The Werewolves of Arcadia

This is my contribution to adrilechat ‘s Halloween “Haunting Pagan Lore” event. As you can see from the title, I’ve chosen a classic of horror and folklore tales for which many have forgotten the ancient origins. This will be long, so let’s get into it.

The myth of King Lycaon

While the earliest known example of man-to-wolf shifting dates back to the Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC), the Greek case is considered the second oldest, and the one scholars consider as the root of werewolf belief in Europe, as the myth got carried over to the Romans. However, one should note that lycanthropy and human-to-animal transformation beliefs also arose independently in other cultures around the world.

In Greece, the first werewolf is King Lycaon of Arcadia. The story is said to go this way, though with several variants: King Lycaon ruled over the region of Arcadia, Pan’s homeland. A wild, lush and mountainous region of Greece. Lycaon had several children, mainly Kallisto, Keteus and Nyktimos. After seducing Kallisto, Zeus is invited to a feast by Lycaon. The issue is, Lycaon serves him human flesh:

“After Zeus had seduced Kallisto, Lykaon, pretending not to know of the matter, entertained Zeus, as Hesiod says, and set before him on the table the babe which he had cut up.”

– Hesiod, Astronomica Fragment 3 (from Comm. Supplem. on Aratus)

“Two lesser known Athenian playwrights, Xenokles the Elder and Astydamas the Younger, produced plays entitled Lykaon. Presumably these told the story of the sacrifice of the child.”

– Xenocles the Elder & Astydamas the Younger, Lycaon (lost plays) (c. 5th to 4th BC.)

The general idea is that Zeus is deeply offended by the act and turns King Lycaon into a wolf. However, there are many versions to the myth. Pausanias, in the 2nd century AD, explains it this way:

” Lykaon brought a human baby to the altar of Zeus Lykaios, and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf (lykos) . . . All through the ages, many events that have occurred in the past, and even some that occur to-day, have been generally discredited because of the lies built up on a foundation of fact. It is said, for instance, that ever since the time of Lykaon a man has changed into a wolf at the sacrifice to Zeus Lykaios, but that the change is not for life; if, when he is a wolf, he abstains from human flesh, after nine years he becomes a man again, but if he tastes human flesh he remains a beast for ever.”

– Pausanias, Description of Greece 8. 2. 1 – 6

Ovid, when rewritting the myth in the 1st century AD, decided to turn the narrative to Lycaon doubting the divinity of Zeus when the god visited Arcadia. In order to test Zeus’s divinity, Lycaon attempts to feed him cooked human flesh and have him assassinated in the night. When Zeus realizes what Lycaon is doing, Lycaon tries to flee in fear. But as he runs into the fields of Arcadia, Lycaon is transformed into a wolf.

The cult of Zeus Lykaios

The transformation of King Lycaon is a punishment for human sacrifice and cannibalism, sometimes permanent or, as we saw above, for a certain amount of time under the condition of not eating human flesh.

The myth is said to have inspired the cult of Zeus Lykaios in Arcadia (or perhaps the opposite), for which, human sacrifices have been rumored to occur. The sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios was on one of the three crests of Mt. Lykaion, where the festival of the Lykaia was celebrated approximately once every four years. We owe the earliest reference to human sacrifices on this mountain to Plato:

“What then is the beginning of the transformation from protector to tyrant? Is it not clearly when the protector begins to do the same as the man in the story which is told concerning the sanctuary of Zeus Lykaios in Arcadia?’ ‘What story?’ he said. ‘How the man who has tasted of the piece of human entrails—one of these having been cut up along with the entrails of the other victims—it is necessary for this man to be turned into a wolf. Or haven’t you heard the story?’ ‘I have.”

-Plato, Republic 8, 565D–E

Pausanias, who visited the location in the 2nd century AD, also mentions the story:

“For they say that after Lycaon someone would always be turned from a man into a wolf at the sacrifice of Zeus Lykaios, but that he would not become a wolf for all his life. Rather, if while he was a wolf he refrained from human flesh, they say that afterwards in the tenth year he turned back from a wolf into a man. But if he had tasted human flesh he remained a beast forever.”

-Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8.2.6

Later, he goes on to mention the sacrifices are still performed on the moutain, subtly implying that he thinks those are human sacrifices:

“they sacrifice in secret; I did not wish to inquire further into the details of the sacrifice: let it be as it has been from the beginning”

-Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8.38.7

Both Plato and Pausanias are skeptics on the existence of the transformation from man to wolf. Pausanias, especially, makes it very clear when giving account of the story of Damarchus:

“But concerning the boxer named Damarchus, who was by birth an Arcadian of Parrhasia, except for his victory at Olympia I do not believe the other things said by pretentious men, namely that he was changed from a man to a wolf at the sacrifice of Zeus Lykaios and that ten years later he again became a man. Nor did it seem to me that this was said about him by the Arcadians, for in this case it would also be said in the inscription at Olympia, which runs as follows: Damarchus son of Dinyttas set up this statue, a Parrhasian by birth from Arcadia.”

-Pausanias, Description of Greece, 6.8.2

Archeaological research has not confirmed human sacrifices to be taking place, despite the legends. The numerous bones found were mostly ones from small animals, with the occasional bigger cattle or pig. Thus there are strong doubts on the reality of infant sacrifices. If they did exist, the absence of remains would indicate either that the victims were so young their remains didn’t survive time, or that the remains were removed for a separate burial.

Other instances of werewolf tales

It is very clear now that the region of Arcadia is linked for the Ancients to the trope of man to wolf transformation, and probably taking root in both tale and cult. However, this while this is the most documented story, there are other mentions of wolf-shifting in ancient literature.

Herodotus, for instance, tells us this when describing the Neuri:

“It may be that these people are wizards; for the Scythians, and the Greeks settled in Scythia, say that once a year every one of the Neuri becomes a wolf for a few days and changes back again to his former shape. Those who tell this tale do not convince me; but they tell it nonetheless, and swear to its truth.”

-Herodotus, Histories, IV.105

Much later, in the late first century AD, Petronius includes a werewolf story in his Satyricon, which goes as follows:

I seized my opportunity, and persuaded a guest in our house to come with me as far as the fifth milestone. He was a soldier, and as brave as Hell. So we trotted off about cockcrow; the moon shone like high noon. We got among the tombstones: my man went aside to look at the epitaphs, I sat down with my heart full of song and began to count the graves. Then when I looked round at my friend, he stripped himself and put all his clothes by the roadside. My heart was in my mouth, but I stood like a dead man. He made a ring of water round his clothes and suddenly turned into a wolf. Please do not think I am joking; I would not lie about this for any fortune in the world. But as I was saying, after he had turned into a wolf, he began to howl, and ran off into the woods. At first I hardly knew where I was, then I went up to take his clothes; but they had all turned into stone. No one could be nearer dead with terror than I was. But I drew my sword and went slaying shadows all the way till I came to my love’s house. I went in like a corpse, and nearly gave up the ghost, the sweat ran down my legs, my eyes were dull, I could hardly be revived. My dear Melissa was surprised at my being out so late, and said, ‘If you had come earlier you might at least have helped us; a wolf got into the house and worried all our sheep, and let their blood like a butcher. But he did not make fools of us, even though he got off; for our slave made a hole in his neck with a spear.’ When I heard this, I could not keep my eyes shut any longer, but at break of day I rushed back to my master Gaius’s house like a defrauded publican, and when I came to the place where the clothes were turned into stone, I found nothing but a pool of blood. But when I reached home, my soldier was lying in bed like an ox, with a doctor looking after his neck. I realized that he was a werewolf, and I never could sit down to a meal with him afterwards, not if you had killed me first. Other people may think what they like about this; but may all your guardian angels [genius] punish me if I am lying.

-Petronius, Satyricon, 62 (tr. Michael Heseltine)

Final words

Despite being present in literature, there seems to be a common disbelief amongst the Ancients when it comes to the veracity of werewolves, but it is also possible that the explicit disbelief shown by the authors cited there is meant to differiate them with the popular folk beliefs of their time. With this, I wish you all a Spooky Halloween.


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