Most people have heard of the witch hunts of the 16th century. Less well known are the werewolf hunts that happened in the same time period.
Werewolves, are also known as lycanthropes. There are several notable claims of lycanthropy that took place during these werewolf hunts. In 1573, an alleged werewolf, Gilles Garnier, was burned at the stake. In 1589, a man known as Stubbe Peter or Peter Stubbe, was executed near Cologne, Germany for cannibalism and multiple murders. He claimed he had a belt that allowed him to become a werewolf. In 1603, a young man named Jean Grenier claimed responsibility for a series of murders and disappearances, saying he had a skin that let him become a wolf. A court determined that Grenier was insane and confined him to a monastery.
A common belief was that werewolves turned their skin inside out to return to human form, so one interrogation practice involved cutting and pulling back a person's skin to see if there was fur underneath. Werewolves are often granted extra-human strength and senses, far beyond those of both wolves or men. The werewolf is generally held as a European character, although its lore spread through the world in later times. Shape-shifters, similar to werewolves, are common in tales from all over the world, most notably amongst the American Indians, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves.
Werewolves are a frequent subject of modern fictional books, although fictional werewolves have been attributed traits distinct from those of original folklore, most notably the vulnerability to silver bullets. Werewolves continue to endure in modern culture and fiction, with books, films and television shows cementing the werewolf's stance as a dominant figure in horror.
Werewolves, also known as lycanthropes from the Greek λυκάνθρωπος, λύκος (wolf) and άνθρωπος (human, man), are mythological or folkloric humans with the ability to shift shape into wolves or anthropomorphic wolf-like creatures, either purposely, by being bitten or scratched by another werewolf, or after being placed under a curse. This transformation is often associated with the appearance of the full moon, as popularly noted by the medieval chronicler Gervase of Tilbury, although it may have been recognized in earlier times among the ancient Greeks through the writings of Petronius.
Werewolves are often granted extra-human strength and senses, far beyond those of both wolves or men. The werewolf is generally held as a European character, although its lore spread through the world in later times. Shape-shifters, similar to werewolves, are common in tales from all over the world, most notably amongst the American Indians, though most of them involve animal forms other than wolves.
The word werewolf is thought to derive from Old English wer (or were) and wulf. The first part, wer, translates as "man" (in the sense of male human, not the race of humanity). It has cognates in several Germanic languages including Gothic wair, Old High German wer, and Old Norse verr, as well as in other Indo-European languages, such as Sanskrit 'vira', Latin vir, Irish fear, Lithuanian vyras, and Welsh gŵr, which have the same meaning. The second half, wulf, is the ancestor of modern English "wolf"; in some cases it also had the general meaning "beast." An alternative etymology derives the first part from Old English weri (to wear); the full form in this case would be glossed as wearer of wolf skin. Related to this interpretation is Old Norse ulfhednar, which denoted lupine equivalents of the berserker, said to wear a bearskin in battle.
Yet other sources derive the word from warg-wolf, where warg (or later werg and wero) is cognate with Old Norse vargr, meaning "rogue," "outlaw," or, euphemistically, "wolf".
A Vargulf was the kind of wolf that slaughtered many members of a flock or herd but ate little of the kill. This was a serious problem for herders, who had to somehow destroy the rogue wolf before it destroyed the entire flock or herd. The term Warg was used in Old English for this kind of wolf (see J. R. R. Tolkien's book The Hobbit) and for what would now be called a serial killer. Possibly related is the fact that, in Norse society, an outlaw (who could be murdered with no legal repercussions and was forbidden to receive aid) was typically called vargr, or "wolf."
The term lycanthropy, a synonym, comes from Ancient Greek lykánthropos (λυκάνθρωπος): λύκος, lýkos ("wolf") + άνθρωπος, ánthrōpos ("human"). A compound of which "lyc-" derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *wlkwo-, meaning "wolf") formally denotes the "wolf - man" transformation. Lycanthropy is but one form of therianthropy, the ability to metamorphose into animals in general. The term therianthrope literally means "beast-man." The word has also been linked to the original werewolf of classical mythology, Lycaon, a king of Arcadia who, according to Ovid's Metamorphoses, was turned into a ravenous wolf in retribution for attempting to serve his own son to visiting Zeus in an attempt to disprove the god's divinity.
There is also a mental illness called lycanthropy in which a patient believes he or she is, or has transformed into, an animal and behaves accordingly. This is sometimes referred to as clinical lycanthropy to distinguish it from its use in legends. Despite its origin as a term for man-wolf transformations only, lycanthropy is used in this sense for animals of any type. This broader meaning is often used in modern fictional references, such as in roleplaying game culture.