Saturday, 31 October 2015

"The likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty" - Peter Stübbe, the Werewolf of Bedburg and the Legend of the Lycanthrope

31 October 1589, the serial killer Peter Stumpp or Stübbe, known as the “Werewolf of Bedburg” was executed near Cologne after confessing several murders, cannibalism, incest, having a pact with the Devil and being a lycanthrope.

“But every time we went to the evening, he was so surly that only a few people got to talking with him. At nightfall he used to be sleepy. It is said that he often bypassed by night in a transformed shape. People called him the evening-wolf." (“Egil’s Saga”, around 1240)

Lukas Mayer's contemporary woodcut, summarising the tale of Peter Stumpp


Pliny the Elder had a lot of common sense. “It is wonderful to what extent Grecian Credulity can proceed”, he wrote in his “Natural History”, summarising a paragraph about Northern shape-changing practices handed down by Greek historians and, of lately, processed into romance by his somewhat shady contemporaries of the poetic persuasion, such as Ovid and Petronius. Shady at least to an upright, rational and no-nonsense naturalist like Pliny. And in defence of Greek historians, not even Herodotus would lend them believe. He writes about the Scythians’ neighbours, the Neuri, living along the banks of the river Dniepr, that “ It seems that these people are conjurers: for both the Scythians and the Greeks who dwell in Scythia say that every Neurian once a year becomes a wolf for a few days, at the end of which time he is restored to his proper shape. Not that I believe this, but they constantly affirm it to be true, and are even ready to back their assertion with an oath.” Whether or not Pliny or Herodotus gave credence to such stories, the tales of men and sometimes women changing into wolves are usually far older than Imperial Rome and Classical Greece. The earliest written report occurs in the Epic of Gilgamesh when the goddess Ishtar transforms a goat herder into a wolf after she tires of him and the motif of divine disfavour is prevalent in the ancient Mediterranean world in regards to people stalking the night in wolf-form. Lycaon, King of Arcadia, immortalised by Ovid, is certainly the most prominent case. Quite like Tantalus, he roasted one of his sons and offered the gruesome dish to Zeus to test his omniscience. The deity saw through the hybrid scheme and punished the rustic royal from Arcadia by turning him into a wolf. And while the folks up north had a somewhat different tradition of wolf-man tales, the idea of cursed shapeshifters preying on their fellow humanity was dusted off a thousand years after the end of antiquity during another turning-point in time, when the Middle Ages were finally over and the dawn of Modernity had its witch-craze all across Europe with an undercurrent of a werewolf-craze.



A Greek werewolf from an Attic red-figure vase, ca. 460 BCE


The most common conception of a werewolf in the early modern West was that of a sorcerer who had a deal with the devil that allowed him turn into a wolf, the fear of witches was blended with the old tales of shapeshifters and most of the now popular nomenclature about werewolves was compiled during the witch trials of the age. The last cases were put before a court during the early 18th century in Austria. The one of the Werewolf of Bedburg was arguably the most prominent of the 250 court cases heard between 1420 and 1720 and the accusations against Peter Stübbe, serial murder, rape, cannibalism and incest were indeed harsh and would have been sensational news in any age. If they were only partially true. Born in mid-16th century in a village near Cologne, Peter Stübbe was a well-to-do Rhenish farmer from one of the areas that had converted to Protestantism in an arch-Catholic region. Obviously, something snapped with Stübbe when his wife died around 1580. According to his later confessions in court, he began to practise black magic and struck a deal with the devil. The fiend gave him a girdle that allowed him to change into "the likeness of a greedy, devouring wolf, strong and mighty, with eyes great and large, which in the night sparkled like fire, a mouth great and wide, with most sharp and cruel teeth, a huge body, and mighty paws." In this guise, he allegedly killed and ate fourteen children, old Lycaon probably nodded quite in agreement with Stübbe’s archetypical behaviour since his own son was allegedly among them, had an intimate relationship with a succubus along with a female relative and his own daughter and what not. A sensationally gruesome story, a bit marred by the fact, though, that it was confessed under torture. However, Stübbe was executed for his crimes on October 31st in one of the most nasty and thorough manners that the age could devise. Broken on the wheel, his flesh torn with red-hot pincers, he was finally beheaded and his remains burned along with those of his daughter and his cousin while his head was put on top of a pole where they hung the wheel as well, carved a wolf on it and let it stand as a warning example for those who considered dealing with the devil, changing their shape or becoming a Proddy.



Lucas Cranach the Elders imagination of a werewolf attack (1512)


Stübbe’s sensational case and appetisingly gory execution went viral across Europe by means of several broadsheets and even though his tale faded into obscurity over the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War, werewolves remained a popular topic in European folklore and sometimes, other traditions than that of the cursed cannibal cropped up. Shapechangers, people who turn into animals, are a common trait of shamanistic cultures all over the world and the earliest depictions of changers are found in cave paintings, several thousands of years older than even the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Norse, maybe in shamanistic reminiscence, came up with the tale of warriors who could develop animal-like traits in combat under the influence of Wodan, the famous berserkers, the bear-skins, and ulfsarks, the wolf-shirts. The idea might be as old as Herodotus and Pliny, first images of animal warriors, half wolf, half man come from the Swedish Vendel Period around 550 CE and the sagas of the later Viking Age had tales of changers even beyond that of ulfsarks, like that of Kveldulf, the “Evening Wolf”, a man from Iceland who changed into a wolf and walked the night or the Völsunga Saga and Siegfried’s father Sigmund who lived in a forest for a spell, changing into a wolf at will, a story still echoed in Wagner’s adaption. And while wolves remained a constant threat in Europe for farmers, their livestock and, ultimately, their lives, well into the 19th century and thus certainly spawned various grisly tales, from the story of Little Red Riding Hood to cases such as Peter Stübbe’s, the infamous Beast of Gevaudan and the werewolf-craze of the age, there still is the positive old connotation of the warrior blessed by the gods. In 1692, for instance, one Thiess of Kaltenbrun from Livonia claimed to be part of a tribe of werewolves known as the “Hounds of God”, who descended into Hell to fight Evil in the Nights of St Lucia’s Day.  

The video contains the whole ghastly tale read by yours truly, along with more gore images and genuine werewolf howls.




And more about Peter Stübbe on:


and Thiess of Kaltenbrun on: