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.

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 Middle Ages the role of devilish agents was assumed, with the Inquisition dealing with many thousands of cases in France alone.

Efforts to explain lycanthropy as a delusion are known from as early as the second century, with Galen and Marcellus of Side referring to this as a disease resulting from a physical cause, and not due to supernatural processes.

Later physicians sought to understand it as an imbalance in bodily humours or other pathologies affecting the brain, though often still held that this physical malady could have demonic influence as its ultimate cause.

Belief in the possibility of “actual” animal transformation largely subsided in the scientific age, yet reports exist of the ritual execution of presumed lycanthropes in Sulawesi as recently as the early years of the 20th century.

In the History of Psychiatry review, the Dutch psychiatrist Jan Dirk Blom presented a detailed analysis of the medical literature on animal metamorphosis over the past 150 years. He identified 56 case reports of individuals who manifested the belief that they had been transformed into animals, with one-quarter of these claiming metamorphosis into a wolf. Equally common was kynanthropy, or transformation into a dog, while other cases were of ailuranthropy (cat), boanthropy (cow) and less common forms such as a bee, frog, goose and even a gerbil. In two cases, patients reported multiple metamorphoses: one into both a dog and bull, and the other to a wolf, dog, cat and horse.

The duration of symptoms ranged from a brief episode of an hour to a sustained delusion over several decades. Cases varied in age, and the sex ratio favoured males by approximately 1.5:1.

While earlier psychological explanations sought to understand the delusion of clinical lycanthropy as an expression of primitive instincts associated with intrapsychic conflicts, modern approaches strive for a neurobiological account. A current theory proposes that, like certain other delusional disorders, the sufferer is concurrently experiencing two separate types of brain dysfunction.

The first produces an abnormal perceptual experience, which provides the content of the false belief: in the case of lycanthropy, this involves the sensation of physical alterations such as increased body or facial hair, hardening of the jaw or facial muscles, lengthening of teeth, or changes in the feet – all of which have been documented in the reports examined by Blom.

The second deficit is in a hypothesised “belief evaluation system” in the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which normally permits an individual to reject an idea on the grounds of its implausibility. When this system is dysfunctional, the individual is able to entertain the delusion of lycanthropy as the best explanation of the abnormal perceptual experience.

While the condition remains rare, a slight increase in published reports of cases of clinical lycanthropy has been noted in recent decades, and it may be speculated that this results from the increased depiction of werewolves in popular fiction.

Tim Hannan is an Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the President of the Australian Psychological Society.