Don’t Let a Wolf See You First! Pliny the Elder on Superstition and Lycanthropy

It seems that this week of Halloween is turning into Werewolf week for me. To be honest, while doing esoteric things like folding laundry, I have been watching the Netflix show Hemlock Grove (which has recently been described as “bad and strange”). Its werewolf has made me think back to lycanthropy in Greek and Roman myth. I started with Plato and Petronius yesterday.

Today, we have the rather famous account 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.

Pliny, NH 8.34 80-83

“But it 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 they 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.

F. W. Shipley’s Kind Introduction to Velleius Paterculus

“Velleius Paterculus does not rank among the great Olympians of classical literature either as stylist or as historian. But, as Pliny the elder says, no book is so poor that one cannot get some good out of it, and there is much in this comparatively neglected author that is worth reading once, at least in translation. In its aim to include all that is of value and interest in Greek and Latin literature from the days of Homer to the Fall of Constantinople the Loeb Library is performing what is perhaps its most valuable service in making more generally available the content of those comparatively unknown authors who, for stylistic or other reasons, are not to be reckoned among the great classics or do not deserve a careful study in the original.”

Dicere enim solebat nullum esse librum tam malum ut non aliqua parte prodesset. Pliny, Ep. III.5.10, quoting a saying of his uncle.

I copied this text from the inimitable Lacus Curtius who prints the Loeb from 1924.

Travels in the Wild North: The Fragments of Aristeas

Many authors from the ancient world—including Pausanias, Strabo, Pliny, Longinus and Herodotus–have left testimony of a seventh century BCE epic poet named Aristeas who came from Asia Minor and composed a poem, Arimaspea, of his travels in the wilds of the North. Here are the substantial fragments—I find the last especially haunting.

Fr. 4
‘The Issedoi [Issedones] glory in their long hair”

᾿Ισσηδοὶ χαίτηισιν ἀγαλλόμενοι ταναῆισι.

Fr. 5
“And they say there are neighboring men above them
To the north, many fine men and strong fighters too,
Wealthy in horses, with many lambs and many cattle.

καὶ φάσ<αν> ἀνθρώπους εἶναι καθύπερθεν ὁμούρους
πρὸς Βορέω, πολλούς τε καὶ ἐσθλοὺς κάρτα μαχητάς,
ἀφνειοὺς ἵπποισι, πολύρρηνας, πολυβούτας.

Fr. 6

“Each man has one eye in his charming face,
They are covered with hair, and the strongest of all men.”

ὀφθαλμὸν δ’ ἕν’ ἕκαστος ἔχει χαρίεντι μετώπωι,
χαίτηισι<ν> λάσιοι, πάντων στιβαρώτατοι ἀνδρῶν.

Fr. 11

“This is also a great marvel for our minds:
The men inhabit the water in the sea away from land.
They are dreadful people who do pitiful work.
They keep their eyes in the stars but their soul in the sea.
True, too, I think, when they raise their dear hands often to the gods
They pray with sacrificial victims terribly thrown around.”

θαῦμ’ ἡμῖν καὶ τοῦτο μέγα φρεσὶν ἡμετέρηισιν.
ἄνδρες ὕδωρ ναίουσιν ἀπὸ χθονὸς ἐν πελάγεσσι•
δύστηνοί τινές εἰσιν, ἔχουσι γὰρ ἔργα πονηρά•
ὄμματ’ ἐν ἄστροισι, ψυχὴν δ’ ἐνὶ πόντωι ἔχουσιν.
ἦ που πολλὰ θεοῖσι φίλας ἀνὰ χεῖρας ἔχοντες
εὔχονται σπλάγχνοισι κακῶς ἀναβαλλομένοισι.

The last line (σπλάγχνοισι κακῶς ἀναβαλλομένοισι) is translated by W. Rhys Roberts as “And with hearts in misery”. The verb anaballo can have this metaphorical meaning, but in combination with prayer and the noun splangkhnon (which typically means innards or sacrificial victim) the scene seems more to me to describe a strange or sacrilegious sacrifice (from the Greek point of view), especially with the adverb κακῶς. I am probably wrong about this…