Lycanthropy is used in two senses: (a) as a psychological disorder in which the patient imagines that he is an animal, especially a wolf, and acts as such; and (b) the popular belief that on occasion some humans can transform themselves, or be transformed, into a wolf or some other animal, which kills and eats humans.
In shape shifting any animate object can alter in form or substance and there are no limit to the kinds of objects susceptible to such alteration. Examples abound of the shape shifting of plants, animals, humans and gods.
As a psychological disorder this was common in the past, especially in the Middle Ages. Belief in shape-shifting is common in all cultures, notably as a power claimed by medicine men, and in one form or another the werewolf superstition is world-wide.
According to traditional Gypsy beliefs, life for the dead continues on another level. There is a great fear among the survivors that the dead might return in some supernatural form to haunt the living. It is for this reason that the name of the dead should not be mentioned, that the body of the deceased should not be touched, and that all objects that belonged to the dead must be destroyed. The survivors must be protected in every way from the evil marimÃ© (polluting) spirits that the dead can emit. To avoid this, stones or thorn bushes are sometimes placed around the grave. The Roma believe that the soul of the dead might be reincarnated in another man or animal. Most feared of all is the possible reap-pearance of the dead as a mulÃ³ or "living dead." Unless strict precautions are taken, this mulÃ³ might escape from the body and seek revenge on those who had harmed him when living or had caused his death. The mere sight of a mulÃ³, who can appear as a wolf, terrorises the living. It is a certain sign of bad luck. A belief in the supernatural obviously plays a significant role in many aspects of Romany life. However, of all their rites, the customs and rituals connected with death are more filled with fear and superstition than any others.
Without the belief in shape-shifting, the werewolf superstition could not have existed. Given the belief, people with a tendency to psychological disorder readily conceived themselves to be ferocious animals preying upon other human beings. This belief was then exploited by others.