Antonietta a.k.a. Tognina Gonsalvus along with her sisters, Maddalena and Francesca, found favour as marvels in the courts of sixteenth-century Europe on account of their unusual hairiness. In an age of miracles and discovery, the novel and the exotic were viewed as demonstrations of divine wit and inventiveness. As such, a hirsute family at court could be justified as a show of piety, and a series of portraits in courtly attire suggest that the Gonsalvus family came to enjoy a measure of privilege and regard. Influential scholars such as Ulysee Aldrovandi were also drawn to the hirsute family, producing several works on paper and woodblock illustrations of the sisters, particularly Tognina. Bolognese Mannerist, Lavinia Fontana, also painted a courtly portrait of Tognina from life, that now hangs in the Château de Blois, France.
Antonietta/Tognina’s father was captured as a child and brought to King Henry’s court from the Canary Islands. The islands' original Latin name, Insula Canaria, actually means the Island of Dogs, the birds taking their name from the islands, not the other way around. The inhabitants were believed to have worshipped dogs. For more information on the Gonsalvus sisters, see Merry Weisner Hanks, The Marvelous Hairy Girls, Yale University Press, 2009.
Maddalena, Antonietta and Francesca Gonsalus/Gonsalvus were celebrated in sixteenth-century Europe for their extreme hirsutism (excessive hairiness), a condition inherited from their father who was captured as a child on the Canary Islands and brought to the French court of Henri II. Portraits of Maddalena (also known as Madchen or Madeleine) and her family hang in Ambras Castle in Innsbruck, giving rise to the name Ambras Syndrome for congenital hypertrichosis. Maddalena also appears in the compendium Monstrorum historia by naturalist Ulisee Aldrovandi (1522–1605), as well as a zoological compendium by Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel (1542–1600) and a miniature commissioned by Rudolph II of Austria.
Where twenty-first century popular sensibilities relegate the display of hirsute individuals to the ‘lowest common denominator’ realm of the freak show and tabloid exploitation, the sixteenth‑century Gonsalus family was seen as properly belonging among the privileged and educated audience of Europe’s courts.The regal dress in the various portraits suggest that the Gonsalus sisters came to enjoy a measure of privilege and regard; Duke Ranuccio Farnese, for example, is believed to have bought a house in Parma for Maddalena’s dowry when she married in 1593.
In 2009, the sisters became the subject of the biography, The Marvelous Hairy Girls, by Merry Weisner-Hanks.
Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 feature-length animation, Princess Mononoke (Monster Princess), is one of Japan’s most popular films of all time. Set in the late Muromachi period (late sixteenth century) the abandoned San is raised by wolf gods and vehemently identifies herself as a wolf, going on to champion the wilderness in the forest gods’ battle against encroaching industrialisation. Claire Danes provides the voice for San in the English-dubbed version of Princess Mononoke.
The trial of Lindy Chamberlain in the early 1980s polarised Australians and continues to prick the national conscience. The media demonisation of the bereaved mother, who maintained that a dingo stole her baby, shares a number of striking parallels with witch-hunts from the early modern period, an era in which the ability to transform into a wolf was considered proof of witchcraft. Lindy’s ‘fringe’ religious allegiance to the Seventh Day Adventist Church qualified her as a heretic (a pre-requisite for early modern witchcraft) in the popular consciousness, and insinuations of child sacrifices in the wilderness echo the accusations of diabolically driven infanticide that accompanied lycanthropic court cases in earlier centuries. Uncannily, prosecutors in werewolf trials also argued that the children's clothing had been too neatly removed for a 'natural' wolf to have done so. Media condemnation of Lindy’s ‘insufficient’ emotional response to the loss of her child harks back, perhaps most poignantly, to early modern beliefs that witches were unable to cry when hurt. At the time of the trial, Lindy received a letter from a 'sympathiser' who said he believed that a dingo stole Azaria, albeit a two-legged dingo, like her.
Micah Wilkins (unknown, 2009)
Micah Wilkins, the complex, damaged and maddening (anti) heroine of Justine Larbalestier’s 2009 novel Liar is decidedly undecided, stuck somewhere in between black and white, girl and boy, human and wolf, mad and sane, dangerous and safe. She’s half of everything, especially everything else.
In June 1980, the twenty-eight-year-old East London barmaid Sandie Craddock was charged with stabbing her nineteen-year-old co-worker to death. Presented in Craddock’s defence were diaries and institutional records documenting years of violent outbursts following a cyclical pattern. Her lawyers argued that the true culprit was Craddock’s pre-menstrual tension (PMT, a symptom of premenstrual syndrome, PMS), which “turned her into a raging animal each month and forced her to act out of character,” leaving her with little memory of her actions. The barmaid walked away from a manslaughter conviction with nothing more than probation and a court order to take progesterone supplements, successfully having argued diminished responsibility due to extreme PMS. The following year, having changed her name to Smith, she was before the courts again, this time for threatening a policeman with a knife in Islington. Once more she was released on probation.
Craddock-Smith and premenstrual syndrome were catapulted into the tabloid spotlight, unleashing a flurry of headlines such as “Premenstrual Frenzy,” “Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde,” “PMS: The Return of the Raging Hormones,” and “Once a Month I’m a Woman Possessed.” Articles were peppered with phrases such as “the monthly monster, ” the “menstrual monster,” the “inner beast,” and “raging beasts.” New York filmmaker Jacqueline Garry credits the media headlines with her inspiration for her heroine, Frida Harris, in the 1999 film, The Curse. The film sees normally mild-mannered “doormat” Frida transform into a homicidal, lupine femme fatale when her period is due (corresponding with the full moon), waking to find that the blood on her sheets is not always her own.
The cult Ginger Snaps trilogy draws from a broad spectrum of werewolf lore to chart the tribulations of teenage sisters, Brigitte and Ginger Fitzgerald. The first film casts the werewolf as a metaphor for the coming of age, directly linking the werewolf's lunar cycle with the female monthly cycle. Ginger is bitten by a werewolf on the night she begins menstruating, setting in motion a series of progressive changes to her body, appetites and behaviours.
The first sequel sees Brigitte form an unhealthy dependency on the wolfsbane that initially promised to cure Ginger of her werewolfism. Brigitte finds herself committed to a psychiatric ward, as the film teases out historical links between lycanthropy and notions of lunacy and antisocial behaviour, tackling themes of narcotic addiction, self harm, alternative sexuality and delusion.
The final film in the trilogy returns to Canada's colonial past. Early modern histories of misogyny and witch hunts from Europe intersect with the totemic beliefs and practices of the nation's first peoples.
Rahne (pronounced “rain”) Sinclair, alias Wolfsbane, is a character created for Marvel Comics, first appearing in Marvel Graphic Novel #4: The New Mutants in 1982. She has since appeared in a number Marvel comics and television series, including New Mutants, X-Factor, Excalibur and New X-Men as a member of government sanctioned crime-fighting teams.
A Scottish orphan, Rahne discovers her ‘mutant’ lycanthropy at puberty and is chased from her village in wolf form by an angry mob believing her to be possessed by the devil. Rahne finds refuge in Xavier’s School of Gifted Youngsters, a training ground for mutant crime-fighters. The mutations that see the graduates shunned by society nevertheless endow them with superhuman strength and abilities, serving them in their ongoing quest to save the world.
Grace Brisbane (American 2009-2011)
In Maggie Stiefvater's bestselling trilogy —Shiver, Linger and Forever—the dropping mercury sees Grace Brisbane and her fellow lycanthropes transform into the wolves of Mercy Falls. Grace was attacked by werewolves as an eleven year old, however, was saved by a yellow-eyed wolf, with whom she comes to form a deep a connection. A childhood fever prevents her from undergoing a transformation at the time of the attack, but a second bite some years later sets her lycanthropy in motion. The trilogy draws on current tensions surrounding the reintroduction of wolves into the American landscape, pitting Grace and her fellow wolves against the residents of Mercy Falls.
Leah Clearwater (Quileute, b.1986) & Julia Jones (Choctaw-Chickasaw-African American, b. 1981)
Leah Clearwater is the only female shape-shifter in Stephenie Meyer’s The Twilight Saga, causing her to view herself as a deficient woman, as a “freak” or “girlie-wolf—good for nothing else.” Although referred to as werewolves throughout the book, Meyer’s fictionalised Quileute Native Americans prefer the term ‘shape-shifter’ for their totemic, congenitally inherited werewolf nature, differentiating themselves from infectious, lunar-cycling werewolves, or Children of the Moon. Once Leah begins wolf phasing she ceases menstruating, simultaneously robbed of her ability to become pregnant and excluded from being a Child of the Moon in more ways than one.
Julia Jones is the latest actress to portray a shape-shifting Native American, a legacy that can be traced back to the 1913 film, The Werewolf. Unlike her Victorian predecessors, Jones is of Native American heritage herself.
Mahi/Maki Kaibara (Japanese c.1982)
Maki (or Mahi) Kaibara is the main character in Midori Yukako’s Ookami Nanka Kowakunai! (I’m Not Afraid of Wolves!), by Japan’s Princess Comics.
Maki is unaware that she is descended from werewolves. Her lupine (werewolf) nature lies largely dormant until she turns sixteen, at which time Maki’s senses suddenly become heightened and she gains physical strength and speed. Maki’s werewolf blood also causes her to sprout ears and a tail, although these are only visible to fellow werewolves. The largest change, however, occurs in Maki’s personality during the full moon, when she transforms from a timid, awkward wallflower to confident she-wolf. Although she looks the same, the formerly invisible nobody now attracts considerable attention. The rarity of female werewolves also makes her hotly contested amongst rival clans, both ruled by powerful lupine matriarchs.
Lilia is recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records as a member of the world’s hairiest family, five generations of whom have been born with congenital generalized hypertrichosis, popularly known as ‘werewolf syndrome.’ Werewolf syndrome is believed by some biologists to be the residue of an earlier evolutionary stage that, like supernumerary nipples or caudal appendages, is no longer expressed in the general population, but which nevertheless remain dormant in our genetic makeup. Such thinking causes especial anxiety amongst creationists, who insist on humanity’s genetic independence from, and moral superiority to, all other species.
In 1999, Lilia performed in the circus as Lili the Wolf Girl and features in “The Werewolf Boys” episode of Guinness World Records: Primetime. Lilia has also appeared in Ripley's Believe It or Not (“The Wolf People”) while her family is referenced in the “Werewolves” episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
The winter solstice was a primary time for werewolf births and activity in ancient werewolf lore, transmuted to Christmas Eve with the rise of Christianity. As a Lithuanian-Australian, Rima has always known what it is to be a hybrid, to sit between two cultures. In a country without wolves, the dingo serves as the local representative of the devil’s hound while also embodying the cultural complexities and challenges faced by New Australians. Its status as native animal is contested and the default classification of the blonde canine remains ‘feral’ outside national parks despite the dingo having been part of the Australian ecosystem for at least 4000 years. Debates also continue as to whether the dingo should be classified as Canis familiaris dingo (domestic dog dingo), Canis lupus dingo (wolf dingo), or Canis lupus familiaris dingo (wolf domestic dog dingo), all three options describing a creature which straddles the boundaries of civilisation and wilderness.
Rima has also known the curse of those born at Christmas time, robbed of their unique celebrations (and gifts). This is exacerbated in Lithuanian culture, which holds its primary gift-giving celebration, Kūčios, on Christmas Eve. Other archaic werewolf legends from the region tell of people transforming into wolves after drinking the water that settles in a paw print, or from passing through the roots of particular trees. In the Werewolf Pines (Vilkaču Priede) of Skaņaiskalns National Park, Latvia, for example, the ancient trees reputedly serve as supernatural portals. The Mazsalacā tourism website provides helpful instructions for effecting werewolf transformations, specifying that one must crawl “three times, unclothed, backwards through the roots during the full moon on a Thursday.”
Olga Dubeneckienė-Kalpokienė was a dancer, actress and artist as well as one of the founding members of the Vilkolakio Teatras (Werewolf Theatre). The avant-garde theatre group, operating in Kaunas Lithuania from 1920–1925, took their name from local legends of shape-shifters being traditionally employed to entertain wedding guests.
Folklorist Norbertas Velius collected urban legends of Lithuanian werewolves including three featuring wedding parties or brides. In one tale, a wedding party transforms after riding through a gateway. One of the wolves has a white head, back and tail, identifying her as the transformed bride in married-woman’s headdress. Villagers chase the wolves back through the gate whereupon they resume their human shape along with the wedding celebrations.
Werewolf scholar Chantal Bourgault du Coudray suggests that the proliferation of demonic female werewolves in nineteenth-century fiction was a response to the fear and alarm generated by the emerging womens’ rights movement, the suffragettes, in England at the time. These femme fatale werewolves were usually young, beautiful, foreign and dressed in white fur, with a tell-tale glint in their eye and intent upon the destruction of husbands and other unsuspecting men. Significantly, the suffragette werewolf committed her atrocities as a woman not as a wolf, only returning to lupine (wolf) form after death.
One such femme fatale is White Fell from Clemence Housman's 1896 English novella, The Werewolf. In the illustration by the author’s brother Laurence Housman, White Fell’s gender is not obvious, reinforcing the subtle allusions to androgyny in his sister’s text.
In 1913, the Canadian company Bison released its silent film The Werewolf, directed by Henry MacRae. Based on an 1898 short story by Henry Beaugrand, a Navajo woman, Kee-On-Ee (Marie Walcamp) transforms her daughter Watuma (Phyllis Gordon) into a wolf using witchcraft to exact revenge against invading white settlers. It is the first known example of a werewolf being portrayed on the silver screen. Sadly, the film was lost to a warehouse fire in 1924, and a single theatre poster offers the only visual clues as to how the female werewolf was portrayed, although it is known that a simple dissolve effect was used to transform woman into wolf. The film’s portrayal of the Native American she wolf saw anxieties about female morality combined with xenophobic fears of racial degeneracy.
Prior to Charles Perrault’s publication of Le Petite Chaperon Rouge in his 1697 collection of French fairy tales, the tale of a little girl in red who meets a wolf on the way to her grandmother’s existed as a peasant tale, with possible roots in the eleventh century. In one version of the tale, the wolf tricks Red into eating her grandmother. The scene appears in David Kaplan’s 1997 short film, Little Red Riding Hood, which visually references the artist Gustave Doré’s 1865 image of Red in bed with the wolf. Christina Ricci plays the title role in Kaplan’s film and also plays suspected werewolf, Ellie Myers, in Wes Craven's 2005 film, Cursed.
Kirsten Bakis’ best selling novel, Lives of the Monster Dogs (1997), captures the final days of a community of highly intelligent, surgically-altered dogs. The dogs have prosthetic hands and voice boxes, walk upright and wear clothes, are able to speak and perform complex actions. They were bred in the Canadian wilderness by nineteenth-century Prussian inventor, Augustus Rank, intended as a race of fiercely loyal soldiers. After Rank dies, the dogs maintain their Prussian dress and manners but abandon the wilderness for New York in 2008. Here, they become instant celebrities, living lives of high culture and decadence until an incurable illness causes most of the dogs to regress to lower intelligence and savagery. One exception is Lydia Petze, a white Samoyed, who is amongst the most civilised and cultured of the Monster Dogs and the key canine heroine of Bakis’ novel.
Angela Carter (English 1940–1992)
Angela Carter’s 1979 short story The Company of Wolves borrows from very old versions of Little Red Riding Hood to create a contemporary heroine. In doing so, Carter set in motion a new generation of Red Riding Hoods whose relationship with the wolf sees the boundaries progressively blurred to the point that Red Riding Hood is increasingly depicted as the wolf.
A passing reference in Carter’s story to a wedding at which the entire bridal party are cursed to turn into wolves becomes a major scene in the film of the same name directed by Neil Jordan in 1984. Weddings were a popular theme in archaic werewolf lore, as well as the traditional occasion on which maidens were ‘initiated’ into womanhood.
Jerboa Jerboa (Australian, 1987)
In the Philippe Mora spoof from 1987, "Howling III: The Marsupials", an endangered race of were-thylacines is discovered in the Australian wilderness. Mora blurs biology and combines clichéd European werewolf mythology with the shameful environmental legacy embodied by the Tasmanian tiger (aka marsupial wolf), utilising the parallel demonisation and persecution of the two animals in order to cast the lead lycanthrope, Jerboa Jerboa, in a sympathetic light. The simultaneous wonder and fear inspired by the discovery of the were-thylacines reverberates with reports circulating in the Early Modern era of strange races—such as the dog-headed Cynocephali—that European explorers brought back with them from new worlds. The Tasmanian Tiger, with its Latin name Thylacinus cynocephalus, further embeds Jerboa in the legends of dog-headed races from earlier centuries.
Learn the stories behind the hirsute faces in the Girlie Werewolf Hall of Fame