Rabies is of the world’s most interesting zoonotic diseases, the one that “has always shaded into something more supernatural: into bestial metamorphoses, into monstrous hybridities.”
Rabies inspired all our legends of werewolves? And vampires and zombies, to boot?
To be honest, I don’t buy it.
At first glance rabies is a perfect suspect, conforming to the profile. An innocent victim, once bitten, transforms into a slavering, insensate brute that in turn preys upon others, spreading the pestilence? Sounds like a werewolf to me (and to a lesser extent a zombie or a vampire). Peel back the layers, however, and the hypothesis becomes less tenable. Dispensing first with the connection to the Undead—vampires and zombies are revenants returned from the grave, a metaphysical metamorphosis that couldn’t have been achieved by the virus; rabies maddens and kills, but it doesn’t resurrect. This factor alone punches holes in the ready-made, one-size-fits-all explanation.
The connection to Lycanthropy is stronger, but still falls short in accounting fully for the phenomenon. Like the purported role played by the Ergot fungus in the Salem Witch hysteria, it seems too simple, too easy to be altogether factual. Did rabies play a part in the development of the werewolf legend? Undoubtedly. How big a part? That remains very much open to debate. The werewolf is a composite beast. More than a mere virus went into its pedigree.