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Werewolf syndrome–myth and reality

Hypertrichosis is a rare genetic alteration that causes the fine, soft hair of newborns to remain on the body and grow throughout life

Montero Glez
Síndrome del hombre lobo
The Book of Werewolves by Sabine Baring-Gould.

Sabine Baring-Gould’s book about werewolves is one of the slimmest volumes ever issued by Valdemar, a publishing house specializing in horror stories. But The Book of Werewolves isn’t fiction, but an essay about lycanthropy published in 1865 and written from a rational, quasi-scientific point of view. Yet it doesn’t ignore the mythology that has given rise to so many stories about werewolves throughout the ages. Baring-Gould’s werewolf book is a study of folklore in which Lovecraft’s cosmic horror–the irrational–is combined with the type of reality that physicist Richard Feynman was thinking of when he said truth is stranger than fiction.

But the most disturbing thing about this edition of Baring-Gould’s book is undoubtedly the cover. It features a woman with a lupine face covered with hair. She is holding a piece of paper that appears to be a record of her birth, as if confirming her humanness. This is Antonietta Gonsalvus, daughter of Petrus Gonsalvus (aka, Pedro González), better known as the Wild Gentleman of Tenerife.

Petrus Gonsalvus suffered from hypertrichosis, a genetic alteration that his daughter Antonietta inherited, and which made her an exotic specimen in the royal court. The portrait of Antonietta was painted by Lavinia Fontana, court painter for Pope Clement VIII, and one of the most famous women of her time. Petrus, her father, was born on the island of Tenerife (Spain) in 1537. When he was 10 years old, he was taken to France, where he became a protégé of King Henry III.

Petrus Gonsalvus’ condition made him a celebrity in the king’s court, a living allegory of the monarch’s political power– King Henry III dominates the beast and thus dominates the world. The metaphor of the werewolf tamed by the king represented the triumph of good over darkness, according to Hebrew mythology in which the wolf is Satan’s preferred animal form. Thus, the devil disguised as a wolf becomes the enemy of the lamb, the figurative shape of Jesus Christ. It took a long time for the so-called werewolf syndrome to be understood as a genetic dermatological disorder, a rare disease that causes the fine lanugo hair found on newborns to continue growing on the body for the rest of a person’s life.

Petrus Gonsalvus was the first documented case of hypertrichosis. In 1573, he married a Parisian woman named Catherine, and the two became the stuff of legends. Two hundred years later, the couple would inspire the story of Beauty and the Beast, by Marie Leprince de Beaumont. Petrus and Catherine had three sons and three daughters, including Antonietta, who inherited the genetic disorder, as did most of her siblings. But it was Antonietta who graced the cover of the Spanish edition of The Book of Werewolves, in which theologian Baring-Gould traced werewolf lore from classical antiquity to modern culture, demonstrating that “under the veil of mythology lies a logical reality,” just as “a speck of truth is hidden” underneath every superstition.

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