Thursday, March 17, 2011

In Honor of Saint Patrick

Artwork Courtesy of Ian Daniels

In honor of St Patrick's Day and the Largest Full Moon in 18 years tomorrow night we thought we'd share an excerpt from Dr. Bob Curran's Werewolves: A Field Guide to the Shapeshifters, Lycanthropes, and Man-Beasts. This is from Chapter 3: Old Irish Wolves and Other Wonders. Enjoy a wee bit of Irish story telling!

‘Tis like the howling of Irish wolves against the moon.

William Shakespeare, As You Like It

As with early vampire tales, one of the oldest written stories concerning werewolves comes from Ireland. Written around 1185 by the Welsh monk Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales), who had come to Ireland as part of the retinue of Prince John (made Lord of Ireland by his father—the English king Henry II), the Werewolves of Ossory is a typical medieval ecclesiastical tale, emphasising the power of the Church and the need for Salvation. Both of Gerald’s own maternal and paternal relatives, the Fitzgeralds and the Fitzstephens, held lands in what are now Counties Kildare and Wexford in Ireland, and it was from them that Giraldus heard a number of old tales that he unquestioningly accepted and faithfully recounted. He compiled an “early travel book” on the country—the Topographica Hibernica (A General History and Topography of Ireland), which would remain as a reference for travelers until the 1600s. This was a mixture of geographical description of areas of Ireland (some of which Giraldus had never seen, but had learned of only by hearsay), and some wonder stories that were circulating at the time. He accepted all of these stories recording them as if they were indisputable fact. He believed almost everything that he was told. Amongst these tales was one concerning the Werewolves of Ossory.

Wolf Breeds

Up until the 18th century (and maybe even after) Ireland always had a problem with wolves. During the medieval and early modern periods, the country was largely covered by thick and almost impenetrable forest, which made it an ideal breeding and hunting place for the animals. Indeed, so acute was the problem that the name of the wolf was incorporated into the breed of a certain dog, which was supposedly used to hunt them—the Irish wolfhound. The name Irish wolfhound is probably something of a misnomer, because the dogs are not native to the island, but were probably imported from England during Roman times. There is a Roman bronze of a very similar hound from Lydny in Gloucestershire (known as the “Lydny Hound”) dating from around 365 ad And there are references to a temple of Nodens somewhere in England (the exact location is not specified)where special dogs licked the wounds of the sick or injured in order to produce a cure. Such hounds were considered to be guard dogs or war dogs, and it is possible that the animals were imported into Ireland by the Celts in order to deal with a growing problem of wolves.

Wolves in the Wild

Ireland appears to have been over-run with wolves right up until the late 1700s, many of which seem to have been extremely ferocious—especially during the harsh winter months. For example, in 1596, Lord William Russell records in his diary that he and Lady Russell were able to go wolf hunting in November in the woods around Kilmainham (near Dublin) while as late as 1650, the town of Coleraine in County Derry was attacked by a starving wolf pack during a particularly severe winter. Around the same time there are reports of travelers being attacked by wild wolves around the towns of Lisburn and Drogheda and along the shores of Lough Neagh. In 1652, at Kilkenny, Oliver Cromwell issued a prohibition forbidding the export of Irish wolfhounds, so great was the wolf problem in the country. In 1669, an early guidebook entitled The Travels of Cosmo described Ireland as “Wolfland.” As late as 1750, there were tales of marauding packs of wolves in Wexford and parts of County Cork. The last two wolves in Ireland were reputedly killed in the Wicklow Mountains around 1770, by a wolf-hunter who supposedly went by the name of Rory Carragh (some other versions state that Carragh was no more than a simple shepherd), who, together with a small boy, tracked them to a ruin where they had made their den. Although these were supposedly the very last wolves, there are nevertheless reports of the creatures in Ireland right up until the early years of the 1800s in places such as Tyrone; although these have not been verified. It is therefore appropriate that Ireland serves as the location for one of the first recorded werewolf tales.

The First Tale

The story, according to Giraldus Cambrensis, supposedly occurred only a few years before the arrival of Prince John in Ireland. A certain unnamed priest was traveling from Ulster to Meath on a matter of some ecclesiastical importance. He was accompanied on his travels by a small boy. During the journey the pair spent the night in a particularly dark and threatening wood on the edge of the ecclesiastical See of Ossory. As they lay down to sleep in the dark, the priest was suddenly disturbed by a human voice calling to him from the nearby forest. Rising, he walked to the edge of the circle of firelight and looked out into the gloom. As a huge wolf came padding into the light the priest drew back in terror, shielding the boy behind him from the animal. The wolf spoke to him in human tones, and told him not to be afraid. The creature wasn’t really a wild animal, but one of a clan from the district who had been cursed by an irascible saint named St. Natalis, a rather moody holy man. Every seven years two of their clan had to assume the shape of wolves and go to live in the forest. At the end of seven years they returned to their clan, resumed human form, and two more took on the wolf guise. The last couple—a husband and wife—who had taken the wolf-shape were quite old, and the forest life hadn’t really agreed with them. The wolf who now spoke was the old man; his wife was quite ill and was probably going to die. The male wolf had come to seek out a priest to give her the last rites and make her peace with God. The wolf therefore asked the priest to come with him and administer the Holy Sacrament. The holy man considered this strange request, but agreed, although the wolf insisted that he come alone and leave the boy by the fire. Reluctantly, the priest followed the creature into the depths of the wood and eventually they reached a den at the foot of a great tree. There lay a she-wolf, obviously close to death. The cleric approached her with some trepidation and turning to his guide asked the animal if there was some proof that this was indeed an old woman and not a savage forest creature. The wolf replied that if the priest drew his knife and cut part of the she-wolf’s skin, he would receive his proof. The cleric cut a slit into the belly of the she-wolf. He was shocked to see the face of an elderly woman looking out at him, and realized that what the wolf said was true. Without hesitation, he administered the blessing and the old woman expired peacefully. The wolf guided him back to his fire as morning approached and, after making several prophesies about the continuation of the English in Ireland, disappeared back into the woodlands. The priest promised to visit him again when he returned from his business in Meath, but despite his promise he never saw the wolf again.

The story, taken as true, seems to have caused some consternation in the Irish clergy. Two years afterward, Giraldus was in the same area where he was approached by two priests at the behest of a local bishop asking him for his views on this “serious matter.” Giraldus met with the bishop and a small synod and gave his views in writing. These writings formed the basis of a sealed report, which was sent through the Bishop of Ossory directly to Pope Urban III. Whether or not the Pope had actually requested the report from the Irish clergy is not a matter of record. However, the act shows the seriousness with which the matter was viewed, and the report is thought not to have dealt with the factuality of the tale, but rather its theological implications.

Ancient Questions

These questions were well-founded, for in the late medieval period (when Giraldus was writing) there were a number of challenges to the established order of things. It was an age of great scholasticism and thinkers were once again rediscovering the philosophical works of ancient Greece and Rome, particularly Aristotle, who in his Physica queried the ordered structure of the universe. Such theories bordered on heresy, but they set churchmen thinking. Following some of this early speculation, the boundaries between humans and the world around them became less sure. Could man somehow be transformed into animals as legend suggested, or even into stone as some myths hinted? What was the real difference between men, animals, and stones? If man reflected God’s glory, then so did the rest of the world, and was it not possible that one part might transform itself into another? So great was the speculation in monkish circles that in Switzerland Conrad, Bishop of Hersiau, forbade his Brethren even to discuss the possibility and forbade them from reading treatises on the subject—especially Ovid’s Metamorphosis, on pain of instant excommunication.


In this context, very ancient theories about the nature of the world were starting to re-emerge during this period. One of these was the notion of metempsychosis, which was said to have “originated” with the Greek philosopher Pherecydes (although some say it was an even older form of thinking that had come from Egypt). It had been elaborated by his pupil Pythagoras, who had a direct implication for Church teaching. This theory dealt with the transmigration of souls from one form into another—from the human to the animal, the plant to the stone—and threatened to break down the very barriers between the facets of Creation, which the Church said God had established. It was a small wonder that high churchmen such as Conrad denounced and forbade all reading and discussion concerning it.


There was yet another idea that influenced to this theory of mutability. Many people believed that the world was in its end times, and that Christ was coming once again to judge it and establish a New Kingdom on earth. This was supposed to happen in the year 1000—obviously it didn’t, but millenarian thinking was still prevalent at many levels of society. When he came, he would gather the righteous and the blessed to him, and would transform them from their corrupt fleshly bodies into something else more wonderful. This idea of transformation with its new and altered body in the New Kingdom permeated medieval religious thinking at a very fundamental level, and has even continued down through some Millenarian fundamentalist cults until the present day. This of course, fed into wider communal thinking, and imaginations were filled with “green men, werewolves, and dreams of alchemy” against which the Church took an outraged stance.

There was, however, a flaw in the Church’s argument concerning metempsychosis. At the heart of Christian ritual lay the Mass, and that rite involved the mystery of transubstantiation. It was part of Church teaching that when the Eucharist was placed on the tongue of the supplicant, it became the actual physical body of Christ, and that when the wine was drunk, it became his blood. In other words, under God’s power, the bread and wine were transformed into something else that was the essence of the living, breathing Jesus. This was the very core of Christian belief, and although the Protestants would later rail at the belief it has continued to be so until now. The Church could hardly argue against mutato (as it referred to the transmigration of the soul) if it continued to hold such a similar central theory. It was a serious problem for Church teachers, and so Giraldus’s story about men changing into wolves was a highly controversial one.

As part of the tale, in subsequent editions of the Topographica, Giraldus also includes a long and rather rambling exposition of the underlying elements. This may be part of the sealed report that he sent to Pope Urban. In it, he tried to debate the story within an academic and ecclesiastical context (ineffectively, it has to be said). He draws attention to one of the transubstantive miracles of Christ—namely the changing of the water into wine at the wedding feast in Canaan of Galilee, the miracle of transubstantiation, and the transfiguration of Christ. The result is, however, pretty inconclusive.

Dr. Bob Curran was born in a remote area of County Down, Northern Ireland. Since leaving school, he has travelled throughout the world, fascinated by the myths and stories he has found. He has written a number of books looking at culture and lore, including Vampires; Lost Lands, Forgotten Realms; Zombies; and Werewolves, all for New Page Books. He now works as a writer and broadcaster, as well as in an advisory capacity for a number of governmental organizations with regard to culture and education. He lives in Northern Ireland with his wife and family. He appears frequently on Coast to Coast AM and other radio programs regularly.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...