Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Were-Wolf Superstition in Brittany by Lewis Spence 1917


The Were-Wolf Superstition in Brittany by Lewis Spence 1917

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The were-wolf superstition is, or was, as prevalent in Brittany as in other parts of France and Europe. The term ‘were-wolf’ literally means ‘man-wolf,’ and was applied to a man supposed to be temporarily or permanently transformed into a wolf. In its origins the belief may have been a phase of lycanthropy, a disease in which the sufferer imagines himself to have been transformed into an animal, and in ancient and medieval times of very frequent occurrence. It may, on the other hand, be a relic of early cannibalism. Communities of semi-civilized people would begin to shun those who devoured human flesh, and they would in time be ostracized and classed with wild beasts, the idea that they had something in common with these would grow, and the belief that they were able to transform themselves into veritable animals would be likely to arise therefrom.

There were two kinds of were-wolf, voluntary and involuntary. The voluntary included those persons who because of their taste for human flesh had withdrawn from intercourse with their fellows, and who appeared to possess a certain amount of magical power, or at least sufficient to permit them to transform themselves into animal shape at will. This they effected by merely disrobing, by taking off a girdle made of human skin, or putting on a similar belt of wolf-skin (obviously a later substitute for an entire wolf-skin; in some cases we hear of their donning the skin entire). In other instances the body was rubbed with magic ointment, or rain-water was drunk out of a wolf’s footprint. The brains of the animal were also eaten. Olaus Magnus says that the were-wolves of Livonia drained a cup of beer on initiation, and repeated certain magical words. In order to throw off the wolf-shape the animal girdle was removed, or else the magician merely muttered certain formul√¶. In some instances the transformation was supposed to be the work of Satan.

The superstition regarding were-wolves seems to have been exceedingly prevalent in France during the sixteenth century, and there is evidence of numerous trials of persons accused of were-wolfism, in some of which it was clearly shown that murder and cannibalism had taken place. Self-hallucination was accountable for many of the cases, the supposed were-wolves declaring that they had transformed themselves and had slain many people. But about the beginning of the seventeenth century native common sense came to the rescue, and such confessions were not credited. In Teutonic and Slavonic countries it was complained by men of learning that the were-wolves did more damage than real wild animals, and the existence of a regular ‘college’ or institution for the practice of the art of animal transformation among were-wolves was affirmed.

Involuntary were-wolves, of which class Bisclaveret was evidently a member, were often persons transformed into animal shape because of the commission of sin, and condemned to pass a certain number of years in that form. Thus certain saints metamorphosed sinners into wolves. In Armenia it was thought that a sinful woman was condemned to pass seven years in the form of a wolf. To such a woman a demon appeared, bringing a wolf-skin. He commanded her to don it, and from that moment she became a wolf, with all the nature of the wild beast, devouring her own children and those of strangers, and wandering forth at night, undeterred by locks, bolts, or bars, returning only with the morning to resume her human form.

In was, of course, in Europe, where the wolf was one of the largest carnivorous animals, that the were-wolf superstition chiefly gained currency. In Eastern countries, where similar beliefs prevailed, bears, tigers, and other beasts of prey were substituted for the lupine form of colder climes.


The Lay of the Were-Wolf

In the long ago there dwelt in Brittany a worshipful baron, for whom the king of that land had a warm affection, and who was happy in the esteem of his peers and the love of his beautiful wife.

One only grief had his wife in her married life, and that was the mysterious absence of her husband for three days in every week. Where he disappeared to neither she nor any member of her household knew. These excursions preyed upon her mind, so that at last she resolved to challenge him regarding them.

“Husband,” she said to him pleadingly one day after he had just returned from one of these absences, “I have something to ask of you, but I fear that my request may vex you, and for this reason I hesitate to make it.”

The baron took her in his arms and, kissing her tenderly, bade her state her request, which he assured her would by no means vex him.


“It is this,” she said, “that you will trust me sufficiently to tell me where you spend those days when you are absent from me. So fearful have I become regarding these withdrawals and all the mystery that enshrouds them that I know neither rest nor comfort; indeed, so distraught am I at times that I feel I shall die for very anxiety. Oh, husband, tell me where you go and why you tarry so long!”

In great agitation the husband put his wife away from him, not daring to meet the glance of her imploring, anxious eyes.

“For the mercy of God, do not ask this of me,” he besought her. “No good could come of your knowing, only great and terrible evil. Knowledge would mean the death of your love for me, and my everlasting desolation.”

“You are jesting with me, husband,” she replied; “but it is a cruel jest. I am all seriousness, I do assure you. Peace of mind can never be mine until my question is fully answered.”

But the baron, still greatly perturbed, remained firm. He could not tell her, and she must rest content with that. The lady, however, continued to plead, sometimes with tenderness, more often with tears and heart-piercing reproaches, until at length the baron, trusting to her love, decided to tell her his secret.

“I have to leave you because periodically I become a bisclaveret,” he said. (‘Bisclaveret’ is the Breton name for were-wolf.) “I hide myself in the depths of the forest, live on wild animals and roots, and go unclad as any beast of the field.”

When the lady had recovered from the horror of this disclosure and had rallied her senses to her aid, she turned to him again, determined at any cost to learn all the circumstances connected with this terrible transformation.

“You know that I love you better than all the world, my husband,” she began; “that never in our life together have I done aught to forfeit your love or your trust. So do, I beseech you, tell me all—tell me where you hide your clothing before you become a were-wolf?”

“That I dare not do, dear wife,” he replied, “for if I should lose my raiment or even be seen quitting it I must remain a were-wolf so long as I live. Never again could I become a man unless my garments were restored to me.”

“Then you no longer trust me, no longer love me?” she cried. “Alas, alas that I have forfeited your confidence! Oh that I should live to see such a day!”

Her weeping broke out afresh, this time more piteously than before. The baron, deeply touched, and willing by any means to alleviate her distress, at last divulged the vital secret which he had held from her so long.

But from that hour his wife cast about for ways and means to rid herself of her strange husband, of whom she now went in exceeding fear. In course of time she remembered a knight of that country who had long sought her love, but whom she had repulsed. To him she appealed, and right gladly and willingly he pledged himself to aid her. She showed him where her lord concealed his clothing, and begged him to spoil the were-wolf of his vesture on the next occasion on which he set out to assume his transformation. The fatal period soon returned. The baron disappeared as usual, but this time he did not return to his home. For days friends, neighbours, and menials sought him diligently, but no trace of him was to be found, and when a year had elapsed the search was at length abandoned, and the lady was wedded to her knight.

Some months later the King was hunting in the great forest near the missing baron’s castle. The hounds, unleashed, came upon the scent of a wolf, and pressed the animal hard. For many hours they pursued him, and when about to seize him, Bisclaveret—for it was he—turned with such a human gesture of despair to the King, who had ridden hard upon his track, that the royal huntsman was moved to pity. To the King’s surprise the were-wolf placed its paws together as if in supplication, and its great jaws moved as if in speech.

“Call off the hounds,” cried the monarch to his attendants. “This quarry we will take alive to our palace. It is too marvellous a thing to be killed.”

Accordingly they returned to the Court, where the were-wolf became an object of the greatest curiosity to all. So frolicsome yet so gentle was he that he became a universal favourite. At night he slept in the King’s room, and by day he followed him with all the dumb faithfulness of a dog. The King was extremely attached to him, and never permitted his shaggy favourite to be absent from his side for a moment.

One day the monarch held a high Court, to which his great vassals and barons and all the lords of his broad demesnes were bidden. Among them came the knight who had wed the wife of Bisclaveret. Immediately upon sight of him the were-wolf flew at him with a savage joy that astonished those accustomed to his usual gentleness and docility. So fierce was the attack that the knight would have been killed had not the King intervened to save him. Later, in the royal hunting-lodge she who had been the wife of Bisclaveret came to offer the King a rich present. When he saw her the animal’s rage knew no bounds, and despite all restraint he succeeded in mutilating her fair face in the most frightful manner. But for a certain wise counsellor this act would have cost Bisclaveret his life. This sagacious person, who knew of the animal’s customary docility, insisted that some evil must have been done him.

“There must be some reason why this beast holds these twain in such mortal hate,” he said. “Let this woman and her husband be brought hither so that they may be straitly questioned. She was once the wife of one who was near to your heart, and many marvellous happenings have ere this come out of Brittany.”

The King hearkened to this sage counsel, for he loved the were-wolf, and was loath to have him slain. Under pressure of examination Bisclaveret’s treacherous wife confessed all that she had done, adding that in her heart she believed the King’s favourite animal to be no other than her former husband.

Instantly on learning this the King demanded the were-wolf’s vesture from the treacherous knight her lover, and when this was brought to him he caused it to be spread before the wolf. But the animal behaved as though he did not see the garments.

Then the wise counsellor again came to his aid.

“You must take the beast to your own secret chamber, sire,” he told the King; “for not without great shame and tribulation can he become a man once more, and this he dare not suffer in the sight of all.”

This advice the King promptly followed, and when after some little time he, with two lords of his fellowship in attendance, re-entered the secret chamber, he found the wolf gone, and the baron so well beloved asleep in his bed.

With great joy and affection the King aroused his friend, and when the baron’s feelings permitted him he related his adventures. As soon as his master had heard him out he not only restored to him all that had been taken from him, but added gifts the number and richness of which rendered him more wealthy and important than ever, while in just anger he banished from his realm the wife who had betrayed her lord, together with her lover.

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