Werwolves Chapter 16


THE Bersekir of Iceland are credited with the rare property of dual metamorphosis—that is to say, they are credited with the power of being able to adopt the individual forms of two animals—the bear and the wolf.

For substantiation as to the bona-fide existence of this rare property of dual metamorphosis one has only to refer to the historical literature of the country (the authenticity of which is beyond dispute), wherein many cases of it are recorded.

The following story, illustrative of dual metamorphosis, was told to me on fairly good authority.

A very unprepossessing Bersekir, named Rerir, falling in love with Signi, the beautiful daughter of a neighbouring Bersekir, proposed to her and was scornfully rejected. Smarting under the many insults that had been heaped on him—for Signi had a most cutting tongue—Rerir, who, like most of the Bersekir, was both a werwolf and a wer-bear, resolved to be revenged. Assuming the shape of a bear—the animal he deemed the more formidable—Rerir stole to the house where Signi and her parents lived, and climbing on the roof, tore away at it with his claws till he had made a hole big enough to admit him. Dropping through the aperture he had thus effected, he alighted on the top of some one in bed—one of the servants of the house—whom he hugged to death before she had time to utter a cry. He then stole out into the passage and made his way, cautiously and noiselessly, to the room in which he imagined Signi slept. Here, however, instead of finding the object of his passions, he came upon her parents, one of whom—the mother—was awake; and aiming a blow at the latter’s head, he crushed in her skull with one stroke of his powerful paw. The noise awoke Signi’s father, who, taking in the situation at a glance, also metamorphosed into a bear and straightway closed with his assailant. A desperate encounter between the two wer-animals now commenced, and the whole household, aroused from their slumber, came trooping in. For some time the issue of the combat was dubious, both adversaries being fairly well matched. But at length Rerir began to prevail, and Signi’s father cried out for some one to help him. Then Signi, anxious to save her parent’s life, seized a knife, and, aiming a frantic blow, inadvertently struck her father, who instantly sank on the ground, leaving her at the mercy of his furious opponent.

With a loud snarl of triumph, Rerir rushed at the girl, and was bearing her triumphantly away, when the cook—an old woman who had followed the fortunes of the Bersekir all her life—had a sudden inspiration. Standing on a shelf in the corner of the room was a jar containing a preparation of sulphur, asafœtida, and castoreum, which her mistress had always given her to understand was a preventive against evil spirits. Snatching it up, she darted after the wer-bear and flung the contents of it in its face, just as it was about to descend the stairs with Signi. In a moment there was a sudden and startling metamorphosis, and in the place of the bear stood the ugly, misshapen man, Rerir.

The hunchback now would gladly have departed without attempting further mischief; for although the household boasted no man apart from its incapacitated master, there were still three formidable women and some big dogs to be faced.

But to let him escape, after the irreparable harm he had done, was the very last thing Signi would permit; and with an air of stern authority she commanded the servants to fall on him with any weapons they could find, whilst she would summon the hounds.

Now, indeed, the tables were completely turned. Rerir was easily overpowered and bound securely hand and foot by Signi and her servants, and after undergoing a brief trial the following morning he was summarily executed.

Those Icelanders who possessed the property of metamorphosis into wolves and bears (they were always of the male sex), more often than not used it for the purpose of either wreaking vengeance or of executing justice. The terrible temper—for the rage of the Bersekir has been a byword for centuries—commonly attributed to Icelanders and Scandinavians in general, is undoubtedly traceable to the werwolves and wer-bears into which the Bersekirs metamorphosed.

It is said that in Iceland there are both lycanthropous streams and flowers, and that they differ little if at all from those to be met with in other countries.

The Werwolves of Lapland

In Lapland werwolves are still much to the fore. In many families the property is hereditary, whilst it is not infrequently sought and acquired through the practice of Black Magic. Though, perhaps, more common among males, there are, nevertheless, many instances of it among females.

The following case comes from the country bordering on Lake Enara.

The child of a peasant woman named Martha, just able to trot alone, and consequently left to wander just where it pleased, came home one morning with its forehead apparently licked raw, all its fingers more or less injured, and two of them seemingly sucked and mumbled to a mere pulp.

On being interrogated as to what had happened, it told a most astounding tale: A very beautiful lady had picked it up and carried it away to her house, where she had put it in a room with her three children, who were all very pretty and daintily dressed. At sunset, however, both the lady and her children metamorphosed into wolves, and would undoubtedly have eaten it, had they not satiated their appetites on a portion of a girl which had been kept over from the preceding day. The newcomer was intended for their meal on the morrow, and obeying the injunctions of their mother, the young werwolves had forborne to devour the child, though they had all tasted it.

The child’s parents were simply dumbfounded—they could scarcely credit their senses—and made their offspring repeat its narrative over and over again. And as it stuck to what it had said, they ultimately concluded that it was true, and that the lady described could be none other than Madame Tonno, the wife of their landlord and patron—a person of immense importance in the neighbourhood.

But what could they do? How could they protect their children from another raid?

To accuse the lady, who was rich and influential, of being a werwolf would be useless. No one would believe them—no one dare believe them—and they would be severely punished for their indiscretion. Being poor, they were entirely at her mercy, and if she chose to eat their children, they could not prevent her, unless they could catch her in the act.

One evening the mother was washing clothes before the door of her house, with her second child, a little girl of four years of age, playing about close by. The cottage stood in a lonely part of the estate, forming almost an island in the midst of low boggy ground; and there was no house nearer than that of M. Tonno. Martha, bending over her wash-tub, was making every effort to complete her task, when a fearful cry made her look up, and there was the child, gripped by one shoulder, in the jaws of a great she-wolf, the arm that was free extended towards her. Martha was so close that she managed to clutch a bit of the child’s clothing in one hand, whilst with the other she beat the brute with all her might to make it let go its hold. But all in vain: the relentless jaws did not show the slightest sign of relaxing, and with a saturnine glitter in its deep-set eyes it emitted a hoarse burr-burr, and set off at full speed towards the forest, dragging the mother, who was still clinging to the garment of her child, with it.

But they did not long continue thus. The wolf turned into some low-lying uneven track, and Martha, falling over the jagged trunk of a tree, found herself lying on the ground with only a little piece of torn clothing tightly clasped in her hand. Hitherto, comforted by Martha’s presence, the little one had not uttered a sound; but now, feeling itself deserted, it gave vent to the most heartrending screams—screams that abruptly disturbed the silence of that lonely spot and pierced to the depths of Martha’s soul. In an instant she rose, and, dashing on, bounded over stock and stone, tearing herself pitiably, but heeding it not in her intense anxiety to save her child. But the wolf had now increased its speed; the undergrowth was thick, the ground heavier, and soon screams became her only guide. Still on and on she dashed, now snatching up a little shoe which was clinging to the bushes, now shrieking with agony as she saw fragments of the child’s hair and clothes on the low jagged boughs obstructing her path. On, on, on, until the screams grew fainter, then louder, and then ceased altogether.

Late that night the husband, Max, found his wife lying dead, just outside the grounds of his patron’s château. Guessing what had happened, and having but one thought in his mind—namely, revenge—Max, arming himself with the branch of a tree, marched boldly up to the house, and rapped loudly at the door.

M. Tonno answered this peremptory summons himself, and demanded in an angry voice what Max meant by daring to announce himself thus.

Max pointed in the direction of the corpse. “That!” he shrieked; “that is the reason of my visit. Madame Tonno is a werwolf—she has murdered both my wife and child, and I am here to demand justice.”

“Come inside,” M. Tonno said, the tone of his voice suddenly changing. “We can discuss the matter indoors in the privacy of my study.” And he conducted Max to a room in the rear of the house.

But no sooner had Max crossed the threshold than the door was slammed on him, and he found himself a prisoner. He turned to the window, but there was no hope there—it was heavily barred. But although a peasant—and a fool, so he told himself, to have thus deliberately walked into a trap—Max was not altogether without wits, and he searched the room thoroughly, eventually discovering a loose board. Tearing it up, he saw that the space under the floor—that is to say, between the floor and the foundation of the house—was just deep enough for him to lie there at full length. Here, then, was a possible avenue of escape. Setting to work, he succeeded, after much effort, in wrenching up another board, and then another, and getting into the excavation thus made, he worked his way along on his stomach, until he came to a grating, which, to his utmost joy, proved to be loose. It was but the work of a few minutes to force it out and to dislodge a few bricks, and Max was once again free. His one idea now was to tell his tale to his brother peasants and rouse them to immediate action, and with this end in view he set off running at full speed to the nearest settlement.

The peasants of Lapland are slow and stolid and take a lot of rousing, but when once they are roused, few people are so terrible.

Fortunately for Max, he was not the only sufferer; several other people in the neighbourhood had lately lost their children, and the story he told found ready credence. In less than an hour a large body of men and women, armed with every variety of weapon, from a sword to a pitchfork, had gathered together, and setting off direct to the château, they surrounded it on all sides, and forcing an entrance, seized M. Tonno and his werwolf wife and werwolf children, and binding them hand and foot, led them to the shores of Lake Enara and drowned them. They then went back to the house and, setting fire to it, burned it to the ground, thus making certain of destroying any werwolf influence it might still contain.

With this wholesale extermination a case that may be taken as a characteristic type of Lapland lycanthropy in all its grim and sordid details concludes.

Finland Werwolves

Finland teems with stories of werwolves—stories ancient and modern, for the werwolf is said to still flourish in various parts of the country.

The property is not restricted to one sex; it is equally common to both. Spells and various forms of exorcism are used, and certain streams are held to be lycanthropous.

However, in Finland as in Scandinavia, it is very difficult to procure information as to werwolves. The common peasant, who alone knows anything about the anomaly, is withheld by superstition from even mentioning its name; and if he mentions a werwolf at all, designates him only as the “old one,” or the “grey one,” or the “great dog,” feeling that to call this terror by its true name is a sure way to exasperate it. It is only by strategy one learns from a peasant that when a fine young ox is found in the morning breathing hard, his hide bathed in foam, and with every sign of fright and exhaustion, while, perhaps, only one trifling wound is discovered on the whole body, which swells and inflames as if poison had been infused, the animal generally dying before night; and that when, on examination of the corpse, the intestines are found to be torn as with the claws of a wolf, and the whole body is in a state of inflammation, it is accounted certain that the mischief has been caused by a werwolf.

It is thus a werwolf serves his quarry when he kills for the mere love of killing, and not for food.

In Finland, perhaps more than in other countries, werwolves are credited with demoniacal power, and old women who possess the property of metamorphosing into wolves are said to be able to paralyse cattle and children with their eyes, and to have poison in their nails, one wound from which causes certain death.

To illustrate the foregoing I have selected an incident which happened near Diolen, a village on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Finland, at the distance of about a hundred wersts from the ancient city of Mawa. Here vegetation is of a more varied and luxuriant kind than is usually found in the Northern latitude; the oak and the bela, intermingled with rich plots of grass, grow at the very edge of the sea—a phenomenon accountable for by the fact that the Baltic is tideless.

For about half a werst in breadth, the shore continues a level, luxuriant stretch, when it suddenly rises in three successive cliffs, each about a hundred feet in height, and placed about the same space of half a werst, one behind the other, like huge steps leading to the table-land above. In some places the rocks are completely hidden from the view by a thick fence of trees, which take root at their base, while each level is covered by a minute forest of firs, in which grow a variety of herbs and shrubs, including the English whitethorn, and wild strawberries.

It was to gather the latter that Savanich and his seven-year-old son, Peter, came one afternoon early in summer. They had filled two baskets and were contemplating returning home with their spoil, when Caspan, the big sheepdog, uttered a low growl.

“Hey, Caspan, what is it?” Peter cried. “Footsteps! And such curious ones!”

“They are curious,” Savanich said, bending down to examine them. “They are larger and coarser than those of Caspan, longer in shape, and with a deep indentation of the ball of the foot. They are those of a wolf—an old one, because of the deepness of the tracks. Old wolves walk heavy. And here’s a wound the brute has got in its paw. See! there is a slight irregularity on the print of the hind feet, as if from a dislocated claw. We must be on our guard. Wolves are hungry now: the waters have driven them up together, and the cattle are not let out yet. The beast is not far off, either. An old wolf like this will prowl about for days together, round the same place, till he picks up something.”

“I hope it won’t attack us, father,” Peter said, catching hold of Savanich by the hand. “What should you do if it did?”

But before Savanich could reply, Caspan gave a loud bark and dashed into the thicket, and the next moment a terrible pandemonium of yells, and snorts, and sharp howls filled the air. Drawing his knife from its sheath, and telling Peter to keep close at his heels, Savanich followed Caspan and speedily came upon the scene of the encounter. Caspan had hold of a huge grey wolf by the neck, and was hanging on to it like grim death, in spite of the brute’s frantic efforts to free itself.

There was but little doubt that the brave dog would have, eventually, paid the penalty for its rashness—for the wolf had mauled it badly, and it was beginning to show signs of exhaustion through loss of blood—had not Savanich arrived in the nick of time. A couple of thrusts from his knife stretched the wolf on the ground, when, to his utmost horror, it suddenly metamorphosed into a hideous old hag.

“A werwolf!” Savanich gasped, crossing himself. “Get out of her way, Peter, quick!”

But it was too late. Thrusting out a skinny hand, the hag scratched Peter on the ankle with the long curved, poisonous nail of her forefinger. Then, with an evil smile on her lips, she turned over on her back, and expired. And before Peter could be got home he, too, was dead.