Lycaon: The Ancient Werewolf of Greek Mythology & Ovid's Metamorphoses
We often look to mythology to reinforce our humanity; whether through a connection to the heavens or a role on earth. But there is another type of myth that emphasizes loss of humanity and becoming a monster. In modern horror films we fear loss of individuality among the Living Dead or Bodysnatchers; in gothic horror we face the monsters which lurk beneath civilized appearances like those of Dr. Jekyll or Dorian Gray; and unholy abominations date back to medieval stories of witches and vampires.
But we have recognized the fragile link between ourselves and our humanity for far longer; dating to the earliest days of civilization, according to Greek mythology. A punishment from Zeus transformed one of the first Greek kings from man to beast. The punishment of Lycaon, often depicted as the first werewolf, was not unearned. Through his cautionary tale we can better understand ancient morals, and learn to keep our own beastly nature at bay.
Lycaon was not always known as a monster; in fact the second-century Greek geographer Pausanias describes him as a culture hero, founding the city of Lycosura which, though modern archaeology disagrees, is traditionally considered to be the world’s oldest, with all other cities being founded after its example.
A little farther up is the circuit of the wall of Lycosura, in which there are a few inhabitants. Of all the cities that earth has ever shown, whether on mainland or on islands, Lycosura is the oldest, and was the first that the sun beheld; from it the rest of mankind have learned how to make them cities.
Pausinias, Description of Greece
But when Lycaon becomes the focus of Zeus’ attention, it is not because of his skill in urban planning. The king of the gods has watched over the earth from atop Mount Olympus, witnessing humanity from its golden age, lived in harmony with the land, through the gradual decline of the silver and bronze ages, into the brutish age of iron. By the iron age, humans sail the seas and spread across the earth, no longer content to live off the land, now digging deep within it in search of iron to fuel their wars and gold to feed their desire.
We will take a closer look at these ages of man in a future episode. The gods, on the other hand, do not wait.
The gods notice humanity’s rise and follow heaven’s road – which we call the Milky Way – for an audience before Zeus, their king. The gods look over the earth and witness humanity’s cruelty, and Zeus fears for the safety of his nymphs, sprites, and demigods living on the earth; nature spirits which, though far from the heights of heaven, have their own place in creation. How can his children be safe when humanity does not obey their father’s will? In all that the gods see and hear, the name of one human king, Lycaon, is repeatedly mentioned among the most treacherous. So the king of the gods descends to the earth human form to witness humanity firsthand, appearing before king Lycaon at his city.
Testing a God
Zeus’ signs make it clear to all in the city of Lycosura that a god has come before them, as the people kneel reverently before him; all, that is, save the king Lycaon. Lycaon had, after all, created a sanctuary to Zeus when he founded his city; who could be a better judge of the stranger’s claim to divinity? The king is eager to prove that the visitor is no god. While Zeus sleeps that night, Lycaon devises a test of the god’s omniscience.
Lycaon goes to the sanctuary to prepare a sacrifice to Zeus, usually a cow, goat, pig, or other domestic animal which would be killed, cooked, and feasted upon. But on this night Lycaon adds a secret ingredient to the usual sacrifice – human flesh. According to most sources the sacrificial victim is a child; perhaps Lycaon’s own son Nyctimus (Apollodorus, The Library) or grandson Arcas (Hyginus, Astronomica.) In other texts the child is an unnamed resident of Lycaon’s city; in Ovid’s account he is a hostage captured from northern Greek lands.
Whatever the boy’s identity may be, Lycaon commits a grave sin in killing him; especially because the victim is unquestionably someone who the king has a duty to protect. This is obvious if the victim belongs to Lycaon’s family or city; and surprisingly applies as much if not moreso in the case of the hostage. The concept of Ancient Greek hospitality known as Xenia (ξενία) detailed a sacred duty to care for foreigners; so important that even the king of the gods himself was called Zeus Xenios, Zeus the protector of strangers. In killing one guest and deceiving another, Lycaon brazenly defies the god that he claims he would recognize.
But Lycaon pays no mind to either taboo or sacred obligation. He scoffs at his people’s worship of Zeus in the form of this stranger, and boils the child along with the ritual sacrifice. When the deed is done, Lycaon wakes Zeus and presents the god with his test.
A Savage Beast
Despite Lycaon’s arrogant hubris, is becomes instantly clear that Zeus is indeed a god. Zeus instantly recognizes the sinful sacrifice placed before him, and with a bolt of lightning sets Lycaon’s house aflame. As the treacherous king flees, one other sign of the god’s power shows itself.
He fled in fear and reached the silent fields
And howled his heart out, trying in vain to speak.
With rabid mouth he turned his lust for slaughter
Against the flocks, delighting still in blood,
His clothes changed to coarse hair, his arms to legs –
He was a wolf, but kept some human trace,
The same grey hair, the same fierce face, the same
Wild eyes, the same image of savagery.
Zeus’ power transforms Lycaon’s physical state to match his internal one; that of a bloodthirsty, savage beast. As he preyed upon the innocent child to satisfy his hubris, Lycaon now preys upon the flocks of sheep to satisfy his hunger. Once a mighty king, Lycaon claimed to know the gods yet placed himself above them. As a result, the lowly beast now stalks the fields, few traces left of his humanity. With Lycaon’s home in ruins, Zeus ascends to Olympus. He relays the story to the gods, and shares with them his plan to flood the earth and create mankind anew; another story for another time.
Conclusion: The Bones of the Past
Lycaon’s story has had such lasting influence because of the pattern which it presents. Countless stories through today explore the fine line between humanity and savagery; though our beastly nature differs from that of Lycaon in that we are able to keep in contained – except, of course, in the full moon. The truth is, we do not need werewolf stories to see those who, like Lycaon, are convinced enough of their own greatness to sacrifice those they should protect; or those who claim to know a god yet are driven to unholy savagery as they try to prove it.
There is hope in the re-creation that follows, but even in this new world we must remember the actions that we are capable of, lest we repeat them. We uncover our past through the stories that we remember and re-tell. Horror stories allow us to explore the most monstrous aspects of humanity from a position of safety. But we must not forget that the dangers these stories explore are very real. As archaeologists studying Mount Lykaion discovered, the skeletons are not just in our closets, but often beneath our very feet. Stay tuned through a brief thank you message to learn more.