Werewolves and Wolf Warriors: The Beast Inside Us All
“So, this is a werewolf story.”
It’s a comment often made by friends who read early drafts of my dark fantasy novel, Feast of the Raven. It used to make me nuts. No, the main character Gerwulf is not a werewolf. He doesn’t transform during the full moon, and you can’t kill him with a silver bullet.
Gerwulf is a Wulfhedinn, a pagan “wolf warrior”. He is far more terrifying than a werewolf—because he’s based on ferocious warriors who were real.
A formidable spirit
The association of warriors with wolves was common throughout pre-Christian Europe. Historically, these “wolf warriors” are shrouded in mystery. Much of what is known comes from ancient Norse sagas and poetry, which describes the wolf warriors of Scandinavia—the Úlfhéðnar.
Úlfhéðnar terrified everybody, even the most courageous fighters. They were fearless and battled with frenzied abandon—howling, frothing, and biting their shields like rabid animals. They were similar to the better-known Viking berserkers who associated with bears and wore their pelts into battle.
Úlfhéðnar had a mystical relationship with the wolf. It was their totem, a kind of guardian spirit—a companion and protector they revered and emulated. They went into battle without armor, wearing little more than wolf skins to invoke the animal’s strength and formidable fighting spirit.
It was believed that they were oblivious to pain and had superhuman strength. Legend says that they were unaffected by fire and iron and could kill with one blow.
Dark Ages special-ops
Úlfhéðnar lived and fought during the so-called “Dark Ages”, but their brand of warfare was probably quite sophisticated.
These fighters were not mindless marauding bands of reckless killers. Skilled, fearless, and well trained—they were likely viewed as the elite special-ops forces of their day. Like the US Navy Seals or the Army Rangers, they were highly esteemed. Their communities revered them as the Warriors of Odin, the supreme Norse God.
Úlfhéðnar probably lived and trained within tightly knit bands, secretive societies rich in ritual and tradition that included intensive training and initiation ordeals. This bound the “pack” together, helping to increase their morale and effectiveness as a fighting force. They also likely used such tactics as reconnaissance, night combat, ambush, and guerrilla warfare.
Most of all, Úlfhéðnar were masters of psychological warfare. They interacted with the spirit world in secretive rites (shamanism) to “channel” the wolf’s ferocious nature. It is possible that they—and their enemies—believed that they actually transformed into beasts (shapeshifting). This belief would have worked to their advantage, so they likely exploited it—and it worked. Christians believed that they invoked the devil to become demons, fodder for their worst nightmares.
The source of rage
The courageous, skilled Úlfhéðnar would not be complete without a source of battle rage. Channeling the wolf spirit may have been enough for some, but there are more disturbing theories about how they maximized their ferocity. They include excessive ingestion of alcohol and hallucinogenic substances, such as the red-capped fairytale mushroom, fly agaric.
Their battle fury may also be linked to untreated mental illnesses, such as intermittent explosive disorder and the hyperarousal state of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s chilling to think of how “real” the mental illness factor likely was for these battle-hardened fighters—especially when combined with substance abuse.
In Feast of the Raven and book 2 of my series, Return of the Wulfhedinn, the main character Gerwulf is a lone wolf warrior, deprived of his “band of brothers.” His frenzied wolf rage is due to extreme ostracization, isolation, and other serious social and psychological issues. His quest is to find his place in a “pack” and recover his humanity.
So, no, Gerwulf is not a typical werewolf, but I have learned to embrace the stereotype nonetheless. He and his mythological descendants have much to tell about human nature and the beast inside us all.