Short Reads

Blood or Alcohol? What is it that turns a man into a werewolf? ~ Werewolves of the Baltic Sea

[Read the first part of this post series here]

The Prisoner of Azkaban is probably the first book that I couldn’t wait to be published. I still remember vividly the moment I saw it at the supermarket, how I jumped towards it dragging my father along. ‘It’s out! Dad! It’s out! We need to buy it!’

Original cover of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in French

He solemnly agreed, for he’d read the Harry Potter first two novels even before I did.

It happened while we were on a train to the ski station.

‘What’s that book about, dad? You can’t stop reading it,’ I was a tiny bit jealous of the attention my father devoted to the novel instead of me.

‘It’s a children’s book.’

I frowned.

‘A children’s book? But you’re an adult.’

I was very square that way.

‘I know, I know! But I was told about this novel by a friend. It’s great, actually. You should read it once I’m finished with it.’

‘Can I read it now?’

‘Well, no, I haven’t finished it yet.’

‘Meh. Whatever.’

Eventually, the Harry Potter series sucked me in like a maelstrom. I was so eager to read the story that by the time the fifth novel came out I read it in English even though I didn’t understand a thing. Like, really. I just spotted names and figured out one or two words here and there. I read more than two hundred pages like this. Other people asked me if I could read English. They were impressed for I was still very young.

‘No, I can’t.’

‘But you’re reading Harry Potter in English!’


‘Why would you do that if you don’t understand it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘You’re weird.’

I didn’t have a comeback back then. People told me I was weird all the time and I never knew what to answer. Nowadays I just say ‘Yes’ in the most mundane way possible, as if they were talking about the rain or a delayed train. It tends to make them go: ‘Oh, very well then!’ And they leave me be.

Little is to say that the Harry Potter novel series became a major part of my childhood and formative teenage years. As for many other people born in the ’90s, it helped forge my imagination and it magnified the hidden shadows of my ‘collective unconscious’. My father grew up with Bilbo the Hobbit, which he also gave to me to read, and I grew up with Harry Potter.

Biblo, Gandalf and the dwarves plan out their trip to the Lonely Mountain. Illustration by Alan Lee.

The same way my father learned about enchanted rings from Gandalf the Grey, I was introduced to magic wands by Olivander. My father roamed the Lothlórien, following Bilbo’s path. I explored the Forbidden Forest whenever Harry Potter left his dorm at night. We both were faced with big scary spiders. Eventually, as my father was amazed by Beorn’s abilities as a ‘skin changer’, able to assume the form a great black bear, I was frightened by the werewolf Harry Potter met under a full moon in the Shrieking Shack!

By the time J. K. Rowling wrote the Prisoner of Azkaban, it was common knowledge thanks to Hollywood that some men could turn into wolves under the light of a full moon. She states the following:

To become a werewolf, it is necessary to be bitten by a werewolf in their wolfish form at the time of the full moon. When the werewolf’s saliva mingles with the victim’s blood, contamination will occur.’ This explains why Remus Lupin is afraid of a ‘silvery orb’ when faced with a Boggart.

However, our beloved Olaus Magnus argues differently. He teaches that you actually need only three things to become a werewolf: a wizard, a pint of ale and some dark cellar.

If someone skilled in sorcery, repeating certain words, offers a beaker of ale to drink to the one who desires to be enrolled in that band of accursed beings, the latter will achieve the means of changing shape. Later, whenever he finds it appropriate, he can transfer completely from a man’s form to that of a wolf by removing himself to some cellar or deep forest.

(edited extract from Olaus Magnus, A Description of the Northern Peoples (1555), book 18, chapter 46, translated by P. G. Foote)

We sure would like to know what those ‘certain words’ are but Olaus doesn’t provide them, unfortunately. However, he hands out more information on werewolves and their dark customs: how they gather, how they plan their attacks. I’ll report it in my next post. What fascinates me at the moment is how his narrative kind of matches Skyrim’s storyline.

The Werewolf in Skyrim is a mighty and dangerous beast.

Once the Dragonborn joins the Companions in Whiterun, he gets an invitation to enter the Circle if he has proved himself worthy. The Dragonborn then meet the chosen few of the Companions who’ve been ‘blessed’ with the gift of lycanthropy in a secret cave: the Underforge. The Dragonborn has to drink blood (instead of beer) and a few solemn words are exchanged before he turns into a werewolf and runs into a fit. Bloodthirsty, rendered wild by his/her first transformation, the Dragonborn goes on a killing spree at night in Whiterun and wakes up several hours later, lost in a forest next to Aela.

Since the blood is drunk from what look likes baptismal font, the ceremony to turn into a werewolf in Skyrim looks more like a satanic ritual than a heathen act of witchcraft. This gives food for thought but I love how Olaus Magnus strongly links the consumption of alcohol with werewolves. Or should I?

It has been suggested that the people who were thought to be werewolves were actually victims of depression. And we know well how drinking excess of alcohol can be a clear symptom of depression. I made that experience myself and maybe one day I’ll tell that tale. Meanwhile, Olaus’ text remains highly suggestive. ‘Werewolves, Alcohol and Depression’ could actually be the title of a legitimate PhD research. However, we won’t go that far. We’ll end this post where it started, quoting J. K. Rowling. She totally by-passes the alcohol-werewolf coupling and writes that

Lupin’s condition of lycanthropy (being a werewolf) was a metaphor for those illnesses that carry a stigma, like HIV and AIDS. All kinds of superstitions seem to surround blood-borne conditions, probably due to taboos surrounding blood itself. […] The character of Lupin gave me a chance to examine those attitudes.

More on my next post!

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