lycanthropy (lĪkănˈthrəpē) [key], in folklore, assumption by a human of the appearance and characteristics of an animal. Ancient belief in lycanthropy was widespread, and it still exists in parts of the world. Certain African tribes have their "leopardmen" and the like, and literatures all over the world have tales of men changing to animals. One of the most widely held of these superstitions is the belief in the werewolf (a person who either willingly or unwillingly changes into a wolf, eats human flesh or drinks human blood, then returns to his natural form). The lycanthrope, akin to the vampire, is thought to undergo his change by means of witchcraft or magic. In the Middle Ages the church condemned lycanthropy as a form of sorcery and often ruthlessly punished the supposed offenders. The term is also applied to a form of insanity in which a person believes himself to be an animal and behaves accordingly.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
More on lycanthropy from Infoplease:
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Folklore and Mythology