Werwolves Chapter 15


AS in Denmark, werwolves were once so numerous in Norway and Sweden, that these countries naturally came to be regarded as the true home of lycanthropy.

With the advent of the tourist, however, and the consequent springing up of fresh villages, together with the gradual increase of native population, Norway and Sweden have slowly undergone a metamorphosis, with the result that it is now only in the most remote districts, such as the northern portion of the Kiolen Mountains and the borders of Lapland, that werwolves are to be found.

Here, amid the primitive solitude of vast pine forests, flow lycanthropous rivers; here, too, grow lycanthropous shrubs and flowers.

Werwolfery in Norway and Sweden is not confined to one sex; it is common to both; and in these countries various forms of spells, both for invoking and expelling lycanthropous spirits, are current.

As far as I can gather, a Norwegian or Swedish peasant, when he wishes to become a werwolf, kneels by the side of a lycanthropous stream at midnight, having chosen a night when the moon is in the full, and incants some such words as these:—

“‘Tis night! ’tis night! and the moon shines whiteOver pine and snow-capped hill;The shadows stray through burn and braeAnd dance in the sparkling rill.

“‘Tis night! ’tis night! and the devil’s lightCasts glimmering beams around.The maras dance, the nisses pranceOn the flower-enamelled ground.

“‘Tis night! ’tis night! and the werwolf’s mightMakes man and nature shiver.Yet its fierce grey head and stealthy treadAre nought to thee, oh river!River, river, river.

“Oh water strong, that swirls along,I prithee a werwolf make me.Of all things dear, my soul, I swear,In death shall not forsake thee.”

The supplicant then strikes the banks of the river three times with his forehead; then dips his head into the river thrice, at each dip gulping down a mouthful of the water. This concludes the ceremony—he has become a werwolf, and twenty-four hours later will undergo the first metamorphosis.

Lycanthropous water is said, by those who dwell near to it, to differ from other water in subtle details only—details that would, in all probability, escape the notice of all who were not connoisseurs of the superphysical. A strange, faint odour, comparable with nothing, distinguishes lycanthropous water; there is a lurid sparkle in it, strongly suggestive of some peculiar, individual life; the noise it makes, as it rushes along, so closely resembles the muttering and whispering of human voices as to be often mistaken for them; whilst at night it sometimes utters piercing screams, and howls, and groans, in such a manner as to terrify all who pass near it. Dogs and horses, in particular, are susceptible to its influence, and they exhibit the greatest signs of terror at the mere sound of it.

Another means of becoming a werwolf, resorted to by the Swedish and Norwegian peasant, consists in the plucking and wearing of a lycanthropous flower after sunset, and on a night when the moon is in the full. Lycanthropous flowers, no less than lycanthropous water, possess properties peculiar to themselves; properties which are, probably, only discernible to those who are well acquainted with them. Their scent is described as faint and subtly suggestive of death, whilst their sap is rather offensively white and sticky. In appearance they are much the same as other flowers, and are usually white and yellow.

Yet another method of acquiring the property of lycanthropy consists in making: first, a magic circle on the ground, at twelve o’clock, on a night when the moon is in the full (there is no strict rule as to the magnitude of the circle, though one of about seven feet in diameter would seem to be the size most commonly adopted); then, in the centre of the circle, a wood fire, heating thereon an iron vessel containing one pint of clear spring water, and any seven of the following ingredients: hemlock (1/2 ounce to 1 ounce), aloe (30 grains), opium (2 to 4-1/2 drachms), mandrake (1 ounce to 1-1/2 ounces), solanum (1/2 ounce), poppy seed (1/2 ounce to 1 ounce), asafœtida (3/4 ounce to 1 ounce), and parsley (2 to 3 ounces).

Whilst the mixture is heating, the experimenter prostrates himself in front of the fire and prays to the Great Spirit of the Unknown to confer on him the property of metamorphosing, nocturnally, into a werwolf. His prayers take no one particular form, but are quite extempore; though he usually adds to them some such recognised incantation as:—

“Come, spirit so powerful! come, spirit so dread,From the home of the werwolf, the home of the dead.Come, give me thy blessing! come, lend me thine ear!Oh spirit of darkness! oh spirit so drear!

“Come, mighty phantom! come, great Unknown!Come from thy dwelling so gloomy and lone.Come, I beseech thee; depart from thy lair,And body and soul shall be thine, I declare.

“Haste, haste, haste, horrid spirit, haste!Speed, speed, speed, scaring spirit, speed!Fast, fast, fast, fateful spirit, fast!”

He then makes the following formal declaration:—

“I (here insert name) offer to thee, Great Spirit of the Unknown, this night (here insert date), my body and soul, on condition that thou grantest me, from this night to the hour of my death, the power of metamorphosing, nocturnally, into a wolf. I beg, I pray, I implore thee—thee, unparalleled Phantom of Darkness, to make me a werwolf—a werwolf!”—and striking the ground three times with his forehead, he gets up. As soon as the concoction in the vessel is boiling, he dips a cup into it, and sprinkles the contents on the ground, repeating the action until he has sprinkled the whole interior of the circle.

Then he kneels on the ground close to the fire, and in a loud voice cries out, “Come, oh come!” and, if he is fortunate, a phantom suddenly manifests itself over the fire. Sometimes the phantom is indefinite—a cylindrical, luminous, pillar-like thing, about seven feet in height, having no discernible features; sometimes it assumes a definite shape, and appears either as a monstrous hooded figure with a death’s head, or as a sub-human, sub-animal type of Elemental.

Whatever form the Unknown adopts, it is invariably terrifying. It never speaks, but indicates its assent by stretching out an arm, or what serves as an arm, and then disappears. It never remains visible for more than half a minute. As soon as it vanishes the supplicant, who is always half mad with terror, springs from the ground and rushes home—or anywhere to get again within reach of human beings. By the morning, however, all his fears have departed; and at sunset he creeps off into the forest, or into some equally secluded spot, to experience, for the first time, the extraordinary sensations of metamorphosing into a wolf, or, perhaps, a semi-wolf, i.e., a creature half man and half wolf; for the degree of metamorphosis varies according to locality. The hour of metamorphosis also varies according to locality—though it is at sunset that the change most usually takes place, the transmutation back to man generally occurring at dawn.

When a werwolf, in human shape at the time, is killed, he sometimes (not always) metamorphoses into a wolf, and if in wolf’s form at the time he is killed he sometimes (not always) metamorphoses into a human being—here again the nature of the transmutation depending on locality.

In certain of the forests of Sweden dwell old women called Vargamors, who are closely allied to werwolves, and exercise complete control over all the wolves in the neighbourhood, keeping the latter well supplied in food. As an illustration of the Vargamor I have chosen the following story:—

Liso of Soroa

Liso was thoroughly spoilt. Every one had told her how beautiful she was from the day she had first learned to walk, and, consequently, it was only natural that when she grew up she cared for no one but herself, and for nothing so much as gazing at herself in the looking-glass and expatiating on the loveliness of her own reflection. As a girl at home she was allowed to do precisely what she liked—neither father nor mother, relatives (with one exception) nor friends ever thwarted her; and when she married it was the same: her husband bowed down to her, and was always ready to indulge her every wish and whim.

She had three children, two boys and a girl, whom she occasionally condescended to notice; but only when there was nothing else at hand to entertain her.

The one person of whom Liso stood in awe was her aunt, a rich old lady with distinct views of her own, and a vigorous method of expressing them. Now, one of the old lady’s peculiar ideas—at least peculiar in Liso’s estimation—was that woman was made to be man’s helpmate, and that married women should think of their husbands first, their children next, and themselves last—an order of consideration which Liso thought was exactly the reverse of what it should be.

Had her aunt been poor, it is quite certain that Liso would have had nothing whatsoever to do with her. But circumstances alter cases. This aunt was rich, and, moreover, had no one more nearly related to her than Liso.

One day, in the depth of winter, Liso received a letter from her aunt containing a pressing invitation to start off at once on a visit to the latter at Skatea, a small town some twelve miles from Soroa. “Bring your children,” so the letter ran, “I should so love to see them, and stay the night.” Liso was greatly annoyed. She had just arranged a meeting with one of her numerous lovers, and this invitation upset everything. However, as it was of vital importance to her to keep in with her aunt, she at once decided to put off her previous engagement and take her children to see their rich old relative.

Hoping that her lover might perhaps join her on the road and thus convert a boring journey into a pleasant pastime, Liso, in spite of her husband’s entreaties, refused to take a servant, and insisted upon driving herself. As she had anticipated, her lover met her on the outskirts of the town, but, to her chagrin, was unable to accompany her any part of the way to Skatea. He was most profuse in his apologies, adding, “I wish you weren’t going; I hear the road you will be traversing is infested with bears and wolves.”

“Thank you!” she exclaimed mockingly, “I am not afraid, if you are. I can quite understand now why you cannot come. Good-bye!” And with a haughty inclination of her head she drove off, without deigning to notice the young man’s outstretched hand. Liso was now in a very bad temper; and, having no other means of venting it, savagely silenced the children whenever they attempted to speak.

The vehicle in which the party travelled was a light sledge, drawn by one horse only—a beast of matchless beauty and size, which, under ordinary circumstances, could cover twelve miles in an almost inconceivably short space of time. But now, owing to a heavy fall of snow, the track, though well beaten, was heavy, and the piled-up snow on each side so deep that to turn back, without the risk of sticking fast, was an impossibility.

The first half of the journey passed without accident, and they were skirting the borders of a pine forest when Liso suddenly became conscious of a suspicious noise behind her. Looking round, she saw, to her horror, a troop of gaunt grey wolves issue from the forest and commence running after the sledge. She instantly slashed the horse with her whip, and the next moment the chase began in grim earnest. But, gallop as fast as it would, the horse could not outpace the wolves, whom hunger had made fleet as the wind, and it was not many minutes before two of the biggest of them appeared on either side of the vehicle. Though their intention was, in all probability, only to attack the horse, yet the safety both of Liso and the children depended on the preservation of the animal.

It was indeed a beautiful creature, and the danger only enhanced its value; it seemed, in fact, almost entitled to claim for its preservation an extraordinary sacrifice. And Liso did not hesitate. It was one life against three—the world would excuse her, if God did not.

“You, Charles,” she said hoarsely, “you are the eldest; it is your duty to go first”—and before Charles had time to realize what was happening, she had gripped him round the waist, and with strength generated by the crisis hurled him into the snow. She did not see where he fell—the sledge was moving far too fast for that; but she heard the sound of the concussion, and then frantic screaming, accompanied by howls of triumph and joyful yapping. There was a momentary lull—only momentary—and then the patting footsteps recommenced.

Nearer and nearer they came, until she could hear a deep and regular pant, pant, pant, drowned every now and then by prolonged howls and piercing, nerve-racking whines. Once again two murder-breathing forms are racing along at the side of the sledge, biting and snapping at the horse’s legs with their gleaming, foam-flecked jaws.

“George,” Liso shouted, “you must go now. You are a boy, and boys and men should always die to save their sisters.” But George, though younger, was not so easy to dispose of as Charles. Charles had been taken unawares, but George guessed what was coming and was on his guard.

“No, no,” he cried, clinging on to the sledge with both his chubby hands. “The wolves will eat me! Take sissy.”

“Wretch!” shrieked Liso, boxing his ears furiously. “Selfish little wretch! So this is the result of all the kindness I have lavished on you. Let go at once”—and tearing at his baby wrists with all her might, she succeeded in loosening them, and the next instant he was in the road.

Then there was a repetition of what had happened before—a few wild screeches, savage howls of triumph, and snarls and grunts that suggested much. Then—comparative quiet, and then—patterings. Mad with fear, Liso stood up and lashed the horse. God of mercy! there was now only one more life between hers and the fate that, of all fates in the world, seemed to her just then to be the most dreadful. With the thick and gloomy forest before and behind her, and the nearer and nearer trampling of her ravenous pursuers, she almost collapsed from sheer anguish; but the thought of all her beauty perishing in such an ignominious and painful fashion braced her up. Perhaps, too—at least, let us hope so—underlying it all, though so much in the background, there was a genuine longing to save the little mite—her exact counterpart, so people said—that nestled its sunny head in the folds of her soft and costly sealskin coat.

She did not venture to look behind her, only in front—at the seemingly never-ending white track; at the dense mass of trees—trees that shook their heads mockingly at her as the wind rustled through them; at the great splash of red right across the sky, so horribly remindful of blood that she shuddered. Night birds hoot; wild cats glare down at her; and shadows of every kind glide noiselessly out from behind the great trunks, and await her approach with inexplicable flickerings and flutterings.

All at once two rough paws are laid on her shoulders, and the wide-open, bloody jaws of an enormous wolf hang over her head. It is the most ferocious beast of the troop, which, having partly missed its leap at the sledge, is dragged along with it, in vain seeking with its hinder legs for a resting-place to enable it to get wholly on to the frail vehicle. Liso looks down at the little girl beside her and their eyes meet.

“Not me! not me!” the tiny one cried, clutching hold of her wrist in its anxiety. “I have been good, have I not? You will not throw me into the snow like the others?” Liso’s lips tightened. The weight of the body of the wolf drew her gradually backwards—another minute and she would be out of the sledge. Her life was of assuredly more value than that of the child. Besides, one so young would not feel the horrors of death so acutely as she would, who was grown up. Anything rather than such a devilish ending. Providence willed it—Providence must bear the responsibility. And, steeling her soul to pity, she snatches up her daughter and throws her into the gleaming jaws of the wolf, which, springing off the sledge, hastily departs with its prey into the forest, where it is followed by hosts of other wolves. Exhausted, stunned, senseless—for her escape has been extremely narrow—Liso drops the reins, and, sinking back into the luxurious cushions of the vehicle, gives a great sigh of relief and shuts her eyes.

Meantime the trees grow thinner, and an isolated house, to which a side-road leads, appears at no great distance off. The horse, left to itself, follows this new path; it enters through an open gate, and, panting and foaming, comes to a dead halt before a ponderous oak door studded with huge iron nails. Presently Liso recovers. She finds herself seated before a roaring fire; and a woman with a white face, dark, piercing eyes, and a beak-like nose, is bending over her. The woman presents such an extraordinary spectacle that Liso is oblivious of everything else, and gazes at her with a cold sensation of fear creeping down her spine.

“You’ve had a narrow escape,” the woman presently exclaims in peculiarly hoarse tones. “And the danger is not over yet! Listen!” To Liso’s terror an inferno of howls and whines sounds from the yard outside, and she sees, gleaming in at her through the window-panes, scores of wild, hairy faces with pale, lurid eyes. “They are there!” the woman remarks, a saturnine smile in her eyes and playing round her lips. “There—all ready to rend and tear you to pieces as they did your children—your three pretty, loving children. I’ve only to open the door, and in they will rush!”

“But you won’t,” Liso gasped feebly. “You won’t be so cruel. Besides, they could eat you, too.”

“Oh no, they couldn’t,” the woman laughed. “I’m a Vargamor. Every one of these wolves knows me and loves me as a mother. With you it is very different. Shall I——?”

“Oh no! for pity’s sake spare me!” Liso cried, throwing herself at the woman’s feet and catching hold of her hands. “Spare me, and I will do anything you want.”

“Well,” said the woman, after some consideration, “I will spare you on one condition, namely, that you live with me and do the housework; I’m getting too old for it.”

“I suppose I may see my family occasionally?” Liso said.

“No!” the old woman snapped, “you may not. You must never go out of sight of this house. Now, what do you say? Recollect, it is either that or the wolves! Quick,” and she hobbled to the door as she spoke.

“I’ve chosen!” Liso shrieked. “I’ll stay with you. Anything rather than such an awful death. Tell me what I have to do and I’ll begin at once.”

The old woman took her at her word. She speedily set Liso a task, and from that time onward, kept her so continuously employed, not allowing her a moment to herself, that her life soon became unbearable. She tried to escape, but each time she left the house the fierce howling of the wolves sent her back to it in terror, and she discovered that, night and day, certain of the beasts were supervising her movements. After she had been there a week the old woman said to her, “I fear it is useless to think of keeping you any longer! Times are bad—food is scarce. The wolves are hungry—I must give you to them.”

But Liso fell on her knees and pleaded so hard that the Vargamor relented, “Well, well!” she said, “I will spare you, provided you can procure me a substitute. If you like to sit down and write to some one I will see that the note is delivered.”

Then Liso, almost beside herself at the thought of the hungry wolves, sat down and wrote a letter to her husband, telling him she had met with an accident, and desiring him to come to her at once. She dared not give him the slightest hint as to what had actually befallen her, as she knew the old woman would read the letter.

When she had finished her note, the Vargamor took it, and for the next twelve hours Liso had a very anxious time.

“If he doesn’t come soon,” the old woman at length said to her, with an evil chuckle, “I shall have to let the wolves in. They are famishing; and I, too, want something tastier than rabbits and squirrels.”

The minutes passed, and Liso was nearly fainting with suspense, when there suddenly broke on her ears the distant tramp of horses’ feet; and in a very few moments a droshky dashed up to the door.

“Call him in here,” the Vargamor said, “and run up and hide in your bedroom. My pets and I will enjoy him all the better by the fire, and there won’t be so much risk of them being hurt.”

Liso, afraid to do otherwise, ran up the rickety ladder leading to her room, shouting as she did so, “Oscar! Oscar! come in, come in.”

The joyful note in her husband’s voice as he replied to her invitation struck a new chord in Liso’s nature—a chord which had been there all the time, but had got choked and clogged through over-indulgence. Full of a courage that dared anything in its determination to save him, she crept cautiously down the stairs, and just as he crossed the threshold, and the Vargamor was about to summon the wolves, she dashed up to the old woman and struck her with all her might. Then, seizing her husband, she dragged him out of the house, and, hustling him into the carriage, jumped in by his side and told the coachman to drive home with the utmost speed.

All this was done in less time than it takes to tell, and once again the familiar sounds of pattering—patterings on the snow in the wake of the carriage—fell on Liso’s ears, and all the old horrors of the preceding journey came back to her with full force.

Slowly, despite the fact that there were two horses now, the wolves gained on them, and once again the same harrowing question arose in Liso’s mind. Some one must be sacrificed. Which should it be? The coachman! without doubt the coachman. He was only a poor, uneducated man, a hireling, and his life was as nothing compared either with that of her husband or her own.

But she now remembered that Oscar, though usually a mere straw in her hands, and ready to do anything she asked him, had one or two peculiarities—fondness for children and animals, and a great respect for life—life in every grade. Would he consent to sacrifice the coachman? And as she glanced at him, a feeling of awe came over her. What a big, strong man this husband of hers was, and what strength he had—strength of all kinds, physical as well as mental—if he cared to exert it. But then he loved, worshipped, and adored her; he would never treat her with anything but the utmost deference and kindness, no matter what she said or did. Still, when she got ready to whisper the fatal suggestion in his ear, her heart failed her. And then the new something within her—that something that had already spoken and seemed inclined to be painfully officious—once more asserted itself. The coachman was married, he had children—four people dependent on him, four hearts that loved him! With her it was different: no one was actually dependent on her—there were no children now! Nothing but the memory of them! Memory—what a hateful thing it was! She had forced them to give her their lives; would it not be some atonement for her act if she were now to offer hers? She made the offer—breathed it with a shuddering soul into her husband’s ears—and with a great round oath he rejected it.

“What! You! Let you be thrown to the wolves?” he roared. “No—sooner than that, ten thousand times sooner, I will jump out! But I don’t think there is any need. Knowing there were wolves about, I brought arms. If occasion arises we can easily account for half of them. But we shall outdistance them yet.”

He spoke the truth. Bit by bit the powerful horses drew away from the pack, and ere the last trees of the forest were passed, the howlings were no longer heard and all danger was at an end.

Then, and not till then, did Oscar learn what had become of the children.

He listened to Liso’s explanation in silence, and it was not until she had finished that the surprise came. She was anticipating commiseration—commiseration for the awful hell she had undergone. She little guessed the struggle that was taking place beneath her husband’s seemingly calm exterior. The revelation came with an abruptness that staggered her. “Woman!” he cried, “you are a murderess. Sooner than have sacrificed your children you should have suffered three deaths yourself—that is the elementary instinct of all mothers, human and otherwise. You are below the standard of a beast—of the Vargamor you slew. Go! go back to those parents who bore you, and tell them I’ll have nought to do with you—that I want a woman for my wife, not a monstrosity.”

He bade the coachman pull up, and, alighting, told the man to drive Liso to the home of her parents.

But Liso did not hear him—she sat huddled up on the seat with her eyes staring blankly before her. For the first time in her life she was conscious that she loved!