Innistrad is a well-known repository trove of thematic horror flavor and fluff. It’s kind of the Magic equivalent of “Halloween Town” from Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, chock-full of all things spooky. Whether we find ourselves exploring Innistrad or Halloween Town, one thing is for certain: no pantheon of horror is complete without Werewolves!
In today’s article I’ll be taking a look at the Werewolves of Magic with particular emphasis upon the importance of the tribal creature type on Innistrad.
Representations of Werewolves in western culture in art, literature and folklore dates back to ancient times.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (2100 BC) is one of the oldest known written texts and features a goddess who transforms a suitor beneath her social station into a wolf as punishment for trying to “date out of his league.” It’s a far cry (howl) from the modern Werewolf mythos, but it’s clear that transformation into a wolf is a concept that has fascinated humans for over four thousand years.
Ovid’s Metamorphosis (8 CE) features a Werewolf tale from which the modern Werewolf trope takes shape:
Check out the creature-typing on these earliest of Magic Werewolves (from Legends (1994) and Homelands (1995)) and not it’s not Werewolf but rather “Lychanthrope.” One of the metamorphosis described by Ovid is that of King Lycaon of Arcadia.
In an effort to test Zeus, King Lycaon served the god human flesh at a feast. Not a wise decision… As Zeus was justifiably irritated and cursed the fell king by transforming him into a wolf. The myth of King Lycaon adds two important residual elements to the Werewolf mythos that remain 2000 years later: the connection between Werewolfism and cannibalism and the notion that Werewolfism is a curse.
We can also see the importance of anthropomorphic wolves in folktales. For instance, the “Big Bad Wolf” from Grimm’s Fairy Tales such as The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood.
While not technically Werewolves in the Lycanthrope, shapeshifting senses, these talking wolves that eat other sentient beings always bring an unsettling element to folklore narrative because they evoke parallels to cannibalism. I think we all agree that if you can have a verbal conversation with something, it shouldn’t be on the menu!
For the first 3800 or so years, there were not a ton of big innovations to the Werewolf archetype. An otherworldly being transforms a human into a wolf as punishment for poor behavior and/or anthropomorphic talking wolves are generic fairy tale villains.
In the 19th century through the present, there have been two major innovations to “Werewolves as we know and love them.” The first is the revitalization and redefining of Werewolfism in gothic literature and the second is the use of Werewolves in cinematic film.
The gothic invents and cements “the rules” of Werewolves as we know and understand them today.
1. You must be bitten by a Werewolf to inherit the curse of the Werewolf
It’s highly logical the myth of being bitten and becoming a Werewolf comes from being bit by a rabid wolf.
2. People transform from human to wolf and back to human again
Magic design captures this important element of cycling from human to wolf and back to human in an elegant way via the “transform” mechanic, which allows creatures to oscillate between human and lupine form.
The “transform” mechanic was the perfect flavor to really bring Werewolves to life in Magic, unlike Werebear, which is a small Bear Druid that transforms into a larger Bear Druid once threshold is achieved. We give Werebear a pass because the flavor text is on point.
3. People transform into werewolves during a full moon
There’s always been a connection between the phases of the moon and people’s perceptions of how it impacts behavior. The word “lunacy,” for instance, references a form of insanity people believed was caused by the full moon.
4. Werewolves are killed by silver weapons (often bullets)
Why does silver deal super-effective damage to lupine creatures? Perhaps it’s because silver was believed to be related to the moon in ancient times. Some scholars believe the effectiveness of silver against monsters is related to Judas’ bag of silver pieces. It’s likely an amalgam of a lot of these tidbits all loosely rolled together into the mythology.
All of these qualities are paramount to the archetype of mighty morphin’ Werewolves we find on the plane of Innistrad.
The gothic saw a surge in representations of Werewolves in literature. Gothics tend to be mysteries and are often concerned with unveiling elements of hidden interiority or psychology via symbolism. In fact, when Sigmund Freud was writing what would become the foundation of modern psychology, one of the major sources of evidence he cited and drew inspiration from was gothic literature itself and the way uncanny symbolism of literature and folktales often represented the inner, hidden and repressed workings of the mind.
Freud noticed uncanny characters such as the big bad wolf from “Little Red Riding Hood” could also be read as a cautionary tale for aberrant sexuality or an inability to repress one’s most carnal desires.
“Lil’ Red Riding Hood
You sure are looking good
You’re everything that a big bad wolf could want.”
– Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, “Lil’ Red Riding Hood.”
We also see the Werewolf as a representation of carnal desire unleashed in films, such as Werewolves of London or An American Werewolf in Paris.
There are reasons for why Werewolves, Vampires and other icons of horror adhere to specific rules and tend to represent specific things: the reason is that these tropes function symbolically and subconsciously.
The Innistrad Human/Werewolf dynamic is represented by the transform mechanic and it plays nicely into the trope of “the mystery of who is the werewolf?”
The popular party game “Are You a Werewolf?” directly plays with the gothic sensibility of the werewolf tale as a mystery that conceals which individual changes into a beast.
The flavor of the human villages on Innistrad are similar to that of the village from “Are You a Werewolf?” where it’s unclear who is a “vanilla villager” and who is a “wolf pretending to be a villager.”
Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is perhaps the most famous Werewolf story that doesn’t technically feature a Werewolf at all, but replace “curse of the Werewolf” with “science gone wrong” and it’s basically the same archetype where repressed, concealed interiority is allowed to boil to the surface and run amok.
I also heard an interesting theory that much in the same way humans invent mythology to understand things they don’t have the science to understand that people may have believed early serial killers to be Werewolves. In the same way that witches were persecuted in Europe, some countries took a similar route in accusing individuals with unpopular or nonconformist beliefs to be werewolves.
Last but not least, we have classic cinema to thank for the all time most iconic piece of werewolf iconography: howling at the moon, as the human is transformed into a werewolf.
A clip of the transformation from The Wolfman (1941). The “transformation” has been a staple of every cinematic Werewolf film made since. It’s iconic.
The last thing I want to touch on in my exploration of all things Werewolf related is the interesting trajectory the werewolf narrative has taken in the past 4000 years.
In the earliest tales of lupine transformation (King Lycaon and Gilgamesh), the curse is a punishment for disrespecting the gods, aka if you try to feed Zeus roasted people, he’ll turn you into a wolf!
The more modern treatment of the Werewolf is significantly more sympathetic. It’s an unfortunate circumstance that tends to lead to an individual being bitten and transformed into a beast with no self control. The individual upon whom the curse is bestowed is confronted with the horror that they are the Werewolf and there’s an experience of extreme anxiety and despair at the coming of the full moon and inevitable loss of control.
Professor Lupin from Harry Potter is a fantastic example of the sympathetic Werewolf. By day, and in human form, he’s a fantastic person, but when the moon turns full he’s a huge liability who loses all control. In a sense, the trope of the Werewolf can be viewed as a reflection of humanity’s fear of our own, and other people’s, mental and emotional interiority. You never know what you or anybody else is truly capable of when pushed to an extreme and the curse of the Werewolf ensures the cursed individual will take things straight to 11 once the moon goes full!