Content Warning: Photo of human remains included in this post.
“Legends can take a life of their own, particularly when there are grains of truth, as here we have the very real threat of werewolves”
– Lycanthropic Legends of Skyrim, Lentulus Invenitus
In the world of Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios 2011), werewolves (and other lyncanthropes – for example, were-bears!) exist. Within the lore of the game, lycanthropy was created by the Daedric Prince (in the Elder Scrolls universe, the Daedric Princes are basically deities) of the Hunt, Hircine. The power to transform into a werewolf is seen as both a blessing and a curse to some characters – while the player can meet unfortunate souls who are tormented by their beastly curse, there are others, such as the Companions, who use and spread their power as a gift to members of their group. Regardless, nearly all non-playable characters within the game will be fearful and hostile of werewolves, illustrating a deep fear of such beasts embedded into Skyrim‘s culture.
In the real world, werewolves can’t be found in person as easily as they can be in Skyrim, but they are still prevalent in both myth and media. From the 1941 film The Wolf Man to the 2011 television hit series Teen Wolf, the werewolf has a long history of terrorising people, from our imaginations to the big screen. Werewolves can be found in the folklore of many cultures across the world, with a rich history that stretches as far as ancient Greece. In general, a werewolf is defined as a person who has transformed into a wolf – however, effects of the moon (i.e; full moon transformations) and particular powers vary across myths (Beresford 2013).
Most of this information has been derived from studying written texts and oral histories. But can we see this in the material culture of the past? Not necessarily in the guise of the “werewolf” that modern audiences are familiar with…but perhaps we can explore the individual elements that, together, create the werewolf of popular fiction.
Wolves are not uncommon as artefactual iconography – across many cultures, one can find wolf motifs decorated various objects and ornamentation. For example, there are many instances of wolves depicted on artefacts of warfare in Iron Age Europe – from the rare carnyx (Celtic trumpet used in war) created to look like the head of a wolf, to armour decorated with ferocious animals of the wild, including wolves. There are also examples of wolf iconography on other artefacts, usually depicting the wolf in a natural scene, such as in the pursuit of prey, or as the victim of hunting by humans. Whether in war and peace, it can be argued that depictions of the wolf are centred on similar traits: wild and dangerous.
Actual skeletal remains of wolves are, of course, found as part of the overall environmental narrative found within certain archaeological contexts. In many places, such as Great Britain, wolves are extinct, which makes the recovery of their remains an interesting development for interpretation. More interesting, perhaps, are examples in which there is evidence of the utilisation of wolf remains. During the Iron Age in Europe, there is some evidence that suggests that wolves were hunted and then eventually used as ornamentation, such as the perforated wolf teeth found at the site of Choisy-au-Bac in France. Recently, excavations at an Aztec temple in Mexico City has recovered the remains of a wolf surrounded by a large collection of golden artefacts – the current interpretation is that the wolf was part of an offering, and was adorned in gold prior to burial (Garcia 2017). Additionally, excavations in parts of Siberia have found wolves that had been buried in a manner similar to what would have been afforded to humans, suggesting that wolves and humans were considered similar in some aspect – perhaps similar to the kinship felt between dogs and humans (Hill 2013)?
If we consider the “werewolf” as a sort of hybrid creature, more archaeological material becomes available for consideration. Instances of hybrid creatures iconography are often associated with folklore and mythology – take, for instance, Medieval bestiaries or Egyptian statuary depicting sphinxes. The Gundestrup cauldron, a “cult cauldron” from Iron Age Denmark, is covered with an entire zoo of faunal iconography, both real and fantastical. These animals are portrayed with figures that have been interpreted as gods, thereby suggesting the religious significance of the artefact. Some of the more fantastical creatures are hybrids, including winged horse-like beasts and serpents with ram horns (Green 1998).
As for skeletal remains, one can argue that we do see “hybrids” in the form of mixed assemblages of human and faunal bones – but it must be stressed that it does not mean that all instances of mixed burials represent ideas of hybrid creatures (although there are examples of what may be intentional hybridisation!). Instead, it may be more beneficial to examine these burials as possibly representative of ancient cosmological ideas regarding animals, or alternatively, how humans at the time related to the animals deposited alongside human remains. There are many examples of these mixed burials in archaeology, sometimes referred to as “special deposits” or “associated bone groups” and often considered part of ritual. The Iron Age site of Danebury is especially noteworthy for mixed burials of human and faunal remains recovered from pits, possibly used for rituals of fertility and renewal (Cunliffe 1992, Hill 1995).
So, okay…maybe we can’t find werewolves in archaeology (although please let me know if there are actual instances of lycanthropic iconography that I’ve missed!). But it did provide an excellent exercise in thoroughly investigating a concept by isolated certain elements of it, which is often an important aspect of developing archaeological interpretations. Luckily (or maybe unluckily) for future archaeologists, modern day pop culture will certainly leave behind many instances of werewolf memorabilia to uncover.
Anonymous. (2016) Werewolf (Skyrim). Elder Scrolls Wikia. http://elderscrolls.wikia.com/wiki/Werewolf_(Skyrim)
Beresford, M. (2013) The White Devil: The Werewolf in European Culture. Reaktion Books.
Bethesda Game Studios. (2011) The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.
Cunliffe, B. (1992) Pits, Preconceptions, and Propitiation in the British Iron Age. Oxford Journal of Archaeology 11 (1). pp. 69-83.
Garcia, D.A. (2017) Aztec Golden Wolf Sacrifice Yields Rich Trove in Mexico City. Reuters.
Green, M. (1998) Animals in Celtic Life and Myth. Routledge.
Hill, E. (2013) Archaeology and Animal Persons: Towards a Prehistory of Human-Animal Relations. Environment and Society: Advances in Research 4. pp. 117-136.
Hill, J.D. (1995) Ritual and Rubbish in the Iron Age of Wessex: a Study of the Formation of a Specific Archaeological Record. Archaeopress.