This week we’ve mentioned therapeutic treatments for lycanthropy, the ritual origins of some Greek beliefs, and a Roman ghost story from Petronius. But we have so far overlooked the earliest reference to werewolves from classical antiquity, Herodotus’ description of the Neuroi.
The Neuroi are Skythian culturally, but one generation before Darius’ invasion they were driven from their country by snakes. It happens that their land produces many snakes; and even more descended upon them from the deserted regions to the point that they were overwhelmed and left their own country to live with the Boudinoi.
These men may actually be wizards. For the Skythians and even the Greeks who have settled in Skythia report that once each year the Neurian men turn into wolves for a few days and then transform back into themselves again. People who say these things don’t persuade me, but they tell the tale still and swear to it when they do.”
Νευροὶ δὲ νόμοισι μὲν χρέωνται Σκυθικοῖσι. Γενεῇ δὲ μιῇ πρότερόν σφεας τῆς Δαρείου στρατηλασίης κατέλαβε ἐκλιπεῖν τὴν χώρην πᾶσαν ὑπὸ ὀφίων· ὄφις γάρ σφι πολλοὺς μὲν ἡ χώρη ἀνέφαινε, οἱ δὲ πλέονες ἄνωθέν σφι ἐκ τῶν ἐρήμων ἐπέπεσον, ἐς ὃ πιεζόμενοι οἴκησαν μετὰ Βουδίνων τὴν ἑωυτῶν ἐκλιπόντες.
Κινδυνεύουσι δὲ οἱ ἄνθρωποι οὗτοι γόητες εἶναι. Λέγονται γὰρ ὑπὸ Σκυθέων καὶ ῾Ελλήνων τῶν ἐν τῇ Σκυθικῇ κατοικημένων ὡς ἔτεος ἑκάστου ἅπαξ τῶν Νευρῶν ἕκαστος λύκος γίνεται ἡμέρας ὀλίγας καὶ αὖτις ὀπίσω ἐς τὠυτὸ κατίσταται· ἐμὲ μέν νυν ταῦτα λέγοντες οὐ πείθουσι, λέγουσι δὲ οὐδὲν ἧσσον, καὶ ὀμνύουσι δὲ λέγοντες.
How and Wells’ Comment as follows on this passage (available on Perseus):
λύκος γίνεται. This earliest reference to the widespread superstition as to werewolves (cf. Tylor, P. C. i. 308 seq., and Frazer, Paus. iv. 189, for Greek parallels) is interesting, as the evidence is so emphatic. Others (e. g. Müllenhoff iii. 17) see in this story a reference to some festival like the Lupercalia.