Friday, May 20, 2022

Sisterhood of the Wolf: The hunt for female werewolves (Girl in the chair)

Girl in the Chair is a blog series on research for storytellers. You can find the details about it in the opening post here

I am preparing for this year's Story Camp that my organization (the Világszép Foundation) runs for children in the foster system. This year's theme is Transformations/Shapeshifting. First step is usually for the camp staff to choose folktale roles for themselves, so we can greet the children in character. I have spent the past few weeks researching tales about shapeshifters. When it came to picking my own character, I decided I'd like to turn into a wolf. 
(I recently read the book about Wolf 21 and I am in love with positive wolf representation. In addition, Werewolf is one of my favorite RPGs.)

So, I set out to find folktales or legends or myths about female werewolves or wolf shifters. I set some pretty specific criteria:

1. It has to be a traditional story with a narrative (folktale, legend, myth)
2. It has to be a good story
3. It has to feature a female character who can turn into a wolf
4. This female character has to be portrayed in a positive light, and has to achieve a happy ending
5. Wolves have to be portrayed in a positive (or non-negative) light
6.The transformation should happen at will, not as a curse or a one-time thing

Yeah. The bar was pretty high.

1. Thompson Motif Index

I turned to the motif index first, looking for "transformation: man to wolf" (D113.1). Werewolves do get their own motif number (D113.1.1), but I did not want to dig into those one by one unless I had to - werewolves are almost always male. Since Thompson usually notes when transformation happens to a woman, I filed this away for later. Too broad.

2. Keyword search

I set out with the most obvious search terms on Google Books and Google Scholar: "female werewolf", "she turned into a wolf", "wolf princess", "wolf fairy", etc., combined with "folktales", "legends" and other keywords. I had to work through a lot of fantasy novels (Google autocorrects "folktale" to "story" for some godforsaken reason), and several references to Princess Mononoke and Angela Carter.
No story really jumped out at me, but I did flag a book about the cultural history of female werewolves.

3. She-Wolf

The aforementioned book is a fascinating collection of articles on female werewolves. Only one really goes into folktales, but that one is a treasure trove, about female werewolves in Estonia (apparently, Estonia is unique with its strong female wolf tradition, go figure). I did get a couple of stories from it, but they didn't tick all the boxes: either the wolf was cursed, or evil, or it died in the end, or the story was simply not all that interesting. Still, great book.
(There was also a study on Burgundian werewolf trials, but the women accused of lycanthropy were all executed.)

4. I take to Twitter

When in doubt, tweet about it. The online folklore community rallied around my question, and I received quite a few suggestions from lovely people. Some were literary examples (again, Angela Carter, also Sergeant Angua),but others were promising. 


A Croatian friend was kind enough to send me translations of two She-Wolf folktales, both variants of the "swan bride" tale type, with a girl whose wolf fur is stolen by her husband. I loved these, but I couldn't really use them in the story camp setting. 


Multiple people pointed me to the Werewolves of Ossory. It's an interesting tale, but once again it is short, with nameless characters, and the wolves are cursed. But it did point me to the Irish wolf tradition, which I circled back to later.


Someone brought up Romulus and Remus. I went on a side quest, looking into the lupa of Rome, and Acca Larentia as a possible wolf goddess - but in the end, Romulus and Remus is not a story that gets me excited either. And I thought a wolf mom to abandoned babies would hit a little too close to home with the foster kids.


Someone suggested looking into the Wulver, but I couldn't find a tale with a female Wulver. Or any tale, really. Some say this whole thing might be fakelore.


Someone linked me to a Chinese tale about an old woman who turns into a wolf, and eventually has to leave her family. It was a touching story, but with a sad ending.


Jürgen Hubert mentioned a tale about a wolf-woman who fell into a trap, and later killed the hunter with his own rifle. I liked this one, but it's not really much to build a character on. Translation forthcoming.

INTERLUDE: Pinkola Estés

Yes, a bunch of people mentioned Women Who Run With the Wolves. While I have a bone to pick (heh) with CPE and her treatment of folktales, I did look up the book to refresh my memory. One of my problems with this book is that it comes with notes, but it does not cite the sources for the stories - and she tends to change them a lot. And then everyone quotes her as a folklore source. I checked both in English and Spanish, and could not find the story she references.

5. Peeira

Fables, 1001 Nights
of Snowfall
My "wolf fairy" search took me to the topic of the peeira, a Portuguese creature of legend often translated as "fairy of the wolves." These women are usually seventh daughters in their family, and at one point they run off to live with wolf packs who take care of them.
It gets a mention in this book (which a Twitter friend kindly looked up for me), but the story itself attached only deals with wolves symbolically (as punishment for an unkind girl). Also this one, which looks fun, but I could't get a copy. Following the trail, I found this video which tells an amazing peeira legend, but it is kind of dark and bloody. I found a source in Portuguese as well, but it didn't really give a full story, just a belief. I found a reference to another (non-peeira) Portuguese female werewolf story, but in this one the girl was definitely evil, and she ate a baby. Boo.
(Here is a blog post on Portuguese werewolves)
All in all, I like the peeira as a concept, but couldn't find any convincing narratives to use.

6. Irish wolves

I circled back to the Irish tradition, as one of the Portuguese sources cited a source about Irish wolves. The source cited is pretty short; it says the Irish word for female werewolf was conoel (which Google promptly autocorrected to colonel), and mentions women who go into wolf shape, but alas no stories. Conoel did not yield any as a search term either.
The mentions of the Werewolves of Ossory led me to look into Laignech Faelad, a legendary figure whose descendants can turn into wolves. Couldn't find a direct reference to women, though.
I did get a few hits here and there. I found a literary poem featuring the warriors of the Fianna, and a Wolf-Girl whose curse is broken by a kiss from Oisín. In one of the folktales collected by Curtin a woman cursed into the shape of a wolf gave birth to a human baby (but then promptly died). The Acallam na Senórach mentions the three wolf-daughters of Airitech who came out of their cave to hunt, but they are murdered by warriors in the end. There was also a tale about a family of shapeshifting wolves, and a man they rewarded for saving and healing one of their pups. The family included a fierce mother, so this tale was a definite maybe.
I also found some references to lycanthropy and women in Ireland, such as this article, but no convincing stories. There was an entire side quest about the wolf-woman to be tamed by Irish kings through marriage (see references here). Some sources that looked interesting I could not track down (like this study from this book. It referenced a 17th century text here, but I did not have the bandwidth to go through it in search of the mention of a female wolf).

7. More keywords

I found a reference to a Persian tale called "The Wolf-Girl and the Fairy", but despite the enticing title, it turned out to be one of those tales were a hero's sister transforms into a monster. You can find it in this book. I also found a reference to ATU tale type 409, "Girl as Wolf", but it was another "woman cursed to be a wolf" story.

8. Wolf Queen

And then it dawned on me that might not have searched for "Wolf Queen" earlier. So I did. Lo and behold: a story! A Cape Malay story, specifically, from Nelson Mandela's Favorite African Folktales. (This is the original source.) It's a version of the Donkeyskin tale type: a girl tries to avoid marrying a sultan by transforming into a wolf - and then occasionally forgets to transform back. In the end, her true love recognizes her anyway. And she has a name! (Amina.) And she lives happily ever after!

WHEW! That was an intense three-day dive into a rabbit hole... wolf den? I am sure there is more to rustle up, but I'm satisfied for now.

The real treasure was the citations I found along the way!


  1. Hello. Search for tale type ATU 409, "The Girl as Wolf". There are variants in Croatia, in Finnic languages (Estonia and Finland, IIRC), or in the Easr Slavic Index, SUS 409.

    1. Yep, I mentioned that one in the post too :)

    2. Hello. Same anon. I found another "girl to wolf" tale in the book "Persian Tales" (1919), by the Lorimers, with the title "The Story of the Wolf-Bride", from Bakhtiari.

  2. Csenge, thank you so much for sharing all this. Fascinating and rewarding reading.