Interview: Dr. Phillip Bernhardt-House on Celtic werewolves

Those fortunate enough to attend the inaugural HowlCon in Portland, OR this past weekend had the opportunity to hear Dr. Phillip Bernhardt-House speak on werewolves and canine figures in ancient Celtic traditions. He completed his Ph.D on the subject in 2006, published as Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-Headed Men in Celtic Literature:A Typological Study of Shape-Shifting in 2010 by Mellen Press. The book was awarded D. Simon Evans Prize in Medieval Studies.

Werewolf aficionados out there, let that sink in: you can do a Ph.D studying lycanthropes.

He hasn’t confined his work to Celtic traditions, however; he’s also contributed to the literature on queer werewolves, including an academic essay in Queering the Non/Human (ed. Noreen Giffney and Myra J. Hird, Ashgate, 2008) and writing the preface to the anthology Queer Wolf (ed. James EM Rasmussen, QueeredFiction, 2009).

Dr. Bernhardt-House was kind enough to take time out of his schedule for an interview with As You Were on the subject of his dissertation, as well as recommend some titles for those interested in reading up on the rich traditions of European werewolf lore (I’ve added an Amazon widget with links to the titles where possible).

What role did the werewolf or shapeshifter play in Celtic cultures? About the only figure I’m familiar with is the heroic Cú Chulainn, “The Hound of Ulster” — the canid connection and his berserker rages certainly seem striking when considering werewolf/shapeshifter tropes. 

There are several strands to this particular question.  On the one hand, there are many characters — both divine, heroic, and “mere mortals” — who are able to, or who have undergone, shapeshifting of various kinds.  Wolves and dogs appear in a number of incidents involving serial shapeshifting.

For example, the Morrígan in Táin Bó Cúailnge (and related texts) transforms in one incident into a grey wolf, a red heifer, and an eel; the brothers Gwydion and Gilfaethwy in Math vab Mathonwy, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, are turned by their uncle, Math, into opposite-sexed animals in punishment for a rape, which includes a stag and a doe, a boar and a sow, and finally a wolf and she-wolf.  It is not unusual, therefore, to find wolves or dogs included in these types of incident.

And, I should add at this stage, most Celtic languages have a great deal of crossover, if not synonymity, between dogs and wolves, and even in some cases foxes and otters, the latter of which are considered “water-dogs.”  Thus, lycanthropy and cynanthropy are not entirely different phenomena in Celtic cultures.  One of the basic Old Irish words for canids is , which can mean “dog” or “wolf” equally; thus, it should probably be translated as “context-dependent canid”!

Then, there are tales in which an individual is specifically connected to dogs or wolves in a more exclusive fashion, whether they can transform into these animals innately, or are transformed into them via a curse or a spell, or whether they have a metaphorical connection to them through their activities.

The werewolves of Ossory are an example of the first (and, in some versions, the second as well), as they have a long-standing ability to transform into wolves.  In the earliest accounts of this, they undergo this transformation “astrally,” one might say, because it takes place while they are asleep, and their souls go out and either take the shapes of wolves, or inhabit the bodies of wolves.

In some versions, this was a “curse” caused by St. Patrick or St. Natalis/Náile; and very interestingly, the Irish life of St. Náile says that his mother dreamt of him before his birth as being a ferchú — literally, a “man-dog/man-wolf,” which is the exact Irish cognate of “werewolf”!

The more metaphorical werewolves in Irish culture include the fíanna and díberg bands, groups of youthful hunter-warrior outlaws who live by reaving cattle and foraging, as well as acting as inter-tribal enforcers, vengeance-takers, and sometimes the first line of defence of their tribe in major warfare.  This was a more permanent way of life for some people, but merely a stage in late adolescence until early adulthood for others.

Various supernatural matters and interactions sometimes accompany this state, including the ability to shapeshift and/or travel to the otherworld; but the general phrase oc faelad, translated by some as “to go a-wolfing,” seems to mean a liminal raiding lifestyle on the edges of the greater tribe’s settled life, and all of its inherent accompanying activities, whether benign or malign.

Cú Chulainn is an interesting case for a variety of reasons; and, as he’s one of my favorite characters from mythology the world over, I focused a great deal upon him wherever relevant in my studies and research.  He is of that youthful age-grade often associated with werewolf activities in Irish culture (and many others worldwide), and yet he operates more directly in the service of his people than on the edges of legality, like most such individuals would have done.

His warrior’s frenzy is very similar to that of the berserkir and ulfheðnar of Norse culture.  And, his name and his exploits connect him very closely to dogs throughout his martial career.  While he is never said to have changed into a dog or a wolf physically (though some of the physiological aspects of his warrior-frenzy seem to echo canid elements as otherwise attested in Irish literature), he has pretty much every other necessary characteristic, and thus he most certainly fits in with the werewolf image on the metaphorical level that is demonstrated in Irish sources.


How is the Celtic werewolf different from other European incarnations?

As there is a great deal of variation between different strands of Celtic werewolf tradition, it is hard to characterize this generally.  However, a few matters do stand out.

Firstly, there is absolutely no lunar connection in almost every instance; in one Breton saint’s life (St. Rónán, whose life is copied by the Cornish St. Rumon), werewolf transformation is connected with the new moon, and this is echoed in Gervase of Tilbury’s Otia Imperialia later in his discussion of werewolf transformations.

Secondly, even though there are some tales involving literal transformation, Celtic examples — particularly earlier ones — are often more metaphorical, and in many ways closer to the original “werewolf complex” of youthful hunter-warrior societies than many of their European counterparts, including the early ones associated with Arcadia in Greece in this regard.  Whether it is the metaphorical identification of these youthful warrior bands, or the soul-travel-and-transformation of the early accounts of the werewolves of Ossory, or the legal classification of certain warrior-women in Irish law as werewolves, there is a persistence of metaphor in these accounts that is much more pronounced than in many European accounts.

Third and finally for the moment, there is a great deal more internal variation on these matters than in many other European cultures.  I’ve sometimes said that the four most important words (in translation!) in medieval Irish sources are “but other sources say,” and this applies as equally to werewolves as it does to any other matter in medieval Irish literature.  There’s always other versions, other interpretations, and other understandings to be found.  As a result, this not only makes generalizing difficulty (as already stated!), but it also confounds the efforts of scholars to make overarching and universally applicable theories on these matters.

I’ve tried to very purposefully shy away from that whenever possible when dealing with this material, because to do so would involve having to ignore lots of examples that might question, if not outright contradict, whatever theoretical framework one attempts to impose on the material.  The work of Claude Lecouteux is good, but he’s prone to do this with the Celtic (and other) werewolf materials based on his assertion that all tales of werewolves, witches, and fairies involve astral travel, which doesn’t seem to be the case in many instances, and his bending of the original sources to support this view is therefore unfounded, in my opinion.


What do those differences say about the Celtic cultures?

I think we can conclude from the above points that there are two things about Celtic cultures that could be considered noteworthy in this regard.

One, they are “conservative” in the sense of having preserved certain aspects of lycanthropic traditions for much longer than many other cultures, not only in mythological narrative, but also in legal sources and things that would have (presumably!) continued to be realities of daily social and legal life.

Second, they are so varied that they are hard to generalize about, but also that internal variation and diversity is accounted for and preserved in the literate accounts we have.  Celtic cultures, even in their more discrete forms as Irish, Breton, Welsh, Cornish, Scottish, Gaulish, and so forth, were never unified nor homogenized, and even the use of the term “Celtic” now is decreasing amongst many scholars because it gives a false sense of unity that, while sometimes viable and accurate, can be misleading.

When such variations and differences in detail or in interpretation are consistently preserved and respected–as they were in the literate medieval traditions–then it is all the more important for us to preserve and respect those differences as we study these materials, and to make distinctions in different strands of the material, both within particular Celtic cultures and between two or more of them.


I’m curious, given the breeding of the Irish wolfhound and eventual extinction of wolves from Ireland, whether stories of the canid-men / werewolves changed or became less popular after there were no wolves left there?

If anything, Irish folk tradition seems to have preserved far more stories with the “werewolf’s tale” as a part of them than would be otherwise expected after the extinction of wolves from Ireland than it had before!  Whether that is simply because that particular type of story was appealing and enjoyable for Irish audiences, or collectors of these materials encountered it more often than not as a matter of chance, are both certainly possibilities.

However, the Irish fascination with wolves, and their love-affair with dogs and the Irish wolfhound in particular, are, in my opinion, such fixed parts of the Irish psyche that I don’t think the literal lack of wolves in Ireland would ever diminish their popularity or appeal.


What led you into the study of werewolves / canid figures in Celtic legend? What fascinated you about them enough to pursue it as the topic for your Ph.D. dissertation?

To speak to the second question first, in a word:  insanity.

It takes an obsessive-compulsive level of interest in a subject to seriously pursue it as a Ph.D.; and it takes something over and above even that to do a detail-oriented, comprehensive typological survey of a particular matter, as I ended up doing with this set of topics.

To give you an idea of how obsessed I was, I was told by my advisor and my entire department on many occasions, “You don’t need more examples; you’ve got them all.”  Since the time the dissertation was finished in 2006, I continued to find more; and since the time the book was published in 2010, I’ve still found more. It’s a never-ending obsession in my own case!

As to how I got there in the first place — it’s sort of difficult to pin down.  I have been interested in Arthurian and Celtic literatures, and in particular Cú Chulainn and Irish literature, since early in high school. During my first year of college, I was able to explore a variety of medieval literatures, and one of the greatest finds for me during that time was the Breton-derived story of Bisclavret, as told by Marie de France in the twelfth century.  Her story became one of the most important and influential medieval werewolf tales in western Europe, with translations into Old Norse, and easily-perceived adaptations and descendants of it in tales from Melion to Guillaume de Palerne, as well as many others between and beyond these.

That story sat for me for a while; then I encountered it again in a course during my junior year in Oxford, at about the same time that I first encountered Eachtra an Mhadra Mhaoil, a late Irish Arthurian story that also starred a werewolf!  The genesis of the later doctoral dissertation was probably during that year.

My senior year of undergraduate studies at Sarah Lawrence College saw me returning to Bisclavret once again, both in my final conference paper for a class on Gender and Sexuality in Premodern Europe, and in a performance piece I wrote, co-directed, and starred in (though I had originally intended not to perform in it, but was forced to due to loss of actors) based on the story.  Performing as the title werewolf character, and the meta-level of some things that occurred during the production which placed me in a position very similar to Bisclavret and his wife in his story in the relations between myself and my co-director and producer, gave me an entirely different perspective on the story.

I had long had an interest in and identification with wolves at that stage, but not much of an interest in werewolves as such, mainly because I found the Hollywood versions of them as less-than-compelling (with exceptions, e.g. Ladyhawke, which is much closer to Celtic werewolves, yet which is often not even reckoned as a werewolf film!).  But, living the part as well as playing the part, and realizing that the world of werewolves was much larger than I had originally thought, made it much more than an academic interest; it became personal, and has remained such for me to this day.


What surprised you as you researched and wrote your dissertation?

Honestly, the far more vast volume of examples that I had to reckon with was a huge surprise.  I thought when I started that the chapter on cynocephali (“dogheads”), for example, would be easy to do, and would only have about eleven examples in it.  It took me more than two years to do that singular chapter, and there were over 250 examples at the end of it (including individual attestations of names that essentially mean “dog-” or “wolf-head”).

The werewolf chapter, likewise, ended up being much more extensive than I had originally thought it would be.  Though I am verbose by nature, I thought I’d come in under the word limit of 80,000 words when I began; at the end, I more than doubled it at over 161,000 words!  And, that was before I found many of the further examples I’ve encountered since that time….

It’s an almost inexhaustible topic, particularly when one takes into account all of the stories of strictly dogs or wolves that support and contextualize the occurrences and thoughts about werewolves, dogheads, and other such creatures.


Does the werewolf have a role to play in modern society? What can we still learn from Celtic werewolf/dog-man?

I do think so, and it’s something that a lot of people may not recognize or even necessarily approve of very much.

One of the functions of the lycanthrope-identified youthful hunter-warrior bands that existed in many premodern societies (including almost every culture in Europe) was as a kind of initiatory, rite-of-passage arena in which young people (men as well as women in the Irish examples, at least) were tested, but also given an outlet for their youthful indiscretions and exuberances.

Most modern societies don’t have such a social class, much less one that is sanctioned by and maintained by the wider society.  Thus, you get various sorts of street gangs, which ultimately fulfill the same role, but in a way that is not in any way helpful in the eyes of the wider society.

There have been various attempts to “tame” this same sort of social class over the last century, including the various scouting movements, but there are some elements missing from those organizations that were part of the earlier manifestations of them which, ultimately, make them less effective at turning out well-balanced individuals than may have been the case in earlier cultures.

It is a continual challenge, and an open question, therefore, on how these traditions can be revived and continued in ways that are ultimately beneficial for everyone.  It probably won’t happen in my own lifetime, other than on the smallest of scales, amongst communities and (usually non-Christian) religious organizations that have respect for and a mature understanding of warrior culture, the importance of initiation, the close relationship of humans to the lands they inhabit, and the very essential conception of humanity as inclusive of our animal natures rather than existing in opposition to or denial of them.

I think the latter point in particular is one of the most important matters that Celtic werewolves can model for modern people.  A werewolf in these societies does not go into a rage, turn into a ravening monster, and then wake up naked and dazed the next morning with no knowledge of what happened.  When a human becomes a wolf in these stories, they are fully cognizant of their humanity amidst their animality, with their full rational capacities, and they do not forget their existence in one state when they are in the other.

That is in very sharp contrast to many of the werewolves of Hollywood and television for the past century, and that fact speaks to the radical disconnect that modern humans have been taught between their “civilized” nature and their constitutionally and existentially animal existences.

What books or studies would you recommend for those interested in reading further on European traditions of the werewolf or shapeshifiting beings? (Feel free to include your own publications — I’m familiar with Sabine Baring Gould’s The Book of Werewolves and the Swedish Varulven i svensk folktradition by Ella Odstedt, but not many others.)

Of course, if you’re interested in Celtic werewolves (and both regular and magical dogs, wolves, and also dogheads!), there’s only one book for you: Werewolves, Magical Hounds, and Dog-Headed Men in Celtic Literature, by Dr. Phillip A. Bernhardt-House!

However, there’s a few others I’d recommend as well.  One of the classics is Montague Summers’ The Werewolf.  Ignore Summers’ paranoid para-Christian credulity, and he’s an excellent and comprehensive surveyor of the material.

I’d recommend against Baring-Gould personally; even though he wrote one of the first books on this subject, and it’s easily available online, he also inadvertently created one of the biggest and most widespread Celtic werewolf myths there is — and by “myth” in this case, I don’t mean a sacred story of a particular culture, I mean a false or inaccurate piece of information.  He says that St. Patrick cursed King Vereticus to become a wolf.  This occurs exactly nowhere else in any attested literature on St. Patrick.  Patrick, however, is credited with turning King Coroticus into a fox.  I suspect that a bit of Latinate dyslexia caused Baring-Gould to mistake a late attestation of this story, with the king’s name spelled “Cereticus,” for lupum rather than vulpem.  I discuss it in my book, but I’m hoping to put out an article on it in the not-too-distant future as well.

For other more modern works on werewolves, I’d also suggest Charlotte Otten’s edited collection A Lycanthropy Reader: Werewolves in Western Culture, if for no other reason than that it contains a translation of the Latin Arthurian romance Arthur and Gorlagon, but also a number of other fascinating stories and studies.  Leslie Sconduto’s Metamorphosis of the Werewolf is also a good analysis of four major medieval werewolf stories (Bisclavret, Melion, Arthur and Gorlagon, and Guillaume de Palerne).

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I’d like to thank Dr. Bernhardt-House again for taking the time to share some of his knowledge with us — and for putting a few good books on my “to read” list…


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