Werewolf Week In Rome: Don’t Look a Wolf in the Eyes!

Here is the rather famous account of Werewolves from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 8.34) (for the full text: see Perseus). The Latin text on Perseus is incorrect, but fortunately Lacus Curtius is there to save the day.

wolfboys

Pliny, NH 8.34 80-83

“But in Italy they also believe that the gaze of a wolf is harmful—specifically that it will take the voice from any man they see first. Africa and Egypt have wolves that are slow and small, while the colder climates produce fierce and wild animals. We ought to believe with certainty that accounts of men turning into wolves and then back to themselves again are false; or we should be prepared  to believe all the tales that are fantastic from as many generations.

Nevertheless, since the tale is popular enough that it has earned the curse-term “versepellis”, I will explain its origin. Euanthes, not unknown among Greek authors, reports that the Arcadians hold that a member of a family of a certain Anthus is selected by lot, transported to a certain lake in the region, and, after he hangs his clothes on an oak tree, he crosses the lake and enters the desert where he turns into a wolf and joins with others of his kind for nine years.

If he keeps himself from humans for this period of time, he returns to the same lake and once he has crossed it regains his form, except that nine years of age have accumulated. Fabius adds to this tale that he also regains his clothing. It is amazing how far Greek gullibility will go! There is no lie so shameful that it will lack partisans.

Similarly, the author Apollas who wrote the Olympionics, claims that Demaenetus of Parrhasia, when the Arcadians were still performing human sacrifices to Jupiter Lycaeus, sampled the entrails of a child who had been sacrificed, and transformed into a wolf. That same man transformed back 10 years later, became an athlete, and returned to the Olympic games as a victor.

It is also believed that there is a thin tip of hair on the tail of this animal which acts as an aphrodisiac—when the animal is caught, it has no force unless it is plucked while the animal is still alive.”

Sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens. inertes hos parvosque Africa et Aegyptus gignunt, asperos trucesque frigidior plaga. homines in lupos verti rursusque restitui sibi falsum esse confidenter existimare debemus aut credere omnia quae fabulosa tot saeculis conperimus. unde tamen ista vulgo infixa sit fama in tantum, ut in maledictis versipelles habeat, indicabitur.

Euanthes, inter auctores Graeciae non spretus, scribit Arcadas tradere ex gente Anthi cuiusdam sorte familiae lectum ad stagnum quoddam regionis eius duci vestituque in quercu suspenso tranare atque abire in deserta transfigurarique in lupum et cum ceteris eiusdem generis congregari per annos VIIII. quo in tempore si homine se abstinuerit, reverti ad idem stagnum et, cum tranaverit, effigiem recipere, ad pristinum habitum addito novem annorum senio. id quoque adicit, eandem recipere vestem.

mirum est quo procedat Graeca credulitas! nullum tam inpudens mendacium est, ut teste careat. item Apollas, qui Olympionicas scripsit, narrat Demaenetum Parrhasium in sacrificio, quod Arcades Iovi Lycaeo humana etiamtum hostia facebant, immolati pueri exta degustasse et in lupum se convertisse, eundem X anno restitutum athleticae se exercuisse in pugilatu victoremque Olympia reversum.

quin et caudae huius animalis creditur vulgo inesse amatorium virus exiguo in villo eumque, cum capiatur, abici nec idem pollere nisi viventi dereptum.

A Banquet of Learning; A Dinner No-Show

One note to think about what you might serve at dinner in addition to food; another to inspire you for those last minute cancellations…

Cicero Topica V

“But because I have welcomed someone eager for a feast of learning, I shall prepare it so well that there will be some leftovers rather than allow you to leave still hungry for more….”

Sed quoniam avidum hominem ad has discendi epulas recepi, sic accipiam, ut reliquiarum sit potius aliquid quam te hinc patiar non satiatum discedere.

 

Pliny the Younger to Septimius Clarus (Letter 15)

“Who do you think you are?! You agree to come do dinner…but you don’t come? The judgment is passed: You must pay my cost to a penny, and this is not moderate. All was set out: a lettuce for each, three snails, two eggs, wine with honey chilled with snow—for you should include this too among the highest expense since it dissolves on the plate—and there were olives, beets, pickles, onions and countless other things no less neat. You would have heard a comedy or a reader or a singer of all of them, given my generosity. But you went where I don’t know, preferring oysters, a sow’s belly, sea-urchins, and Spanish dancers. You will suffer for this, somehow, believe me. You did something bad to one of us, certainly to me, but perhaps to yourself too. How much we played, laughed, and studied! You might eat better food at many homes, but nowhere will you eat so enjoyably, simply, and freely. In sum: try me: and if later you don’t excuse yourself from another’s meal, you can always lie to me again. Goodbye!”

Plinius Septicio Claro Suo S.

Heus tu! promittis ad cenam, nec venis? Dicitur ius: ad assem impendium reddes, nec id modicum. Paratae erant lactucae singulae, cochleae ternae, ova bina, halica cum mulso et nive (nam hanc quoque computabis, immo hanc in primis quae perit in ferculo), olivae betacei cucurbitae bulbi, alia mille non minus lauta. Audisses comoedos vel lectorem vel lyristen vel (quae mea liberalitas) omnes. At tu apud nescio quem ostrea vulvas echinos Gaditanas maluisti. Dabis poenas, non dico quas. Dure fecisti: invidisti, nescio an tibi, certe mihi, sed tamen et tibi. Quantum nos lusissemus risissemus studuissemus! Potes adparatius cenare apud multos, nusquam hilarius simplicius incautius. In summa experire, et nisi postea te aliis potius excusaveris, mihi semper excusa. Vale.

Image result for Ancient Roman library food
Fresco from Pompeii

Werewolf Week Goes Roman: Pliny on Avoiding Lupine Eye Contact

Here is the rather famous account of Werewolves from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 8.34) (for the full text: see Perseus). The Latin text on Perseus is incorrect, but fortunately Lacus Curtius is there to save the day.

wolfboys

Pliny, NH 8.34 80-83

“But in Italy they also believe that the gaze of a wolf is harmful—specifically that it will take the voice from any man they see first. Africa and Egypt have wolves that are slow and small, while the colder climates produce fierce and wild animals. We ought to believe with certainty that accounts of men turning into wolves and then back to themselves again are false; or we should be prepared  to believe all the tales that are fantastic from as many generations.

Nevertheless, since the tale is popular enough that it has earned the curse-term “versepellis”, I will explain its origin. Euanthes, not unknown among Greek authors, reports that the Arcadians hold that a member of a family of a certain Anthus is selected by lot, transported to a certain lake in the region, and, after he hangs his clothes on an oak tree, he crosses the lake and enters the desert where he turns into a wolf and joins with others of his kind for nine years.

If he keeps himself from humans for this period of time, he returns to the same lake and once he has crossed it regains his form, except that nine years of age have accumulated. Fabius adds to this tale that he also regains his clothing. It is amazing how far Greek gullibility will go! There is no lie so shameful that it will lack partisans.

Similarly, the author Apollas who wrote the Olympionics, claims that Demaenetus of Parrhasia, when the Arcadians were still performing human sacrifices to Jupiter Lycaeus, sampled the entrails of a child who had been sacrificed, and transformed into a wolf. That same man transformed back 10 years later, became an athlete, and returned to the Olympic games as a victor.

It is also believed that there is a thin tip of hair on the tail of this animal which acts as an aphrodisiac—when the animal is caught, it has no force unless it is plucked while the animal is still alive.”

Sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens. inertes hos parvosque Africa et Aegyptus gignunt, asperos trucesque frigidior plaga. homines in lupos verti rursusque restitui sibi falsum esse confidenter existimare debemus aut credere omnia quae fabulosa tot saeculis conperimus. unde tamen ista vulgo infixa sit fama in tantum, ut in maledictis versipelles habeat, indicabitur.

Euanthes, inter auctores Graeciae non spretus, scribit Arcadas tradere ex gente Anthi cuiusdam sorte familiae lectum ad stagnum quoddam regionis eius duci vestituque in quercu suspenso tranare atque abire in deserta transfigurarique in lupum et cum ceteris eiusdem generis congregari per annos VIIII. quo in tempore si homine se abstinuerit, reverti ad idem stagnum et, cum tranaverit, effigiem recipere, ad pristinum habitum addito novem annorum senio. id quoque adicit, eandem recipere vestem.

mirum est quo procedat Graeca credulitas! nullum tam inpudens mendacium est, ut teste careat. item Apollas, qui Olympionicas scripsit, narrat Demaenetum Parrhasium in sacrificio, quod Arcades Iovi Lycaeo humana etiamtum hostia facebant, immolati pueri exta degustasse et in lupum se convertisse, eundem X anno restitutum athleticae se exercuisse in pugilatu victoremque Olympia reversum.

quin et caudae huius animalis creditur vulgo inesse amatorium virus exiguo in villo eumque, cum capiatur, abici nec idem pollere nisi viventi dereptum.

Pliny on the Life of Scholarly Leisure

Pliny (Epistula 1.9) discusses the distress of urban business, and the delight of study in a country retreat:

It is marvelous how on individual days, you can account for your time (or at least, you seem to be able to), but when many days are joined together, the account does not add up. For, if you were to ask someone, ‘What did you do today?’ he would respond, ‘I was there for the ceremony of the toga virilis, I went to an engagement or a wedding, this one guy needed me to sign a document, this other guy needed my legal assistance, and a third man asked for my counsel.’ Now, these things all seem necessary on the day during which you do them, but when you look back and consider that you have done them every day, they seem totally inane, especially once you retire from the city.

Then the thought comes upon you: ‘How many days I have wasted in such cold business!’ This happens to me when I retire to my villa in Laurentum to read, write, or even give a rest to my body, by whose support the spirit is held up. There, I neither hear nor see anything which I would regret hearing or seeing; no one slanders someone else with malicious talk in my presence, and I myself need not reproach anyone, except perhaps myself when I write poorly. I am made anxious by no hopes or fears, and am disquieted by no rumors: I speak only with myself and my books. O, what an upright and pure life! O, sweet, honest leisure, perhaps more beautiful than any business! O sea, o shore, o you true and secluded home of the Muses, how many things you discover, how many things you say! Accordingly you too should abandon that noisy bustle, that vain running-about and those exceptionally unsuitable labors, and as soon as you get the chance, you should give yourself to study or leisure. As our own Atilius said in that most erudite and charming way of his, it is more satisfying to be at leisure than to do nothing. Farewell!

Plinius Minicio Fundano suo s.

Mirum est quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque non constet. [2] Nam si quem interroges ‘Hodie quid egisti?’, respondeat: ‘Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in consilium rogavit.’ [3] Haec quo die feceris, necessaria, eadem, si cotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: ‘Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!’ [4] Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. [5] Nihil audio quod audisse, nihil dico quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me cum parum commode scribo; nulla spe nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor: mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. [6] O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! [7] Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. [8] Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere. Vale.

Two Roman Notes of Encouragement for Procrastinating Authors

I suspect there are others are just like me right now, keeping busy and avoiding the start of summer projects. Alas, Martial’s words ring in my head every morning: “You will live tomorrow, you say? Postumus, even living today is too late; he is the wise man, who lived yesterday.” (Cras uiues? Hodie iam uiuere, Postume, serum est: / ille sapit quisquis, Postume, uixit heri, 5.58). Here are two Roman authors talking about writing and publication.

Seneca, De Tranquillitate Animi 13-14

“Why do we need to compose work that will endure for generations? Why not stop driving to make sure posterity won’t be quiet about you? You have been born mortal—a silent funeral is less annoying! So, for the sake of passing time, write something for your use in a simple style not for publication. There is less need to work for those who study just for today.”

Quid opus est saeculis duratura componere? Vis tu non id agere, ne te posteri taceant? Morti natus es, minus molestiarum habet funus tacitum! Itaque occupandi temporis causa, in usum tuum, non in praeconium aliquid simplici stilo scribe; minore labore opus est studentibus in diem.

 

Pliny the Younger, Letters 10 To Octavius Rufus

“For the meantime, do as you wish regarding publication too. Recite it from time to time, then you may feel more eager to publish and then you may experience the joy I have long been predicting for you, and not without reason. I imagine what crowds, what admiration, what clamor then silence awaits you. (For myself, I like this as much as applause when I speak or read, as long as it shows a desire to hear me speaking). There is a great reward ready for you! Stop undermining your work with endless delay! When even this is excessive, we need to be wary of hearing the name of idleness, laziness, or even fear. Farewell!”

Et de editione quidem interim ut voles: recita saltem quo magis libeat emittere, utque tandem percipias gaudium, quod ego olim pro te non temere praesumo. Imaginor enim qui concursus quae admiratio te, qui clamor quod etiam silentium maneat; quo ego, cum dico vel recito, non minus quam clamore delector, sit modo silentium acre et intentum, et cupidum ulteriora audiendi. Hoc fructu tanto tam parato desine studia tua infinita ista cunctatione fraudare; quae cum modum excedit, verendum est ne inertiae et desidiae vel etiam timiditatis nomen accipiat. Vale.

Image result for Ancient Roman Book

Addendum:

Pliny the Younger, Letters 1.2

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness.)

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum

Don’t Look a Wolf in the Face: Pliny on Lycanthropy

Here is the rather famous account of Werewolves from Pliny the Elder’s Natural History 8.34) (for the full text: see Perseus). The Latin text on Perseus is incorrect, but fortunately Lacus Curtius is there to save the day.

wolfboys

Pliny, NH 8.34 80-83

“But in Italy they also believe that the gaze of a wolf is harmful—specifically that it will take the voice from any man they see first. Africa and Egypt have wolves that are slow and small, while the colder climates produce fierce and wild animals. We ought to believe with certainty that accounts of men turning into wolves and then back to themselves again are false; or we should be prepared  to believe all the tales that are fantastic from as many generations.

Nevertheless, since the tale is popular enough that it has earned the curse-term “versepellis”, I will explain its origin. Euanthes, not unknown among Greek authors, reports that the Arcadians hold that a member of a family of a certain Anthus is selected by lot, transported to a certain lake in the region, and, after he hangs his clothes on an oak tree, he crosses the lake and enters the desert where he turns into a wolf and joins with others of his kind for nine years.

If he keeps himself from humans for this period of time, he returns to the same lake and once he has crossed it regains his form, except that nine years of age have accumulated. Fabius adds to this tale that he also regains his clothing. It is amazing how far Greek gullibility will go! There is no lie so shameful that it will lack partisans.

Similarly, the author Apollas who wrote the Olympionics, claims that Demaenetus of Parrhasia, when the Arcadians were still performing human sacrifices to Jupiter Lycaeus, sampled the entrails of a child who had been sacrificed, and transformed into a wolf. That same man transformed back 10 years later, became an athlete, and returned to the Olympic games as a victor.

It is also believed that there is a thin tip of hair on the tail of this animal which acts as an aphrodisiac—when the animal is caught, it has no force unless it is plucked while the animal is still alive.”

Sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens. inertes hos parvosque Africa et Aegyptus gignunt, asperos trucesque frigidior plaga. homines in lupos verti rursusque restitui sibi falsum esse confidenter existimare debemus aut credere omnia quae fabulosa tot saeculis conperimus. unde tamen ista vulgo infixa sit fama in tantum, ut in maledictis versipelles habeat, indicabitur.

Euanthes, inter auctores Graeciae non spretus, scribit Arcadas tradere ex gente Anthi cuiusdam sorte familiae lectum ad stagnum quoddam regionis eius duci vestituque in quercu suspenso tranare atque abire in deserta transfigurarique in lupum et cum ceteris eiusdem generis congregari per annos VIIII. quo in tempore si homine se abstinuerit, reverti ad idem stagnum et, cum tranaverit, effigiem recipere, ad pristinum habitum addito novem annorum senio. id quoque adicit, eandem recipere vestem.

mirum est quo procedat Graeca credulitas! nullum tam inpudens mendacium est, ut teste careat. item Apollas, qui Olympionicas scripsit, narrat Demaenetum Parrhasium in sacrificio, quod Arcades Iovi Lycaeo humana etiamtum hostia facebant, immolati pueri exta degustasse et in lupum se convertisse, eundem X anno restitutum athleticae se exercuisse in pugilatu victoremque Olympia reversum.

quin et caudae huius animalis creditur vulgo inesse amatorium virus exiguo in villo eumque, cum capiatur, abici nec idem pollere nisi viventi dereptum.

Pliny on the Life of Scholarly Leisure

Pliny (Epistula 1.9) discusses the distress of urban business, and the delight of study in a country retreat:

It is marvelous how on individual days, you can account for your time (or at least, you seem to be able to), but when many days are joined together, the account does not add up. For, if you were to ask someone, ‘What did you do today?’ he would respond, ‘I was there for the ceremony of the toga virilis, I went to an engagement or a wedding, this one guy needed me to sign a document, this other guy needed my legal assistance, and a third man asked for my counsel.’ Now, these things all seem necessary on the day during which you do them, but when you look back and consider that you have done them every day, they seem totally inane, especially once you retire from the city.

Then the thought comes upon you: ‘How many days I have wasted in such cold business!’ This happens to me when I retire to my villa in Laurentum to read, write, or even give a rest to my body, by whose support the spirit is held up. There, I neither hear nor see anything which I would regret hearing or seeing; no one slanders someone else with malicious talk in my presence, and I myself need not reproach anyone, except perhaps myself when I write poorly. I am made anxious by no hopes or fears, and am disquieted by no rumors: I speak only with myself and my books. O, what an upright and pure life! O, sweet, honest leisure, perhaps more beautiful than any business! O sea, o shore, o you true and secluded home of the Muses, how many things you discover, how many things you say! Accordingly you too should abandon that noisy bustle, that vain running-about and those exceptionally unsuitable labors, and as soon as you get the chance, you should give yourself to study or leisure. As our own Atilius said in that most erudite and charming way of his, it is more satisfying to be at leisure than to do nothing. Farewell!

Plinius Minicio Fundano suo s.

Mirum est quam singulis diebus in urbe ratio aut constet aut constare videatur, pluribus iunctisque non constet. [2] Nam si quem interroges ‘Hodie quid egisti?’, respondeat: ‘Officio togae virilis interfui, sponsalia aut nuptias frequentavi, ille me ad signandum testamentum, ille in advocationem, ille in consilium rogavit.’ [3] Haec quo die feceris, necessaria, eadem, si cotidie fecisse te reputes, inania videntur, multo magis cum secesseris. Tunc enim subit recordatio: ‘Quot dies quam frigidis rebus absumpsi!’ [4] Quod evenit mihi, postquam in Laurentino meo aut lego aliquid aut scribo aut etiam corpori vaco, cuius fulturis animus sustinetur. [5] Nihil audio quod audisse, nihil dico quod dixisse paeniteat; nemo apud me quemquam sinistris sermonibus carpit, neminem ipse reprehendo, nisi tamen me cum parum commode scribo; nulla spe nullo timore sollicitor, nullis rumoribus inquietor: mecum tantum et cum libellis loquor. [6] O rectam sinceramque vitam! O dulce otium honestumque ac paene omni negotio pulchrius! O mare, o litus, verum secretumque μουσεῖον, quam multa invenitis, quam multa dictatis! [7] Proinde tu quoque strepitum istum inanemque discursum et multum ineptos labores, ut primum fuerit occasio, relinque teque studiis vel otio trade. [8] Satius est enim, ut Atilius noster eruditissime simul et facetissime dixit, otiosum esse quam nihil agere. Vale.

Pliny the Younger on Publishing

From Pliny’s Letters 1.2:

“Clearly, something must be published – ah, it would be best if I could just publish what I have already finished! (You may hear in this the wish of laziness.) But I must publish something for a number of reasons, chief of which is that the books which I have already sent out are still in people’s hands, though they no longer have that pleasing novelty about them. But perhaps the booksellers are just pouring flattery into my ears – well, let them pour away, since their lies help goad on my work. Farewell!”

Est enim plane aliquid edendum — atque utinam hoc potissimum quod paratum est! Audis desidiae votum — edendum autem ex pluribus causis, maxime quod libelli quos emisimus dicuntur in manibus esse, quamvis iam gratiam novitatis exuerint; nisi tamen auribus nostris bibliopolae blandiuntur. Sed sane blandiantur, dum per hoc mendacium nobis studia nostra commendent. Vale.

Chameleon Tales from Pliny

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 10.12

 

12 Concerning the miraculous tales which Pliny the Elder ascribes most unworthily to the philosopher Democritus; and also about the image of a flying dove

 

In the twenty-eighth book of his Natural Histories, Pliny the Elder reports that there was a book by the most noble Philosopher Democritus On the Power and Nature of the Chameleon and that he had read it himself. He ascribes to it many silly and ridiculous things, allegedly written by Democritus—a few of which I remember, unwillingly, since they are so repulsive. For instance, that Democritus claimed that a hawk, the fastest of all birds, if he flies over a chameleon by chance, is suddenly dragged to the ground by a chameleon crawling below it and that after it comes down by some force offers itself willingly on the ground to be taken and torn to pieces by other birds!

Another thing that is beyond all human belief: if the head and neck of a chameleon is burned with the wood which we call oak, rain and thunder occur suddenly; the same thing, allegedly, happens if that animal is burned on the top of a house. There is still another tale which, by Hercules, I doubted that I should include since it is so absurd. But I have decided clearly that it is necessary that we speak what we think about the false incitements that come from this type of wonder—the types of things by which many sharp minds—indeed, those which are most desirous of knowledge—are often possessed and which lead them especially to ruin. But I return to Pliny. He says to roast the chameleon’s left foot with iron heated in a fire along with a herb  which bears the same name (“chameleon”), and to mix both into an ointment and to rub it into paste and place it in a wooden container. Whoever carries that, even if he is in the middle of a crowd, can be seen by no one.”

chameleon

12De portentis fabularum, quae Plinius Secundus indignissime in Democritum philosophum confert; ibidem de simulacro volucri columbae.

 

1 Librum esse Democriti, nobilissimi philosophorum, de vi et natura chamaeleontis eumque se legisse Plinius Secundus in naturalis historiae vicesimo octavo refert multaque vana atque intoleranda auribus deinde quasi a Democrito scripta tradit, ex quibus pauca haec inviti meminimus, quia pertaesum est: 2 accipitrem avium rapidissimum a chamaeleonte humi reptante, si eum forte supervolet, detrahi et cadere vi quadam in terram ceterisque avibus laniandum sponte sua obicere sese et dedere. 3 Item aliud ultra humanam fidem: caput et collum chamaeleontis si uratur ligno, quod appellatur “robur”, imbres et tonitrus fieri derepente, idque ipsum usu venire, si iecur eiusdem animalis in summis tegulis uratur. 4 Item aliud, quod hercle an ponerem dubitavi, – ita est deridiculae vanitatis – nisi idcirco plane posui, quod oportuit nos dicere, quid de istiusmodi admirationum fallaci inlecebra sentiremus, qua plerumque capiuntur et ad perniciem elabuntur ingenia maxime sollertia eaque potissimum, quae discendi cupidiora sunt. 5 Sed redeo ad Plinium. Sinistrum pedem ait chamaeleontis ferro ex igni calefacto torreri cum herba, quae appellatur eodem nomine chamaeleontis, et utrumque macerari unguento conligique in modum pastilli atque in vas mitti ligneum et eum, qui id vas ferat, etiamsi is in medio palam versetur, a nullo videri posse.

Happy Halloween: Learning about Werewolves from Ancient Texts

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.

Did the Wolf Win or Lose this FIght?
Did the Wolf Win or Lose this Fight?

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.

  1. Herodotus’ Histories: A Description of the Neuri, a tribe near the Skythians who could turn into wolves and back.
  2. Plato’s Republic: Lycanthropy is used as a metaphor for the compulsive behavior of tyrants.
  3. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: Pliny describes the origins of ideas about lycanthropy and blames the traditions on the credulity of the Greeks!
  4. Petronius’ Satyricon: A character tells the story of a companion transforming into a wolf at night and back at day.
  5. Pausanias’ Geography of Greece: Like Pliny, Pausanias tells the story of the human sacrifice performed by Lykaon as an origin of lycanthropic narratives.
  6. 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.
  7. Augustine of Hippo, City of God:  St. Augustine (5th Century CE) gives an account similar to Pliny’s, but attributes it to Varro.
  8. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

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