Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Crying Wolf

By Tim Hannan

A new review offers a modern perspective on clinical lycanthropy and other delusions of animal metamorphoses.

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The belief that one has been turned into a wolf was quite common in previous centuries, though now such metamorphoses appear largely restricted to popular fiction – from Harry Potter’s godfather to the Stark boys in Game of Thrones. Yet a recent review in the History of Psychiatry demonstrates that cases of the delusion known as clinical lycanthropy are still reported in the medical literature.

The earliest examples of the belief of human transformation into animals are found in ancient legends. The Norse god Odin changed himself into an eagle to gain a better view of the world, Zeus turned into a bull to seduce the Phoenician princess Europa, and Hecuba became a dog to escape enslavement by Odysseus.

While these legends portrayed transformation as a power employed by the gods for their own purposes, it was later seen as a form of divine punishment. The Book of Daniel described the Neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II as passing 7 years transformed as a wild animal due to his pride after conquering Assyria and building the Hanging Gardens in Nineveh.

This divine vengeance could also be wielded by a god’s agents: Ireland’s St Patrick was said to have turned the Welsh king Vereticus into a wolf.

In later centuries, lycanthropy and other transformations were associated with lunar events or the effect of magical spells and potions, and by the...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.