Continuing the series of close looks into specific werewolf legends, let’s examine what’s generally considered one of the most important werewolf legends in history: the story of King Lykaon (Λυκᾱ́ων – or Lycaon, a more Anglicized spelling) of ancient Greece.
Although I did a smaller post on Lycaon quite a while ago, this one will be more in-depth. Despite there being a lot of other legends and werewolf legends surrounding Lycaon and different regions of Greece – some of which are discussed in this post of mine – I’m not going to go into those again this time. This post is exclusively about the legend of Lycaon himself (I will be referring to him as Lykaon from here on out).
A quick summary before we go into more detail: Lykaon was a king of Arcadia in ancient Greece. As the legend goes, Lykaon decided to test the divine omniscience of Zeus by killing one of his own sons, Nyctimus, and cooking him into food to serve to Zeus. Naturally, Zeus realized what Lykaon had done, so he turned Lykaon into a wolf as punishment, killing his other children and bringing Nyctimus back to life.
However, Lykaon wasn’t remembered too negatively despite his actions or his fate. He did plenty of other good deeds, like founding cities and creating a cult dedicated to Zeus, as well as hosting a series of games called the Lykaean Games, among other things. He also had a lot of kids. And, please note, there were a lot of “Lykaon”s in Greek myth. This is merely one of them.
But what I’m going to focus on is the legend of how Zeus turned Lykaon into a wolf and the details thereof – and what impact it’s had on werewolf studies and werewolves in culture forever afterward.
Perhaps the earliest version of Lykaon’s myth was told by Hesiod. However, there are many different versions by an assortment of authors. Several of them recount the tale differently, with various aspects changed, and some even claim Lykaon was never turned into a wolf at all and was instead killed instantly by Zeus’s lightning, among other alterations.
Perhaps the most well-known version of the tale is the one I’ll be quoting from, however: not a Greek author but a Roman one, Ovid, in his Metamorphoses. Ovid, too, alters the story from Hesiod’s “original,” though he retains the most important aspect from the perspective of werewolf studies: Lykaon’s transformation into a wolf and “transformation scene” of sorts.
The edition of Metamorphoses from which I will be quoting is as follows:
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Trans. A. D. Melville. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
(Please note for the sake of this post I’m not using perfect MLA citation for each quote. You can find those in my published academic works, but not these posts. But the citations here will be readable, just not totally up to nitpicky academic standards.)
It all began for Lykaon when Zeus – or, in the case of Ovid’s version, in Metamorphoses, Jupiter, generally the Roman equivalent of Zeus- arrives in Acradia. Unlike everyone else, Lykaon had his doubts about the god…
he [Lykaon] / Scoffed at their worship. “A clear test”, he said, / “Shall prove if this be god or mortal man / And certify the truth”, and he planned for me, / At dead of night, when I was sunk in sleep, / Death unforseen–so would he test the truth. (page 7)
Unlike Hesiod’s version, in Metamorphoses, Lykaon kills a “hostage sent / Far from Epirus, slitting his throat, and boiled / Part of the flesh, scarce dead, and roasted part” (7) instead of doing that to one of his own sons. Either way, with that done, he had Jupiter join him for a meal, telling him to eat the flesh of this person he’d just cooked.
Unfortunately for Lykaon, Jupiter was in fact Jupiter the omniscient, and the moment he was offered the flesh…
At once my avenging flame / Whelmed in just ruin that guilty house and him. (7-8)
And now the most important part – Lykaon’s transformation scene! Yes, werewolves have been having transformation scenes since time immemorial. And Lykaon’s is one of the best. It’s very… vivid, moreso than one may expect:
He [Lykaon] 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, yet kept some human trace, / The same grey hair, the same fierce face, the same / Wild eyes, the same image of savagery. (8)
[*: Given that “rabid” literally means “infected with rabies,” which doesn’t really make any sense here, I feel the need to point out that the word “rabies” means “rage” or “madness” in Latin. That’s where we get the name of the disease. This doesn’t mean that Lykaon suddenly was infected with the disease known as rabies – he was filled with rage and madness.]
How fantastic! What a scene, what an image! I love the specificity of the description. That’s classic werewolf material right there. A wolf, a beast, but maintaining some semblance of his humanity. Truly this is one of the foundational legends of how we think of werewolves today.
So the purpose of the legend, obviously, is to punish Lykaon for his actions by turning him into a beast. Whether the Roman Ovid retelling or one of the original Greek versions, the end result is the same, if the wolf form is involved: it’s a form of punishment. Thing is, it actually wasn’t always seen as that bad a thing. As mentioned, there are many werewolf legends in ancient Greece and also Rome, some of which split directly from the legend of Lykaon. One such version included Arcadians who willingly undergo a transformation into a wolf that lasts years, in order to test their humanity (they must not eat human flesh while in their wolf form, or it become permanent), and it was almost a rite of passage of sorts, among many other legends.
Nor were they, by the way, always associated with cannibalism/eating people. Sometimes they were, sometimes they weren’t. Sometimes what separated werewolves from “evil beasts” were that they had the willpower to resist eating people. Even Lykaon himself wasn’t actually a cannibal, he just committed horrible atrocities by testing Zeus using the flesh of one of his own kids! That’s not too bad!… Yeah, it’s beyond terrible.
Anyway, it shouldn’t be assumed from the legend of Lykaon alone that wolves and werewolves were always portrayed negatively in ancient Greece or in Rome. They certainly weren’t. Those are, of course, legends I will detail in other posts, but for the sake of clarity, I want to have the reminder that not all wolves or werewolves were “evil” just because of this legend… like many scholars wrongfully assume.
Today, the myth of King Lykaon is often branded the “first werewolf legend.” That’s a big assumption and kind of a misnomer. If we want to get technical, then maybe it’s the earliest complete legend we have of a werewolf – as in, the full, surviving tale in writing. As I discuss on pages 8-9 in my own book, The Werewolf: Past and Future – Lycanthropy’s Lost History and Modern Devolution…
Werewolf legends were told by many societies throughout time, even before recorded history; indeed, scholars argue over what represents the “first werewolf,” in part because there is no real way of knowing the age of the werewolf legend – particularly since, like many legends, a great deal of werewolf stories were only retold orally. Ranging from the earliest humans and even pre-humans to the Greeks and Romans, the werewolf in ancient times takes many shapes across multiple cultures, spanning, essentially, the entire world, and certainly the entire historical range of wolves. Among perhaps the most important of all werewolf legends, and some of the earliest to be recorded, were the ones told by the ancient Greeks. The belief in werewolves was, naturally, then carried over into ancient Rome, but the werewolf also independently arose in other cultures around the world, including but not limited to Europe, North America, and Asia. However, the belief in werewolves may have existed as early as the Paleolithic Age, around 45,000 BP.
 Beresford 19; the year is given by Beresford as BP (Before Present), due to the carbon dating process of prehistoric artifacts.
Likewise, in the same book, I address the fact that some scholars like to claim the “first” werewolf legend was told in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written around 2750 BC, when Ishtar turns a shepherd into a wolf so that he is attacked by his own dogs. I refute this as the “first werewolf legend” as opposed to just a legend where a person is turned into a wolf on page 13 in footnote 16 of The Werewolf: Past and Future…
However, counting this instance from the Epic of Gilgamesh as “the first werewolf” is an odd statement. Yes, the shepherd is turned into a wolf, which is the same as many other werewolf legends (even Lycaon’s), but the choice of turning him into a wolf seems insignificant in terms of meaning. The fact that Lycaon’s transformation was intended as meaningful lends more power to the idea that King Lycaon may be the earliest recorded instance of a werewolf legend, since his actions led him to be specifically turned into a wolf, rather than into some other creature. The shepherd in Gilgamesh is only turned into a wolf so that his dogs will attack him, and other animals are substituted in later tales of this exact same type (such as Artemis turning a mortal into a deer so his dogs will rip him apart in a later Greek myth), making the choice of a wolf in the Epic of Gilgamesh feel arbitrary enough that it seems almost unfair to give it such importance in the history of werewolf mythology.
Naturally, given Lykaon is such an important figure in werewolf studies, there’s plenty of discourse about him and his legend across the various werewolf scholars. But, since this post is already insanely long, you can read more about the scholarly discourse and bigger picture of Lykaon’s tale in my first werewolf scholarly publication that I published in 2021, which discusses Lykaon and his scholarly discourse considerably already! And of course you’ll be hearing more about him and his place in werewolf mythology in my future publications, as well.
Back to Lykaon himself: I hope to someday translate my own editions of some of these primary sources, such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses – or at least the passages relevant to werewolf studies, in particular – but we’ll see if I ever get around to doing that. Do keep an eye out for future werewolf studies works from me, however, as you will definitely be seeing a lot of those over the coming years.
In the meantime, I hope this post will serve you well enough to give a good idea and a little bit more depth than my previous post about the legend of King Lykaon and how important it is to werewolf mythology – and why you always hear so much about him.
Until next time!
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