Archetypal Lycanthropy: "Man Becomes Wolf" by Robert Eisler

The mythical anthropological essay by Robert Eisler, an eccentric masterpiece of erudition that investigates the origins of violence and cruelty, returns to Italian bookstores in a new edition.

The mythical anthropological essay by Robert Eisler, an eccentric masterpiece of erudition that investigates the origins of violence and cruelty, returns to Italian bookstores in a new edition.

di Matthew Maculotti


The most immediate indication of the book's exceptional nature Man into Wolf (1951) of the Austrian Robert Eisler (1882–1949) - recently republished by Adelphi in a new translation by Raul Montanari and with additional materials compared to the Medusa edition of 2011 - is a quantitative imbalance between the real core of the volume, consisting of the thirty-page transcript of a lecture that l 'author held at the Psychiatric Section of the Royal Society of Medicine in London and then reproduced by heart in the absence of a previous written text, and the two hundred and more pages that make up the next apparatus of notes, anticipating in turn the five essays collected in appendix.

The unusual structure, as Eisler explains in the introduction, does not only obey the desire to "facilitate the critic's work", but is equally justified by the hope that the very dense complex of references, insights and excursus may arouse the interest "of those who want to dig up to the empirical basis of the documents on which the author has based his socio-anthropological interpretation», Following the innumerable footsteps and ramifications of a research work inspired by a basic thesis as daring as it is illustrated with surprising erudition.

The entire book discusses the possibility of an evolutionary, historical or rather prehistoric derivation of human cruelty and violence., recognizable in a set of acts and behaviors ranging from the single blow to the broadest scenarios of war and includes both the pleasure of causing pain and that of suffering it, and it does so mainly on the basis of two excavation operations that support each other: on the one hand, bringing to light an impressive variety of ethnographic, archaeological, mythological, artistic and even dreamlike finds; on the other hand, interpreting them and relating them on the basis of the Jung's thought, and in particular of the theory of the survival of archetypal ideas that from the ancestral subconscious layers of the mind would resurface in every individual and in every aspect of human culture.


What in the first instance, starting from the title, can be mistaken for a study focused on the phenomenon of lycanthropy, is in short a work with an incomparably wider breath, which assumes precisely the image of the transformation of man into a wolf as a supra-individual archetype which goes beyond the field of clinical pathology and folklore. The profound meaning of this archetype, according to Eisler, in fact refers to a historical transition relating to the entire human species, and which in turn has settled in the most ancient layers of the collective unconscious memory in the form of myths widespread among populations throughout the world. world.

"If modern man [...] can, according to William James, be defined on the biological level as" the most frightening of all beasts of prey, and moreover the only one who systematically preys on his own species ", And if, on the contrary, like the apes and great apes, the primitive, peaceful pygmy of the jungle, devoted to the harvest of fruits and the uprooting of roots, is appropriately defined by Plato and other ancient philosophers as" man, the 'mild and helpless animal "[...], at a certain stage of evolution there must have been a radical change in its diet or in its modus vivendi, a mutation [...] such as the one mentioned in the myths, so widespread among all populations, which speak of a "Fall" or an "original sin" with disastrous and permanent consequences. "

The crucial event towards which the analysis converges is the transition "from the flock or herd of frugivorous" gatherers "to the wolf pack of carnivorous hunters", understood as a "conscious process accompanied by a profound emotional upheaval" and investigated on the basis of changes affecting both the biological structure and morphology of the species, and its eating and cultural habits, such as the passage from primordial nudity to adoption of the first rudimentary expedients used by man to cover his own body.

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Eisler exercises his enormous analogue-comparative talent ranging with great ease between the prehistoric horizon and the level of myth and imagination, without however neglecting the most striking modern examples of an anthropological discourse that ultimately seems to concern the very essence of evil. Beyond a good number of bizarre and macabre news cases which are accounted for in the notes (from the discovery in Transjordan, in 1945, of a boy who grew up among gazelles and just as fast, to the ritual murders of men- lion which took place in 1947 in Tanganyika), thus, a dutiful and particularly sinister mention is addressed to the tragic events that marked the twentieth century and Eisler's life, starting with "Endemic manifestation of lycanthropism" which infected Hitler Germany between the two Great Wars.

In the letters that his friends wrote to obtain Eisler's release from Dachau in 1938, Brian Collins recalls in the rich biographical profile chosen as an afterword to the volume, "the contradictory descriptions did not suggest whether the authorities had to look for an economist, an art historian , a professor of Slavic languages ​​or a historian of religions ”, and indeed Eisler was truly a scholar with a thousand faces, impossible to place in a single disciplinary sector and author of works that would hardly be believed attributable to the same person - from This Money Maze [1], on the world economic crisis, a The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist (both from 1931), up to the unpublished Comparative Studies in Ancient Cosmology.

African wild dog transformed into a wolf. Illustration taken from a French edition of Ovid's Metamorphoses (1757)

Eisler's eclecticism, together with the digressive style but first of all with some peculiarities of his character [2], de facto relegated him to a marginal role in the academic debate of the time, and at times, alongside not a few attestations of esteem, gave him open manifestations of discredit: however ingenious, his work was still evaluated on the same level as that of an amateur. In the case of Man into Wolf, moreover, nowadays it would be really useless to approach it as a scientific text in the strict sense, both for the absence of a rigorous methodological system, and for the inevitable progress that research has made over the course of seventy years subsequent to the publication of the volume. The charm and interest of the book, if anything, reside precisely in what a reader, in all probability, will never be able to obtain from the study of a specialized scientific treatise properly understood, namely the impression of being in the presence of a work-world similar to an inexhaustible mine of treasures drawn from the most disparate fields of human knowledge.

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This impression, in the very dense pages of the conference, is linked above all to the idea of ​​a totality concentrated in a small space, but in an even more evident way it emerges under the sign of multiplicity during the wandering reading stimulated several times by the immense apparatus of notes. , including bibliographic insights and digressions that often extend over several pages with an essayistic look, inviting the reader to get lost among them as in a forest or a labyrinth. They range from the two faces of sadomasochism, which belong to the Marquis de Sade, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and to the respective phantoms of the erotic imaginary, to concepts such as those of "Laws of nature" and "archetype", passing through detailed analyzes on the various phenomena of terianthropy (or the transformation of men into animals) recorded in the chronicles, myths and legends of all times, on Baccanali, on the Moroccan brotherhood of 'Isawiyya, on mating practices, vegetarianism, hunting, cannibalism, nudism, etc.

Man into Wolf, in this sense, it is one Wunderkammer terrible and wonderful, full of testimonies of human cruelty but also of clues that open dizzying glimpses of an alleged primordial stage preceding the so-called "Fall", as in a game of Chinese boxes in which by subtracting towards the innermost layers it seems possible to glimpse its origin.

The Beast of Gevaudan. Print (c.1764)

In an ideal library such a book would find a place alongside the works of the historian and collector Edward Fuchs, rightly remembered by Walter Benjamin for the pioneering nature of his studies on the extreme territories of art, from caricature to pornographic representation [3], and those of the orientalist and historian of religions Heinrich Zimmer, also linked to Jung, or even to the studies of the anthropologist Hans Peter Duerr, who in an encyclopedic series of volumes questioned the myth of the civilization process theorized by Norbert Elias [4], and those of Aby Warburg, who conceived a library where the books were arranged according to the criterion of affinity of the "good neighborhood".

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This arrangement, compared to the usual alphabetical order, has the great advantage of suggesting to the eye a series of unexpected references and correspondences, training the mind to exercise a thought that is no longer inspired only by a linear and consequential perspective. A similar experience for the reader, in Man into Wolf, has to do not only with the possibility of connecting different planes of the real and the imaginary, but also with the redefinition of prejudices and clichés which follows from the adoption of an unprecedented point of view.

In taking into consideration the sexual behaviors commonly defined as "perverse", for example, Eisler affirms with indisputable clarity that "if there really exist" laws of nature ", no human activity can" pervert "or contradict them", and in the same way he lashes out against the Lombrosian interpretation according to which every violent crime would be explained as an atavistic regression to the primitive state, underlining the distortion to which the figure of the "savage". As for the big one problem of the existence of evil and of its explanation, finally, it is far from indifferent to think of man as a social and peaceful animal, at least in origin, rather than according to the conception that "Homo homini lupus", and even regardless of the unlikely possibility of a return, it can be useful at any time to look beyond a mask that perhaps, already in ancient times, man has learned to mistake for his own face.

Robert Eisler (1882 - 1949)


[1] A scanned copy of the volume The Messiah Jesus and John the Baptist is available online at this address.

[2] As Brian Collins notes in the afterword, his arrest in Udine in 1907 for stealing a precious codex from the Archbishopric's library, and subsequent suicide attempts, sadly tarnished Eisler's reputation for the rest of his life.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Eduard Fuchs, the collector and the historian (1937), in Id., The work of art in the era of its technical reproducibility, Turin, Einaudi, 1966.

[4] The series, entitled Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozeß, is made up of five volumes: Nacktheit und Scham (1988); intimacy (1990); Obszönität und Gewalt (1993); Der eroticsche Leib (1997); Die Tatsachen des Lebens (2002). To date, the only volume available in Italian translation is the first: Hans Peter Duerr, Nudity and shame. The myth of the civilization process, Venice, Marsilio, 1988.

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