Lycanthropy, also known as werewolfism, is a rare mythical condition that causes a person to transform into a wolf or wolf-like creature. Despite legends and folklore, true clinical lycanthropy is extremely uncommon in real life. However, some misconceptions and myths persist around its prevalence.
What is lycanthropy?
Lycanthropy refers to the supernatural ability or curse that allows a person to shapeshift into a wolf or wolf-like creature. The word originates from Ancient Greek lykánthropos, meaning “wolf-person.” In folklore and mythology, lycanthropy is often associated with werewolves – humans that transform into wolves usually during a full moon.
Clinical lycanthropy is a rare psychiatric syndrome where a patient believes they can transform into an animal or displays animal-like behaviors. However, true physiological shapeshifting abilities are physiologically impossible in humans. Clinically diagnosed lycanthropy cases typically involve delusions or hallucinations associated with mental illnesses like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression.
Historical beliefs and myths
Beliefs in werewolves and lycanthropy have existed for millennia across various cultures worldwide. Ancient Greek mythology spoke of lycaon, a man transformed into a wolf as punishment by the god Zeus. Medieval Europe had widespread superstitions about men shapeshifting into wolves. Tales of werewolves persist in various forms in modern books and films.
However, credible documented cases of real lycanthropy are rare. Up until the 19th century, some cases were likely misidentified as lycanthropy, such as feral children raised by wolves or bears or those with hypertrichosis (excess body hair). Mental illness was also poorly understood and sometimes mistaken for lycanthropy.
Prevalence in clinical literature
In modern medical literature, clinically diagnosed lycanthropy is widely considered very rare. A 2005 review found only 36 cases of lycanthropy reported worldwide between 1850 to 2004. A 2020 review found a total of 57 credible cases documented globally so far.
This suggests lycanthropy is extremely uncommon as a genuine clinical phenomenon. For a rough estimate, 36 cases over 150 years gives an extremely crude prevalence of maybe 1 diagnosed lycanthropy case per 5 million population per year worldwide. This is clearly very rare compared to mental illnesses like schizophrenia, which may affect over 20 million people worldwide.
Symptoms and diagnosis
Clinical lycanthropy does not involve actual shapeshifting. Diagnostic criteria requires patients to subjectively report believing they can transform, or behave as if they truly have transformed.
Common symptoms include:
- Believing their body can transform into an animal form
- Howling, growling, or making other animal noises
- Behaving like an animal, such as crawling on all fours
- Claiming to feel animal fur or other features on their body
- Experiencing distorted vision or hallucinations of animal images
Lycanthropy can only be diagnosed by an expert clinician after properly ruling out substance use disorders or medical illnesses causing similar symptoms. Brain imaging techniques may also be used to rule out neurological conditions like brain tumors.
Causes and associated conditions
The causes of lycanthropy are poorly understood, but are strongly linked to mental illnesses:
- Schizophrenia – Delusions of transformation may be a type of psychotic symptom. Up to 81% of clinical lycanthropy cases may occur in schizophrenia.
- Bipolar disorder – Manic episodes can trigger delusional beliefs and odd behavior resembling lycanthropy.
- Major depression – Similarly, severe depressive episodes are linked to delusions and hallucinations in some individuals.
- Personality disorders – Disorganized thinking in conditions like schizotypal personality disorder can also contribute to lycanthropy-like beliefs.
Rarer cases are associated with dementia, brain injuries, tumors, or seizures. Some individuals develop lycanthropy after using drugs like LSD, mescaline, or mushrooms.
Can lycanthropy be treated?
Currently no treatments can make someone physiologically shapeshift. However, clinical lycanthropy arising from mental illness can be managed using psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both.
Treatment typically involves antipsychotic medications to reduce delusions and hallucinations, combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to challenge irrational beliefs of being able to transform.
With appropriate treatment, the prognosis for lycanthropy patients can be good. Case studies have reported patients responding well to antipsychotics like risperidone or olanzapine, with lycanthropy symptoms resolving over weeks to months with medication adherence.
The limited available statistics suggest clinically diagnosed lycanthropy is extremely rare in practice.
A 2005 survey of psychiatrists in Athens, Greece estimated only 1 case of lycanthropy had occurred across a region with a population of over 4 million over 3 years. Another 1983 survey from the United Kingdom estimated an incidence of less than 1 diagnosed case per decade per medium-sized city.
These surveys imply rates of lycanthropy consistent with being a very rare clinical phenomenon, though the quality of estimates is limited.
In popular culture vs reality
In contrast to actual medical data, lycanthropy appears reasonably frequently in popular books, films, games, and other media:
- Films featuring werewolves appear regularly, from The Wolf Man (1941) to An American Werewolf in London (1981) to the Underworld series starting 2003.
- Major fantasy book series like Harry Potter and Twilight prominently feature werewolf characters and lycanthropy mythology.
- Tabletop role playing games like Dungeons & Dragons and World of Darkness extensively use lycanthropes as characters and plot elements.
- Werewolves regularly appear as enemies, NPCs or playable races in video games like The Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft, and Skyrim.
However, these fictional depictions are highly exaggerated and inaccurate regarding real clinically diagnosed lycanthropy, which appears to be an exceptionally rare condition.
Prevalence in myths and legends
In contrast to medical literature, lycanthropy appears very frequently in traditional myths and folklore worldwide. Tales of humans transforming into wolves or wolf-like creatures are common:
- European folklore has extensive myths around werewolves dating back to ancient Greece and Rome.
- Asian legends feature were-creatures like weretigers, werefoxes and werewolves, including China’s weredragon tales.
- The Navajo skinwalker myth features witches that can turn into coyotes, wolves, foxes, cougars, bears, crows, owls, or ravens.
- Various South American and African tribes have shapeshifting myths involving animals like leopards, hyenas, or crocodiles.
However, these mythical legends greatly exaggerate actual clinical lycanthropy prevalence. Credible medical cases remain exceptionally rare.
Google search frequency
Using Google search data can provide a very rough proxy of public interest and beliefs regarding lycanthropy. While imprecise, search frequency can indicate if public perceptions align with clinical data on condition prevalence.
|Country||Average Monthly Searches for “Werewolf”|
This suggests a high level of public interest and belief contrasting the medical rarity of genuine lycanthropy. However, search data has limits, as terms may reference fictional rather than clinical lycanthropy.
Based on available medical evidence, clinically diagnosed lycanthropy appears to be an exceptionally rare phenomenon, likely occurring in less than 1 case per 5 million population per year globally. Prevalence is likely highly exaggerated in fictional media, mythology, legends and public perceptions. However, lycanthropy as a symptom of mental illness can still be successfully managed in the rare cases it occurs.