The female werewolf is a well-established figure in contemporary urban fantasy. From the bestselling serials of Carrie Vaughn (author of the Kitty Norville novels) and Kelley Armstrong (author of Bitten and its sequels) to the small press published Silver Moon (by Catherine Lundoff) and L.L. Raand’s Sylvan Mir stories, female werewolves have made their mark on urban fantasy and paranormal romance. But, although male werewolves have appeared in fiction since the very beginning, female werewolves are relatively new literary monsters. So where do these female werewolves come from? And what baggage do they bring to contemporary fantasy and horror?
Enter the Werewolf
The male werewolf has enjoyed a long existence in both fiction and non-fiction writing. The earliest literary reference to a man transformed into a wolf appears in the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh (c.1300-1000BCE), which is widely considered to be one of the earliest examples of literature. The werewolf appears in classical legend, as well as in early European folklore and mythology. A template emerges from these tales—though it is by no means the only one—of an individual man who is cursed to endure transformation into wolf form on either a permanent or a periodic basis. It is this figure—this particular version of the wolf-man—who enters medieval fiction, with examples of this type of werewolf appearing in the Old French Guillaume de Palerne, the Anglo-Norman Bisclavret, and the Cymro-Latin Arthur and Gorlagon, amongst others. The persistent appeal of this version of the European werewolf cannot be understated. The tortured, isolated, and guilt-ridden man, fated to lose his self-control and become a bestial killer, has been the dominant template for the fictional male werewolf throughout modern literature, entering cinema (and becoming canonical) with George Waggner’s The Wolf Man (1941), and appearing, in some form or another, in An American Werewolf in London, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Being Human, and Hemlock Grove.
At the same time, however, the werewolf has stalked the edges of the non-fictional world as well. While folklore and myth points to the possibility of a superstitious belief in werewolves, early modern European witchcraft trials indicate a conception of the werewolf bound up in questions of religious orthodoxy, authority, and constraint. Alongside the thousands of individuals tried for witchcraft and related crimes during the Inquisitions, a number (possibly several hundred, though the figure is contested) were tried, and often executed, as werewolves. While fiction presented characters doomed to a lycanthropic fate by forces beyond their control (an angry god, a malevolent woman), treatises and trial records conjure up a version of willed lycanthropy, brought about by a pact with the devil and a rejection of Christian morality and law.
In Victorian Gothic, the werewolf became rather overshadowed by the new kid on the block—the vampire. However, the tropes established over centuries persisted, albeit in new guises. So, George Reynolds’s penny blood serial Wagner, the Wehr-wolf (1846-7) drew together the "doomed man" and the "pact with the devil" to create a lonely and tortured lycanthrope, whose soul was in just as much jeopardy as his shredded clothes, and Rudyard Kipling’s "The Mark of the Beast" (1890) transposed the story of the transformed man to colonial India, attributing the "curse" and the "cure" to non-normative and normative men respectively (i.e. an Indian man infects him, and some white men save him).
Nevertheless, the nineteenth century also saw significant new tropes introduced to werewolf literature. In 1839, Frederick Marryat’s The Phantom Ship featured a female werewolf—the earliest example in Anglophone literature. Few Victorian authors followed suit, however, and Clemence Housman’s The Were-Wolf (1896) remains the most well-known, but also one of the last pieces of Victorian female werewolf fiction.
This rather brief overview of several millennia of European werewolves raises a very important question: where were the female werewolves and what are the implications of their absence for contemporary female werewolf fiction?
Finding the Female Werewolf
The (almost complete) absence of female werewolves in ancient, classical, and medieval literature is an interesting one, and various suggestions have been made to account for it. Most common is the theory that wolves—and so, by definition, werewolves—have long been understood as ‘hypermasculine’ creatures, associated with aggression, hunting, and territorialism. As such, there is a much closer association with men, but also with the world of men. European wolf hunting—a highly rewarded and vaulted pursuit, which led to the extinction of wolves in a number of European countrie —was an exclusively male (and exclusively noble) pursuit. Some of the more infamous werewolf trials— such as that of Peter Stumpff (also known as Stubbe Peter) in the 1580s—painted the werewolf as both a physical and a sexual predator, intermingling charges of cannibalism, witchcraft, infanticide, and incest. The werewolf here comes to stand in for all that is bad about man, with his crimes appearing as exaggerated examples of out of control masculinity.
So if the werewolf is an example of an inherently masculine creature, is there an equivalent feminine model? Perhaps the closest parallel would be the long-standing association of women with snakes. The snake-woman is a figure in both classical and medieval storytelling—for instance, the serpent-haired Medusa or the shape-shifting Melusine. Christian tradition underscores the close relationship between serpent and woman, with the snake of Genesis appealing first—and most directly—to Eve, rather than Adam. In the medieval Chester mystery play of "The Creation and Fall" (early 1400s), the serpent wears the face of a woman. Here, various imagined characteristics of ‘snake’—deceitful, manipulative, and cunning—intersect with a conceptualisation of the dangerous woman. While the wolf-man preys, tears, and devours, the snake-woman lies, lures, and poisons.
Compelling as this comparison is—and without doubt the snake-woman was a more common shape-shifter than the female werewolf until recent years—it is troubled somewhat by the occasional appearance of the female lycanthrope in European history and literature. Though the werewolves are more commonly men, and women are more commonly snakes, there are some female werewolves prior to the nineteenth century. And examination of these lesser-spotted lycanthropes reveals much about the ways in which the werewolf will enter contemporary urban fantasy.
Perhaps the earliest literary female werewolf is found in Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica (c.1188). This Latin text was written by Gerald, a royal clerk and archdeacon, after the Norman invasion of Ireland. It was ostensibly a travelogue, in which the author (a member of the invading elite) documented the flora, fauna, landscape and people of the occupied nation. In one episode, Gerald recounts a story of a travelling priest who is confronted by two werewolves, in the Kingdom of Ossory. The male werewolf speaks to the priest, explaining that their kingdom has been cursed and that two people must be chosen to live as wolves every seven years. The werewolf attributes the curse to a local saint, Natalis, before explaining that his partner—a female werewolf—is dying and requires the last rites from the priest.
In the sixteenth century, we find another female lycanthrope of note. In his Discoursexécrable des sorciers, a treatise on trying and interrogating witches, demonologist and judge Henri Boguet wrote about a number of cases of werewolfism. Although most of the cases involve men, he tells the story of a huntsman in the Auvergne who, after being confronted by a wolf, cuts off the animal’s paw and takes it as a trophy to show his friend. When he removes the severed paw from his pouch, he discovers it has transformed into the hand of a noblewoman. His friend recognises a gold ring on the hand, and confesses that it belongs to his wife.
Boguet also wrote about the case of Perrenette Gandillon, which took place in Burgundy in 1598. Perrenette was killed by a mob after it was claimed she had transformed into a wolf and killed a young boy. In the subsequent trials of other members of the Gandillon family—who were variously accused of witchcraft and lycanthropy—Perrenette was cast as a werewolf, a woman who had mastered shape-shifting through black magic and demonic pact. The brutality of this case is believed to reflect the ‘werewolf panic’ of early modern Burgundy, which saw a number of people (including a higher than average number of women) arrested, tried, tortured, and executed for transforming themselves into wolf form.
The Female Werewolf as Other
When considering the first truly fictional female werewolves—the Victorian creations of Frederick Marryat and Clemence Housman—several threads of cultural history become intertwined. On the one hand, we have a predominantly masculine creature being recast as female. But while it is certainly true that Marryat and Housman’s creations reject certain ideals of femininity, it is hard to read their creatures (the "White Wolf"and "White Fell" respectively) as embodiments of hypermasculinity. Because, on the other hand, we have a traditional female shape-shifter— deceptive, seductive, and dangerous to men—being recast in another animal body. Marryat’s "White Wolf" and Housman’s "White Fell" have as much in common with Melusine and the snake-woman as they do with the wolf-men of medieval literature.
The female werewolf, then, is an idiosyncratic mash-up of traditions of female shape-shifting with a distinctly masculine form. Many contemporary writers have played with this hybridity, drawing attention to the difficulties of operating as a female shape-shifter in a world of (wolf-)men. Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Raised by Wolves (2012) and its sequels, for example, feature a deeply patriarchal werewolf society, which must be negotiated and defeated by an undoubtedly feminine protagonist. Some works go even further—most famously Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series—and present the female werewolf as an anomaly, whose corporeal femininity (menstruation, maternal desire, etc.) is in itself unsettling.
But the female werewolf is more than simply a snake-woman cast in a lupine form. The tradition of representing werewolves—in both fictional and non-fictional writing—involves much more than just a man (or woman) turning into a wolf. With very broad strokes, the history of the European (and, later, Euro-American) werewolf is one of the most persistent—and often toxic—narratives of the ‘other’ that we have.
Consider the earliest literary female werewolf. Gerald of Wales’s ‘Werewolves of Ossory’ story is not a piece of frivolous storytelling designed to enchant and entertain. It appears in a work of colonial documentation that demonises an invaded nation through repeated descriptions of sacrilegious and barbaric practice. The priest’s story of the sacrificial werewolves uses lycanthropy to construct a narrative of hegemonic Christian sacrament correcting the ravages of native superstition and cruelty.
Similarly, Boguet’s stories of female (and male) werewolves should not be read out of context. These examples appear in a book devoted to the exposition of interrogation and punishment techniques. The noble she-werewolf of Auvergne reveals the danger which witchcraft poses to patriarchal power structures—even the sanctity of marriage and the nobility might be threatened by such evil deeds—but the story of Perrenette Gandillon gives a better indication of the true practice of the Inquisition. Despite later the romanticisation of versions of Perrenette, it is important to remember that this is not a story about a wilful, powerful, or wise woman who used magical knowledge to bypass hierarchical structures and authorities. In truth, Perrenette Gandillon, like so many of the woman tried and executed for witchcraft, was old. She was poor. And she was most likely disabled. Her contemporaries included Clauda Jeanprost (an elderly and disabled beggar), Clauda Guillaume, Thivienne Paget, and Clauda Gaillard— all of whom were tortured and executed after their arrest by Henri Boguet.
The association of werewolves with the ‘other’ thus combines notions of colonialism and class. In male werewolf fiction, this is often constructed through the narrative of the ‘good’ man cursed to assume lupine form by the "evil" other (the leprous Indian in Kipling’s "The Mark of the Beast", the gypsy Bela in Waggner’s The Wolf-Man), but the female werewolf’s otherness is more often presented as inherent to her identity. The female werewolf is the snake-woman, but she is also the bestial and sacrilegious native or the disenfranchised detritus of humanity.
In many ways this confluence of misogynist, nationalist and classist ideals reaches its zenith when European werewolf fiction expands to the "New World". Honoré Beaugrand’s short story "The Werewolves" (1898) set a template for reimagining the female werewolf as monstrous native that has proved difficult to shift. In this story, a white man (Baptise Tranchemontagne) becomes enamoured with a Mohawk woman, who is named La-Linotte-Qui-Chante (presumably by the white invaders). When Baptiste decides to abandon his Native Canadian bride for a European woman, Linotte’s savage nature asserts itself— she is a werewolf, and she is determined to avenge herself on Baptiste. Linotte’s ferocity and barbarity—as well as her physicality and sexuality—is contrasted to that of ‘the pretty girl who lived at La Prairie’ (the white woman for whom Linotte is rejected). Eventually, the werewolf Linotte kills the French fiancée, though interestingly she does this, not through an animal attack, but by infecting the European woman with smallpox.
La-Linotte-Qui-Chante is a very significant character in the history of female werewolf fiction, and she is key to understanding some of the ways in which the female werewolf is constructed in contemporary urban fantasy. Linotte is at once the exoticised native, the alluring temptress, the sexualised body on which the white man takes his pleasure, the animalistic ‘Indian’, the diseased and disavowed other. In Beaugrand’s story—and in the illustrations that accompanied its first publication—she exists only through the male gaze, and through the white gaze. She is, in many ways, the ultimate female werewolf.
Into the World of Fantasy
As noted above, many examples of contemporary urban fantasy attempt to grapple with the contentious history of the female werewolf. It has to be said, the creature is probably more popular now than it has ever been, with new examples appearing with frequency. But the dark shadows cast by the cultural history I’ve briefly sketched here haven’t fully gone away.
The ways in which contemporary writers navigate the more troublesome aspects of the female werewolf are interesting. For some, it is enough to replicate problematic characterisation of the past with a simple romantic gloss—a key example of this would be Meyer’s Twilight series, in which the werewolves remain troublesome and animalistic natives, with the white invaders recast as suave and attractive vampires. For others, the female werewolf comes to represent an opportunity for reclaiming power; she is the ‘underdog’ who can fight against patriarchal/colonial power, a super-powered rebel who can overturn the hegemony (male werewolves are also cast in this light in some contemporary fiction and film). For all the centuries of othering, there is something very liberating about the female werewolf: she represents a casting off of all the trappings of ‘correct’ womanhood. To be a female werewolf is to fight, snarl, be promiscuous and atavistic, to reject the domestic and embrace the feral, to be hairy and greedy and violent. It is little wonder that the female werewolves of older fiction, such as Housman’s White Fell, are now looked on with sympathetic or even approving eyes. And many modern writers revel in the wonderful savagery of the female lycanthrope—Thomas Emson’s Maneater offers a literalised version of the misogynist epithet; the 2000 film Ginger Snaps gives us a heroine who just wants to ‘tear everything to fucking pieces’. While these examples preserve the (admittedly threatening) heterosexuality of the wolf-femme fatale, other writers reject this, with lesbian werewolf characters such as Raand’s Sylvan Mir and Meghan O’Brien’s Selene Rhodes offering alternatives to the standard hyper-hetero lycanthropy.
Elsewhere in Anglophone literature, there is a desire to dilute the European narrative of the werewolf through awareness of other mythologies and folklores of shape-shifting. The European werewolf is far from the only shape-shifter in the world, and by deposing it with creatures from other traditions, writers are able to engage with the potentiality of shape-shifting in multiple ways. At best, this offers a platform through which to inflect the narrative of shape-shifting in a way that allows examination of its more problematic undertones: Larissa Lai’s When Fox is a Thousand is a good example of this, as is The Cure for Death by Lightning by Gail Anderson-Dargatz. At worst, however, it constructs myriad exotic were-cats, were-hyenas and ‘skinwalkers’, again through the white gaze, with a sheen of pseudo-native shamanism or folklore and claims of ‘authenticity’.
Despite its longevity, the werewolf story is a still a work in progress. When a trope or motif has such ingrained consistency it allows you to bring Topographia Hibernica and Twilight into dialogue with one another, there is still a lot of room for development. The overwhelming history of constructing female werewolves through the male/white gaze, or through class-based and racial societal divisions, is a big thing to overcome. Moreover, the prominence of the European/Euro-American werewolf— to the disadvantage of other narratives and mythologies of shape-shifting—is still strongly in place in contemporary Anglophone fiction. Nevertheless, the current proliferation of female werewolves in contemporary urban fantasy offers the constant promise of new ways of telling and understanding the old stories.