Wild wolves used to be common in Europe, and with them tales of werewolves.
They were often talked of across Northern Europe and deep into Russia, but on occasion were mentioned all across the Continent going back to ancient Rome.
Prague back in the time of Emperor Rudolf II not only had wolves in the Stag Moat at Prague Castle, but also, according to legend, a werewolf. Most people take their werewolf knowledge from Hollywood films, but full moons and silver bullets are seldom featured in the real tales. The Stag Moat story is simple and unadorned. Rudolf II was a great collector of all things and at times had various wild animals, often very exotic, in and around the castle as well as in several large parks under royal patronage.
A pair of grey wolves lived in the Stag Moat, and were overseen by a royal gamekeeper and his nearly mute assistant named Janek. At the time, people considered him simple-minded, but he seems to have just been a bit withdrawn from the human world as he had nothing in common with it. While he almost never spoke, he did start to howl with the wolf family and soon spent almost all of his time with them. The gamekeeper punished him for neglecting his other duties, and Janek was so ashamed he ran away. Or did he?
Right around that time a new adult wolf appeared in the pack and was already quite familiar with them. Janek was seen in human form only one or two more times, usually missing some of his clothes and fairly unkempt, not too far from the moat and usually after there was some inexplicably violent death of a local farm animal. Janek, it seems, had joined his wolf friends.
Perhaps he understood their howls and followed some instructions on how to shift his shape. As time went on, he spent more time as a wolf and less as a human until he became a werewolf full-time.
The werewolf and his friends had found some way in and out of the moat and at first hunted only on the outside, as it was safer than attacking the royal pets, but that did not last. Soon, problems started to happen in the Stag Moat as well. The other wild animals grew increasingly agitated and several young exotic cats went missing. The problems in the moat stopped after a while, and it was assumed that the big cats had taken their revenge on the wolves and werewolf.
But it is equally possible that Janek and his companions escaped the city by night, as reports of farm animals being mauled and peculiar happenings in the forest began to come from the area of Říčany, now a sleepy commuter suburb just outside of Prague but in the 1600’s a distant farming village.
After a few years the reports got less and less frequent and nothing has been heard of Janek the Werewolf for almost 400 years. Whether he died or simply wandered east and joined up with wolf packs deep into the Carpathian mountains is not known.
All wolves had become extirpated from Czech lands almost a century ago, with the last one seen in 1918 — until two years ago.
The Czech Republic has newly converted several former military bases into nature preserves and is encouraging the return of wolves, lynxes, aurochs and other animals. Perhaps some of Janek’s descendants will come back as well.
Recently, in February 2016 a whole family of wild wolves have been caught on a remote video camera in the Jeseník Mountains in the far eastern Czech Republic. This follows several sightings of single wolves that started in 2014.
While the tale of werewolf Janek is mostly circumstantial, there are cases with much stronger evidence.
Werewolf tales were common in nearby Germany, and some cases are highly documented. There was a trial in which a man named Peter Stumpe was accused of being a werewolf in 1590 in Cologne, and executed for murdering and devouring people across 25 years, and the case was not unique. There was a similar one in 1581 in Dalheim and another in 1663 in the Rhineland.
But Siberia seems to be the home of largest number of shape-shifting animals. Legends even extend into the 20th century and cover many types of beasts.
One tells of a bear who lived in the forest of Siberia and was trapped by a Czarist general, who didn’t realize what he was really dealing with. The general got the bear drunk on vodka and made him dance all across Russia. Finally the bear escaped and managed to get back to a Siberian shaman who helped him to take human form so he could wreak revenge on the Czarist generals and the whole system that let them exist. That bear’s name was Vladimir Lenin.
As unlikely as the tale is, it appears in Montague Summers’ landmark 1933 academic study called The Werewolf, and its source is a 1929 study of actual Soviet propaganda. The tale combined the traditional Russian symbol of the bear with local Siberian mythology as way of embedding connections to the new Soviet regime as well as distaste for the former feudal monarchy among the most distant people.
Werewolf in the Czech language is ‘Vlkodlak’.
There are three villages in the Czech Republic called Vlkovice, meaning Wolf Town. The origin of the names is lost in history, but try not to have car trouble there at night … and don’t call any car mechanic there named Janek.
Prague doesn’t only have a werewolf. There is also a tale of a vampire on one of the cemeteries, a mermaid where a pond used to be, a Snow Witch, a noble White Lady at a chateau, a zombie and water sprites.
Main image: a fountain and old gates in the upper par of the Stag Moat. a sandstone sculpture in the upper part of the Stag Moat.