The Werewolf and Civilization’s Discontents

Eddie Ejjbair
9 min readOct 7, 2021

Werewolf stories are all about repression and restraint. On nights of a full moon, the werewolf pre-empts their transformation by chaining themselves up. They wake up the next morning unable (or unwilling) to remember any of the events of the previous night. The transformation into beast is repressed because it is the ultimate regression. His efforts to forestall this slip represents the civilizing principle; the distinctly human superego (its ethics, conscience, inhibitions). Thus, as Nick Land writes in his lycanthropic essay, ‘Spirit and Teeth’: ‘To be a werewolf is to be inferior by the most basic criteria of civilization. Not only is the discipline of political responsibility alien to them, so is the entire history of work in which such discipline is embedded’.

Although we are all familiar with the werewolf figure, definitions differ quite widely. Personally, I prefer Daniel Ogden’s: for Ogden, a werewolf (or lycanthrope) is ‘a creature that changes form, or appears to do so, or can be inferred to do so, in whole or in part, between the humanoid and the lupine’. Interestingly, definitions of this sort usually emphasise the default association of the werewolf with man (as opposed to women and children). As Ogden notes, most of the texts in his book, The Werewolf in the Ancient World, ‘employ no special term for the phenomenon but merely speak of people — always men, in fact — turning into a wolf’. Similarly, the occultist Montague Summers writes that, ‘a werewolf is a human being, man, woman or child (more often the first), who either voluntarily or involuntarily changes or is metamorphosed into the apparent shape of a wolf’. The historical attribution of lycanthropy to man is interesting considering the well-established link between femininity and the lunar cycle. According to this thinking, man moves with the rhythm of the sun. His hormonal disposition is diurnal; predictably up-and-down, i.e. manic-depressive: ‘Estrogen tranquilizes’ him, ‘androgen agitates’. Women, however, have a 28-day menstrual cycle (in tandem with the 28-day moon phases), with a brief period of increased testosterone (and thus increased libido and aggression, reminiscent of an actual werewolf metamorphosis).

The full moon has always been seen as a catalyst for intermittent insanity (the word ‘lunatic’ is derived from the Latin luna, meaning ‘moon’). The prevailing theory is that it is a vestige of nocturnal predation facilitated by the extra visibility. The Netflix nature-doc, Night On Earth, is a good demonstration of the dramatic difference a little moonlight makes.

As well as the definition, the etymology of the term ‘werewolf’ is subject to dispute. One theory, ‘which goes all the way back to Gervase of Tilbury (AD 1210–14)’ derives it from the Latin vir, meaning ‘man’, which would make werewolf a literal ‘man-wolf’. However, as Ogden notes, the more recent and ‘now generally accepted explanation’ is that ‘were’ is derived from the Anglo-Saxon w(e)arg, meaning ‘straggler’ or ‘outsider’, ‘in which case werewolf is to have signified ‘outsider-wolf’ in origin’. This explanation fits well with the idea that the werewolf exists outside the dictates of civilization — and as a hybrid man-beast, outside of any tribe or pack. The werewolf is always a lone-wolf. In Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, he defines civilization as ‘the sum total of those achievements and institutions that distinguish our life from that of our animal ancestors and serve the dual purpose of protecting human beings against nature and regulating their mutual relations’. For the werewolf, there are no mutual relations. They are pure id; an appetite without impulse control. According to Nick Land, werewolves (a term he associates with thinkers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Artaud, Trakl and Cioran) ‘are dissipated within a homolupic spiral that distances them utterly from all concern for decency and justice’. The ‘outsider-wolf’ ‘distances’ itself from civilization; but its hybrid liminality tethers it to that from which it seeks to distance itself.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud goes on to argue that ‘civilization is built up on renunciation’; renunciation of one’s individual desires, and individuality itself:

Communal life becomes possible only when a majority comes together that is stronger than any individual and presents a united front against every individual. The power of the community then pits itself, in the name of ‘right’, against the power of the individual, which is condemned as ‘brute force’

The characteristics of the werewolf — ‘the foul appetites, forecity, cunning, the brute strength, and swiftness’ (Summers) — frightens civilization because it represents an individual force greater than that of the community (or at least one that disregards the strictures of the community). In Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman (2010), there is a scene (0:17:46) in which a wolverine-sized werewolf tears through an armed community in a matter of moments. It does not eat its victims, or attack out of defence. It is senseless pleasure-killing: the werewolf ‘is propelled by extremities of libidinal tension which fragment their movements, break up their tracks with jagged discontinuities, and infest their nerves with a burning malaise, so that each gesture is baked in a kiln of ferocity’ (Land).

In Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, which was published two years before Freud wrote Civilization and Its Discontents, Hesse presents a character that embodies Freud’s ‘civilizational discontent’. The eponymous Steppenwolf is a reclusive misanthrope that lashes out at the domesticated masses:

For a short time I can stand to inhale the lukewarm, insipid air of the so-called good days, free of desire and pain. But childish soul that I am, I then get so madly sore at heart and miserable that I fling my rusty thanksgiving lyre in the smug face of the drowsy god of contentment and opt for a true, devilish pain burning inside me rather than this room temperature so easy on the stomach. At such times a savage desire for strong emotions and sensations burns inside me: a rage against this soft-tinted, shallow, standardized and sterilized life, and a mad craving to smash something up, a department store, say, or a cathedral, or myself. I long to do daringly stupid things: tear the wigs from the heads of a few revered idols, stand the fares of some rebellious schoolboys desperate to visit Hamburg, seduce a little girl, or twist the neck of the odd representative of the bourgeois powers that be. For of all things, what I hated, abhorred and cursed most intensely was just this contentment, this well-being, the well-groomed optimism of the bourgeois, this lush, fertile breeding ground of all that is mediocre, normal, average

It is no wonder the man-wolf is a universally despised and feared creature. At times, this fear has been more than simply conceptual (as is the case with the Steppenwolf). According to writer Mark C. Jenkins, ‘Were-wolf madness existed alongside witchcraft hysteria. From 1520 to 1630, there were 30,000 reported cases of lycanthropy — men becoming wolves — in central France alone’. But this is far from being an exclusively medieval superstition. As Chantal Bourgault Du Coudray writes in The Curse of the Werewolf, ‘genuine belief in werewolves persisted into the twentieth century’. A prime example being the aforementioned Montague Summers, who sought to distinguish genuine lycanthropy from the psychological condition known as ‘lycanthropia’:

It should be remarked that in a secondary or derivative sense the word werewolf has been erroneously employed to denote a person suffering from lycanthropy, that mania or disease when the patient imagines himself to be a wolf, and under that savage delusion betrays all the bestial propensities of the wolf, howling in a horrid longdrawn note

In John Webster’s Jacobean play The Duchess of Malfi, the Duke Ferdinand — who is known to possess ‘a most perverse and turbulent nature’ — develops lycanthropia, ostensibly as a result of his intense guilt at having his twin-sister murdered. In this example, we find many of the aspects that recur in the lycanthropic mythology, including the implicit theme of incest and incest-repression. The Duke Ferdinand is clearly in love with his twin-sister, the Duchess, in whose chastity he becomes over-invested. When he finds out that she has eloped with Antonio, he descends into madness, which culminates in his honour-killing of the Duchess and his subsequent lycanthropy.

As Freud notes in Totem and Taboo, all civilizations prohibit incest. The incest taboo is, in a sense, a defining characteristic of civilization. According to the social anthropologist James George Frazer, the significance of this taboo does not necessarily suggest a ‘natural aversion’ to it, but rather, a ‘natural instinct in favour of it’: ‘if the law represses it, as it represses other natural instincts, it does so because civilized men have come to the conclusion that the satisfaction of these natural instincts is detrimental to the general interests of society’. As the embodiment of uncivilized desire, the werewolf is intimately tied to the incest taboo. In The Wolfman (2010), for example, the elder werewolf, Sir John Talbot, obsesses over his son’s widow, Gwen Conliffe, due to her resemblance with his late wife. The younger werewolf, Lawrence Talbot, also falls in love with Gwen (presumably also due to the maternal resemblances) and laments the fact that they cannot be together: ‘I must confess, I envy my brother for the days he had with you. What joy he must have felt. I would have given anything I own to have known you in another life’. This oedipal drama ends in a fatal confrontation between the two ‘wolfmen’, in which Lawrence decapitates his father.

There is also the example of Freud’s famous ‘Wolfman’ case-study (which I was disappointed to learn did not include any elements of explicit lycanthropy). In this study, Freud psychoanalyzes the neurotic Sergei Pankejeff and discovers that at the root of his neuroticism and irrational fear of animals (wolves in particular) was the half-repressed memory of his molestation by his elder sister and also his witnessing, at a very young age, what Freud refers to as the ‘primal scene’; that is, his parents having sex ‘from behind’. These two events in the Pankejeff ‘family romance’ produce in Sergei a recurring nightmare concerning wolves, and an aversion, in particular, to anthropomorphized creatures: ‘There was a particular picture book, which showed a picture of a wolf standing on its hind legs and stepping out. Whenever he set eyes on this picture he would start to scream furiously, fearing that the wolf would come and gobble him up’.

Even history’s ‘most notorious werewolf’, Peter Stubbe, confirms this link between the werewolf and the incest taboo:

Under torture in 1589, a Westphalian farmer named Peter Stubbe, or Stumpf, confessed to having made a pact with Satan. In return, Stubbe claimed, he had received a magical wolfskin belt that allowed him to rampage in the guise of a wolf for the next 25 years. According to Stubbe’s confession, he had indulged in every act of bestiality that the depraved imaginations of his inquisitors could dream up. This included killing and eating children, pregnant women, and even his own son. Rounding out this litany of horrors was incest with his daughter (Jenkins)

Composite woodcut print by Lukas Mayer of the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589 at Bedburg near Cologne

If civilization requires repression, the natural concomitant to this is intermittent outbursts of what Christopher Hitchens calls ‘orgasmically violent action’ (he says this in connection to ultra-repressed Islamic extremists). The werewolf is thus a product of civilization (i.e. renunciation, restraint, self-control). Hitchens also mentions, in relation to the title of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, that the term ‘discontents’ carries the ‘important implication of a human restlessness with the very idea of being civilized’. It is this malaise that constitutes the werewolf bite. Bestial aggression never disappeared; it turned inward: ‘There it is taken over by a portion of the ego that sets itself up as the super-ego, in opposition to the rest, and is now prepared, as ‘conscience’, to exercise the same severe aggression against the ego that the latter would have liked to direct towards other individuals’ (Freud).

Interestingly, in a Freudian twist, avant la lettre, Webster’s Ferdinand claims his wolf-pelt was internal: ‘he howl’d fearfully;/ Said he was a wolf, only the difference/ Was, a wolf’s skin was hairy on the outside,/ His on the inside; bade them take their swords,/ Rip up his flesh, and try’.



Eddie Ejjbair

‘Gradually it’s become clear to me what every great philosophy has been: a personal confession of its author and a kind of involuntary and unconscious memoir’