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Are Rabies Responsible For Werewolf Myths?

A lot of our old folktales come from the fact that people in the Middle Ages didn’t have the scientific knowledge to logically explain certain medical conditions, so they assumed that it was simply magic. From their ignorance came forth many of the myths and folktales we know so well. But what about werewolves? Is it possible that rabies gave birth to werewolves?

The most common way in which someone contracts the disease rabies is by being bitten by an infected animal (like werewolf stories). Usually, they are bitten by a dog that had contracted the virus from a wild animal. An animal with the virus will suddenly become insane, incredibly aggressive and savage, acting much like a demon.

The most common symptoms a human that has contracted rabies first experiences are anxiety, disorientation and the desire to be left alone somewhere quiet, warm and away from bright light – sort of like a wolf’s den. After a while comes the fear of water and swallowing. Then delirium, the overwhelming hallucinations and mad ravings that often includes attacking and biting others.

If that wasn’t bad enough, these people occasionally have breaks in their madness, moments of total sanity. The sufferer is painfully aware of how they are acting and behaving, that they are acting like they are half-human, half-beast.

Now, pretend that you are living way back in the day before rabies was known, before science was what it is now – what would you think? You wouldn’t think it was a medical condition, people back then didn’t often use science as an explanation for events, but rather religion and superstition. One would simply assume that it was some form of magic, that the person suffering had become possessed by some kind of animalistic demon.

There are a handful of theories like this about vampires and how vampire hysteria reached the level it did. The same theories could apply to werewolves and the panic they caused in the Middle Ages. After all, there were nearly thirty thousand cases of lycanthropy reported between 1520 and 1630; obviously not all of those people were werewolves. But it is possible that many of them were simply suffering from rabies, and appeared to be animalistic monsters, when in truth they were just sick.

– Moonlight

By moonlight

One of the writers for werewolves.com, as well as vampires.com.

11 replies on “Are Rabies Responsible For Werewolf Myths?”

You are an idiot. Rabies does not turn you into a werewolf, it makes you extremely sick and insane and can kill you.

Do not say that.

Just because you want to be a werewolf is not a reason to go messing with some rabid wolf or animal. Rabid animals are VERY DANGEROUS and if you get the disease, you have only a day or two to recognize the symptoms before rabies becomes too untreatable and you die.
This is serious. I saw a show where a man got bit by a rabid coyote. He became delirious and insane. His doctor wife recognized the symptoms of rabies before it was too late and he was saved. Barely . . .

So stop being stupid and realize some things, like putting dangerous things like belladonna and nightshade on your skin, and getting bitten by a rabid animal. or others stupid and dangerous ways to become a werewolf will not work and will just harm you, and possibley kill you.

poeple would do anything to be a werewolf even if it means doing stuipd things so you cant stop them you can tell them its stuipd but its there choice not yours even i want to become a werewolf ill do anything to become a werewolf even get rabies.but ill try other ways this is the last on my list have a long list

You have no clue what you’re asking for. Being infected with rabies doesn’t mean being powerful and dangerous and cool like a werewolf. It means dealing with lethargy, pain, and eventually paralysis. It means being in horrible fear and confusion at all times due to neural damage. It means being desperately thirsty but terrified of water because attempting to swallow will cause excruciating throat spasms. It means being unable to sleep and dealing with hallucinations. Rabies is one of the worst possible ways to die, and once you’re showing symptoms, it is an absolute certainty you will die in a matter of days.

I don’t think that rabies was really responsible for the “creation” of the werewolf. If you read “Der Werwolf” by Wilhelm Hertz, you will find that the portrayed werewolves, while often bloodthirsty and savage, acted by no means rabid. Quite the opposite, they were often cunning and in other cases even fools (considered how easy some of them got catched). Yes most or at least many of the portrayed werewolves in Middle Europe were quite blood-thirsty but if they had really acted rabid many of them wouldn’t have gone undetected for so long. In addition the most common form of shapeshifting during these times seemed to have been via an ointment or a girdle, sometimes a wolf-fur or a combination of those. So not the mark of a rabid beast.

the similarities between the behaviors of rabid people and wolves to werewolves are too great to dismiss. infection by rabies is the model for werewolves (and vampires). the rabies virus taps into our emotional neural circuits and releases them in order to actively (!!) transmit the virus to others — i.e “turn” victims. yet, we still don’t know the neural receptor the virus uses to do this. pretty sad after all these thousands of years of human writing about rabies.

In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1638) Robert Burton relates that lycanthropia is considered by some a kind of melancholy, by others a madness. He alludes to authors who provide causes and cures, as Altomarus, but does not set them down himself. As he describes it, lycanthropy or “wolf-madness” is “when men run howling about graves and fields in the night, and will not be persuaded but that they are wolves, or some such beasts.”

He then treats of hydrophobia, literally fear of water, and by his description our modern rabies, “well known in every village, which comes by the biting of a mad dog, or scratching…The part affected is the brain: the cause, poison that comes from the mad dog, which is so hot and dry that it consumes all the moisture in the body…they begin to rave, fly water and glasses, to look red and swell in the face, about twenty days after (if some remedy is not taken in the meantime) to lie awake, to be pensive, and, to see strange visions, to bark and howl, to fall into a swoon, and oftentimes fits of the falling sickness.”

Burton considered these as two separate diseases, with their own presentation and treatment. Yet, the propinquity of the descriptions, one after the other, and the shared symptom of bestial howling may suggest a closer kinship. The original conception of the werewolf was as a shapeshifter, the willful act of a magical being, or one who had communed with the devil. By Burton’s time, and to the scientifically minded of centuries earlier, that idea seems to have been replaced by a notion of madness, an affliction of the brain.

What is interesting is that, when combined, Burton’s descriptions of lycanthropy and rabies (hydrophobia) read like the modern werewolf myth: a person is bitten or scratched by a wolf; that injury “infects” the victim with the disease or curse of the werewolf, causing hallucinations, madness, pensiveness, a transformation (“to look red and swell in the face”), and lupine behavior. It does seem plausible that rabies was one of many sources for the modern werewolf myth.

[…] (unless, perhaps you’re discussing fleas or dental care), but there is a theory that these creatures were “created,” as it were, to explain humans who had contracted rabies. Rabies is generally spread by saliva contamination of a skin lesion or bite wound. However, the […]

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