Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Behind the Symbol: The Pentagram as a Sign of the Werewolf


I know that it’s full moon and that I said the next time I would post would be this month’s Werewolf Movie Review, but I simply didn’t finish it in time, for which I am sorry. Instead, while I continue working on the review, I thought I’d post something shorter. I apologise in for posting something that’s already been posted, in a way, on Werewolf Theory, but here’s why I’ve decided to do it: the paragraphs pertaining to the symbolism of the pentagram and how it may be related to werewolves were originally a part of the September 2015 review of 1941’s The Wolf Man. Because they were quite far into the review, and because there is no mention of its inclusion in the review’s title or description (since it came about as a side-effect of my analysis of the movie), not everyone looking for this particular subject would be able to find it. So I decided to make a separate post consisting of those couple paragraphs, expanded by additional examples of the use of pentagrams in relation with werewolves that would not fit into The Wolf Man review for obvious reasons. I guess this post could be treated as a filler by those who’ve already read my analysis and review of the mentioned movie. For those who haven’t, I encourage you to take a look at the complete review to which a link you can find in the menu on the right in the ‘Cinema & TV’ section :) And to those who’ve stumbled onto my humble doorstep looking for an article on pentagrams and werewolves I say: enjoy!

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To many members of the older generation (especially overly concerned parents of teenagers, it seems – and I’m talking from personal experience here), the pentagram is a sign of the devil. However, the whole business is trickier than that, which many people don’t realise. The symbolism of the pentagram in Western culture depends on its orientation. And so, there are two pentagrams: one whose meaning is good, and the other, whose meaning is more sinister.

The one which represents positive qualities is the one where a single point is projecting upwards, so the standard type of a pentagram, which we most commonly see when we hear the word ‘pentagram’. This pentagram is sometimes called the Pythagorean pentagram and in ancient times it was used as a Christian symbol of the five senses or the five wounds of Christ. During the Renaissance period, Heinrich Cornelius Agrippa – a 15th/16th century German magician, alchemist, occult writer, theologian, and astrologer – in his 1531 work De occulta philosophia libri tres (Three Books of Occult Philosophy) spread the popularity of the pentagram as an occult symbol. He attributed each of the points to the five Neoplatonic elements and inscribed the human body in a pentagram. In the 19th century, a further distinction appeared concerning the way the pentagram is positioned. The already mentioned Pythagorean pentagram, one with a single point projecting upwards, was a depiction of the spirit presiding over the four elements of matter and was symbolically ‘good’.

Then there is the ‘evil’ pentagram. The 19th century French occult author and ceremonial magician Eliphas Levi called the pentagram ‘evil’ whenever it appeared upside down. In his 1854 work Transcendental Magic, its Doctrine and Ritual (Dogme et ritual de la haute magie), he wrote:

A reversed pentagram, with two points projecting upwards, is a symbol of evil and attracts sinister forces because it overturns the proper order of things and demonstrates the triumph of matter over spirit. It is the goat of lust attacking the heavens with its horns, a sign execrated by initiates.

An overturned pentagram thus became the symbol of the goat of Black Magic, since its head could be inscribed into the symbol. In a later work, Levi also calls this pentagram ‘a sign of antagonism and fatality’. A drawing of a goat’s head inscribed in an overturned pentagram was then included in 1897 in Stanislas de Guaita’s La Clef de la Magia Noire and is known as the ‘Samael/Lilith’ version. Later on, in 1968, a slightly redesigned version of this pentagram, known as the Sigil of Baphomet, became a copyrighted symbol of Anton LaVey’s Church of Satan. But this last thing is just a curiosity, because it doesn’t pertain in any way to our current predicament.
So that is that, as they say. Now that we know a little more about the nature of the pentagram, we can understand a little more about why it could be regarded as a sign of the werewolf. Of particular interest here is Levi’s interpretation that the overturned pentagram symbolises ‘the triumph of matter over spirit’ in contrast to the proper pentagram, which symbolises the dominance of the spirit. The duality of human nature is a constant struggle between the spirit and the body – between what we regard proper and good for the soul (especially in religion) and the often primitive temptations of the body. While the Pythagorean pentagram is a symbol of a human’s will and spirit dominating those primal instincts, the Samael/Lilith pentagram symbolises the opposite. With werewolves, the struggle between humanity and bestiality is magnified tenfold, for obvious reasons. A werewolf’s efforts to dominate the beast within are an omnipresent theme in works concerning lycanthropy. A human physically transforming into a wolf, succumbing to the curse, becomes a symbolic surrender of spirit to matter and the overturning of the natural order of things, just as the pentagram itself is overturned.

Let’s now take a look at the appearances of the pentagram in werewolf cinema. Note that this list will be updated in time, because even I still haven’t seen all werewolf movies (shame!) :( So I apologise for its incompletion. For now, here are three productions that came to my mind in the first place.

The Wolf Man (1941)

In this movie, the pentagram is an important plot point and it is probably the first time it was used in this context. The first time it’s mentioned is when the main character, Larry Talbot, visits an antique shop where he eventually buys his famous silver cane. The shop owner’s daughter tells Larry that the pentagram is considered the symbol of a werewolf, but no further explanation as to why is given. The only reason that the movie provides is that someone who’s a werewolf will see a pentagram in the palm of his next victim’s hand, which is shown later on-screen. The pentagram also features on the tip of Larry’s silver cane, where it is paired with a leaping wolf. Additionally, scars of those bitten by werewolves are said to be star-shaped, as is the case with Bela the Gypsy and, later, Larry himself. A slightly different use of the pentagram is made when Larry is given a pentagram-shaped charm that’s supposed to protect him from evil. This pentagram, however, is the upright one, as if to bring balance to where there is a lack of thereof.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

In An American Werewolf in London, the pentagram appears roughly at the beginning of the movie when our two main characters visit a pub in a small Welsh village where they end up during their tour of Europe. The pentagram is painted on one of the pub’s walls in red paint, with two candles hanging on each side, and one of the characters makes a reference to The Wolf Man when they say that it’s a sign of the werewolf. However, the pentagram here is drawn upright, which doesn’t comply with my earlier theory. Either the filmmakers didn’t think the issue through as thoroughly as I did or I myself saw meaning where there was none. I do like my theory, though, because it makes some semblance of sense, at least in my head.

Cursed (2005)

Cursed is another movie that makes many references to the original Wolf Man. The pentagram’s use here is similar to the one in the 1941 classic. After a character in the movie contracts lycanthropy, dark spots appear on the palm of their right hand, which, if traced, create a pentagram. This is a similar approach, if with a little twist, to the one in The Wolf Man. In one scene, one of the main characters is reading a book about werewolves and finds an entry that describes how whoever is a werewolf will have the mentioned marks on the palm of one of their hands. Although in the picture presented in the book the pentagram seems to be upright, when the character connects the dots on his own hand using a marker pen, the pentagram is clearly turned upside down.

WolfCop (2014)

In last year’s WolfCop, the main character becomes a victim of a demonic ritual of sacrifice, which ends up making him a werewolf. During said ritual, an overturned pentagram is carved into his chest with a sacrificial knife. He discovers the wound only the next morning when he tries to shave. The pentagram here is referred to as ‘the mark of the beast’.

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And that is all for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this short article nevertheless. In the meantime, I’m going back to working on 2010’s The Wolfman and I will hopefully see you again very soon. Until then!


  1. Hi, your werewolf chronology is missing the mention of a werewolf in The Satyricon, by Petronius (63 AD) During a great feast held by the former slave,Trimalcho (in between visits to brothels and bath house orgies they stop for a bite to eat) there is a story told about a man who takes off his clothes, pisses a cirxle around them and changes into a wolf. It's a pretty interesting account of Roman debauchery at its best (or worst)

  2. Hi, your werewolf chronology is missing the mention of a werewolf in The Satyricon, by Petronius (63 AD) During a great feast held by the former slave,Trimalcho (in between visits to brothels and bath house orgies they stop for a bite to eat) there is a story told about a man who takes off his clothes, pisses a cirxle around them and changes into a wolf. It's a pretty interesting account of Roman debauchery at its best (or worst)