Shape-shifters of various types are an integral part of the folklore of many regions. Typically the existing predatory animals are incorporated into the legends, hence the were-tigers of India, the were-hyenas of Africa and the were-jaguars of certain parts of South America. This could have led to the mainly European tale of the werewolf. Another factor might have been the very human need to explain things that seem inexplicable. There is certainly a similarity between some of the behaviors attributed to werewolves and those practiced by a number of serial killers, such as mutilations, cannibalism and cyclic attacks. Perhaps the possibility of a mere human being committing such atrocities was unthinkable.
It’s not only behaviors which might seem inexplicable but physical characteristics as well. Imagine living in the 17th century and coming upon a man covered from head to foot with hair in the dead of night. What would you think? Certain medical conditions have also been named as being responsible for the origin of the werewolf mythology, including:
• Congenital porphyria (as evidenced by heightened sensitivity to light and reddening of the teeth)
• Hypertrichosis (excessive hair growth about the body, sometimes including the face)
• Downs Syndrome
Of course it’s easy enough to identify a werewolf on a full moon night (right before it eats you), but how could you tell when it’s in its human form? According to European folklore, a werewolf would retain much many of the traits of the wolf, even when walking as a human. So look for a loping gait, curved fingernails, or even a unibrow. Russian superstitions even claim that a person afflicted by the curse would have bristles under their tongue.
Movies have put forward the theory of killing the creature which brought about said curse in the first place. But what about ancient peoples? At some point it was noticed that alleged werewolves seemed to be weak and confused after they supposedly went on a rampage. This led to the belief that turning into a werewolf required a great expenditure of energy and if a person could be kept in a state of exhaustion then that change could be avoided. By the time the Medieval era came around, Europeans were using either medicinal or surgical methods to cure suspected werewolves, with exorcisms available as a third option. Unfortunately, many of these techniques were so physically extreme that they ended up killing the individual. For example, one Sicilian belief involved striking the sufferer on the head with a knife. Other, much less severe, methods included conversion to Christianity, addressing the werewolf three times by its Christian name or just scolding it.
Werewolves don’t seem to be susceptible to much. They are believed to be harmed by silver and some cultures consider rye and mistletoe to be adequate safeguards. Certain Belgian villagers would also ensure that their homes were built in the shade of the Mountain Ash. Perhaps the most enduring superstition is the aversion of werewolves to Wolfsbane. There is also a persistent belief that werewolves are particularly susceptible to silver objects, especially silver bullets. It is thought that this originated in the early 19th century since it is absent from stories told before this time. Believers recommend a silver bullet through the heart as a sure-fire way to destroy a werewolf. Certainly, not having the boon of immortality attached, any critical injury to major organs such as the heart or brain should work.