Ok, so I’ve missed Hallowe’en but I’m back with another tale of weirdness (check out the witches and vampires in my Spooky Stories archive) from the distant scratchy twigs of my family tree.
Werewolf. I’m sure you’re already imagining a great hairy, slathering beast, driven crazy by bloodlust as it rampages under a full moon until some brave hero pumps it full of silver … Or maybe you’re of the age where you picture an over-sized canid leaping about the forests of Washington State. Either way, you’re probably wondering what and why and how there are records of a werewolf in my family tree, right?
It sometimes feels that werewolves are a solidly European invention, and many of the aspects of werewolves have proliferated and homogenised via Hollywood (in the same vein – haha – as vampirism) in that white Western European way. However, therianthropy (that is, the ability of humans to magically turn into an animal, or an animal hybrid, through shapeshifting) occurs in almost all cultures: China’s cynanthropic P’an Hu, the hyena bouda across Africa and the Middle East, the nagual in Mesoamerica, the specific folklore of Native Americans. Similar stories exist in Ireland with the Children of Lir who turned into swans, and of course, there is the Swan Maiden of Germanic and Norse mythology, and countless examples exist in Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention the theriocephalic (i.e. animal-headed) representations in Ancient Egyptian, South African and Australian mythologies and religions.
Needless to say that there is a lot, anthropologically, that I could write about what these creatures represent and tell us regarding animal-human relationships, and our place in the natural world. There are digressions into early depictions of serial killers and mental illness (the case of Peter Stumpp in 1589) the difference between those who think they are a wolf and those who become a wolf. There is the connection to shamanism, wolf spirits and warriors, and the link to vampires in Slavic and Balkan myth, and also a link to witches and magic … which is where this story takes us.
It also takes us back in time, over 1,000 years, and it takes us to the Principality of Polotsk in modern-day Belarus, but at the time part of Kievan Rus’ (actually, the term Kievan Rus’ is a modern title – at the time, it was simply known as ‘the land of the Rus’).
Vseslav Bryachislavich – the focus of our story – was born somewhen around 1030 in Polotsk, the son of Bryacheslav Iziaslavich who was the Prince of Polotsk and Vitersk and the Prince of Lutsk. Bryacheslav’s grandmother was Rogneda of Polotsk, and his grandfather was Vladimir Sviatoslavich, Prince of Novgorod. Vladimir’s father, Sviatoslavich, was the Grand Prince of Kiev. When he died, the title then passed down to Vladimir. Vseslav was also my 26 x great-grandfather on my father’s side, via the most amazing (and least likely…) morganatic marriage which I’m not going to go in to any detail about right now, but I shall instead move swiftly on …
This branch of Vladimir’s family were considered izgoi. On the one hand this usually meant orphans who were protected by the church. However, the alternate meaning was a prince of Kievan Rus’ who was excluded from the succession to the throne of Grand Prince. This succession was inherited by collateral succession and not by agnatic primogeniture [father to son]: the throne and title passed from eldest to youngest brother and then to any cousins until the fourth succession and then to the eldest son of the eldest brother who had held the throne. But it could only be inherited if the father had held the throne, and if the father (or grandfather) died before the incumbent then that line was disqualified from inheriting. It, in effect, became an orphan line, or izgoi. These families did, though, retain their patrimonial inherited lands (i.e. their own principalities). Bryacheslav’s father, Izyaslav, predeceased his own father, Vladimir, hence … izgoi.
This must have rankled deep within Vseslav as he spent the majority of his life battling against the other princes, eventually being captured by the ruling Grand Prince in 1068. A few months later, he was freed from prison during an uprising and installed as the Grand Prince – a scenario that lasted only as long as it took the previous incumbent – Iaroslav I – to retreat to Poland and return with an army. Vseslav fled back to Polotsk and spent many more years sparring with Iaroslav, and then Iarolslav’s son and grandson, determined to keep Polotsk free of their rule.
But we’re not here to discuss military tactics. We are here for sorcery and werewolves …
Vseslav was born with a caul on his head. According to the Primary Chronicle – sort of the equivalent to our own Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in that it details the history of the people of the Kievan Rus from the time of the Bible to about 1110, and written in Old East Slavic around 1113 – some local ‘sorcerors’ told his mother that he should keep this bound to his head for good luck. The Chronicle also states that even his very conception was steeped in sorcery due to his mother (who, nevertheless, remains nameless…)
Him his mother bore by enchantment, for when his mother bore him, there was a caul over his head, and the magicians bade his mother bind this caul upon him, that he might carry it with him the rest of his life. Vseslav accordingly bears it to this day, and for this reason he is pitiless in bloodshedLaurentian Test of Primary Russian Chronicle
There was another Chronicle – Novgorod First Chronicle – that made things a little more explicit when it came to Vseslav’s other extra-curricular abilities, especially in the winter of 1180.
He [Mystislav] remembered the offenses of Prince Vseslav, the Plotosk wizard, who could turn, as the people declared, into a gray wolf and run in one night from the Caucasus to Novgorod. Vseslav, years before, had seized a part of Great Novgorod; he had carried off its assembly bell and borne away holy images and church vessels.Novgorod Chronicle
Quite what a sorcerous werewolf wanted with church bells isn’t clear, but he had built his own cathedral in Polotsk. In fact, the Werewolf Prince was a huge fan of the church and gave protection to many churchmen in his lands.
In the 12th Century an epic poem was written entitled The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. In it, Vseslav is again described as being able to turn into a wolf and even swap bodies.
Prince Vseslav sat in judgment over his people, apportioned cities to the princes, but himself raced a wolf in the night, and by cockcrow reached from Kiev to Tmutorokan, and as a wolf crossed the path of great Khors. When they rang the bell in the church of St. Sophia for matins, early in the morning at Polotsk, he heard the ringing in Kiev. Though his cunning soul could pass into another body, yet he often suffered woeTale of Igor’s Campaign
Obviously medieval Rus’ was a kind of rough place to live. Power-hungry Princes battled amongst themselves with the constant threat of invading Mongol hordes from the East as background noise. To the West lay the Grand Duchy of Lithuania with dreams and hungers of its own. Eventually, Polotsk fell to the Land of Novgorod and then to the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, but not until Vseslav died in 1101 at the end of an impressive 57-year reign. In fact, the Primary Russian Chronicle records the time of his death in detail – it was the Wednesday before Good Friday (24 April) 1101. The way that the Chronicle links the two events suggests the sorcerer died as a result of the crucifixion and resurrection is unusual for the document – perhaps intimating that the spectre of Vselslav loomed large in the psyche of the remaining Princes …
It obviously worked for Vseslav. And as they say, “If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf” … words that he took to heart.