The Arcadians

We’ve been looking at more generalized topics for a while now – let’s look at a few more particular legends again, shall we?

Let’s go all the way back to ancient Greece, a place plenty of people aren’t aware had lots, and lots of werewolf legends. This week we’ll focus on the Arcadians.

You’ve heard me discuss Arcadia – a region in ancient Greece – before, back in the First Werewolf post that focused on King Lycaon and his legend. Even if, you know, Lycaon was in no way actually the “first” werewolf, but hey, lots of people consider him to be. More details in the linked post.

Werewolf rituals happened a lot throughout Arcadia, though, beyond just Lycaon. A festival based around Zeus Lykaios (anglicized as Lycaeus) involved a member of the Antaeus family drawing lots, and the chosen one was taken to a lake in Arcadia. They hung their clothing on a tree, swam across the river, and left the other side as a wolf. As the story goes, if they didn’t eat human flesh for the nine years they’d spend in wolf form, they could swim back across that lake and become human again.

The festival Lykaia involved other gods as well, such as a wolf portrayal of Apollo (many scholars will debate that with you, however, and claim that there were things lost in translation, bla bla bla, it actually is an epithet involving light, bla bla, for some reason they just don’t want these gods to be associated with positive portrayals of wolves; no idea what their deal is). There’s actually extensive writing in regards to these rituals and what they involved (including possible cannibalism), but the general idea is always the same – become a wolf for nine years, and if you pass the test, you return to a human form.

Then there was a guy named Demaenatus, a contender in the Olympic games, who took part in the Lykaia and ate human flesh. He immediately turned into a wolf, stayed that way for ten years – then turned back, and went on to participate in the Olympics.

In the eighth book of Pausanias’s Description of Greece, he lengthily describes all these different werewolf rituals and legends of Arcadia – and there’s a whole lot to get through. Mentions of a son of Lycaon, named Pelasgus, who built the city Lycosura on Mount Lycaeus (today called Mount Lykaion, a less anglicized spelling). Pelasgus founded the Lucaean games, similar to the Olympics – named after his father Lycaon.

These Lucaean games involved sacrifices to Lycaean Zeus, who transformed his faithful servants into wolves following the completion of the sacrifice ritual. But again, this wasn’t permanent or a back-and-forth kind of deal – this was something they did to become a wolf for nine years and essentially test themselves to see if they could resist the temptation of eating human flesh.

Almost all the major Greek and Roman writers refer to werewolves in some capacity, also including Plato, Homer, and Virgil. Plato mentions them in book eight of Republic, specifically the werewolf rituals in Arcadia, and Homer talks about the Lycians, who worshiped Lycegenaean Apollo (meaning “born of the wolf”). Leto transformed herself into a wolf at one point and entered the land of the Hyperboreans, founding a region called Lycia (”of a wolf”) – then we get Apollo coming along to Lycia in the form of a wolf, too. We don’t get much info on the Lycians, though, or what kind of beliefs and rituals they might’ve had, but we do at least know the gods they revered turned into wolves.

This is just a few examples of how many werewolves roamed in Greek and Roman legends – way too many to cover (especially in any kind of detail) in just one post! But hey, there you have it: the Arcadians were big werewolf fans and, as a culture, had lots of connections to wolves and werewolves alike.