Parson, composer, werewolf hunter: Sabine Baring-Gould

Sabine Baring-Gould is by no means a celebrity today, but in the 19th century he brought a modern sensibility to an ancient body of superstitions: werewolf lore.

Portrait of Sabine Baring-Gould

Portrait of Sabine Baring-Gould (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I first came across his name thanks to A Very Special Christmas, of all things. On the 1987 compilation album, among the carols recorded by the then-current crop of rock stars was “Gabriel’s Message,” by Sting. The liner notes credited S. Baring-Gould as the composer.

Born in 1834, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould was a prolific writer, composer and collector of folklore. Among his scores of published works  are a multi-volume Lives of the Saints, hymns including  “Onward, Christian Soldiers,” and The Book of Were-Wolves, a classic survey of werewolf folklore first published in 1865.

For fans of gothic literature, the first chapter alone makes the book worth picking up. As the introduction in the edition I have puts it, Baring-Gould’s account of his stumbling across pervasive belief in werewolves while on holiday in France is worthy of a Victorian novel.

After a day visiting the site of supposed druidic stones near Champigni, Baring-Gould notes the light was fading. “A small hamlet was at no great distance, and I betook myself thither, in the hopes of hiring a trap to convey me to the posthouse.”

Unfortunately, he was out of luck — there was no cart available, not even a horse. Resigning himself to walking back to Champigni, he was surprised at the reaction of the local priest and the hamlet’s mayor.

“Out spake then the mayor — ‘Monsieur can never go back to-night across the flats, because of the — the —’ and his voice dropped; ‘the loups garoux.'” The villagers agree it’s an insurmountable conundrum  — no one will escort him back because they are too afraid of the werewolves, “as big as a calf” they might face.

Baring-Gould shrugs it off and says he will go alone. “Il est Anglais [He is English],” the villagers say, shrugging at his obstinance — likely relieved, notes the writer, that he has effectively absolved them of any responsibility should he be devoured.

It’s a refreshingly firsthand account of belief in werewolves, but the rest of the book is fascinating as well.

As a collection of European (and some world) folklore on werewolves, it’s impressive; it’s made all the more so by the clear-headed presentation of many aspects of lycanthropy. He delves into its etymologically Greek origins with the tale of Lycaon, but also explores Scandinavian and French traditions.

It helps if the reader is as conversant in multiple languages as the author. Baring-Gould often leaves block quotes from his sources in their original Greek and Latin, though he’s kind enough to translate the Old Norse passages.

One interesting diversion is his consideration of the Nordic berserker as a lycanthropic entity — siding with Sveinbjörn Egilsson’s etymology of the word as having its roots in “clothed in bear skin” not “bare of clothing” (as the berserkers were reputed to have charged into battle wearing little but their fury).

The book is more than an assorted collection of superstition.

Significantly, he looks at documented cases of lycanthropy through the centuries and after cataloguing a few notable, he later examines them as representing a serious, verifiable mental illness.

Another effect his presentation has, to a modern reader, is an overview of werewolf lore uncluttered by Hollywood notions of full moons, silver bullets, and many of all the tropes we now take for granted.  His examples and sources are much closer to “real” werewolves than most of what is embedded in pop culture today, and it’s both refreshing and sobering.

For the serious devourer of lycanthropic lore, it’s a fascinating and provoking read.

UPDATE: Read what Timothy Ferguson at Book Coasters has to say about Baring-Gould’s analysis and serial killers here.

UPDATE II: Ciara Ballintyne takes a look at other sources of ancient and medieval werewolf folklore (and notes its differences from modern Hollywood “lore”) at Flight of the Dragon.

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  1. Pingback: Dr. Phillip Bernhardt-House on Celtic werewolves - As You Were | As You Were

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