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Monday, 26 November 2012

The Werewolf of Gedney Dyke.

Few mythical creatures in the pantheon of world wide folklore have as much enduring popularity as the werewolf. Since the time of the ancient Greek’s stories of savage half-wolf-half-human creatures have persisted and even in today’s ultra technological age it is still possible to find vestiges of this ancient superstition in the more remote regions of France and Eastern Europe. The word “werewolf” is old Anglo-Saxon for man-wolf. In the folklore of medieval England these bestial creatures were closely associated with witchcraft and black magic. It was generally believed in these times that witches possessed the knowledge to prepare ointments which when rubbed on the skin enabled them to take the shape of wolves. Thus transformed they would then roam the countryside killing animals and any unfortunate human who crossed their path.

There are countless stories of werewolves in the folklore of France, Spain, and Eastern Europe, but in Britain the werewolf is a comparatively rare beast. This is possibly because wolves have been extinct in these isles for hundreds of years and consequently many dark tales associated with them have been lost to antiquity. However, in certain parts of Britain the werewolf legend faintly lingers. For example in Lincolnshire, as recently as the late 19th century, in a village near Northorpe, it was said that an old lame man reputed to be a wizard, was seen to change into a vicious canine creature and attack his neighbour’s cattle.

More sinister perhaps is the following tale of werewolfism in the county related by my friend and fellow student of folklore Christopher Gask.
In the 18th century, in the village of Gedney Dyke, an old woman acquired the reputation of a witch, as in the case of many old women who lived alone in remote, sparsely populated areas. At that time rumour usurped reason and it was said that she had the evil eye. Consequently her house was shunned by the locals. In a village nearby a youth named John Culpepper had developed a crush on a local girl called Rose Taylor who spurned his advances, as his reputation was that of the village idiot this was perhaps not surprising. The final straw was reached at a local fair when Rose publicly ridiculed him. He had heard stories of Old Mother Nightshade of Gedney, and though she was reputed to harm anyone foolish enough to venture near her dwelling, even those who unwisely sought supernatural council with her, Culpepper went to see her any way; well he wasn’t known as the village idiot for nothing!

The hapless half-wit duly arrived at the infamous cottage, and surprisingly was received by a cheerful old woman who appeared to be hurt and bemused by her undeserved ostracism, although she did admit to having “certain powers” Emboldened by this reception, john poured out his tale of rejection. The old woman listened thoughtfully then she said, “Young man, I will help you, but you must do what I say.” She handed him a wrapped box which he was to present to Rose on her birthday and after he was to return to the old woman for further instruction. Seven days later the girl of his thwarted dreams found an additional parcel amongst her presents; a box containing a selection of sweetmeats which she ate and thoroughly enjoyed. That evening John set out for the old woman’s house convinced that soon all would make sense and vengeance would be his. Once more she received him like a long- lost son and kept him talking long into the night. Just when he was beginning to think that she had forgotten why he was here, she said: “Now I shall reveal the secret of your revenge, but you must let me do it in my own way and not question what I do, however odd.” John agreed to this, by this time he would have agreed to anything, and at her bidding sat back and closed his eyes. When he reopened them he was firmly tied to the chair with the old woman standing over him. “You poor weak fool.” she croaked “did you really think I would help a worthless simpleton like you? Those sweets you gave to the girl were just sweets and nothing more, but now I have a present for you.” As she said these words her wrinkled visage began to twitch and shudder horribly, this spread throughout her entire frail frame, and before the boy’s incredulous eyes a macabre metamorphosis was taking place; limbs miraculously stretched and altered shape. Her extremities too were changing, fingers and toes elongating, her nose extended into a snout and thick fur grew over her wrinkled skin. Finally, the transformation from biped to quadruped was complete and before John’s disbelieving eyes stood a huge grey wolf. The beast pounced and the screams and inhuman growls that ensued could be heard in the village, but no one had the nerve to investigate until day light when a large party set out.

Outside Old Mother Nightshade’s dwelling were a series of giant paw prints heading away from the cottage. Within were the mangled remains and assorted viscera of what had once been John Culpepper. The parson was summoned but refused to confirm that this was the result of witchcraft. The frightened villagers then took matters into their own hands and put the accursed home of Mother Nightshade to the torch. When the conflagration subsided not a trace of the building or its gruesome contents remained.
Today, some 250 years later, there are still those in Gedney Dyke who claim that the howl of a wolf can be heard on the moonlit nights.

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