You can watch the video about this subject in here: [Werewolves in Norse Mythology]
There is this idea that werewolves are exclusively from eastern Europe, but I’ve collected a lot of tales about werewolves from places I wouldn’t even imagine that such tales were part of the local folklore. But then again, it’s not surprising, because at some point in prehistoric times, our ancestors’ spiritual practices were very much connected to animal totems, the power of animals. As I’ve said before, in Europe, the animals connected to royalty, courage, the warrior spirit and such, were the bear and the boar. These two animals were the most representative creatures of every European culture. And then there was the wolf. The wolf was something else entirely.
Beyond the borders of the villages and the boundaries of our familiar world, there lies vast, wild and solitary landscapes. When night comes, those places become a scenery of dark and gloomy shadows. In the deep forests the famished wolves roam and hunt, howling in the cold winter nights. Howling at the moonless sky. Their eyes glitter in the dark as if they burned with a foul fire.
The human being has always feared the unknown, and in ancient times, these landscapes beyond their villages, were terrible places of both mystery and death, few were those who dared to venture into those places, so such places became the scenery of many fantastic tales and the wolves became a symbol of terror and power. These animals were considered to be the wildest beings on earth, always searching for the kill, so it is perfectly natural that these natural facts led to so many folktales about werewolves and other mythical creatures.
Now, let’s focus on werewolves for Northern Europe. We have many mythological accounts about werewolves in ancient Scandinavia. Let’s start with one of the most famous tales. The tale of two men, Sigmund and Sinfjötli, who one day find a house in the middle of the woods with men under a sleeping spell. These men had enchanted wolf-skins. Sigmund and Sinfjötli steal their wolf skins and put them on. The moment they do this, they transform themselves into wolves and can even understand the wolf language. Then, after a few adventures and killing other men, things go wrong and one wounds the other, apparently a mortal wound. But things turn out for the best and the two men survive and take off the wolf-skins and destroy them.
First of all, these two men were in the woods because they were outlaws and lived from robbery and other activities against the law. They were outlaws. In ancient Scandinavian societies, the outlaws, murderers, defilers of temples and thieves, were given the name of Vargr – they were the Vargar – which means wolves. Such people weren’t killed by their actions or arrested, they had a worse fate. They were expelled from the community or the tribe and were left in the wild landscapes, as an animal who now needed to survive alone or in a group of people in equal circumstances, just as wolves do. Everyone could kill them, hunt them on sight, with no penalty nor punishment, because the Vargar were animals now. No one considered them as humans; they were mere beasts.
Another aspect, they came upon other men in a remote area, in the wilds, away from civilisation, who possessed enchanted wolf-skins. Now, we might be in the presence of individuals who are also outlaws, and as such, they are Vargar, or we are in the presence of shamans. Shamans also lived outside the communities, far away in the wilds. But they didn’t live as beasts. They had their own dwellings and most survived because of the offerings the community gave to them in exchange for their power, their assistance in a variety of fields, from healing, to divination, and so on. In the history of shamanism we see many parallels with this aspect. Shamans living outside the communities, being both feared and revered; no one wants them close, but at the same time they need them. There are other tales similar to this one in the northern European countries. In Finland for instance, there are tales about men stumbling upon other men under a sleeping spell. Men with great spiritual power and can even turn into animals, mostly wolves.
So the two men stole these enchanted wolf-skins and turned into wolves. They either accepted their condition as outlaws, or precisely due to the fact that they lived in the wilds, they encountered a spiritual path, they had contact with a shamanic perspective of life. To our ancestors, spiritual power came from the wilds, away from civilization, going out these to seek knowledge and power. We see this in shamanism, isolation as a shamanic technique to induce trace. The boundary between civilization and the wilds is a parallel to the boundary between sanity and madness, and it’s precisely with that balanced state that shamans do what they do.
There were also tribes of shaman warriors, which could take the form of wolves in their trance journeys, and they acted like wolves, these shamanic mysteries were preserved as hereditary traditions among some families. These shamans at their initiation rites to become wolf-warriors, would go into the swamps, the most dangerous and wild places of the world, and left their clothes behind, symbolically this is the abandonment of the human form and the identity as a member of a community. These people would live their lives out of the civilized world and learning from the wilds. These people were called wolfmen or werewolves.
There are other accounts of werewolves in the Norse tradition, such as Ulf Bjalfason, a character in the Egil’s Saga. As soon as night approached, his mood would darken and he had to get away from everyone and being isolated. People started to be suspicious and began to wonder that he might be one of those who changes his skin. People started to call him Kveld Ulf (night’s wolf), cool nickname. We can see in here the similarities with the previous account. Isolation and to become a skin-changer.
I’m sure you were already thinking about this. Obviously, in Norse mythology, we have the Great wolf Fenrir, son of Loki. Fenrir will kill Odin during the events of Ragnarök. Eventually I shall speak about Fenrir in another time. But Fenrir symbolises the wilds, power, chaos, the other side of things that oppose order, but must exist to create a balance. The wild side of nature, its cruelty and destructive power. As we have seen before, people sought knowledge in the wilds, spiritual knowledge, the knowledge that can only come from the dead, from what is chaotic, untameable, and people have always had this need to try to tame the untameable in order to survive. It’s interesting to see that Fenrir will kill Odin. Odin being the personification of wisdom and power, but Fenrir is also power, the other side of power, the wild power. Two opposites against each other and it’s the wild power that will eventually succeed but ultimately be consumed and fail. Just as we have seen with Sigmund and Sinfjötli, they enjoyed their time being wolves, but could not control the power and the wild side took control of them and one ended up killing the other, but taking their wolf-skins off, they became men again – civilized. Fenrir might be the remnants of a prehistoric tale about those who are skin-changers that take the form of wolves and live their lives according to their wolf-totem. Every tale has a moral, and this one would probably be that seeking power is healthy and wise, but be careful to not let yourself be consumed by such power and let it control you. Fenrir also has two sons: Sköll and Hati. One chases the sun and the other chases the moon, every day, like a shadow. Darkness seeking to overcome balance and nature itself. We have the same principle as with Fenrir.
We know of two other wolves. Geri and Freki, the wolves of Odin himself. There is a great possibility that these two wolves are not just pets, two animals akin to dogs and Odin just likes to have them near, pet them and feed them his food under the table. It’s possible that Geri and Freki represent skin-changers, and that in fact these are two people. Maybe Odin’s own bodyguards, or two chosen warriors of his utmost confidence; the best of the best, the perfect loyal soldiers. There are many archaeological finds depicting figures wearing wolf-pelts.
In Scandinavian societies, the tales of wolves went further than the mythological tales, there was the existence of the elite warriors called Úlfhéðnar (Ulfhednar) people who went to war dressed with the skins of wolves, and were also warriors with immense strength, who sometimes fought naked, without showing that they were uncomfortable with the cold weather, or the landscape itself, adapting perfectly to the harsh environment just like wolves. These warriors went to battle in some kind of a trance and did not have the need for weapons, they could kill with their bare hands or bite just as a wolf does. In fact, that is what they were, people with the shapes of wolves, who thought that they were wolves themselves and acted like the creatures. There is a great possibility that before battle, they consumed some kind of hallucinogenic, entering in a trance-like state, psychologically they could feel the difference. It’s just like if someone asks you to lift a table, and you don’t have the strength or the strength fails you and it’s hard, but when you are angry, you gain strength and you can lift and throw the table with no problem. People sometimes go beyond the limitations they think they have, when they are physically and psychologically affected, when people are pushed into certain situations, the need to survive comes to the surface and the wild and savage feelings hidden within us appear, almost feral.
Of course these accounts may be exaggeration, but the fact is, we find representations in archaeological excavations, so people probably believed in this and these warriors were actually part of a cult which involved hallucinogenic-drugs and pushing people to their limits, inducing rage, anger, inducing a state of uncontrollable mindless violence – being feral. These people were represented as wolves, from a cult which goes far back before recorded history. To the prehistoric shamanistic communities of wolf-men, or werewolves.