14 October 2015

Myth & Folklore: Lobisome, the Galician Werewolf

Art by picsfair.com 
The werewolf is a manifestation of fear in folklore all over the world. Some scholars believe the werewolf legend got its start in proto–Indo-European times, when warriors wore the skins of their animal totems. Such intimacy with the spirit of the wolf leads me to believe that more than fear of the unknown, the werewolf represents the dread that comes from recognition. In ancient times, and in rural areas today, wolves come sneaking in the night to kill livestock or babies and often the only evidence of their presence is a corpse found in the morning. When our ancestors did catch sight of a wolf, it stirred something deep inside, making an eerie connection between human and wolf in spite of their eternal antagonism. Don’t we all have a little wolf in us?

If the werewolf is universal, what makes the lobisome, the Galician werewolf, special? Perhaps it’s that in Galicia, a werewolf ended up in court to answer for his crimes.

Shrouded in ancestral Celtic lore, Galicia in the northwest is the most mythic region of Spain. On a rocky, windswept coast, Galicia is pelted by rain that leaves tendrils of mist where liminal beings, neither man nor wolf, might jump out at any moment to seize a lonesome traveler.

Manuel Blanco Romasanta didn’t have to do any jumping. In 1852, he was accused of pretending to be a guide for several women and their children, sending letters to their families to let them know that the victims had reached their destination while in reality killing them and using their fat to make fine tallow soap.

Romasanta is not the only man to have been accused of the bizarre (yet plausible at the time) tallow soap accusation. He is, however, the only accused to admit to the crime and present lycanthropy as a defense.

A 2004 film dramatizing the Romasanta case.
Romasanta was Spain’s first serial killer on record, but the most interesting aspects of his case are the ones that have a mythical or folkloric feel. Just as a werewolf is neither man nor wolf, but both, Romasanta is said to have been raised as a girl until he was six years old. People perceived him as effeminate throughout his life, something his short stature (under 4' 11'') probably encouraged. He seems to have always lived in-between.

Werewolf folklore in Galicia specifies that the seventh child of any union is likely to be afflicted with a curse. If the child is a girl, she’s liable to become a witch; if a boy, a werewolf. The godfather may ward off the curse by saying certain prayers at the baptism. Generally the curse doesn’t manifest until later in life. An afflicted werewolf will feel compelled to undress at a crossroads and wallow in the mud. If a wolf has already wallowed there, the transformation occurs and the werewolf uncontrollably attacks and eats defenseless people and babies. The most reliable way to reverse the curse at this point is to take the discarded clothing and burn it. Given this preoccupation with clothes and how they show or conceal one’s identity, it’s interesting that Romasanta also worked as a tailor.

His case was brought to trial in Allariz in October 1852. Romasanta admitted to killing thirteen people while in wolf form with two other wolves. According to him, their first spree lasted five days, and when he returned to his human form, he was surprised to see that the other wolves were also men, both from Valencia.

When asked to undergo the transformation in court, Romasanta claimed that his curse had lasted thirteen years, and the time period was over just the previous week, so he could no longer transform at all.

A page from Romasanta's phrenology report,
courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The claims were believable enough that the court ordered an investigation. Using phrenology, court-appointed doctors concluded that Romasanta displayed no signs of lycanthropy and that his crimes were committed by choice. The court found Romasanta guilty of nine of the slayings to which he had confessed and sentenced him to death. A French hypnotist who had been following the case was convinced he could cure Romasanta, who was merely suffering from monomania. After a few unsuccessful appeals, the hypnotist obtained a royal commutation of the death sentence from Queen Isabel II so Romasanta could be studied.

Unfortunately, Romasanta’s psychology will always remain a mystery. He died only weeks after his sentence was commuted. Although his cause of death was likely stomach cancer, there was still enough belief in the possibility of werewolves that it was rumored Romasanta was shot by a guard who wanted to see him transform.

Having based his defense in a myth, Romasanta himself gave rise to a legend: the Sacaúntos, a boogeyman who murders children for their fat, has been scaring Galician kids into good behavior ever since.

Jessica Knauss earned her PhD in Medieval Spanish with a dissertation on the portrayal of Alfonso X’s laws in the Cantigas de Santa Maria, which has been published as the five-star-rated Law and Order in Medieval Spain. A driven fiction writer, Jessica Knauss has edited many fine historical novels and is a bilingual freelance editor. Her historical novel, Seven Noble Knights, will be published in 2016 by Bagwyn Books. Find out more about it here, and her other writing and bookish activities here. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter, too!