Krys on Priest, 'She-wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves'

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The following book review from H-SHERA may be of interest to some H-Women list members.


Hannah Priest, ed.


Svitlana Krys

Hannah Priest, ed. She-wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017. 231 pp. $25.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5261-1689-5.

Reviewed by Svitlana Krys (MacEwan University) Published on H-SHERA (November, 2018) Commissioned by Hanna Chuchvaha (Independent scholar/Alberta College of Art + Design)

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The editor Hannah Priest opens and closes her critical introduction to a cultural history of female werewolves with the following phrase: “The werewolf is an inherently contradictory creature,” adding a descriptor “female” before “werewolf” in the second reiteration of this phrase at the end (pp. 1, 20). This premise becomes the subject of the subsequent eleven essays written by folklorists, film specialists, comparative literature scholars, students of Gothic and horror literature, and even video game writers and developers. Indeed, as the volume shows, the female werewolf contains a number of polarities, for instance, representing Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection as the disturbance of the natural and social order and embodying it as a freedom from patriarchy.[1] The female werewolf is also seen as inherently linked to nature but also to bestiality and violence. These are only two examples of the contradictions this potent cultural symbol carried as it moved from folklore and historical witch trials to nineteenth-century literature and later to cinematic appearances. In Priest’s words, “what emerges is a narrative of the female werewolf that is at once universal and culturally specific, coherent and fragmentary” (p. 20).

The essays, collectively, make a number of references to the research on folktale and fairy-tale studies and mythology of Marina Warner, James Frazer, Bruno Bettelheim, and Eric Fromm. Psychoanalytical approaches employed by some of these theoreticians are supported by Kristeva’s and also by Sigmund Freud’s theories. Historical sources that the essays refer to include Henri Boguet’s Discours exécrable des sorciers (1603) (A Discourse on Witches), Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger’s Malleus Maleficarum (1487) (The Hammer of Witches), and Montague Summers’s The Werewolf (1933). Overall, the reliance on archival sources, as demonstrated especially by the first two contributions (Merili Metsvahi on Estonian werewolf legends and Rolf Schulte on the trials of she-werewolves in early modern French Burgundy), and on a number of historical literary texts (for instance, in Willem de Blécourt’s discussion of Angela Carter’s contemporary fairy tales and Jazmina Cininas’s study of the historical cases of “wolf” women) is impressive.

The collection is not divided into parts, but the contributions may be thematically grouped as: folklore and history, literature, cinema, and other media (role-playing games). The structure of the volume raises several questions: it seems to follow a historical chronology, with pieces on Estonian folklore and French werewolf and witch trials opening the volume, but then the chronology is broken with Jay Cate’s piece on a contemporary table-top role-playing gamewhich would be more suitably placed at the end of the collection where the discussion moves to contemporary film/visual media. Also, de Blécourt’s contribution on historical sources in Carter’s fairy tales would be more suitably placed ahead of Priest’s contribution, as Priest’s essay deals with adolescent fiction featuring female lycanthropes that was published in the years after the release of The Company of Wolves (1984) film, based on Carter’s texts. Nonetheless, the adapted structure has a unifying impact as it shows the essays moving from the study of a literal depiction of the female werewolf character to a more nuanced, metaphorical evocation of female lycanthropy.

Priest’s introduction builds on Leslie A. Sconduto’s earlier monograph Metamorphoses of the Werewolf: A Literary Study from Antiquity through the Renaissance (2008), creating continuity in a scholarly discourse on cultural lycanthropy. Priest employs a feminist theory in her discussion of the lycanthropic threat to domesticity—a theme that appears in a number of other essays in the volume—and she also proposes an interesting comparison between two seemingly incongruous texts: Gerald of Wales’s Topographia Hibernica (twelfth century), where the female werewolf first appears in literature, and Lisi Harrison’s contemporary novel Monster High (2010)Metsvahi’s piece follows, focusing on a curious predominance of female werewolves in Estonian legends from the island of Saaremaa. Metsvahi analyzes the legends within the historical context of the Estonian family structure and women’s status in pre-Christian matrilineal Estonian society. Schulte’s contribution, next, details major werewolf cases in early modern French Burgundy, points to the contamination of werewolf and witch motifs, and discusses the geographical and sociopolitical circumstances that initiated the original werewolf scare and led to its subsidence a century later. This is an important essay in the collection, since several other contributions reference the historical texts that Schulte meticulously summarizes. Jay Cate’s essay moves the reader to the fictional realm of role-playing games, analyzing the two versions of the World of Darkness game: Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Werewolf: The Forsaken. Both games employ religious references in their fictional worlds, with the earlier game drawing on the pagan Mother/Nature/Earth/Moon references (hence, the feminization of werewolf characters) and the later game employing a more pronounced Christian framework that resulted in the masculinization of werewolves. Finally, Cininas places lycanthropy in the historical discourse of the lives of Christian saints and the milieu of early modern Europe, depicting its more sympathetic attitude to the visual marker of lycanthropes—excessive bodily hair. She shows how this attitude changed later, when the hirsute individuals (mostly women) began to be viewed in a derogatory way, as a “missing link” and a “member of a transitional species” in the nineteenth-century discourse influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution (p. 83).

The next three essays—by Shannon Scott, Carys Crossen, and Priest—consider the female werewolf’s depiction in literature. The first two focus on issues of colonialism and women’s (as well as female authors’) place in a patriarchal society, while the third studies concepts of the female body and female identity as linked to biological processes (menstruation). Scott analyzes a short story, “The Werewolves” (1898), by the French Canadian author Honoré Beaugrand where a female werewolf becomes “the ultimate symbol of otherness in nineteenth-century fiction—female, indigenous and monstrous” (p. 97). Crossen’s essay moves the discussion to female authors, focusing on Clemence Housman’s novella The Werewolf (1896) and Rosamund Marriott Watson’s poem “A Ballad of the Were-wolf” (1891), both of which “express concerns and anxieties about issues facing the Victorian woman” and include potential for female empowerment—the issue of importance to both women authors of these texts (p. 111). Priest’s piece explores this theme further in contemporary literature, viewing the female werewolf trope as a way to resist “conformity of womanhood” and also pointing to the positive features in its depiction, such as the idea of self-sacrifice for the communal good (p. 132). Priest’s overall analysis shows that female lycanthropy carries a consistent reference to the contested idea of female “bodily (and social) autonomy” that remains important in contemporary social discourse (p. 144).

The last four essays in the collection focus on films or literature linked to the filmic depiction of a female werewolf. The abovementioned de Blécourt contribution points to earlier scholars’ blind acceptance of folkloric references in Carter’s literary fairy tales, especially in her rendition of the “Little Red Riding Hood” tale. De Blécourt investigates a long literary history of this tale and identifies contradictory meanings behind one important motif (a severed paw) in Carter’s texts based on this tale, showing how “Carter altered the existing stories and subverted them” (p. 160). Peter Hutchings proposes a close textual reading of several filmic narratives that feature a female werewolf, which allows him to draw an interesting conclusion regarding the different depictions of female and male transformations in werewolf films. Hutchings’s contribution also raises the question of a proactive female violence and the disturbing issues that such a question brings to the fore. Barbara Creed’s study on femme animale in the Ginger Snaps cinematic saga brings up homosexual issues and the hermaphroditism behind the portrayal of the female werewolf, in addition to continuing the discussion of the female werewolf’s rejection of the human self as a rebellion against phallocentrism. Finally, Laura Wilson’s essay focuses on the issue of self-inflicting injuries in the 2002 French film Dans Ma Peau (In My Skin) and studies how the film may be viewed through the lens of the female werewolf myth to explore the main character’s relationships with others and with the self. By employing Kristeva’s theory of abjection, Wilson shows that the film blurs the lines between human and animal and ultimately shows “beauty in the abject” (p. 201). This statement may serve as an overall leitmotif of the female werewolf discussion in this collection, pointing to this trope’s inherently transgressive, liminal status.

Overall, the collection delivers on its promise to “take ... a specific and localised approach, revealing historical, literary, cinematic and folkloric contexts for iterations of the female lycanthrope” (pp. 18-19). In addition to my earlier comment about the structure of the collection, two other observations are in order. There are contradictory statements in regard to the presence of female werewolves in folklore (see, for instance, de Blécourt: “there is conspicuously little of a ‘folk’ tradition here” [p. 151]; and Scott: “the severing of a forepaw belonging to a she-wolf is a trope found in French folktale” [p. 107]). A contribution on the presence/absence of such motif in the Aarne–Thompson–Uther index of folktale motifs could have elucidated this point.[2] Furthermore, while Priest should be praised for including contributions concerning Estonian and French folklore and historical traditions, a more culturally diverse discussion using both West and East European sources would be a welcome addition (given that the subject of wolves as a cultural trope has gained popularity recently in Slavic studies[3]). In general, the volume, both in its entirety and as individual chapters, will interest cultural historians, English and comparative literature scholars, and film/media and area studies specialists, and could be employed in lower-level and upper-division courses on the topic.


[1]. Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982).

[2]. Hans-Jörg Uther, The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography. Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, vols. 1-3, FF Communications No. 284-286 (Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004).

[3]. See, for example, Ian M. Helfant, That Savage Gaze: Wolves in the Nineteenth-Century Russian Imagination (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2018).

Citation: Svitlana Krys. Review of Priest, Hannah, ed., She-wolf: A Cultural History of Female Werewolves. H-SHERA, H-Net Reviews. November, 2018. URL:

Categories: Review, H-Net Reviews
Keywords: Book Review