Vikings believed that some gods, giants, dwarves, elves, spirits, and even human beings could change shape. Examples of such shape-shifting includes Odin turning into an eagle to steal the mead of poetry; Loki turning into a mare and becoming mother to the 8-legged horse, Sleipnir; Fafnir, a dwarf whose greed turned him into a massive dragon; and other incidents of characters becoming salmon, snakes, otters, falcons, seals, swans, or bears. But one of the most common – and most terrifying – of these shapeshifters were werewolves.
Stories of werewolves and similar human-animal shapeshifters have been around for thousands of years and are found throughout the world, and so it could hardly be said that the Norse invented them. Yet, the werewolf holds a very special place in Viking lore. In their stories, we see these dark manifestations of humankind’s animal nature better explored than ever before.
The Vikings had different types of werewolves. Several appear in The Volsunga Saga. In the fifth chapter of this long epic, Sigmund and 9 other sons of the heroic Volsung family have been captured by an evil king and bound in massive timber stocks out in the wild, black forest. Every night, an enormous she-wolf comes and devours one of the brothers while the others watch helplessly. This continues until Queen Signy – the wife of the evil king and the sister of the hapless Volsungs – smears her favorite brother’s face with honey. When the demonic wolf comes to kill Sigmund, she is distracted by the honey, and – as she licks her victim’s face and sticks her long, lolling tongue in his mouth, Sigmund bites hard and holds on. As the wolf thrashes to get free, she smashes Sigmund’s fetters – and rips her own tongue out. The hero breaks loose as the creature bleeds to death. It is later revealed this unworldly wolf is the mother of the evil king who had transformed her shape using dark arts.
Later in The Volsunga Saga, Sigmund and his son, Sinfjotli, are outlaws in the woods. Using enchanted wolf skins, Sigmund and Sinfjotli become werewolves for 9 nights at a time. While thus enchanted, young Sinfjotli is so terrifying and powerful that he can kill 11 armed men at once. This transformation affects more than just their physical strength though – in a fit of savage rage while in wolf form, Sigmund rips his own son’s throat out. Realizing what he has done, Sigmund uses all his willpower, magic, healing skill, and a little help from the gods to break out of his wolf trappings and heal his son before it is too late. The two burn their wolf mantles after that and do not go back to being werewolves.
The Volsunga Saga is one of the legendary sagas, and so is full of dragons, dwarves, and the like. Did the Vikings really believe these things, or for them, was it just a good story? Werewolves also appear in the more “realistic” Islandasagur sagas, suggesting that Vikings (or at least, many of them) did really believe in the existence of werewolves. For example, in Egil’s Saga, the hero’s father is called Kveldulf (“Evening Wolf”) for his lupine personality and the rumors that he runs with wolves by moonlight.
There were also real-world examples of Viking “werewolves.” Viking warbands featured berserkers – the frenzied bear-inspired warriors devoted to Odin. They also had another type of elite known as úlfheðnar (literally, “wolf-skins”). Not much is known about these Viking wolf warriors, aside from what clues appear in poetry or in art from the Viking Age and earlier Vendel period. In the depictions, these warriors appear as fearless and savage in the extreme. They take on all the qualities of the wolf and strike dread into the hearts of their enemies.
So, the Viking image of werewolves is diverse and ranges in its believability. Missing in Norse lore is the direct association between werewolves and a full moon. Indeed, one does not become a werewolf by being bitten by another werewolf. In the stories, though, one sees a clear relationship between the wolf nature and night. Especially in the case of Kveldulf, we see the “werewolf personality” of a mysterious, reclusive, abrasive, dangerous loner. As in the story of Sigmund and Sinfjotli, we see how the savage nature of the wolf takes over human nature and how the human spirit struggles to achieve some kind of control over it. All these themes are still present in the better werewolf tales of today.
Source: Sons of Vikings