Truth and Legend: Vampires, Werewolves and Other Monsters of Myth
Legends of vampires and werewolves make the hairs on human necks stand on end, wherever they are told in the world, while those of elves, and faeries make us all smile. From trolls of Scandinavian folklore, to the impish leprechauns of Ireland, these creatures of myth are familiar to us all. Even Native Americans of the United States have similar legends, but how much of it is based in fact?
Most ‘evidence’ is in the form of eye-witness testimonies, and those who encounter elven creatures should know that to refuse their requests for food or shelter can bring bad luck. Fortunately, elves are said to avoid humans as much as possible, living secret lives hidden away in deep forests, so it is said. It’s very easy to dismiss such ‘sightings’ as pure imagination, but some archaeological discoveries could make you think again.
In 1932, gold prospectors in the Pedro Mountains, 60 miles southwest of Casper, Wyoming, found a 14-inch tall mummy. It was sitting on a ledge in a small granite cave, legs crossed and arms folded on its lap. It had a flat nose, low forehead, and a broad, thin-lipped mouth. After intensive x-rayed analysis, The Anthropology Department of Harvard University certified it as genuine, possibly the body of a 65-year old man.
Dr. George Gill reportedly thought that the mummy could have been an infant that had suffered from anencephaly, a congenital abnormality that causes tiny adult proportions. The mummy mysteriously disappeared sometime after, so no further research could be done. Interestingly, Shoshone and Crow Indian tribes from the area where it was found have legends of “little people” in their ancient folklore.
High among the strangest finds, worldwide, was that of the late 19th century in the Pennine hills of East Lancashire, England. Hundreds of tiny flint tools were found, none larger than half an inch long, including scrapers, borers, and crescent shaped knives, all of fine craftsmanship. The finders needed a magnifying glass to see the flaking used to bring them to a sharp point. None of these tiny tools were really practical, so were they simply ornamental, or did they belong to ‘little people’?
Similar finds have occurred in Egypt, Africa, Australia, France, Italy, and India. Less physical evidence exists for legends in the Himalayan mountains of giant creatures called the ‘Yeti’ and similar American tales of the ‘Sasquatch’, beings which manage to avoid human contact, so how much more easily might tiny people find it to hide away?
We all know the spine tingling thrill of the horror movie, where people turn into bats or wolves, hungry for flesh and blood, but we also know that these are just fantasies, don’t we? Not everyone, it seems, because a group of American businessmen are looking for the truth about vampirism, wanting to exhume the body of ‘Vlad the Impaler’ – the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s chilling tales.
Recent reports suggest that vampirism could actually be a medical condition, believe it or not. Porphyria is a rare, metabolic disorder, which stops those affected from producing Haemoglobin – the substance that gives blood its red colour – and also renders them extremely sensitive to sunlight. Gums recede, making teeth much more prominent, and garlic only aggravates their condition – all classic signs of being a vampire!
Doctors in the Middle Ages would drain blood from sufferers, finding it to be lacking in colour, and encourage them to drink large quantities of fresh, red blood, in the hope of curing them. David Dolphin, of the University of British Columbia, believes that his research shows this disease to be the cause of vampire legends.
The businessmen actively seek to discover if Vlad was a sufferer, and Romanian papers have it that they have approached the Scottish research centre, at Roslin – where Dolly the sheep was cloned – to make enquiries about the possibilities for cloning the Count – though this seems highly unlikely.
Equally, Lycanthropy might well be down to genetics. For the origin of the myths, you need to go back to the time of the Greeks. The god Lykaon was transformed into a wolf by Zeus, after having served him human flesh. From that time on, the legend of the werewolf spread around the world.
During medieval times, when fear of the supernatural was at its height, the fact that wolves were known to attack humans, on occasion, only added fuel to the fire, as did the legendary “Beserkers” of Norse mythology – warriors who felt neither fear nor pain, had superhuman strength and never surrendered. They dressed in shirts made of bear or wolf skin. (Beserker translates as “men in bearskin coats”, and those who wore the wolf skins were called “ulfheobar”. Once dressed in the skins, fighters were said to take on the characteristics of the animal.)
Strangely enough, the Germans held the wolf in high esteem, and names like Wolfgang are still common today. The advance of Christianity meant that belief in the supernatural came to be regarded more and more as ‘The Devil’s Work’, and those who claimed to be werewolves were condemned as insane. The first recorded serial killer was a German named Stubbe Peeter who, in 1589, killed and ate twenty-five people, including his own son. He claimed to be a werewolf, and to have signed a blood pact with Satan.
A Byzantine emperor described the Beserkers as being possessed by a ferocity and madness seen only in wild beasts. It’s where the word ‘beserk’ came from. Have a look at the palms of your hands. Are they hairy? If so, then perhaps it’s a sign. Do you always leave your left thumbnail uncut – so it looks like a claw? Do you have a tattoo of a crescent moon, somewhere on your body, and very long third fingers on each hand? Do your eyebrows meet in the middle, on the bridge of your nose, and do you find it impossible to sleep with your mouth open?
If you’ve answered yes to all these questions, and wake up some mornings with cuts and bruises that you can’t account for, especially after a full moon, then maybe you have a secret life, for all these things are said to be certain signs of being a werewolf. Perhaps your distant ancestors were ‘Beserkers’.
Reports of werewolf sightings are legion: in 1936, Mark Schackelman of Wisconsin claimed to have seen a large creature – with both ape and dog like features – which stank of dead meat. In 1989, Lorianne Endrizzi, also of Wisconsin, saw a beast with grayish brown fur, which had large fangs, pointed ears and human like hands. These are but two of many thousands of sightings, yet no werewolf has ever been caught.
The more medical science uncovers about the human genome, and its widely varying effect on the lives we come to lead, the more convinced are the scientists that many a myth has its foundations in previously undiscovered medical conditions. It may be that you have leanings toward drinking blood, of sinking your teeth into raw flesh, but those tendencies might simply be the result of something within your genetic makeup, and not in the least ‘unnatural’, if the whole truth were to be told.
It is, to all practical intents and purposes, a physical impossibility for a person to transmute into another creature, but there are no such limits on the human mind. As long as people believe that there are more things in heaven and earth than we have a right to know, the myths and legends surrounding these types of beings will continue to keep us both fascinated and entertained. Writers and filmmakers will always profit from these ‘Dream People’, but how can we be certain that’s all they really are? The truth, as they say, is out there.