud in spirit, head-bright,
running very swiftly over the fruitful plain.
It had battle-glory on his back,
a man.
A nailed road,
the way
traveled the far-paths,
run-strong on the road,
a brave hawk.

The journey was the brighter, that very expedition.

Say what I am called”

With these words semantically integrated into the riddle, some resemblance of sense is gained. The solver of Riddle 19 may now better comprehend the riddle’s meaning; however, its solution is by no means as clear for the literate rune-reader as higora is for Riddle 24. With the runes deciphered, Riddle 19 presents an image of a man riding a horse along a nailed road with a brave hawk. But this image seems to fall short of a proper solution to the riddle. Although answers have been put forth, none has proven satisfactory. Riddle 19 remains unsolved, a puzzle yet to be fully unriddled.

Richard Fahey
PhD Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

Further reading:

Bitterli, Dieter. Say What I am Called: The Old English Riddles of the Exeter Book and the Anglo-Latin Riddle Tradition. Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2009.

Murphy, Patrick J. Unriddling the Exeter Riddles. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011.

Spurkland, Terje. Literacy and ‘Runacy’ in Medieval Scandinavia in Scandinavia and Europe 800-1350: Contact, Conflict and Coexistence, ed. Jonathan Adams and Katherine Holman. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2004.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them in Medieval Bestiaries

Dragon and a lion. British Library manuscript Royal 10 E IV f. 80v circa 1275-1325.

Basilisks and dragons and phoenixes, oh my! These fantastic beasts are not creatures you’re likely to see on your next holiday, but in the Middle Ages, they commonly appeared in bestiaries alongside real animals like eagles, lions, badgers and elephants. These magical animals have not faded from the literary imagination and appear frequently in popular culture, like in the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling. In Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Rowling’s contemporary bestiary, the fictional author Newt Scamander writes:

Astounding though it may seem to many wizards, Muggles [non-magical folk] have not always been ignorant of the magical and monstrous creatures that we have worked so long and hard to hide. A glance through Muggle art and literature of the Middle Ages reveals that many of the creatures they now believe to be imaginary were then known to be real. The dragon, the griffin, the unicorn, the phoenix, the centaur—these and more are represented in Muggle works of that period, though usually with almost comical inexactitude. (xiv)

Perhaps our medieval counterparts were onto something. While Rowling’s descriptions may not be any more accurate than those of medieval artists, they share some notable similarities, with a few creative innovations.

Basilisk:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 59 circa 1225-1250. Harley 4751 and Bodley 764 are sister manuscripts with very similar illustrations.

Oxford, Bodley MS 764: “The basilisk’s name in Greek (regulus) means little king, because he is the king of creeping things. Those who see him flee, because his scent will kill them. And he will kill a man simply by looking at him…The basilisk is half-a-foot long, with white spots” (Barber 184).

The basilisk is one of the most fearsome mythical creatures found in medieval bestiaries. Rowling’s description incorporates many of the elements common in most medieval descriptions of the basilisk. She retains the scarlet plume (often depicted as a crown in medieval art) and has made the snake green and longer (50 feet). Most versions differ in their descriptions of the size of the snake, but death by sight is an important part of the myth. The scent of the snake appears in some versions but not others.

Phoenix:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 4751 f. 45 circa 1225-1250 depicting a phoenix burning on a pyre.

There are two versions of the phoenix myth, both of which appear in Bodley MS 764.

Bodley 764: The phoenix, “lives for 500 years, and when it feels itself growing old, it collects twigs from aromatic plants and builds itself a pyre, on which it sits and spreads its wings to the rays of sun, setting itself on fire. When it has been consumed a new bird arises the next day out of the ashes” (Barber 141).

Bodley 764: “When [the phoenix] knows that the end of its life is approaching, it builds a chrysalis of frankincense and myrrh and other spices, and when it is about to expire it goes into the chrysalis and dies. From its flesh a worm emerges, which gradually grows up” (Barber 142).

Rowling’s phoenix is fire-colored and it has a fairly similar description to those of most bestiaries and that found in the Old English poem “The Phoenix” (a translation/ adaptation of Lactantius’ Latin poem “De Ave Phoenice”). There are multiple versions of how the regeneration happens and its duration, the more common of which involves the pyre. The illustrations often do not depict the phoenix in red and gold, but the immense age and regeneration through fire are quintessential elements of the phoenix myth.

Dragon:

Image from British Library manuscript Harley 3244 f. 59 circa 1237-1275 depicting an orange fire-breathing dragon with two pairs of wings.

Bodley 764: “The dragon is larger than all the rest of the serpents and than all other animals in the world…It has a crest, a small mouth and narrow nostrils, through which it breathes, and it puts out its tongue. It’s strength is not in its teeth, but its tail, and it harms more by blows than by force of impact” (Barber 183).

Rowling’s dragons vary by breed, of which she identifies ten. Most of her dragons are fire-breathing and they resemble the dragons usually depicted in contemporary art, film, and literature. Dragon illustrations vary greatly in their portrayal of size, color and characteristics. One of the most famous Old English stories about dragons appears in Beowulf, in which the dragon is slayed. J. R. R. Tolkien famously pays homage to this dragon tale in The Hobbit.

Rowling has crafted an engaging narrative incorporating elements found in medieval bestiaries into her descriptions. She has transformed some of the creatures for plot purposes, but their original origins are very much recognizable. I now leave you with a bit of advice, should you ever encounter a rogue dragon on your travels.

Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus.

(Never tickle a sleeping dragon.)

Maria Fahs
MA Candidate
Department of English
University of Notre Dame

This post is part of an ongoing series on Medieval Animals and their Literary Afterlives.

Sources:

Barber, Richard W., trans. Bestiary Being an English Version of the Bodleian Library, Oxford M. S. Bodley 764 with All the Original Miniatures Reproduced in Facsimile. Woodbridge: Boydell, 1993. Print.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2000. Print.

Cook, Albert Stanburrough (ed.). The Old English Elene, Phoenix, and Physiologus. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1919.

Detailed Record for Harley 3244.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Harley 4751.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Detailed Record for Royal 10 E IV.” British Library. British Library, Web. 07 Dec. 2014.

Newt Scamander. Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them. New York, NY: Arthur A. Levine Books, 2001. Print.

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Hobbit. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1973. Print.