This week I went full speed down a lykanthropic rabbit-hole. (Well, maybe I should call it a wolf-hole or something?). Having the time to pursue sudden and intense interests is one of the nice things about having tenure. The ability to do so with some speed and knowledge is the nice thing of so many years flipping through dictionaries and sneezing in libraries.
One of the many reasons we started this site (in addition to combating all the false and unattributed quotations online, bringing lesser known material to wider audiences, and entertaining ourselves) is that we wanted the impetus and opportunity to explore material only tangentially connected to our work inside and outside the classroom. More often than not, these boundaries blur–sometimes the classroom spills over here. Other times, our ‘discoveries’ and fleeting obsessions start here and end up back in the classroom.
This interest in ancient werewolves started on a Monday morning. I wanted to do something thematic for Halloween. I ended up devoting a week to it. Here are the sources I’ve gathered in rough chronological order. Most of the material is mentioned in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, although the entry says nothing about the medical texts.
- Herodotus’ Histories: A Description of the Neuri, a tribe near the Skythians who could turn into wolves and back.
- Plato’s Republic: Lycanthropy is used as a metaphor for the compulsive behavior of tyrants.
- Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: Pliny describes the origins of ideas about lycanthropy and blames the traditions on the credulity of the Greeks!
- Petronius’ Satyricon: A character tells the story of a companion transforming into a wolf at night and back at day.
- Pausanias’ Geography of Greece: Like Pliny, Pausanias tells the story of the human sacrifice performed by Lykaon as an origin of lycanthropic narratives.
- Greek Medical Treatises on the Treatment of Lycanthropy: Medical authors from the time of Marcus Aurelius to the fall of Byzantium treat lycanthropy as a mental illness.
- Augustine of Hippo, City of God: St. Augustine (5th Century CE) gives an account similar to Pliny’s, but attributes it to Varro.
- Michael Psellus, Poemata 9.841:An 11th century CE monk wrote a book of didactic poems about medicine. His description of lycanthropy is clearly influenced by the Greek medical treatises.
What I have learned from these texts:
- The early Greek tradition is harmonious with some structural aspects of Greek myth. Lycanthropy is related to sacrilegious eating–in a system where what you eat communicates who you are, human flesh is taboo (monsters eat it). In the Greek lycanthropic tradition, this is non mono-directional. Werewolves who abstain from human flesh can turn back again.
- The later ‘folkloric’ tradition (e.g. Petronius) is separate from this structural logic. in the earlier tradition, men transform for 9-10 years (in something of a purificatory period). The other tradition has shorter periods (nightly) that don’t correlate with sacrilege: Petronius’ werewolf doesn’t eat human flesh (that we know of).
- The moon-association may be a later accretion on the tradition. All of the medical texts associate werewolves with the night; the Roman texts agree. The lunar cycle may be implied in the Petronius tale (where the transformation happens when the light is almost as bright as day) or in the later medical texts vis a vis the connection with menstrual cycles.
- There is one hint of a dog-bite being associated with lycanthropy, but no foundational notion that you contract lycanthropy from a werewolf. In addition, there are no specific suggestions or methods for how to kill a werewolf.