A Medical Perspective
The werewolf has played an important part in universal folklore since pre-Christian times. A werewolf is classically defined as "a person that shape shifts into a wolf without losing the capacity to think as a human." Science has attempted to explain the rationale behind the myth by highlighting a number of diseases that have over the centuries contributed to the werewolf legend:
Lycanthropy is a mental disorder in which the sufferer believes that they are a wolf or some other beast. It has been linked by modern medical doctors to the disorders schizophrenia, organic brain syndrome with psychosis, psychotic depressive reaction, dissociative-type hysterical neurosis, manic depressive psychosis and psychometer epilepsy. Hallucinogenic plants and fungus--infected grains have been at the root of many outbreaks of lycanthropy over the centuries.
Belladonna (deadly nightshade) was frequently used in ritualistic practice to induce a mind-altered state in which delusions of bodily metamorphosis were common place. However, it was the fungus known as ergot that had the most effect, since bread, the stable food of the medieval peasants' diet, was often made from ergot-infected grains. Ergot contains constituents similar to the powerful hallucinogenic drug LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) and it has in the past led people to believe that they had turned into wild beasts - amongst other things.
Porphyria is a rare hereditary blood disease with symptoms that closely resemble the traits of a classic werewolf or vampire. People with this disorder cannot produce heme, an essential component of red blood. This makes them extremely sensitive to sunlight, grow excessive amounts of hair and develop sores, scars and discoloured skin. Porphyria also leads to progressive deterioration of the nose, ears, eyelids and fingers, as well as tightening skin around the lips and gums, thus making the incisors more conspicuous.
Porphyria was relatively unknown as a disease until about the mid-twentieth century, but it is now treatable using regular injections of heme.
Rabies is a viral infection that is carried by dogs, wolves and other animals, including bats. Humans can contract the disease after being bitten by an infected animal. Rabies affects the central nervous system and can cause a wide range of symptoms in people including extreme agitation, painful contraction of the throat muscles, hallucinations, biting other people and an excessive fear of water. Death usually occurs within five days of being bitten.
Rabies was commonplace during medieval Europe and many peasants carried iron crosses called the "keys" of St.Hubert (the patron saint of rabies victims) to protect themselves against it.
Congenital hypertrichosis is a rare genetic disorder that is characterised by excessive hair growth over most of the body, including the face. One of the most documented cases of hypertrichosis in history was that of Petrus Gonsalvus, who was born in Tenerife in 1556. His portrait can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches museum in Vienna and it is certainly a sight to behold! Some of his children also inherited the disorder and were also captured on canvas in all their glory.
In more modern times, the Aceves family from the mountain town of Zacatecas, Mexico, has become quite famous due to the fact that all thirty-two members have the disease. Manuel Diaz-Aceves has been performing as a wolfman in a traveling circus for many years now, touring the United States in 1999 with his niece and nephew under the banner "the wolf people".
Other weird 'n wonderful conditions :
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome
Mad Hatter Syndrome
Mad Hatter Syndrome
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