Episode Five: Samhain & Werewolves
Updated: Nov 27, 2020
Happy Halloween! Or All Saint's Day, All Hallow's Eve, or Samhain, to call the holiday by any of its other names. This week, we unfold the layers behind some common Halloween traditions, and take a look at two different medieval werewolf stories.
Halloween is known as a pagan holiday, and while many of the origins of Halloween are pagan, the Christian practices that were incorporated over time have blurred the lines between the two traditions, creating a cultural tradition which celebrates both aspects of Christian and pagan history. Below are some traditions you may be familiar with, and their medieval (or earlier) origins.
October 31 and All Hallow's Eve: The earliest traditions of celebrating Halloween on October 31st come from the pre-Christian Celtic calendar, which split the year into four seasons based on the sun's position. Because humans love parties, the Celts created festivals and druidic quasi-religious ceremonies around each holiday. Imbolc was celebrated at the spring equinox, Beltane (May Day) at the summer solstice Lughnasadh (Christianized: Lammas) around the autumn equinox, and Samhain at the winter solstice. Over time, an expanded calendar was developed, which included Yule (Christmas), Ostara, Litha, and Mabon. As the calendar expanded, Samhain came to be celebrated on November 1st.
When Christianity arrived in Ireland with St. Patrick in 432 A.D., Christian culture quickly began to integrate into pagan culture and co-opt many of the already existing festivals, including Samhain. Pope Gregory III named November 1st as "All Saint’s Day" or "Hallowmas," which celebrated the saints, martyrs, and the passing of the dead. Since many Christian holidays began with vigils, the holiday eventually shifted to the night of October 31.
Spooky Season: Why is Halloween associated with the supernatural and the dead? Aside from the Saint's holiday, mentioned above, Halloween occurred at the autumn equinox. This was a liminal time for medievals when the day was equally light and dark, and beginning to shift darker. The medieval world was fundamentally a supernatural one, and the "thinning" of the day with longer dawn and dusk hours meant that the layers between their world and the supernatural world were at their thinnest. Consequently, witchcraft, divinations, and even clerical magic was at its peak during this season, reflecting the integrated nature of pagan and Christian tradition in Europe by the medieval period.
Trick or Treating: Passing out candy came from a Christian tradition called "souling" or "mumming." Mummers were amateur groups of actors who would travel from town to town, dancing, singing, and putting on short plays. Much like buskers of today, they would collect from their audiences, including gifts of coin and food. As Halloween became more and more of a festival, mummers and locals would go door-to-door performing and be given gifts.
When the holiday became a Christian festival, "souling" became more common. Beggars, widows, and the destitute would also go door-to-door on Hallowmas, collecting "soul cakes." These small, sweet cakes, traditionally made with raisins and other dried fruit, were marked with crosses to signify they were alms for the poor and needy. Thus, trick or treating was a means of protecting oneself from any spirits or hostile mummers who came a-knocking, as well as an opportunity to directly serve in the local and Church community.
The tradition of the soul-cake also has a pagan history. Early northern European ritual practice suggests that soul-loaves were baked and allowed to rise (proof) on the body of someone who had just died. The loaf was then baked and eaten by the dead's family, who would absorb the departed's vitality, traits, and skills. Once Christianized, the tradition was adapted so that the loaf was consumed by a designated sin-eater, who acted like a scapegoat so that the deceased would be saved.
Yule Logs and Bonfires: while the Yule log is a Christmas tradition, the autumnal bonfire and the role of the Yule log come from the origins of the Samhain festivals. Druids would provide the community with a large bonfire at the festival. Each home would take part of the bonfire to light a large log in the home hearth and keep that fire going all year. The blessed flame would provide protection, blessing, heat, and light during the increasingly darkening days.
Jack O'Lanterns: Pumpkin carving comes from an Irish tradition with an accompanying folk story. The tale speaks of an Irishman called Stingy Jack, who ran into the Devil one night on his way home. Jack, being a terribly sinful man and an alcoholic (being Irish), acquiesced to go with Satan, if only he could have one last drink. Satan obliged, and the two had a drink in the local pub. Jack, earning his name, refused to pay and asked Satan to pay the tab. Satan transformed into a silver coin, which Jack sneakily stuck into his pocket. The pocket contained a crucifix and trapped Satan in coin form. Jack only released the Devil after he promised the man ten more years of life. Ten years later, Satan came to collect Jack's soul, and Jack once more agreed, after Satan grabbed him an apple from a nearby tree as a last meal. Satan, having learned nothing, leapt into the tree, whereupon Jack carved a cross into its trunk, trapping the Devil atop it. Jack demanded that Satan never let Jack into Hell, which, finally, the Devil agreed to.
When Jack finally did die of his alcoholism, he could not enter into Heaven. However, when he went to the gates of Hell, Satan was a-waiting, and kept his promise; he refused to let Jack in. He flicked a burning ember beyond the gates, back into the darkness, to light Jack's path to the world in-between, doomed to wander. When folk saw the specter, they began to hollow out turnips and place candles inside, leaving them outside to light Jack's way safely past their homes. Eventually, when Europeans arrived in the Americas, they found pumpkins much easier to carve, and continued the tradition there.
An alternative version of this story, entitled "The Smith They Dared Not Let Into Hell" can also be found in our sources and on another fantastic history podcast, What the Folklore.
Now that we've covered our Halloween traditions, let's dive into our two texts for this episode: The Lais of Bisclavert and Tiodel's Saga. These stories are variations upon the same origin tale, but vary in their cultural depictions of werewolves.
There are two primary types of werewolf lore: the Continental and the Northern:
The Continental werewolf is an individual who has been cursed to transform into a vicious beast several times during the year or month. The continental werewolf is usually (but not always) vicious, violent, and dangerous. The Continental werewolf has no free agency about their change, and folk consider it a curse rather than natural ability. Our first text, Bisclavert, is the exception to this rule, and its author, Marie de France, says as much in the opening paragraph.
The Northern werewolf is an individual who deliberately takes on the shaping of a wolf by covering him or herself in a magic skin of a wolf or another animal he or she wishes to change into. Alternatively, the Northern werewolf is a inherited trait, not conceptualized as a curse but a supernatural ability. Examples of the Northern werewolf tradition include the Saga of the Volsungs and Egil's Saga. Our second text, Tiodel's Saga, is an excellent example of the Northern werewolf tradition.
The Story of Bisclavert: Marie begins this tale by telling us about a well-loved knight called Bisclavert, who embodies all the chivalric virtues and is a true example of knighthood, except that he disappears for a few days a month without explanation. His wife, a paragon of romantic wifeliness, confronts him about his disappearances and asks is he is cheating on her. He is distraught at thought, and after she pleads with him, Bisclavert reveals that he disappears into the woods and turns into a fearsome werewolf, hiding his clothes under a rock at an abandoned chapel to keep them safe.
His wife, either disgusted at his practice of burying his clothes or terrified that she had married a monster, betrays her husband. Approaching a fellow knight who had long loved her, she promised that she would pull him out of the friend zone and marry him if he would steal Bisclavert's clothes from their hiding spot while he was away. The man does so, and the two wed while the kingdom mourns the loss of Bisclavert.
Months later, the king goes on a hunt. His hounds begin chasing down a wolf, but then the wolf spies the king, it runs to him and licks at his boot. The king, amused at seeing such a docile wolf, brings the beast into his court. The wolf sits at his feet and remains a gentile animal- until it spies the knight who betrayed him and had run off with his wife. Bisclavert, in wolf form, attacks. Likewise, when the lady arrives at court for a feast, Bisclavert became so enraged that he leapt upon her and bit off her nose.
The king was astounded, but a fellow knight noted that it was odd that the normally meek creature would attack this couple, and wagered that the wolf had a grudge against them. The king then tortures the lady- yes, tortures her- until she reveals what she had done. Bisclavert's old clothes are fetched, but the wolf will not go near them. Understanding the importance of chivalric virtue, the knight suggested leaving he wolf alone to change. Sure enough, when the wolf is left alone in the king's bedchamber to change, Bisclavert transforms and falls asleep on the king's bed, exhausted. When the king re-enters his chamber, he wakes and embraces Bisclavert. The knight is restored to his rightful place while his noseless wife and her knight errant are exiled, forevermore bearing noseless children.
There are several notable things in this story, least of all the inheritability of noselessness:
Romance: The romance, as a genre, was a popular type of narrative in the late Middle Ages. These short tales encompassed elements of magic, folklore, and Christian and chivalric virtue. Their subjects are usually the exploits of knights and their romantic interests in fair maidens. Many common 'fairy tale' tropes, such as love potions, cursed romances, and hard-assed fathers keeping their daughters in towers come from stories of romance. The tales of King Arthur and his knights, for instance, are primary romance narratives.
Hiding Clothes: The trope of needing to hide one's clothes is fairly common in folklore. In order for Bisclavert to transform back from animal-shape, he must have his clothes. Often times, the swap is reversed. Selkie-lore, for instance, tells that a selkie (a maiden who can transform into a seal) cannot return to the sea so long as someone keeps or hides her seal-skin from her. Likewise, in the sagas, hidden shapings lead to heroes being unable to shapeshift into animal forms for quick-getaways.
Now that we've seen the classic version of the story, let's see how the Icelanders adapted it...
Tiodel's Saga: The story of Tiodel pulls no punches, and begins by illustrating how incredible Tiodel is; he knows all the liberal arts, is handsome as hell, and apparently as joyful as Aristotle. Meanwhile, his wife appears to be a wonderfully devoted (if overdramatic) woman, all the while scheming behind his back to do away with him.
Tiodel is a wonderful warrior to his king aside from disappearing three days out of the week (an increase from Marie's version). Similarly, his wife questions where he goes, acting distressed, and he finally reveals his absences, after she passes out from the "stress." Tiodel shape shifts as he wills, goes into the wilderness, and skis home. Notably, there is no sense that this is a curse- Tiodel puts on a shaping and goes away, hiding his clothes just as Bisclavert does.
Tiodel's wife, now seeing her opportunity, goes to a past lover and challenges him to take the clothes and drown them in a river so that her husband will never return and she might finally get what she thinks the world owes her. The other knight wants to back out, but the lady calls him a coward, and the knight hides the clothes in a chest.
Many months later, the king goes on a hunt- but instead of a wolf, a polar bear rushes up to the king in a gentile manner. The king is so astounded, he brings the polar bear on his travels with him. By some happenstance, the court and polar bear end up in Syria. Yes, Syria. The text does not explain how or why. It also does not explain how or why Tiodel's ex-wife became queen of Syria, but so the story goes. When the king holds court and the knight arrives, the polar bear becomes enraged and rips the clothes off the man, who storms out. Similarly, when the lady (now queen of Syria) arrives, polar bear Tiodel bites off her nose.
Then begins a small courtroom drama; the queen demands the polar bear is killed, but one of the king's retinue wonders what the bear would have against the two of them. The knight, in a style reminiscent of the yet-to-be-written exploits of Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes, begins an enquiry in the court. The queen, enraged, demands the knight be killed, and goes on a very long-winded, extraordinarily dramatic rant against both the knight and the world at large. She is in turn tortured, and the clothes are procured. Again, the detective-knight recommends the king leave the bear alone to change, and the king does so. Tiodel transforms, discarding his bear-shaping, and falls asleep on the bed. When the king sees him, he prods Tiodel a bit before recognizing him and making him king (of Syria perhaps) while outlawing his wife and the cowardly knight. Once more, the two produce only noseless offspring.
There are some vast differences between these two renditions. (Again, why Syria? We have no answers.) Tiodel's Saga carries many more saga tropes in its telling:
Shapings: In the sagas, many folk would wear "shapings." These magical animal skins allow he wearer to transform into the animal whose skin it was. Some shapings, however, could be difficult to get out of. In the Volsunga Saga, for instance, two heroes who wear wolf-skins become stuck when they overshoot the mark on how many days they can safely wear the skins. For Tiodel to be a wolf and a polar bear, then, would not be unheard of.
Cold Counsel: As one of the old gnomic sayings goes, "cold is the counsel of women." This refrain is echoed through many of the sagas through the trope of the nagging wife. Women had little physical power in medieval Iceland, so they used their brother's, father's, and husband's obligations to act and take vengeance. Women regularly called men in the sagas cowards for refusing to act, which usually leads to the death or ill fate of the man in question.
Both of these traditions laud the character of the supposed monster in the story and damn the cruel and unfaithful woman and her lover to torture and exile. While modern film and pop culture love to "flip the script" on older tropes, both Bisclavert and Tiodel's Saga illustrate that the medievals were just as concerned with questions of honor and monstrosity. Who is the monster in these stories, really? Consider these medieval moralities and monstrosities as you kit up for Halloween this year.
Happy Halloween from The Maniculum Podcast, and please do your part to protect others this Samhain. Remember your Street Smarts- not all dangers are seen, whether they be demons, spirits, or coronavirus.
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. If you like what we do, consider giving us a rating and review on iTunes. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
Attenborough, F. L. "Giving a loaf for the soul of a slain person." The Laws of the Earliest English Kings. New York, Russell & Russell, 1963.
Aubrey, John. "A 17th-century account of the Sin Eater." Remaines of Gentilisme and Judaisme, 1686-1687. Ed. James Britten. London, W. Satchell, Peyton, & Co., 1881. Publications of the Folk-lore Society 4.
Ditchfield, P. H. "Soul cakes and the Sin Eater." Old English Customs Extant at the Present Time: An Account of Local Observances, Festival Customs, and Ancient Ceremonies yet Surviving in Great Britain. London, George Redway, 1896.
Guðmundsdóttir, Aðalheiður. "The Werewolf in Medieval Icelandic Literature." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, University of Illinois Press, Jul., 2007, Vol. 106, No. 3 (Jul., 2007), pp. 277-303.
Hartland, E. Sidney. "Pagan origins of the Sin Eater." Folklore, vol. 3, no. 2, June 1892, pp. 145-57.
We do our best to accurately research, source, and cite the works we use, and make them available to you, too! Each episode has a corresponding blog post which includes further breakdowns of the big ideas in each text as well as cites our sources and references. We also have the Maniculum Library, which actively collects resources and recommendations for writers, scholars, and geeks alike! We update our collection of Master Lists after each new episode, so be sure subscribe and stay updated!
Thanks for checking us out! If you like our content, please share it! If you want to support us, rate and review on iTunes, find us on Patreon, or buy us a coffee so we can keep making content you love.