Where the wild things are

I have to thank my colleague Jane Draycott (@JLDraycott) who gave me the idea for this post. She came to Cardiff a few weeks ago to give a great paper on votive hair in antiquity (yes, there was such a thing). At dinner afterwards she mentioned her forthcoming undergraduate lecture on werewolves in the ancient world. How cool is that? A lecture on werewolves!

I have always been fascinated by wolves. The forests of my childhood (those around Brussels) were so boring compared to those of yesteryear, inhabited as they were by wolves. What would I have done had I been Sophie in this monument of French children literature, Les petites filles modeles, when lost in the woods with her friend Madeleine, she came face to face with wolves? I’d like to think I would have tamed the beasts.

Perhaps my fascination for wolves and other wild animals (bears and deer are particular favourites) has something to do with my being rather a wild child (but a quiet teenager). I just could not stay put. And I was nocturnal as well. Thankfully, however, my wilderness was just hyperactivity (before ADHD). For lycanthropy, becoming a werewolf, was (and still is) considered a dreadful disease in the ancient world. All Byzantine medical authors have a similar description of the affliction; I have chosen Paul of Aegina’s (seventh century CE) paragraph:

Man wearing a wolf skin on red-figure Attic vase, fifth century BCE

Man wearing a wolf skin on red-figure Attic vase, fifth century BCE

Concerning lycanthropy or Lycian [disease]: Those affected with lycanthropy go out at night, exactly as if they were wolfs, and until day-break, they wander among tombs. You will recognise the sufferers at these signs: they are pale; their vision is weak, as they have dry eyes; their tongue is extremely dry, and without saliva. They are extremely thirsty and their legs, because they often fall, are covered in wounds.

Such are the symptoms. You need to know that lycanthropy is a type of melancholy, which you must treat, at the first symptom of the disease, by cutting a vein of the arm and let the blood until fainting; and give a diet of wholesome foods; make use of baths in sweet water; then use the watery part of milk for three days and purge two or three times with the Hiera (sacred antidote) made with colocynth and after the purge, make use of the Theriac with viper and the other methods suitable for melancholy. When the disease is approaching, you must put the patient to sleep by use of the usual compresses. And anoint the nostrils with opium to put them to sleep. [Paul 3.16]

Paul calls lycanthropy ‘a type of melancholy’; other authors call it a ‘mania’ (madness). Yet, the treatments, beside putting the patient to sleep, are physical purges.  This is because melancholy was thought to be caused by a an over-abundance of black bile, which theoretically could be purged through blood-letting, vomiting and diarrhoea. Here is how the ancients themselves explained this. The passage comes from a treatise on physiognomics attributed to Aristotle (but not by Aristotle himself):

Madness (mania) appears to be a disease of the soul, yet physicians by purging the body with drugs, and in addition, by prescribing certain types of diets, set the soul free from madness. By therapies of the body, the form of the body is released, and the soul is freed from the madness. Since, then, they are both freed at the same time, it is clear that they work hand in hand. [Pseudo-Aristotle, Pysiognomics 808b].

The treatment of lycanthropy recommended by Paul would certainly have been expensive: the Hiera (the ‘sacred remedy’) and Theriac were both multi-ingredient antidotes whose preparation was complex and delicate. In any case, do not try any of this at home if you are feeling a bit blue! Instead, channel your wolfy energy into something creative. I recommend knitting.


Wolfie is happiest when the moon is full


but he always feels happy in his own skin

As if by fate, while I was thinking about this post, I came across a knitting pattern for a werewolf in Anna Hrachovec’s Super Scary Mochi Mochi. I had to make him. My werewolf is called – what else – Wolfgang. Despite his wild fits, he is kind-hearted and very witty. But do not cross him, he bites!

This entry was posted in History of medicine, History of the body, Knitting and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Where the wild things are

  1. Jane Draycott says:

    If only I could knit!

    Thanks for the shout out 🙂


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