Search Deeblog
Navigate through Deeblog
Categories and months of Deeblog
Login
Reviews, essays, and translations
« Rilke, "Übung am Klavier" | Main | M. Butterfly »
Monday
Dec102012

The Werewolf in Lore and Legend

From time immemorial skeptics and dull-minded empiricists have tried to thwart any belief in the preternatural: if none of our five senses can perceive it, it must not exist, a credo which remains our most lamentable form of arrogance.  Since the advent of space exploration and a heightened awareness of our universe's dimensions, however, these same doubting Thomases have been readily assured that the orbs they behold in their manmade telescopes are realer and truer than any ghost, spirit, or heavenly swath of consciousness.  What has obtained is a belief system in a reality that created itself at some point in the distant past by means and motives unknown to us, a reality that appears endless and beyond all immediate comprehension, a reality that while gazillions of miles in size (there is probably no way to quantify it) could not possibly contain some higher, benevolent force at its origin.  Why does this unending darkness, as unproven and unprovable as any deity or miracle, appeal to the modern mind?  Because unlike a spiritual explanation for our beginnings, faith in the cosmos has no moral consequences.  We gaze upon the unresponsive emptiness around us and see a reflection of our own souls.  Now it is no longer of any import how we treat others, what choices we make, and how we decide to raise our children because in the end we are all amoebae battling for survival in a massive autonomous laboratory.  The upshot of such an argument is and can only be bitterness and strife, feelings that are exacerbated with age.  Instead of a slow march to eternity and, perchance, immortality, we grow more aggressive and impatient at missed opportunities, at the hopefulness of younger generations, and, most horrifically, at the adherence to any sort of lofty ideals.  After all, we are nothing but mammals, so let us behave as such and tear at each other's throats for the last piece of grub.  And both man and beast are conjoined in unprecedented eloquence in this rather extraordinary work.

A brief flip through the appended bibliography should be warning enough to the uninitiated: beware, you are dealing with a polyglot of exceptional ambition. Summers's opus is a joy to those who appreciate original research, old books, and a concatenation of centuries of wisdom – an unholy trinity for many modern readers who like plain and simple explanations for their plain and simple categories.  Nevertheless, the constant citations in the classical languages, French, German, Italian, and Spanish (from his sources, it is evident that Summers also had some Slavic and Scandinavian training) can only enrich your experience should you decide to bother looking up a few key words and may even encourage further, independent study.  If I sound snooty, it's because the world has changed.  College-educated persons in our privileged societies with access to a library card and the internet should no longer be allowed to use ignorance as an excuse for fear, prejudice, and misunderstanding.  Never in the history of mankind has the average citizen had this level of opportunity to acquire information, and never has the average amount of acceptable education – for those, admittedly, allowed to attend school, not always a universally held right in olden times – been lower.  Some may call this the price of democracy; but to be truthful, it is more likely attributable to a rise in human pride, a complex of superiority born from a puerile dissatisfaction with not knowing everything about everything.  All the greatest minds in history have implacably sought as complete a survey and probe of information as time and effort permitted them, and almost all came to the same conclusion: full knowledge is impossible.  Yet deep and wide knowledge buttressed by an invincible moral framework lets us make decisions based on prior experience and, should we indeed be immortal, gives us the basis for understanding the other world into which we may well pass. 

For that reason will something like a book on the history of werewolves quoted in the original languages and written with an archaic flavor reminiscent of late 18th-century Gothic novelists either greatly attract or repel its readership.  Summers has set himself a bold task: examine the development of lycanthropy and its related manifestations in Europe from Ancient Greece to the modern day, with the assumption that shape-shifting into animals is not only real, but also evidence of some pact with the Devil.  The most common refutation of this premise, apart from a dismissal of all possible attestation in dozens of countries from thousands of witnesses, is that many of the crimes imputed to werewolves – and, to a lesser extent, vampires – have also been found in the foul stench of the twentieth century's version of the Devil, the serial killer.  Yet what is never mentioned is how greatly the crimes of these mass murderers resemble one another, with sadists who could not have possibly known the details of each other's gory sins having almost identical rituals and practices – almost as if they were being directed by some overarching evil power. 

It is precisely this pattern that Summers seizes upon in the first two parts of his book, "Lycanthropy" and "The Werewolf: His Science and Practice."  Here three potential explanations for shape-shifting are discussed: there is no actual transformation, and onlookers are deceived by virtue of some diabolic spell (Summers uses the older word "glamour," etymologically linked to "grammar" and "grimoire," or occult learning); the subject falls asleep, entranced by a demon, and his spirit takes over an animal and runs amok; or, what we have come to see in film and modern literature, the subject actually undergoes a physical change in form, often through the application of "certain ointments and words" (not through, it should be said, the lunar cycle, which is a more modern conceit).  Each point is elaborated with copious examples from literary sources and accorded almost equal plausibility, with the third explanation appealing most to Summers's taste.  Importantly, it is the Satanic nature of the wolf itself that makes this transformation or curse all the more compelling:

Not without reason did the werewolf in past centuries appear as one of the most terrible and depraved of all bond-slaves of Satan.  He was even whilst in human form a creature within whom the beast and not without prevailing struggled with the man.  Masqued and clad in the shape of the most dreaded and fiercest denizen of the forest, the witch [what Summers calls all persons in pact with Satan] came forth under cover of darkness, prowling in lonely places, to seek his prey .... If he were attacked and sore wounded, if a limb, a paw or ear were lopped, perforce he must regain his human shape, and he fled to some cover to conceal these fearful transformations, where man broke through the shell of beast in horrid confusion.  The human body was maimed or wounded in that numerical place where the beast had been hurt.  By this were his bedevilments not unseldom betrayed, he was recognized and brought to justice.  Hateful to God and loathed of man, what other end, what other reward could he look for than the stake, where they burned him quick, and scattered his ashes to the wind, to be swept away to nothingness and oblivion on the keen wings of the tramontane and the nightly storm.

The key word here is "justice," what any believer in any spiritual realm maintains is the aim of existence on earth and which, if not achieved then, will become the atonement that each shall face in the afterlife.  The view is very Christian, as are Summers's arguments throughout his work, a prideful fortress that has alienated many readers whose attention can only withstand what is casually referred to as "pure science."  As in this tome, reviewed earlier on these pages, Summers is seeking a logical and religious root for such an unusual manifestation, and after devoting half of his book to such a theory, he culls dozens of legends and attestations from England to Russia, Greece to Spain, all rather remarkable in their uniformity even in the days when the exchange of folklore was hardly widespread (such as the belief that a man with linked eyebrows was definitely a werewolf, as in this well-known film).  One may fillip a dismissive finger at the approach and system of credences that linger behind The Werewolf in Lore and Legend, but as an academic work it has no peers in its field.  And apart from being edifying, Summers and his resolutely Romantic views are always a stylistic pleasure, the labors of a poet who has traded wine, women, and song for a wall of oaken shelves.  Yes, it may seem counterintuitive to aver that horror and nightmares have always attracted Romantic minds, but from the most sublime of poets to the most notorious to this master of horror this has indeed been the case.  As Summers himself states:

Where there is mystery beauty may always lie hid.  There will be wonder, because wonder always lurks where there is the unknown.  And it is this longing for beauty intermingling with wonder and mystery that will express itself, perhaps exquisitely and passionately in the twilight moods of the romantic poets, perhaps a little crudely and even a little vulgarly in tales of horror and blood.

And for your own well-being it may be best, in those twilight moods, not to think of the beasts that may lurk in the hearts of man.

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>