“The Úlfhednar were fighters similar to the berserkers, though they dressed in wolf hides rather than those of bears and were reputed to channel the spirits of these animals to enhance effectiveness in battle. These warriors were resistant to pain and killed viciously in battle, much like wild animals.” [Wiki]
Snorri Sturluson says in the Ynglinga saga that they “were strong as bears or wild oxen, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon them.” This state has been documented by historians and anthropologists the world over. Whether as a spontaneous reaction to stress, or the result of deliberate psychomanipulative techniques, it is possible for a warrior to enter the state of consciousness the Norse called berserkergang, characterized by the massive release of a potent blend of psychoactive stress hormones including adrenaline, acetylcholine, dopamine, and endorphins. The effects are quite similar to those of methamphetamine or PCP, and gratuitous “adrenaline junkies” who become habituated to this mechanism area about as pleasant to live with as speed addicts. But in a world when war was waged by pure physical prowess, access to such psychochemical performance enhancement could have spelled the difference between life and death, defeat and victory. And while a variety of techniques were used to achieve it, one of the most common was the practice of spiritual identification with a notably ferocious animal.
In creating Ardely’s Wolves I quickly dispensed with werewolf lore developed over the last century in response to the needs of the motion-picture industry. Instead I went back to the original source of the myth: the warrior who seeks to possess or be possessed by the spirit of the Wolf, often clothing himself it its skin in order to merge with his spiritual mentor. Such wolf-warriors have been found in every human culture sharing territory with wolves, from the Siberian tundra to the ancient Norse, the Slavs, the Romans and the Indian tribes of North America. They are attested by cave paintings and classical sculptures, Scythian gold and Hallstadt burials. They are frankly described in literature from Byzantium, medieval Norway, and Belarus. They are however noticeably absent from the stories of medieval France and Germany, and lacking even a native word in Italian, Spanish, and Portughese – odd indeed in people whose ancestors worshipped Mars in the form of a giant wolf, and whose standard-bearers wore wolfskins into battle.
The cult of the Wolf-warrior was clearly suppressed by the advent of Christianity. Beliefs of deep mystical significance do not, however, disappear overnight. As the real practice of mystical wolf-identification was suppressed by the new religion, it retreated into legend. Like cannibalism and human sacrifice, the ancient totemic practices were now the subject of slander and scandal, never indulged but always attributed to someone living on just the other side of the mountain. Late Roman law gradually applied older sanctions against ritual cursing and magical homicide to all previous pagan religious practices. Over the course of the “Dark Ages”, the old gods were incrementally redefined as demons, and pagan religion as “demon-worship”. Like animal sacrifice and divinatory practices, the once-sanctified process of spiritual kinship with animals became prima-facie worship of The Devil, thereby opening it to free-association with every other fictional aspect of Satan. Yet the Bulgarian (and thence Romanian and Greek) vrkolak linguistically originates as “wolf-skin”, clearly indicating its continuity with the totem practice, as does the Hungarian farkasember, literally “wolf-mask”, which suggests ceremonial masquerades as continued in rural custom well into the twentieth century (many continue to be celebrated today, but mainly for the tourists).
In Transylvania in 1003, well beyond the boundaries of the original Roman Empire, a Hungarian Christian King was fighting a war against his own pagan nobles for the specific purpose of imposing Roman Christianity as a state religion. Records, such as they are, indicate that both Stephen and his cousin Varzul were originally baptized as Orthodox Christians. But an Arpad chieftain would certainly know of the old wolf-cult as practiced in Roman, Slavic, and Maghyar traditions. In a world where new military technology was virtually unknown, ambition and desperation could push such a man to cross the lines drawn by relatively recent moral scruple and seek out an ancient means of “force enhancement”. And a following based among the more traditionalist nobles could very well have approved. This is real Magic: useful, practical, and as effective today as it would have been a thousand years ago. Not a demigod or an Iron Man, but Captain Transylvania as practiced long before Stan Lee conceived of adamantium.