Arts & Culture
Werewolves through the ages, in story and song
Vampires and werewolves, the possessed and undead souls featured in the Twilight books and their stylish movie adaptations, may currently have teens transfixed, but the idea of these creatures walking among us dates back to at least ancient Greece. There the man-wolf was called Lycanthropos. That’s also the name of a performance of stories and period music planned for next Sunday in Berkeley by multi-instrumentalist Tim Rayborn of Berkeley. KALW’s Steven Short chose a bright sunny day to talk with the presenter about werewolves... an idea that will not die.
STEVEN SHORT: Tim Rayborn knows a thing or two about werewolves. He’s been studying them in preparation for his program. But this is late January. Shouldn’t he have planned this for Halloween?
TIM RAYBORN: Not really. No. I think it’s a funny thing, that everyone associates stories of vampires and ghosts and werewolves and such with Halloween. But, if you think about it, these legends have existed for centuries, and I think every child that goes to camp tells ghost stories around the campfire in the middle of July.
And while Rayborn says these legends have existed “for centuries,” he could just as easily say “for millennia.”
RAYBORN: Even if you look at the ancient cave paintings in Lascaux, and the ancient prehistoric cave paintings, from 18-20,000 years ago, there are human/animal hybrids. There are people, maybe shamans, wearing deer antlers and such. So this idea of a kind of union between the animal world and the human world has probably been around as long as we’ve been human.
In other words, it’s in our blood.
Rayborn’s program of tales and music is his contribution to this year’s Early Music series presented by MusicSources, based in Berkeley.
This year’s theme is “Music in Central Europe” – fertile ground for tales of vampires and werewolves. Here’s an excerpt from one of Rayborn’s planned recitations, the “Lay of Bisclavret” by Marie de France, from the late 12th century:
“Among the tales I tell, I would not forget the Lay of the Were-Wolf. Such beasts are known in every land. Bisclavret he is named in Brittany, while the Normans call him Garwal. Many have suffered this change and run wild in the woods as a werewolf. The werewolf is a fearsome beast. He lurks within the thick forest – horrible to see! All the evil that he may do, he does. Listen, now, to the adventure of the werewolf, that I have to tell.”
While werewolves may be eternal, Rayborn notes that human perceptions of these shape-shifting creatures have a way of assuming different forms themselves. In ancient times, they inspired fear and terror.
RAYBORN: But in the Middle Ages, curiously enough the werewolves are tragic figures. They’re noble human beings who are cursed to take on this form against their will. And several of the stories I’m doing in my program actually discuss this.
This perception of werewolves – tragically romantic figures that just can’t help themselves – is back in fashion today. But in the Renaissance, following the Dark Ages, werewolves reverted to being a source of fear again.
RAYBORN: And they become these foul, evil monsters. It’s very interesting how it morphed over times into different perceptions of what these creatures were.
The moon will be less than half-full the evening of Rayborn’s concert. This is good – because there is no known defense against werewolves.
But perhaps Tim Rayborn is providing the best antidote: a compound of historical knowledge, combined with music – a powerful combination indeed.
“Lycanthropos: The Werewolf in Story and Song” will be performed Sunday evening, January 29, at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Albany, starting at 7pm.