Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Brief History of Gay Werewolves: Part 1, the Ancient World

I have to confess, one of my favorite movies of all time is The Howling II: Your Sister Is A Werewolf.

I can't explain it, but something about this supremely cheesy movie really connects with me on a deep level. Maybe it's the basic premise - 1980s B movie superstar Sybil Danning is Stirba, the queen of the werewolves and she's hell-bent on world domination! Maybe it's the authentic Transylvanian settings combined with the low budget Hollywood faux punk rock fashion. Or maybe it's the catchy theme song, performed by a band called Babel. The howling punk rocker in the wrap around glasses really takes me back to my youth.

One thing very memorable about The Howling II is that it features a bisexual werewolf menage a trois between Stirba and a male and female minion. That's not something you'll see in any of the Twilight movies!

Hollywood generally portrays werewolves as physical monsters and lycanthropy as an infectious disease. One minute you're walking along the moors, minding your own business, and then - bam! You're bitten by a werewolf, strange hair grows on your body, and you start running around naked and attacking people. Sexual metaphor, anyone?

The real origins of the werewolf lie in ancient male initiations and in shamanic practices. Many all-male societies throughout history have identified with the power and strength of predatory animals. The leopard men of West Africa, and the berserkers ('bear shirts") and ulfhednar ("men clad in wolf skins") from Norse societies are just a few examples.

Shamans and witches across the world are able to travel in animal form, although it is usually their soul that is roaming abroad as an animal, not their physical body. For example, Norse legends tell how warriors' spirits would battle in the shape of bears or walruses while their bodies slept at home. In folktales, many witches meet their doom when their animal soul is accidentally killed by a hunter. And in 1692, a Livonian man named Thiess confessed he was a werewolf, but claimed he and the other werewolves traveled to Hell to battle evil witches for the fertility of the crops. Clearly, some ancient shamanic practices for a long time.

Werewolves make their earliest appearance in Greek mythology when King Lycaon of Arcadia murders his son Nyctimus, and then tries to feed him to Zeus in an attempt to discredit the god. Outraged, Zeus resurrects Nyctimus and turns Lycaon and his men into wolves. There may be a hidden gay theme here because in many Greek myths resurrection is a metaphor for homosexual initiation. For example, in a very similar story, King Tantalus kills his son Pelops and tries to feed him to the gods. They resurrect Pelops, but when he comes back from the dead he's so incredibly handsome that Poseidon takes him for a lover. Did something similar happen between Zeus and Nyctimus? The myths don't say, but I have my suspicions.

Lycaon turned into a wolf! Is the naked guy Nyctimus?

You would think the Arcadians learned their lesson, but it was rumored they still practiced human sacrifice in historic times.  A small piece of human flesh would allegedly be placed into a large pot of stew, and the man that accidentally ate it would be transformed into a wolf for nine years. If he abstained from eating human flesh during that time he would regain his original form. Around 400 BC, a former werewolf named Damarchus was declared the champion boxer at the Olympic games. I have no evidence that Damarchus was gay, but the Greeks did celebrate homosexuality and athletes competed naked and covered in oil. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

Naked men and wolves also featured heavily in the Roman festival of Lupercalia, which was celebrated in mid-February each year until the Roman church outlawed it in the fifth century AD.

To celebrate this winter holiday, the Romans sacrificed a dog to the wolf-god Lupercus. This happened in the same cave where a she-wolf suckled the orphans Romulus and Remus, the mythic founders of Rome. Afterwards, young noblemen ran naked through the streets, striking women with bloody strips of dog skin to promote fertility.

Hercules and admirers.

The Romans had observed for Lupercalia for centuries, but weren't quite sure why they did it nude.  The sassy poet Ovid had an answer - it was ordained by the god Pan (who may have been Lupercus by another name).

According to Ovid, in the distant past Pan lusted after the voluptuous queen Omphale. One night he crept into a tent where she was sleeping with her love slave, Hercules. But when Pan ran his hands up under Omphale's dress, he got a surprise: Hercules and the queen had engaged in some cross-dressing, and he was really groping Hercules. Not being fond of rape, Hercules literally kicked Pan out of the tent. Pan skulked off into the hills.

Since that time, Pan has demanded his worshippers be naked so he wouldn't be surprised at what he was grabbing. Strangely, this Roman holiday of blood sacrifice, nude road races and drag queen musclemen gradually was transformed into our modern Valentine's Day.

So, in the ancient world there were wolves, werewolves, gay sex, and gender variance. Surprisingly, it's in the Middle Ages where all these things come together and gay werewolves have their heyday. I'll discuss that in my next post.