When the moon is full take care, for that is the time that someone afflicted by a curse may undergo the terrible transformation, their feet and hands grow long and hair sprouts all over their body as they writhe in agony. Finally their face pushes forwards in to a slavering, canine snout and, head back, they let out a spine chilling howl. Now, in this monstrous form, they search for a lonely victim to rend, tear and devour. Only a silver bullet can stop them.
This werewolf, however, is a Victorian literary concoction. The werewolf of folktale is a very different beast. The full moon plays no part. Transformations being brought on by the donning of a wolf skin, the application of an ointment, or simply because the mood takes them. How are we to cope? At least with the lunar induced metamorphosis we know when to get the special ammunition on standby. Fortunately as well as being less predictable the folk wolfman is less invulnerable and can be killed by most normal methods for dispatching mammals.
The Daughter Of Ulkolak has a werewolf for a father. He is a woodcutter and one day starts eliminating his nine daughters because the are too expensive. When the youngest (and prettiest) is brought to the edge of the pit in which her sisters lie dead she asks Ulkolak to turn away while she undresses for her impending immolation. When his back is turned she pushes him in the pit and runs away. The werewolf is soon in pursuit so she throws her handkerchief behind her which he stops to rend into pieces. As she flees amongst the trees with the paws of death hot on her trail, she slings bonnet, gown, apron, petticoat and shift behind her, each buying her valuable moments. The now naked girl comes to a hay field and hides in a rick where the wolf fails to find her and she is eventually rescued.
In a little Red Riding Hood variant the werewolf, having slaughtered granny and disguised himself in her bed, bids the girl take off her clothes one by one, throw them in the fire and climb in to bed with him. At the end of the the classic “Oh, granny what big eyes you have” sequence, when they reach “All the better to eat you with” she cleverly escapes and is chased naked through the forest.
In these two tales we see a number of common threads: the separation from older feminine family members, the sequential destruction of clothing and a naked woodland flight to safety. The origin of this story lies, not in the transmutation of man in to wolf, but in the rebirth of girl in to woman. The story has been told for generations by mothers to daughters to prepare them for the inevitable changes of life, a classic warning of what is to come. The werewolf is either a symbol of the predatory male or a metaphor for the newly awakened sexual urges of adolescence. The youthful maiden ventures out of the home environment leaving the support and advice of her family. Her childish self is stripped away from her bit by bit and she has to face the frightening world of sexuality.
Our attitudes to the wolf are changing. In more recent re-workings of the werewolf trope, such as Being Human, they are regaining control. Maybe the warnings of this tale help us all towards taking responsibility for our animal side.