Newman-Stille (2008 Congress)

Derek Newman-Stille
(Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario)
“Betwixt and Between:  Werewolves as Sacred and Profane in the Classical and Medieval World”

[First published on our first website on 16 May 2012]

Abstract of Paper Presented at the 43nd International Congress on Medieval Studies (Kalamazoo, 2008)

Session on “Bark at the Rune: Transforming the Medieval Werewolf”
Sponsored by the Research Group on Manuscript Evidence
Organized by Mildred Budny
2008 Congress

Werewolves are naturally in a liminal state, being able to move from human to animal form and back, and, like most symbols of liminality they therefore have the potential to be considered either sacred or profane. In the Classical world, the ability to turn into an animal was considered sacred when enacted by a god (Homeric Hymn to Dionysus), or when given as a gift by a god. However, more often than not it was a curse when used by human beings (Pausanias’ Description of Greece, 6.6.7–11; Pliny’s Natural History, 8.80–2). In Classical literature, the people who often had the power to turn into animals were witches (Herodotus’ Histories, 4.105; Virgil’s Ecologue, 8.64–109; Propertius’ Elegies, 4.5.1–18), the restless dead (Pausanias’ Description of Greece, 6.7.7–11), or people who were cursed by gods for unspeakable acts (Pausanias’ Description of Greece, 6.7.7–11; Pliny’s Natural History, 8.80–2). Similarly, the methods whereby these people became werewolves were profane as transformations often took place in cemeteries (Petronius’ Satyricon, 61–2; Aetius of Amida’s Libri Medicinales, 6.11) and other religiously dangerous areas and using methods such as stealing offerings to the gods (Pliny’s Natural History, 8.80–2) or urinating in a circle around oneself (Petronius’ Satyricon, 61–2).

The classical Greeks and Romans had a very strong concept of the hierarchy of beings with gods at the top, humans in the middle, and animals at the bottom. Anything that occupied a space between these levels of beings was considered religiously dangerous. The werewolf shares the ability to transgress these boundaries of being with the gods, but, in the case of the gods, it is something to be revered, whereas in the case of the werewolf, to be feared. Deities, being considered above profanation, were able to do things that transgress boundaries, but humans doing the same were considered abhorrent because they reversed the natural order. The werewolf as a symbol may have survived so adeptly into the medieval period because it so effectively embodies the idea of liminality, and much of its monstrous status in the medieval period likely arises from this liminal position.

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  1. […] Derek Newman–Stille (Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario), “Betwixt and Between: Werewolves as Sacred and Profane in the Classical and Medieval World” (Abstract of Paper) […]