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The Book of Werewolves : Chapter 4

The Origin of the Scandinavian Were-Wolf

Advantage of the Study of Norse Literature—Bear and Wolf-skin Dresses—The Berserkir—Their Rage—The Story of Thorir—Passages from the Aigla—The Evening Wolf—Skallagrim and his Son—Derivation of the Words Hamr and Vargr—Laws affecting Outlaws—”To become a Boar”—Recapitulation

ONE Of the great advantages of the study of old Norse or Icelandic literature is the insight given by it into the origin of world-wide superstitions. Norse tradition is transparent as glacier ice, and its origin is as unmistakable.

Mediæval mythology, rich and gorgeous, is a compound like Corinthian brass, into which many pure ores have been fused, or it is a full turbid river drawn from numerous feeders, which had their sources in remote climes. It is a blending of primæval Keltic, Teutonic, Scandinavian, Italic, and Arab traditions, each adding a beauty, each yielding a charm, bat each accretion rendering the analysis more difficult.

Pacciuchelli says:—”The Anio flows into the Tiber; pure as crystal it meets the tawny stream, and is lost in it, so that there is no more Anio, but the united stream is all Tiber.” So is it with each tributary to the tide of mediæval mythology. The moment it has blended its waters with the great and onward rolling flood, it is impossible to detect it with certainty; it has swollen the stream, but has lost its own identity. If we would analyse a particular myth, we must not go at once to the body of mediæval superstition, but strike at one of the tributaries before its absorption. This we shall proceed to do, and in selecting Norse mythology, we come upon abundant material, pointing naturally to the spot whence it has been derived, as glacial moraines indicate the direction which they have taken, and point to the mountains whence they have fallen. It will not be difficult for us to arrive at the origin of the Northern belief in were-wolves, and the data thus obtained will be useful in assisting us to elucidate much that would otherwise prove obscure in mediæval tradition.

Among the old Norse, it was the custom for certain warriors to dress in the skins of the beasts they had slain, and thus to give themselves an air of ferocity, calculated to strike terror into the hearts of their foes.

Such dresses are mentioned in some Sagas, without there being any supernatural qualities attached to them. For instance, in the Njála there is mention of a man i geitheðni, in goatskin dress. Much in the same way do we hear of Harold Harfagr having in his company a band of berserkir, who were all dressed in wolf-skins, ulfheðnir, and this expression, wolf-skin coated, is met with as a man’s name. Thus in the Holmverja Saga, there is mention of a Björn, “son of Ulfheðin, wolfskin coat, son of Ulfhamr, wolf-shaped, son of Ulf, wolf, son of Ulfhamr, wolf-shaped, who could change forms.”

But the most conclusive passage is in the Vatnsdæla Saga, and is as follows:—”Those berserkir who were called ulfheðnir, had got wolf-skins over their mail coats” (c. xvi.). In like manner the word berserkr, used of a man possessed of superhuman powers, and subject. to accesses of diabolical fury, was originally applied to one of those doughty champions who went about in bear-sarks, or habits made of bear-skin over their armour. I am well aware that Björn Halldorson’s derivation of berserkr, bare of sark, or destitute of clothing, has been hitherto generally received, but Sveibjörn Egilsson, an indisputable authority, rejects this derivation as untenable, and substitutes for it that which I have adopted.

It may be well imagined that a wolf or a bear-skin would make a warm and comfortable great-coat to a man, whose manner of living required him to defy all weathers, and that the dress would not only give him an appearance of grimness and ferocity, likely to produce an unpleasant emotion in the breast of a foe, but also that the thick fur might prove effectual in deadening the blows rained on him in conflict.

The berserkr was an object of aversion and terror to the peaceful inhabitants of the land, his avocation being to challenge quiet country farmers to single combat. As the law of the land stood in Norway, a man who declined to accept a challenge, forfeited all his possessions, even to the wife of his bosom, as a poltroon unworthy of the protection of the law, and every item of his property passed into the hands of his challenger. The berserkr accordingly had the unhappy man at his mercy. If he slew him, the farmer’s possessions became his, and if the poor fellow declined to fight, he lost all legal right to his inheritance. A berserkr would invite himself to any feast, and contribute his quota to the hilarity of the entertainment, by snapping the backbone, or cleaving the skull, of some merrymaker who incurred his displeasure, or whom he might single out to murder, for no other reason than a desire to keep his hand in practice.

It may well be imagined that popular superstition went along with the popular dread of these wolf-and-bear-skinned rovers, and that they were believed to be endued with the force, as they certainly were with the ferocity, of the beasts whose skins they wore.

Nor would superstition stop there, but the imagination of the trembling peasants would speedily invest these unscrupulous disturbers of the public peace with the attributes hitherto appropriated to trolls and jötuns.

The incident mentioned in the Völsung Saga, of the sleeping men being found with their wolf-skins hanging to the wall above their heads, is divested of its improbability, if we regard these skins as worn over their armour, and the marvellous in the whole story is reduced to a minimum, when we suppose that Sigmund and Sinfjötli stole these for the purpose of disguising themselves, whilst they lived a life of violence and robbery.

In a similar manner the story of the northern “Beauty and Beast,” in Hrolf’s Saga Kraka, is rendered less improbable, on the supposition that Björn was living as an outlaw among the mountain fastnesses in a bearskin dress, which would effectually disguise him—all but his eyes—which would gleam out of the sockets in his hideous visor, unmistakably human. His very name, Björn, signifies a bear; and these two circumstances may well have invested a kernel of historic fact with all the romance of fable; and if divested of these supernatural embellishments, the story would resolve itself into the very simple fact of there having been a King Hring of the Updales, who was at variance with his son, and whose son took to the woods, and lived a berserkr life, in company with his mistress, till he was captured and slain by his father.

I think that the circumstance insisted on by the Saga-writers, of the eyes of the person remaining unchanged, is very significant, and points to the fact that the skin was merely drawn over the body as a disguise.

But there was other ground for superstition to fasten on the berserkir, and invest them with supernatural attributes.

No fact in connection with the history of the Northmen is more firmly established, on reliable evidence, than that of the berserkr rage being a species of diabolical possession. The berserkir were said to work themselves up into a state of frenzy, in which a demoniacal power came over them, impelling them to acts from which in their sober senses they would have recoiled. They acquired superhuman force, and were as invulnerable and as insensible to pain as the Jansenist convulsionists of S. Medard. No sword would wound them, no fire would barn them, a club alone could destroy them, by breaking their bones, or crushing in their skulls. Their eyes glared as though a flame burned in the sockets, they ground their teeth, and frothed at the mouth; they gnawed at their shield rims, and are said to have sometimes bitten them through, and as they rushed into conflict they yelped as dogs or howled as wolves. (i)

(i) Hic (Syraldus) septem filios habebat, tanto veneficiorum usu callentes, ut sæpe subitis furoris viribus instincti solerent ore torvum infremere, scuta morsibus attrectare, torridas fauce prunas absumere, extructa quævis incendia penetrare, nec posset conceptis dementiæ motus alio remedii genere quam aut vinculorum injuriis aut cædis humanæ piaculo temperari. Tantam illis rabiem site sævitia ingenii sive furiaram ferocitas inspirabat.—Saxo Gramm. VII.


According to the unanimous testimony of the old Norse historians, the berserkr rage was extinguished by baptism, and as Christianity advanced, the number of these berserkir decreased.

But it must not be supposed that this madness or possession came only on those persons who predisposed themselves to be attacked by it; others were afflicted with it, who vainly struggled against its influence, and who deeply lamented their own liability to be seized with these terrible accesses of frenzy. Such was Thorir Ingimund’s son, of whom it is said, in the Vatnsdæla Saga, that “at times there came over Thorir berserkr fits, and it was considered a sad misfortune to such a man, as they were quite beyond control.”

The manner in which he was cured is remarkable; pointing as it does to the craving in the heathen mind for a better and more merciful creed:—

“Thorgrim of Kornsá had a child by his concubine Vereydr, and, by order of his wife, the child was carried out to perish.

“The brothers (Thorsteinn and Thorir) often met, and it was now the turn of Thorsteinn to visit Thorir, and Thorir accompanied him homeward. On their way Thorsteinn asked Thorir which he thought was the first among the brethren; Thorir answered that the reply was easy, for ‘you are above us all in discretion and talent; Jökull is the best in all perilous adventures, but I,’ he added, ‘I am the least worth of us brothers, because the berserkr fits come over me, quite against my will, and I wish that you, my brother, with your shrewdness, would devise some help for me.’

“Thorsteinn said,–‘I have heard that our kinsman, Thorgrim, has just suffered his little babe to be carried out, at the instigation of his wife. That is ill done. I think also that it is a grievous matter for you to be different in nature from other men.’

“Thorir asked how he could obtain release from his affliction . . . . Then said Thorsteinn, ‘Now will I make a vow to Him who created the sun, for I ween that he is most able to take the ban of you, and I will undertake for His sake, in return, to rescue the babe and to bring it up for him, till He who created man shall take it to Himself-for this I reckon He will do!’ After this they left their horses and sought the child, and a thrall of Thorir had found it near the Marram river. They saw that a kerchief had been spread over its face, but it had rumpled it up over its nose; the little thing was all but dead, but they took it up and flitted it home to Thorir’s house, and he brought the lad up, and called him Thorkell Rumple; as for the berserkr fits, they came on him no more.” (c. 37)

But the most remarkable passages bearing on our subject will be found in the Aigla.

There was a man, Ulf (the wolf) by name, son of Bjálfi and Hallbera. Ulf was a man so tall and strong that the like of him was not to be seen in the land at that time. And when he was young he was out viking expeditions and harrying . . . He was a great landed proprietor. It was his wont to rise early, and to go about the men’s work, or to the smithies, and inspect all his goods and his acres; and sometimes he talked with those men who wanted his advice; for he was a good adviser, he was so clear-headed; however, every day, when it drew towards dusk, he became so savage that few dared exchange a word with him, for he was given to dozing in the afternoon.

“People said that he was much given to changing form (hamrammr), so he was called the evening-wolf, kveldúlfr.”—(c. 1.)

In this and the following passages, I do not consider hamrammr to have its primary signification of actual transformation, but simply to mean subject to fits of diabolical possession, under the influence of which the bodily powers were greatly exaggerated. I shall translate pretty freely from this most interesting Saga, as I consider that the description given in it of Kveldulf in his fits greatly elucidates our subject.

“Kveldulf and Skallagrim got news during summer of an expedition. Skallagrim. was the keenest-sighted of men, and he caught sight of the vessel of Hallvard and his brother, and recognized it at once. He followed their course and marked the haven into which they entered at even. Then he returned to his company, and told Kveldulf of what he had seen . . . . Then they busked them and got ready both their boats; in each they put twenty men, Kveldulf steering one and Skallagrim the other, and they rowed in quest of the ship. Now when they came to the place where it was, they lay to. Hallvard and his men had spread an awning over the deck, and were asleep. Now when Kveldulf and his party came upon them, the watchers who were seated at the end of the bridge sprang up and called to the people on board to wake up, for there was danger in the wind. So Hallvard and his men sprang to arms. Then came Kveldulf over the bridge and Skallagrim with him into the ship. Kveldulf had in his hand a cleaver, and he bade his men go through the vessel and hack away the awning. But he pressed on to the quarter-deck. It is said the were-wolf fit came over him and many of his companions. They slow all the men who were before them. Skallagrim did the same as he went round the vessel. He and his father paused not till they had cleared it. Now when Kveldulf came upon the quarter-deck he raised his cleaver, and smote Hallvard through helm and head, so that the haft was buried in the flesh; but he dragged it to him so violently that he whisked Hallvard into the air., and flung him overboard. Skallagrim cleared the forecastle and slew Sigtrygg. Many men flung themselves overboard, but Skallagrim’s men took to the boat and rowed about, killing all they found. Thus perished Hallvard with fifty men. Skallagrim and his party took the ship and all the goods which had belonged to Hallvard . . . and flitted it and the wares to their own vessel, and then exchanged ships, lading their capture, but quitting their own. After which they filled their old ship with stones, brake it up and sank it. A good breeze sprang up, and they stood out to sea.”

It is said of these men in the engagement who were were-wolves, or those on whom came the berserkr rage, that as long as the fit was on them no one could oppose them, they were so strong; but when it had passed off they were feebler than usual. It was the same with Kveldulf when the were-wolf fit went off him—he then felt the exhaustion consequent on the fight, and he was so completely ‘done up,’ that he was obliged to take to his bed.”

In like manner Skallagrim had his fits of frenzy, taking after his amiable father.

“Thord and his companion were opposed to Skallagrim in the game, and they were too much for him, he wearied, and the game went better with them. But at dusk, after sunset, it went worse with Egill and Thord, for Skallagrim became so strong that he caught up Thord and cast him down, so that he broke his bones, and that was the death of him. Then he caught at Egill. Thorgerd Brák was the name of a servant of Skallagrim, who had been foster-mother to Egill. She was a woman of great stature, strong as a man and a bit of a witch. Brák exclaimed,—’Skallagrim! are you now falling upon your son?’ (hamaz þú at syni þínum). Then Skallagrim let go his hold of Egill and clutched at her. She started aside and fled. Skallagrim. followed. They ran out upon Digraness, and she sprang off the headland into the water. Skallagrim cast after her a huge stone which struck her between the shoulders, and she never rose after it. The place is now called Brak’s Sound.”
—(c. 40.)

Let it be observed that in these passages from the Aigla, the words að hamaz, hamrammr, &c. are used without any intention of conveying the idea of a change of bodily shape, though the words taken literally assert it. For they are derived from hamr, a skin or habit; a word which has its representatives in other Aryan languages, and is therefore a primitive word expressive of the skin of a beast.

The Sanskrit carmma; the Hindustanee cam, hide or skin; and camra, leather; the Persian game, clothing, disguise; the Gothic ham or hams, skin; and even the Italian camicia, and the French chemise, are cognate words (I shall have more to say on this subject in the chapter on the Mythology of Lycanthropy.)

It seems probable accordingly that the verb að hamaz was first applied to those who wore the skins of savage animals, and went about the country as freebooters; but that popular superstition soon invested them with supernatural powers, and they were supposed to assume the forms of the beasts in whose skins they were disguised. The verb then acquired the significance “to become a were-wolf, to change shape.” It did not stop there, but went through another change of meaning, and was finally applied to those who were afflicted with paroxysms of madness or demoniacal possession.

This was not the only word connected with were-wolves which helped on the superstition. The word vargr, a wolf, had a double significance, which would be the means of originating many a were-wolf story. Vargr is the same as u-argr, restless; argr being the same as the Anglo-Saxon earg. Vargr had its double signification in Norse. It signified a wolf, and also a godless man. This vargr is the English were, in the word were-wolf, and the garou or varou in French. The Danish word for were-wolf is var-ulf, the Gothic vaira-ulf. In the Romans de Garin, it is “Leu warou, sanglante beste.” In the Vie de S. Hildefons by Gauthier de Coinsi,—

Cil lon desve, cil lou garol,
Ce sunt deable, que saul
Ne puent estre de nos mordre.

Here the loup-garou is a devil. The Anglo-Saxons regarded him as an evil man: wearg, a scoundrel; Gothic varys, a fiend. But very often the word meant no more than an outlaw. Pluquet in his Contes Populaires tells us that the ancient Norman laws said of the criminals condemned to outlawry for certain offences, Wargus esto: be an outlaw!

In like manner the Lex Ripuaria, tit. 87, “Wargus sit, hoe est expulsus.” In the laws of Canute, he is called verevulf. (Leges Canuti, Schmid, i. 148.) And the Salic Law (tit. 57) orders: “Si quis corpus jam sepultum effoderit, aut expoliaverit, wargus sit.” “If any one shall have dug up or despoiled an already buried corpse, let him be a varg.”

Sidonius Apollinaris. says, “Unam feminam quam forte vargorum, hoc enim nomine indigenas latrunculos nuncupant,” as though the common name by which those who lived a freebooter life were designated, was varg. (ii)

(ii) SIDONIUS APOLLINARIS: Opera, lib. vi. ep. 4.


In like manner Palgrave assures us in his Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth, that among the Anglo, Saxons an utlagh, or out-law, was said to have the head of a wolf. If then the term vargr was applied at one time to a wolf, at another to an outlaw who lived the life of a wild beast, away from the haunts of men “he shall be driven away as a wolf, and chased so far as men chase wolves farthest,” was the legal form of sentence—it is certainly no matter of wonder that stories of out-laws should have become surrounded with mythical accounts of their transformation into wolves.

But the very idiom of the Norse was calculated to foster this superstition. The Icelanders had curious expressions which are sufficiently likely to have produced misconceptions.

Snorri not only relates that Odin changed himself into another form, but he adds that by his spells he turned his enemies into boars. In precisely the same manner does a hag, Ljot, in the Vatnsdæla Saga, say that she could have turned Thorsteinn and Jökull into boars to run about with the wild beasts (c. xxvi.); and the expression verða at gjalti, or at gjöltum, to become a boar, is frequently met with in the Sagas.

“Thereupon came Thorarinn and his men upon them, and Nagli led the way; but when he saw weapons drawn he was frightened, and ran away up the mountain, and became a boar. . . . And Thorarinn and his men took to run, so as to help Nagli, lest he should tumble off the cliffs into the sea” (Eyrbyggja Saga, c. xviii.) A similar expression occurs in the Gisla Saga Surssonar, p. 50. In the Hrolfs Saga Kraka, we meet with a troll in boar’s shape, to whom divine honours are paid; and in the Kjalnessinga Saga, c. xv., men are likened to boars—”Then it began to fare with them as it fares with boars when they fight each other, for in the same manner dropped their foam.” The true signification of verða at gjalti is to be in such a state of fear as to lose the senses; but it is sufficiently peculiar to have given rise to superstitious stories.

I have dwelt at some length on the Northern myths relative to were-wolves and animal transformations, because I have considered the investigation of these all-important towards the elucidation of the truth which lies at the bottom of mediæval superstition, and which is nowhere so obtainable as through the Norse literature. As may be seen from the passages quoted above at length, and from an examination of those merely referred to, the result arrived at is pretty conclusive, and may be summed up in very few words.

The whole superstructure of fable and romance relative to transformation into wild beasts, reposes simply on this basis of truth—that among the Scandinavian nations there existed a form of madness or possession, under the influence of which men acted as though they were changed into wild and savage brutes, howling, foaming at the mouth, ravening for blood and slaughter, ready to commit any act of atrocity, and as irresponsible for their actions as the wolves and bears, in whose skins they often equipped themselves.

The manner in which this fact became invested with supernatural adjuncts I have also pointed out, to wit, the change in the significance of the word designating the madness, the double meaning of the word vargr, and above all, the habits and appearance of the maniacs. We shall see instances of berserkr rage reappearing in the middle ages, and late down into our own times, not exclusively in the North, but throughout France, Germany, and England, and instead of rejecting the accounts given by chroniclers as fabulous, because there is much connected with them which seems to be fabulous, we shall be able to refer them to their true origin.

It may be accepted as an axiom, that no superstition of general acceptance is destitute of a foundation of truth; and if we discover the myth of the were-wolf to be widely spread, not only throughout Europe, but through the whole world, we may rest assured that there is a solid core of fact, round which popular superstition has crystallized; and that fact is the existence of a species of madness, during the accesses of which the person afflicted believes himself to be a wild beast, and acts like a wild beast.

In some cases this madness amounts apparently to positive possession, and the diabolical acts into which the possessed is impelled are so horrible, that the blood curdles in reading them, and it is impossible to recall them without a shudder.

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