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Medical and neuropsychiatric aspects of lycanthropy


The metamorphosis of human beings into wolves is well known in mythology, legend, and scripture, and has been extensively surveyed in history, theology, and literature. Werewolf cases have attracted the attention of both ancient and modern physicians, particularly during the development of modern psychiatry and behavioral neurology. Some writers have suggested that lycanthropes suffered from schizophrenia or had intentionally or involuntarily ingested hallucinogens. Hysteria and affective disorder, either mania or intense depression, could also be invoked as causes. Lycanthropy has often been linked with, and sometimes treated by, henbane and nightshade, and its manifestations could be explained in terms of atropinic delirium. Discoloration of teeth and urine, bizarre behavior, nocturnal wandering, and episodic skin and facial changes have suggested a role for porphyria in the werewolf transformation. Through many historical periods and cultures, persons believed to be werewolves have reportedly exhibited alterations in consciousness, depersonalization and derealization, acute anxiety and agitation, preoccupation with demonic possession, and compulsive or perseverative behavior, sometimes of a violent, sexually deviant or impulsive nature. Such features of werewolf behavior might also be explained by ictal and interictal manifestations of complex partial seizures, or as symptoms of the episodic dyscontrol syndrome associated with frontal lobe or limbic system disease or injury. Lycanthropy was often considered a manifestation of demonic possession or a consequence or indication of participation in necromancy. As such, self-proclaimed or suspected werewolves were often persecuted along with other practitioners of the black arts. It is generally believed that such persecution represented the last efflorescence of medieval demonology, but it has also been suggested that clinical description of illnesses of diabolical origin was part of the evolution of Renaissance medicine from the Galenic past toward the scientifically-based future.

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Presented in part at the 43rd Annual Meeting, American Academy of Neurology, May 2, 1990. Supported in part by the Denman and Spafford Epilepsy Research Funds, the Ohio State University.

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Drake, M.E. Medical and neuropsychiatric aspects of lycanthropy. J Med Hum 13, 5–15 (1992).

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  • Schizophrenia
  • Partial Seizure
  • Limbic System
  • Historical Period
  • Porphyria