Quick! Name a werewolf movie that doesn’t feature a shot of the full moon prior to showing the werewolf prowling around. Time’s up. You couldn’t think of one, I’ll bet. That’s not surprising, considering most movies since The Wolf-Man have used the motif of the full moon as a signal for the pending transformation. For most of the history of werewolves, however, that wasn’t the case.
If you go back to the very beginning you’ll find that the full moon and werewolves (of a sort) are connected. In his excellent book The Beast Within: A History of the Werewolf Adam Douglas connects the full moon to prehistoric hunting clans of all cultures. Gathering of edible plant stuff, he writes, had to be done on a daily basis in these cultures. But hunting was not done so often. Hunting “… was an episodic activity, the phases of the moon serving as a signal to the blood brothers of the animal societies that they should begin working themselves into a frenzy for the chase, a signal doubly emphasized at the full moon by the plaintive howling of the wolves the hunters had chosen to imitate.”
Not only did the moon set the real wolves to howling, Douglas points out that the changing moon also was one of the very few ways ancient man had of telling time. He also sites the work of Chris Knight, who in Blood Relations put forward the theory that monthly hunts at the full moon also coincided with the menstrual period of tribal women. Hey, I think most of us guys would rather go hunting than hang around with a village full of moody women.
Petronius is credited with writing the first story about a werewolf (because the werewolf episode in The Epic of Gilgamesh doesn’t really count). In Satyricon, Petronius includes the full moon in his story of Niceros, but I would argue that the full moon is mostly used there because it would provide the illumination needed for the audience to see the play as it was performed on the stage, not for any occult reasons.
I could be wrong, though. Brad Steiger, writing in The Werewolf Book, says, “The ancient Greeks and Romans associated the moon with the underworld and those human and inhuman entities who used the night to work their dark magic.”
Interestingly, there is little said about the moon in relation to the werewolf hysteria that took place (mostly) in France, peaking in 1598. I would have thought that the Christian church of that era would have readily tied werewolfism to the moon as a way of further connecting the werewolf’s activities to worship of the pagan goddess, but it seems they hardly bothered with such subtleties. Even Montague Summer gives only passing mention of the moon in his hard-to-digest volume The Werewolf.
So, if the moon isn’t so important to the werewolf legend between the time of the Romans and Lon Cheney Jr.’s portrayal of Larry Talbot, what did the people of the Middle Ages think caused the transformation of man to beast? Tom Crawford writes, “…the full moon is rarely mentioned in traditional tales. Certainly, some of the ancient stories do depict the werewolf transforming during a full moon, but most legends offer different means for changing into a wolf. In the majority of legends, to turn into a werewolf a man had to strip naked and put on a belt made of human skin given to him by the Devil. Next, he would rub wolf bane and deadly nightshade all over his body. Finally, the man would stand in a magic circle and chant a spell. This series of events would result in one mean and vicious werewolf.”
We don’t have a primary text source for the werewolf legend like we do the vampire with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Our primary source is The Wolf-Man movie. Being a visual medium, the film makers wanted a nice cue to signal the transformation, so they resorted to the moon.
Even a man who is pure in heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms
And the autumn moon is bright.
That, you see, is today’s source material for most people when they think of “ancient” werewolf legends. The movie was in black and white, so it must be ancient … right?