History is an iceberg, the things we can see from the ship, the details we know and the documentation or proof that we have to back them up, or actually just one small portion of a much larger picture beneath the waves of time hides an entire realm of information that we have yet to uncover. That doesn't mean that each new generation of historian rewrites history. It simply means that the more we dig and the deeper we go, the more pieces we have to work with.
And in the end, that makes for a much more comprehensive picture. Might it change the things we thought were true? Certainly. But it also gets us closer to the real story. Take the story of our own species, the Homo sapiens, back in the 1950s. Scientists believe that our ancestors emerged around 200000 years ago and when a skull was unearthed back in 1961 inside a mine in Marrakesh, a skull that dated to about 40000 years ago, the theories seem to be confirmed.
And for half a century, that was the case. Then just a few years ago, a new scientist decided to return to that same mine and dig in the layer beneath where the skull was found, soon enough, the remains of five new skeletons were discovered also homosapien, along with a set of stone tools. But when those tools were dated, the results repainted the entire picture. Rather than 40000 years old, these new remains were 300000 years older, shattering theories about the emergence of our species.
Like I said, history is an iceberg, and the same can be said about folklore, there are stories and legends we've told each other for centuries from tribal campfires to Hollywood blockbusters. But many of the details have been worn away or buried beneath the waves of time. They were once part of the larger picture, but now they are all but forgotten. So today I want to take you on a journey into the past to explore one of our favorite corners of folklore and see what the shadows might be hiding.
But be warned, because while the core of this legend might be familiar to most of you, there's a darkness just beneath the surface waiting to break free. And if there's one thing we can all agree on, there are few creatures of folklore more terrifying. Then the werewolf. I'm Aaron Manque, and this is Laura. It seems that everyone knows about werewolves, maybe it's thanks to all those Hollywood films, or perhaps it's just a result of how frequently the stories have been told.
Either way, most people have a pretty long list of facts in their head about werewolves. For starters, scholars and fans alike would be quick to point out that it's a pretty popular slice of folklore, ask just about anyone and they know the gist of it. A werewolf is a human being who transforms into the shape of a wolf and in doing so becomes a dangerous threat to their community. People will also happily point out the connection to the moon, something we can see prominently in characters like Professor Leupen from the Harry Potter novels, and there's a good chance that most casual fans of the legends might even utter the word lycanthropy, the term for the condition that underlies it all.
Those are the popular details, and they managed to work their way into just about every new variation on the werewolf mythology, movies, novels, comic books and more, all of them dip their quill into this shallow inkwell. But if we were to travel deep enough into the past, the werewolf as we know it, would transform into so much more. Traditional beliefs about these creatures had a few different opinions about what a werewolf actually was in some cultures, a werewolf was nothing more than a person's soul that had left their body to go on a ghostly hunt.
Others believe the wolf itself was physical and real, but simply a counterpart to the human being, and both could exist at the same time. And another view of the werewolf was that the wolf was simply a familiar demonic creature that served a witch and just like other folklore surrounding familiars. If a werewolf was injured, that injury would appear magically on the witch that controlled it. Definitions aside, the reasons why the werewolf existed were also multifaceted, today, we're used to the idea that anyone bitten by one will become infected with the same powers.
But long ago, these creatures were often the product of a curse. Their condition was typically seen as divine punishment for evil deeds, which made curing them all that much more difficult. But there were theories even back then. Some people believe that a werewolf would automatically transform back into human form when they became exhausted enough. Others believe that medicine was the only way to cure them. And many of those folk cures involve the flowering plants called wolfsbane. Some cultures even recommended surgery.
And although I'm not exactly sure how it was supposed to work, more often than not it ended up killing the accused rather than helping them. Other brutal cures included piercing their hands with nails or striking them on the forehead with a knife. And on the other end of the spectrum, there were those who believe that a werewolf just needed a good old fashioned scolding to cure it. But that would probably only work on sware wolves, not werewolves. But let's back up for a moment.
One of the things we take for granted in the world of werewolves is their transformation. It happens. And then the interesting stuff is able to take place, the hunting and devouring and all of that. But centuries ago, the method of that transformation was just as varied as the rest of the folklore. Some cultures believe that transformation required a person to take off all of their clothing and then put on a belt made out of Wolf's skin. Other stories suggested that a person would have to rub their bodies with a magical salve or ointments that caused the change to begin.
And there are more than a few stories about drinking water, either from a magical stream or from rainwater collected in the footprints of a real wolf. Now, obviously, once a person had transformed, they would be easy to spot. But what about when they were in their human form? How is a community supposed to track down the werewolves, living among them, hiding in plain sight? Well, thankfully, there were physical clues. They could look for a werewolf they believed had curved fingernails, low set ears and eyebrows that tended to grow together in the center.
Their teeth might look a bit too sharp and their face might take on a more harsh or gruff appearance. And if they had recently transformed back into human form, they might also be unusually weak or depressed.
But the biggest misconception of all regarding werewolf's just might be how uncommon their folklore really was before the 14th century, Europe didn't really have many widespread legends about them. Yes, there were some holdovers from classical antiquity, but most of the actual documents and appearances of the werewolf were limited to things like court records. When they did appear, though, those stories typically followed a few set patterns. And while these tales might not be what you're used to, they represent the werewolf as it was viewed by Europeans for a very long time.
And when we explore them, one thing becomes abundantly clear. No matter what shape or form they took, stories about werewolves have always been about something deeper. The danger of the unexpected. They are known as the wound legends, they were stories that were passed around with one common idea at their core that a werewolf in human form could be cut to reveal the beast within. How deep that cut needed to be was never really settled on, and so each community tended to make up their own rules, but the theory gave them some shred of hope to hold on to in the face of their fear.
All they had to do was capture someone they suspected of being a werewolf and then cut them. If it was possible to see fur beneath their human skin, then they'd been right. Then we have the lover legends. These stories were more narrative in nature and always seemed to follow the same pattern. Although there were variations from culture to culture in most German versions of the story, we are told of a husband who seems to have abandoned his wife. One day he is there and the next he's gone, packed up and moved on to start a new life elsewhere.
But then during the night, the lonely wife is visited by a werewolf who breaks into her home. Sometimes the beast will bite the clothing that she's wearing, while other times it attacks clothing that's hanging on a line or lain in plain sight. And then it vanishes again into the night. The following day, the husband always returns, maybe a little worse for wear, sometime after the couple reunites, the husband smiles, and that's when the wife notices a thread from one of her favorite items of clothing, one that had been torn by the beast the night before, stuck in his teeth.
The oven legends are stories of tension and redemption, they all seem to work off the premise that a human can turn into a werewolf by putting on a magical wolf's skin belt. In these stories, a farmhand is usually suspected of being a werewolf, and their suspicions are confirmed one day when they find a belt hidden inside the hollow of an old tree, determined to save the man from his own sins. His co-workers send him away on an errand. Then they take the wolf belt and build a large fire in the oven before waiting for him to return.
Just as the suspected werewolf is coming into view, the other farmhands toss his magical belt into the flames, destroying the man's source of power right before his eyes. After that, he typically repents of his evil ways and expresses relief that they all helped him. The most interesting of the four types of werewolf legends, though, would have to be stories of the back rider, but rather than just tell you about it, here's a great example found in old testimony from centuries ago about an experience a man had while traveling through the countryside.
Something flew onto my nape. I could see the poor hanging over my shoulders and sweat ran from my neck and ears. I didn't know what to do and thought, God, what is happening to me? Then I arrived at the church and did him in front of the old church, and then he jumped off. The legends of the Black Rider, it seems, are stories about hitchhiking werewolves, beasts that jump on the backs and shoulders of travelers who then have to carry their supernatural passenger for some distance before they vanish back into the night.
What's missing from these stories, though, is any description of a transformation that gets even common for them to not even mention werewolves by name, but the threats is clearly implied here. Let me tell you one more back rider story, because it's a perfect example of the sort of fear that was pervasive at the time. One particular account tells the story of a group of young women who had been working all day at a nearby farm preserving food for the coming winter because their work wasn't finished before sunset, a few young men were tasked with escorting the ladies home, so they all began that long walk through the shadows and trees between the farm and the town.
But as they traveled the road, nervous about every single sound and movement in the darkness around them, one of the young men felt a creature land on his back and shoulders. When he cried out, his friends turned and saw the beast with their own eyes thinking quickly. One of them picked up a large branch and swung it at the beast's head, instantly knocking it out cold and causing it to fall to the road. Naturally, everyone ran as fast as they could for town, there was no telling how soon the creature might regain consciousness and they didn't want to stick around to see how angry it might be.
But thankfully, the rest of their journey home was completely uneventful. In the morning, though, with the light of the sun giving them a dose of courage, some of the young men decided to go back to the scene of the attack and look for evidence. They expected to find tracks or maybe even some of the monsters fir. Instead, they found the body of a man lying along the side of the road, a man killed by a blow to the head.
Now I get how easy it would be to view these legends as fairy tales, just harmless little snippets of folklore designed to do nothing more than frighten and entertain. But sadly, that's not the case. These types of stories commonly appeared in actual trial documents, trials where reputations and lives were on the line. And while trials like that couldn't possibly happen today in our modern world, they were far from unheard of just a few centuries ago. And sometimes the results were tragic.
She had only stayed there for one night, François Secretan usually lived in the mountains to the east, but sometime around June 1st of 1998, the weather turned bad and she walked to town looking for better shelter. She was 58 years old after all, and I can't help but assume she just wanted a dry place to sleep. That night, the house she knocked on was the home of the Miami family, but they turned her away because the man of the house was away on business.
Francois's persisted, though, and eventually the family allowed her to stay. It was honestly the good Christian thing to do to Secretan was about as impoverished as one could be. A few days later, though, the mayor's daughter, eight year old Luas, began to crawl around on all fours and twist her mouth into strange shapes. That was followed by what could only be described as seizures and paralysis. But she did manage to get a few sentences out.
In the midst of it, all words, she used to accuse François Secretan of bewitching her. Sucrogen managed to hear about the accusations before anyone else, and she panicked, she knew how situations like this would play out all around them in eastern France, which trials blazed like a wildfire. And she knew that this little lie was something that could turn into a death sentence for anyone. So she went for help. That help was the advice of another local beggar, a man named Jack Buck.
He was known as one of the cunning folk, a practitioner of traditional folk magic and healing. And according to him, all she needed to do to cure the girl was to take some of the family's bread and use it as a medicine for her. And then he sent her on her way. But inside the main home, things were escalating quickly, little Luis, was it recovering so her parents sent for a Catholic priest when she then declared to be the host of Five Demons, an exorcism was conducted and thankfully, all of her symptoms went away after that.
But of course, that's still left the question of who had sent those demons to torment her. Sucrets son was arrested a short while later and thrown into a filthy prison cell in between torture sessions disguised as interrogations. Naturally, she caved in to their demands every idea the authorities put forward. She admitted to how could she not? If she stood by her innocence, it would only prolong her pain and suffering. So she confessed to it all. But she did more than that.
She also mentioned the help she received from Jack Buck. In fact, she painted an image of him that made him out to be just as guilty as her. So it wasn't long before he joined her in prison, the subject of his own series of painful interrogations. And this is all exactly what you've probably come to expect from a 16th century European witch trial. I get that up to this point. It feels a lot like so many other stories.
Although let me add, I don't think that makes the story any less valuable or powerful. We need to remember these victims to learn from their stories and to help us make better choices in the future. But, yes, I understand that they can all start to sound alike. But once jox, interrogations begin, all of that changed at first, it's what you would expect, yes, I am a witch, he tells them, and I get my powers from the devil powers I use to kill livestock and destroy crops.
But then he added that on top of all of that, he could even transform into a werewolf, giving him the power to hunt and kill. And how did he make that transformation? Again, it was with the devil's help. Jack explained that he received a magical ointment from the Lord of Darkness and once applied, he would change into the monster and then run through the countryside with an entire pack of others just like him. A pack that gathered for meetings with the devil himself.
But here's where things get tricky, and to understand it, you have to put on your 16th century hat because the Christian Bible mentions witchcraft. It was easy and legal in Europe to accuse, try and execute witches. But werewolves were different. They don't appear in the Bible. In fact, Catholic theology had long before deemed transmutations like that to be impossible. And it wasn't legal to put people on trial for fantasy. But the chief justice of France at the time, a man named Unrebutted, saw something in JAKKS confession that for lack of a better way of putting it, gave the authorities some teeth.
They might not be able to try him for being a werewolf, but that partnership with the devil that he admitted to was certainly worthy of death. In the days that followed, Jack and the others he named from his pack were all arrested and interrogated through torture. And while all of that took place, François Secretan, who had suffered inside the horrible condition of the prison for weeks, sadly passed away. She might have escaped public execution, but she was executed nonetheless.
Jack would face a more dramatic death a short while later. Now, remember, not all witches in Europe and England were burned at the stake depending on the laws of the nation and the variant of Christianity, the people followed. Sometimes those victims were hanged, but even those nations that burned witches tended to first strangle or slit their throats, meaning the burning was purely for show, but for Jack Buck. His execution would skip that step, perhaps because of the boldness of his confession, or maybe in an effort to send a powerful message to other would be witches.
He was tied to the stake in the middle of town, fully alive and aware of his surroundings. And then, with hundreds looking on, a fire was lit beneath his feet. Slowly and painfully. He was devoured by the flames. There's always a deeper story beneath the surface and the obvious things we see and know, there are truths waiting to be uncovered. Maybe they were lost to us a long time ago and bringing them back into the light will help restore our understanding of the world.
Or perhaps they are new additions that will require us to step back and rethink at all.
The folklore of the werewolf is one of those multilayered pieces of history, there's the stuff we all think we know, the full moons and torn clothing and wolf monsters that stand on two legs and howl. And then there's the historical record. Yes, the modern version is highly entertaining, which, of course, is by design. But that doesn't mean the older stories are any less frightening. But after looking back on those earlier versions of the legend, I think it's surprising just how much of the horror came not from the monsters, but at the hands of the people who hunted them, whether it was barbaric, exploratory surgery, looking for proof or cures that involved nails through hands or dangerous folk medicine.
The humans at the center of these stories made it very clear that they, too, were capable of frightening things.
In the case of the trial and execution of Jack Buck, there was also one other dangerous outcome precedent. You see, once word spread that the chief justice had found a way around the theological limitations of werewolf trials, other communities suddenly found themselves equipped and ready to handle their own problems. In fact, in the following weeks, people just outside of the same town became concerned about some recent wolf attacks. One of the victims had been a young teenager named Benowa Bridel, whose death had been witnessed by others.
And those eyewitnesses claim that the wolf in question had no tail and distinctly human like hands instead of paws. As people are prone to do, the townsfolk went looking for someone to blame, given the new rumors of an entire pack of werewolves, they made the leap in logic that one of those pack members had yet to be named and arrested. And that's when they fixated on a local woman named Ponet Gandhian. Now, I can't find the reason why she became a suspect, I can't even find record of a trial, as far as I can tell, Ponet was simply arrested, dragged into the town centre and then stoned to death by her neighbors with zero evidence outside a hunch, they pummeled her body with heavy stones until she died.
Then they went after her brother, Pierre. He was a rough, well worn man with cuts and scars all over his body from a life of hard labor on the farm. But when you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail, as they say. The townsfolk didn't see work injuries. They saw evidence of a werewolf and they arrested him for it. Pierre confessed under torture, of course, he explained the source of his powers and his relationship with the devil.
He described his murder of various victims and he named others who ran in his pack. It didn't take long before all of them were rounded up and in custody and they were killed for it. The abbots of the nearby monastery, with the support of the chief justice, ordered them all gathered in the town's market square, where they were tied to stakes and burned to death for their crimes. Supernatural creatures might not be real, but history has made one thing abundantly clear when communities go hunting for monsters, we don't have to look far to find one.
They're right there waiting. Just beneath the surface. One of the powers of folklore is that it has a way of getting us all onto the same page. The lines are clear and the antagonists are duly noted. We know who the bad guys are, but within a world is rich and deep as folklore. There are bound to be exceptions. And there's one werewolf legend that seems to turn all of our expectations upside down. Stick around after this brief sponsor break and I'll tell you all about it.
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Plus Dotcom Iglauer. That's the great courses plus dotcom Iglauer. His plan had backfired in the most spectacular way, Herman von Bruin Inc was a historian writing in the early 20th century who was hoping to rehabilitate a bit of his homeland's reputation. Ever since the 15th century, the nation of Lavonia had been infamous for its werewolf stories, in fact, so many stories about the mythical beast had come from that small country that people all across Europe had begun to think the place was absolutely infested with them.
Bruening wanted to set the record straight, so in 1924, he published a book he titled The Werewolf in Lavonia. Now, maybe it was the title or perhaps he just didn't weave a compelling argument for his case. Whatever the reason was, he failed. The result instead was to take those ancient sketches in the dirt and firmly set them in cement. Most of the book is filled with stories that you would expect from 15th century European werewolf tales, but hidden away is the most unusual example I've seen.
And it all centers around a peasant farmer named Old This. It seems that sometime in 1891, a church was broken into in the town of Greensburg and old this was called in as a witness, somehow, instead of giving testimony to what he saw that night, accusations of being a werewolf were quickly leveled at him. And the amazing thing is Old Face didn't deny them. Now, in most cases, including the ones we've discussed earlier, the accused would deny the claims of their neighbors and then only confess under torture, then they would describe all of the evil deeds they committed while in the form of a werewolf and how they were in league with the devil.
But old face took a different approach. Yes, he told them he was a werewolf, but he had retired from all that about 10 years ago. It was a confession that came without the pressure of torture, and it lacked any of the brutal, malicious pride the court had expected instead of just mentioned it as if it were a thing he took pride in. And he explained why. You see all this and a few others had been benevolent werewolves, supernatural creatures who aim to do good, not evil, they had called themselves the hounds of God and had actually fought against the devil and his witches in an effort to preserve the prosperity of the area.
According to his testimony, he and his fellow hounds of God would transform for just three nights each year. Together, they would roam the countryside and feast on local farm animals, but only to gain the strength necessary for the next step in their mission. With their bellies full and their strength restored, old Face claimed that he and the others would then pass beyond the boundaries of our world and invade hell itself there they would attack the devil and chase away his witches by swinging iron rods as weapons.
And then they would locate all the crops and livestock that the devil and his minions had stolen over the course of the year and take it all back. If they were successful, he told the courts, the crops the coming year would be bountiful. If they failed, though, the people of the region would suffer through famine and disease. Naturally, the authorities were stunned when they accused him of being a werewolf. They probably expected the usual flow of events, however usual it can be, to force a confession out of an innocent victim through torture, of course.
But all of this broke the mold. He turned their accusation on its head and gave them a willing confession that shattered their expectations. At the end of the day, this is the sort of story I love to find in folklore, you can learn a lot from the oddballs and exceptions to the rule. They break the monotony and give off a slightly different sense. And that's a good thing because our world is full of many layers. And if we never dig, will never find new pieces to the puzzle will be.
Elvis was able to escape execution, which is just one more reason to love his story. He never admitted to partnering with the devil or it's a gathering with witches for regular meetings to plot the destruction of the town. He never admitted to killing innocent people either. All the authorities were able to do was charge him with two things practicing benevolent folk magic and failing to attend church for many years. So all he received was a light beating and was then banished from the church forever.
Yes, folklore is layered, and each journey into it, we take reveal some new facets of humanity. But as Orpheus experienced in sixteen ninety one, there was one part of folklore that would always be predictable. The people at the center of it all. This episode of law was written and produced by me, Aaron Manque, with research by Ali Steed and music by Chad Lawson, law is much more than just a podcast. There's a book series available in bookstores and online and two seasons of the television show on Amazon Prime video.
Check them both out if you want more law in your life. I also make an executive produce a whole bunch of other podcasts, including Aaron Mancos, Cabinet of Curiosities and Noble Blood, all of which I think you'd enjoy. My production company, Grim and Mild, specializes in shows that sit at the intersection of the dark and the historical. You can learn more about all of those shows and everything going on over in one central place, grim and mild NORCOM.
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