Ah, werewolves. Popular trope in horror movies and novels. Usually portrayed as a human who transforms into a humanoid wolf (or as a human-wolf hybrid). Sometimes the condition (known as lycanthropy) is genetic and hereditary, sometimes it’s the result of a werewolf bite, sometimes the result of a curse. It’s often (but not necessarily) related to the full moon.
However, these nightmarish beasts are not limited to the world of fiction; they are a legendary creature, seen and encountered by many people up until the present day.
What are they? Some are Nephilim – the hybrid products of fallen angels mixing with humans and animals (and possibly humans with animals) in centuries and millennia past. Others are demonically possessed humans, at least some of which got into “the dark arts”, to borrow Harry Potter‘s term for black magic.
In this post I’m focusing on the werewolves that once inhabited (and in some places, terrorised) Ireland. In particular, the dark history of the kingdom of Ossory (also spelt Osraige), corresponding to present-day County Kilkenny and western County Laios.
The following is from Wikipedia:
The medieval Irish work Cóir Anmann (Fitness of Names), which was probably based on earlier traditions, gives an account of a legendary warrior-werewolf named Laignech Fáelad. He was said to be the ancestor of a tribe of werewolves who were related to the kings of Ossory in eastern Ireland, which covered most of present-day County Kilkenny and County Laois prior to the Norman invasion of Ireland in the 12th century. According to Cóir Anmann,
He was a man that used to go wolfing, i.e. into wolf-shapes, i.e. into shapes of wolves he used to go, and his offspring used to go after him and they used to kill the herds after the fashion of wolves, so that it is for that that he used to be called Laignech Fáelad, for he was the first of them who went into a wolf-shape.
He was said in medieval genealogies to be the brother of Feradach mac Duach, the king of Ossory, and the ancestor of its subsequent kings who ruled until being deposed by the Normans. The late 14th century Book of Ballymote may refer to this tradition in a passage which speaks of “the descendants of the wolf” in Ossory having the power to change themselves and go forth to devour people.
Other Irish accounts
Other accounts of Irish werewolves appear in the 11th century poem De Mirabilibus Hibernie (On the Marvels of Ireland) by Bishop Patrick of Dublin, the Middle Irish De Ingantaib Érenn (On the Wonders of Ireland) and the 13th century poem De hominibus qui se vertunt in lupos (Men Who Change Themselves into Wolves). Nennius of Bangor’s Historia Britonum (History of the Britons) presents an Irish version of the latter poem. The accounts describe men who are able to transform themselves into wolves, leaving their human bodies behind. Injuries sustained in lupine form are reflected on their human bodies, while meat from their prey will appear in their mouths. Their human bodies were vulnerable while they were in wolf form and their friends and family were warned not to move them. Such stories reflected folkloric beliefs that souls could leave the body and travel but could not return if the body was disturbed.
De Ingantaib Érenn speaks of the werewolves as living in Ossory, but this detail is omitted in the 13th century Norse work Konungs Skuggsjá (King’s Mirror). It describes the werewolves as being humans who were cursed as a divine punishment for wickedness. According to the account,
It is told that when the holy Patricius (St Patrick) preached Christianity in that country, there was one clan which opposed him more stubbornly than any other people in the land; and these people strove to do insult in many ways both to God and to the holy man. And when he was preaching the faith to them as to others and came to confer with them where they held their assemblies, they adopted the plan of howling at him like wolves.
St Patrick responded by praying for God to punish the clan, resulting in them suffering “a fitting and severe though very marvelous punishment, for it is told that all the members of that clan are changed into wolves for a period and roam through the woods feeding upon the same food as wolves; but they are worse than wolves, for in all their wiles they have the wit of men, though they are as eager to devour men as to destroy other creatures.” The werewolves were not permanently transformed, as they either took the form of a wolf every seventh winter or were transformed into a wolf for a seven-year period, following which they never transformed again.
Gerald of Wales
The Norse account is clearly based on the earlier accounts of the Ossory werewolves, though without mentioning Ossory, and on a lengthy account in the 12th century Topographia Hibernica (Geography of Ireland) by Gerald of Wales. Appointed as Archdeacon of Brecknock in 1175, he also worked as a historian and writer and accompanied the future King John of England on an expedition to Ireland in 1185. Gerald’s Topographia presents the story of an unnamed priest who is travelling from Ulster to Meath when he encounters a wolf in the woods. To his amazement, the wolf tells him not to be afraid and talks about God. The priest begs the wolf not to harm him and urges him to explain. The wolf replies:
There are two of us, a man and a woman, natives of Ossory, who through the curse of one Natalis, saint and abbot, are compelled every seven years to put off the human form and depart from the dwellings of men. Quitting entirely the human form, we assume that of wolves. At the end of the seven years, if they chance to survive, two others being substituted in their places, they return to their country and their former shape. And now, she who is my partner in this visitation lies dangerously sick not inspired by divine charity, to give her the consolations of your priestly office.
The priest complies and performs the last rites over the sick female wolf. The male wolf pulls down the wolf skin of the female, revealing an elderly human female underneath, to reassure the priest that he is not committing blasphemy. After the priest has given communion to the woman/she-wolf, the male wolf leads him out of the woods and gives him a number of prophesies about the future of Ireland and its English invaders. The priest is subsequently summoned to a synod convened by the Bishop of Meath which, on Gerald’s advice, orders the priest to appear before the Pope. Gerald himself is unable to attend but hears about the matter from the bishop’s clerks.
As several commentators have noted, the story is unique in several respects. It is the only one in which a werewolf talks, and they are not conventional werewolves, undergoing a full transformation, but are still human beings under the wolf-skins. As such, they are Christianised werewolves; they are people created in the image of God who have outwardly changed their appearance but retain their human intelligence and forms, albeit concealed. The werewolves are also held to be the victims of a curse inflicted on their community as collective punishment for their sins.
Gerald goes on to discuss the theological implications of his story, referring to accounts of werewolves in Augustine of Hippo‘s 5th century work The City of God. He reiterates Augustine’s views on metamorphisis:
We agree, then, with Augustine, that neither demons nor wicked men can either create or really change their natures ; but those whom God has created can, to outward appearance, by his permission, become transformed, so that they appear to be what they are not; the senses of men being deceived and laid asleep by a strange allusion, so that things are not seen as they really exist, but are strangely drawn by the power of some phantom or magical incantation to rest their eyes on unreal and fictitious forms.
Werewolves of Ossory
There are several stories in particular that frame the majority of Irish folklore regarding werewolves. In Northern Ireland it is said that there were tribes of wolf-men living in the wild that ancient Kings would call on to aid them in battle. Other tales claim that creatures, half wolf, half man, wander the forests, sometimes preying on cattle and sheep, other times protecting the people. And an even older myth tells the tale of three werewolf women yearly emerging from a cave to slaughter sheep during a Harvest Feast, and who were finally lured with music and massacred.
The most well known legend of werewolves in Ireland, however, was recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis, also known as Gerald of Wales, a clergyman and royal clerk to the British King in the 1100s, assigned the task of observing and recording political and socio-economical events. In his work exploring Ireland, Topographia Hibernica, he depicts the Irish as being savage and primitive with repugnant orthodox piety. He does, however, do us one justice: he records a tale of two werewolves of Ossory, which a priest had personally encountered, and Giraldus was requested to give counsel.
As a side note, the wolf was the totem of Ossory, and for good reason. It is said that long ago, Ossorians had the power to change into a werewolf at will. Once changed, the werewolf’s human body would remain lifeless at home until the wolf could return to it and thus resume his human form. It is also said that if you were to harm the wolf form, corresponding wounds would be found on the human form; thus you could always tell if a man was indeed a werewolf.
Yet, interestingly enough, Giraldus’ record was not of this Ossarian legend, but of another: a curse had been lain on a family to which they, although Christians, were condemned to wander as savage wolves for seven years. In his record, a werewolf was pleading with a traveling priest to come and perform the rite of viaticum on his dying wife, who was also in wolf form. The priest concedes and goes on to tell his experience to the local bishops who call Giraldus for counsel. Giraldus is unable to make the appointment but sends a letter instead. Eventually, the werewolf tale reaches even the Pope, who gives his seal on the account.
There is also an intriguing Irish folklore that Natalis, a monk living in the early 5th century, cursed a prominent family for unknown reasons. The curse? Each member of the family was doomed to become a wolf for seven years.
As far as my research can tell, there is a fascinating correlation between these two historical references to werewolves that has yet to be investigated. Is Giraldus’ account of the Ossarian werewolf couple somehow related to the original curse imprecated by Natalis, nearly 600 years earlier?
In any case, the legend of the Ossarian werewolves has deeply founded roots, including a historical account by the Royal Clerk. Yet when and how the werewolves came to be is still a matter of folklore. You’ll have to sort it out for yourselves.
St. Patrick’s Werewolves
According to legend, St. Patrick once punished the Welsh king Vereticus by transforming him into a wolf. While St. Patrick was in Ireland he became so disgusted with certain tribes that continued to resist his efforts to convert them to Christianity that he cursed them and condemned them to become werewolves.
The spell fell on the poor tribesmen and caused them to turn into werewolves every seven years. They would stay in wolf form for seven years, then once the years passed they would turn back into humans, but only for another seven years, then it was back to wolf all over again. It was a horrible vicious cycle. Seven years as a wolf, seven as a human, seven as a wolf, seven as a human… until they died.
But during their seven years as a werewolf they weren’t denied the sacraments of the church. In 1191 a man named Giraldus Cambrensis recorded the testimony of a priest that swore that he once gave a sacrament to a werewolf.
Throughout the years, travelers to Ireland insisted that they had met entire families of werewolves and that they have even seen some people transform into wolves. Up until the end of the eighteenth century, Ireland was known as Wolfland.
This legend of St. Patrick turning unbelievers into werewolves could very well be a fabricated story used to scare people into turning to Christianity. This kind of thing was done quite often throughout the old world. They would tell the people that if they led sinful lives they would be turned into a vampire or werewolf or some other monster – that’s actually how we have many of the stories we have. Think of it as telling a child if he doesn’t behave the boogeyman will get him, same deal.
But who knows, maybe St. Patrick did turn the pagans into werewolves for not bringing Christ into their hearts.
Contradictorily, a few hundred years ago, Fynes Moryson reported that the Irish turned into wolves yearly, and according to Mr. Ashley’s book on the subject, those in Ossory considered themselves to be descended from wolves.
Now, you might be thinking that this sounds like there might have been practices of lycanthropy before the Christians arrived, and the folklore of the area was appropriated and modified in order to suit the new establishment. This is possible, especially since, according to the Leabhar Na H-Uidhi the druids that lived there practiced shapeshifting traditions.
This is supported by another tale: It is said that in Ireland, lycanthropy was hereditary, and that those of certain lineages could shift into faelad, that is, wolf-shapes. The most famous of these lycanthropes were of the Laignech Faelad, otherwise known as “The Wolf Men of Tipperary.” These were fearsome warriors who, howling like wolves, fought for the ancient kings of Ireland, and were every bit as fierce and ferocious as the beasts they assumed the shape of. They lived in remote areas, and unlike the werewolves of Ossory, they could turn into wolves whenever they wanted!
(Note: Laignech Faelad, the ancestor of many Irish werewolves and a werewolf himself, was a prince or king of Ossory, and the ancestor of subsequent kings, and eventually of a sizable portion of the kingdom’s population – which alone, apart from the accounts of Ossory’s werewolf inhabitants, raises worrying possiblities. Anyone with the surname Fitzpatrick is Laignech’s dynasty’s male-line descendant, and there are numerous other descendants of that werewolf today, including the Royal Family – and myself. I’m not in any way a werewolf, thankfully, and nor is anyone in my family – we’re all normal – but it’s still a disturbing thought that these are my ancestors.)
A full account of the priest who encountered the Ossory wolf couple can be found here:
At what point lycanthropy disappeared, I don’t know. I am of course assuming they did disappear, and that horror movie settings of out-of-the-way, seemingly innocent-looking villages whose inhabitants are secretly werewolves or something like that (e.g. The Howling and An American Werewolf in London – neither of which I’ve seen) aren’t true. But it makes one wonder…