How the Byzantines dealt with Werewolves

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How the Byzantines dealt with Werewolves

Submitted by Yuri Klitsenko

A new article explores how Byzantine doctors treated people who were suffering from lycanthropy, a mental disorder where a patient believes he or she is, or has transformed into, a wolf and behaves like one. This disease is the basis for the legendary werewolves.

In "Lycanthropy in Byzantine times (AD 330–1453)," four scholars from the University of Athens examine the writings of six Byzantine physicians to see what they believed lycanthropy was and how it should be treated.

Oribasius, a 4th century physician to the Emperor Julian the Apostate, described lycanthropy if his work Synagogae Medicae:

On Lycanthropy. Persons affected by lycanthropy go out at night time and wander among the tombs. You can recognize them from the following signs: they are pale with dry, dull and hollow eyes, without tears, the tongue extremely dry and without saliva. They are very thirsty and their legs are covered with scars from frequent stumbling. You must know that lycanthropy is a type of melancholy that must be treated by bloodletting until fainting, and offering an appropriate diet and baths with sweet water. Purgation by the hiera of colocynth must be applied twice or three times, and then use the viper theriaca and the other healing methods for melancholy. When the disease is approaching, you must sedate the patient by the use of wet compresses and administration of opium, rubbing the ears and the nostrils, a somniferous method.

Other medical writers also give similar symptoms to this disorder. Michael Psellus, an important 11th century Byzantine philosopher and historian, briefly describes the illness in verse in his work Carmen de Re Medica:

Lycanthropy is a status of melancholy

Meaning at the same time misanthropy.

You recognize the affected man

Running around the tombs at night time

Pale, dry, sad and careless of his appearance.

Even the 14th century writer, Johannes Actuarius, has a similar description of the disease:

Lycanthropy is a kind of melancholy making the affected persons wander at night-time, visiting the tombs and the deserts like wolves, and come back in the morning as their human figure and stay at home. In any case, they have ulcerated legs and feet because of falls on stones and thorns; they have dry eyes and tongue and feeble vision. Some patients fear death while others desire it. Some patients avoid speaking and remain silent and sad while others try to converse with people.

The writers of the article note that these Byzantine physicians saw lycanthropy as a type of melancholy or mania, and that change into an animal was the patient's delusional fantasy. Byzantine medical writers often dealt with mental disorders in their works, including epilepsy, frenzy, dementia, melancholy, mania, lethargy, insomnia, depression and paranoia.

The article also compared these views with those from Western Europe during the Middle Ages and Early Modern periods, where it was seen as some kind of divine curse or demonic possession, and reacted by killing people who acted like wolves. Others believed they were heretics like witches, leading some authorities to go on campaigns to arrest and execute them. One 16th century French judge was responsible for burning over 600 witches and werewolves.

The article notes that a Byzantine emperor, Justin II (AD 565–578) may have suffered from this mental disorder. From the first years of his reign, Justin showed signs of a severe psychiatric illness, which included walking around the palace barking or mewing, and imitating dogs’ and cats’ behaviour. The emperor also threw objects out of the palace windows during his explosions of wrath and on one occasion demanded that Orthodox Patriarch wear a woman’s hat.

The article "Lycanthropy in Byzantine times (AD 330–1453)", by E. POULAKOU-REBELAKOU, C. TSIAMIS, G. PANTELEAKOS1 and D. PLOUMPIDIS, is found in Volume 20, Issue 4 of the journal History of Psychiatry (2009).