“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.
“What is the beginning of the change from guardian to tyrant? Isn’t clear when the guardian begins to do that very thing which myth says happened at the shrine of Lykaion Zeus in Arcadia?
Which is? He said.
That once someone tastes a bit of human innards mixed up with the other sacrifices he becomes a wolf by necessity? Haven’t you heard this tale?
Is it not something the same with a protector of the people? Once he controls a mob that obeys him, he cannot restrain himself from tribal blood, but he prosecutes unjustly, the sorts of things men love to do, and brings a man into court for murder, eliminating the life of a man—and with tongue and unholy mouth that have tasted the murder of his kind, he exiles, kills, and promises the cutting of debts and the redistribution of land. Is it not by necessity that such a man is fated either to be killed by his enemies or to become a tyrant, to turn into a wolf from a man?”
In ancient Greek myth, Lykaon (Lycaon, related to lúkos, “wolf”) was a king of Arcadia. According to Pausanias (8.31-5) , Lykaon sacrificed a newborn child to Zeus. In other sources he offers the infant mixed up with other food to test Zeus’ divinity (although some attribute the deed to his sons, see Apollodorus, 3.8.1). Zeus killed the sons with lightning; Lykaon was transformed into a wolf. Stay tuned for more of this in coming days.
But let’s start it all out with the oldest textual reference to werewolves in the western tradition:
“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.”
λύκοςγίνεται. 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.
This week we charged full speed down a lykanthropic rabbit-hole. (Well, maybe I should call it a wolf-hole or something?). 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.
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.
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.
There is a Byzantine didactic poem based on Greek medical treatises. Thankfully, it does not skip the good stuff.
The poem is from a collection of didactic verses attributed to Michael Psellos of Constantinople who lived and worked in the 11th century CE. The text comes from the Teubner edition of his poems edited by L. G. Westernik (1982).
“One kind of melancholy is lykanthropy.
And it is clearly a type of misanthropy.
Mark thus a man who rushes from the day
When you see him at night running round graves,
With a pale face, dumb dry eyes, not a care in his rage.”
Oribasius is said to have studied medicine in Alexandria; he later served as the court doctor to Julian the Apostate. He wrote several encyclopedic summaries of medical knowledge at the time. The text produced for a friend’s son (Synopsis ad Eustathium) is identical to that attributed to Paulus of Aegina and seems to form the core of medical treatises on lycanthropy.
“Men who are afflicted with lycanthropy go out at night and imitate wolves in every way, spending time until daybreak among the gravestones. You will recognize that someone is suffering from this by the following symptoms. They appear pale and look weak; they have dry eyes and cannot cry. You may observe that their eyes are hollow and their tongue is especially dry: they cannot really produce saliva. They are thus thirsty and in addition they have wounded shins from scraping the ground frequently.
These are the symptoms; for treatment it is important to recognize that this is a type of melancholy which you may treat at the time the disease is noticed by cutting open the veins and draining blood until the patient almost passes out. Let him be washed in a sweet bath. After rubbing him down with milk-whey for three days, apply a pumpkin salve* to him on the second and third day. Following these cleansings, anoint him with the antidote for viper-venom and do the rest of the things prescribed for melancholy. When they disease has already come over those who are accustomed to sleepwalk, anoint them with lotion. And rub opium on their ears and nostrils when they are ready to sleep.”
* The pumpkin or gourd (Gr. kolokunthos) was associated with life and health due to its “juicy nature”; see LSJ s.v. This may explain its ritual/therapeutic use both in cleansing an association with death and with treating a patient exhibiting extreme symptoms of dryness.
Aetius was a Byzantine doctor and writer who may have lived as early as the fifth century CE.He also studied at Alexandria and collated sixteen books of medicine—much of which was drawn from Galen and Oribasius. His indebtedness to the latter is clear from his passage on lycanthropy, but there are interesting additions. I have marked the significant additions in bold.
On Lykanthropy or Kynanthropy, following Marcellus*
Those who are afflicted by the disease once-called kynanthropy or lycanthropy go out at night during the month Pheurouarion** and imitate wolves or dogs in every way as they spend time until daybreak around gravestones especially. You will recognize people who suffer in this way from the following symptoms: They are pale, they look weak, they have dry eyes and a dry tongue and they don’t completely secrete saliva. They are thirsty and they have festering wounds on their shins from falling continuously and from dog bites.
Such are the symptoms. For treatment, you need to understand that lycanthropy is a type of melancholy. You treat it at the time the disease is noticed by cutting open the veins and draining the blood until the point when the patient passes out, then treat the sick with well-flavored food. Let him be washed in a sweet bath, and after rubbing him with milk-whey for three days, apply a pumpkin salve to him from [Rouphos, Archigenos, or Ioustos]. After these cleansings, anoint him with the viper-venom antidote. Also do all the other things that are prescribed earlier for melancholy.
When the disease comes on in the evening, rub down the heads of those who tend to sleepwalk with a lotion and for those who hunt by scent, smear some opium on their nostrils. Sometimes it is also necessary to administer a sleeping medicine.”
*According to the Suda, Marcellus was a doctor of Marcus Aurelius (2nd Century) who wrote two books on medicine in dactylic hexameter.
**Presumably this coincides with the month February and may have a special connection with Lycanthropy due to the Lupercalia.
Paulus (of Aegina, c. 7th Century CE) A 7th Century CE Byzantine Physician who wrote De Re Medica Libri Septem) The Suda (s.v. Paulus) writes: Παῦλος, Αἰγινήτης, ἰατρός. ἔγραψεν ἰατρικὰ βιβλία διάφορα (“Paulos, from Aeigina, a doctor. He wrote various medical books”).
The text below is identical to that attributed to Oribasius:
“Men who are afflicted with lycanthropy go out at night and imitate wolves in every way, spending time until daybreak among gravestones. You will recognize that someone is suffering from this by the following symptoms. They appear pale and look weak; they have dry eyes and cannot cry. You may observe that their eyes are hollow and their tongue is especially dry: they cannot really produce saliva. They are thus thirsty and in addition they have wounded shins from scraping the ground frequently.
These are the symptoms; for treatment it is important to recognize that this is a type of melancholy, which you may treat at the time the disease is noticed by cutting open the veins and draining blood almost until the patient passes out. Let him be washed in a sweet bath. After rubbing him down with milk-whey for three days, apply a pumpkin salve to him on the second and third day. Following these cleansings, anoint him with the antidote for viper-venom and do the rest of the things prescribed for melancholy. When the disease has already come over those who are accustomed to sleepwalk, anoint them with lotion. And rub opium on the ears and nostrils of those preparing to sleep.”
Johannes Zacharias Actuarius was also a Byzantine doctor. He composed many works on medicine that drew on Galen, Aëtiusand Paulus—which is clear from his text on lycanthropy. Significant differences from Aëtius’ text are in bold.
De Diagnosi 1.34.24
“A type of this madnessis called lycanthropy—it convinces those so afflicted to go outside in the middle of the night, among the graves and desolate places, like wolves and to return at night, to become themselves again, and to remain at home. But some of them have feet and shins marked up from touching stones and thorns and they have dry eyes and tongue. They are thirsty, and they look weak. I will pass over how much the others suffer—but some of them die after fearing death for long while others desire it fiercely. In the same way, some avoid large groups of people and maintain the strictest silence, while the others, if they are not among a crowd where they remain calm, they make a racket and seem out of their minds. These things happen when some kind of humor is imbalanced, and the place which reddens when it comes to the surface and returns energy to the person’s spirit.”
Anonymi Medici, A Collection of ancient treatises on disease and treatments. Some tracts are dated to the first century CE. There are some textual issues I have only barely tried to solve. The additions and differences seem to imply a text later than Paulus or Aëtius.
“Lycanthropy is a type of madness when people go out at night and spend time among graves. You will recognize those who suffer from it thus. Their skin is pale and they appear weak. They have dry eyes and they neither cry nor produce moisture. You may note that their eyes are hollow and their forehead is damp; they may have an extremely dry tongue and may not completely produce saliva. They are thirsty and they have open wounds on their shins from striking them frequently. Their body bears the particular marks of melancholy sometimes, since this is melancholic in nature, and they have been afflicted [with this] by some thought or sleeplessness, or spoiled food, or contact with birth fluids [?], bloody discharge, or menstrual blood. These are the indications and signs of lycanthropy.
This is how you treat it: I cut the veins at the elbows and I drain blood almost until the patient passes out then treat the sick with well-flavored food. Let him be washed in a sweet bath. After rubbing him down with milk-whey for three days, apply pumpkin salve to him on the second and third day. After running him down with milk-whey for three days, apply a pumpkin salve to him on the second and third day. After these cleansings, I would anoint him with the antidote for viper-venom and do the rest of the things prescribed for melancholy. In addition, I would suggest draining off any bloody discharge and avoiding any menstrual blood in order to stop the conditions that created the disease. Also commendable is furnishing diuretics and cleaning any pustules.”
As a Homerist, my experience in late Greek prose is limited; my experience in medical terminology is worse. I believe I have made sense of all of this, but I am happy to have suggestions or additions.
τῇ διὰ τῆς κολοκυνθίδος ἱερᾷ: This phrase has given me fits. I at first made the mistake of taking ἱερᾷ to mean something sacred (e.g. rite, but not “shrine”, because that would be neuter!). But the LSJ lists ἱερὰ ἡ: a kind of serpent adding “II. A name for many medicines in the Greek pharmacopia…of a plaster; esp. of aloes.” So, since it does not seem likely that the treatment being prescribed is a “snake through a pumpkin”. In addition, later Greek prose uses dia + genitive to denote the thing from which something was made (LSJ s.v. dia A.III.c.2). So, I have settled on a “pumpkin salve”
τῇ διὰ τῆϲ κολυκυνθίδοϲ ἱερᾷ ῾Ρούφου ἢ ᾿Αρχιγένουϲ ἢ ᾿Ιούϲτου: I have no idea what is going on with the three proper names here: are these places or people that produce the pumpkin poultice?
In the second century CE, Pausanias composed ten books on the sights and wonders of ancient Greece. His text provides some of the only accounts of architecture, art and culture that have been lost in intervening centuries. In his eighth book, he turns to Arcadia and starts by discussing the rituals performed in honor of Lykian Zeus.
The story, mentioned by Plato too, is one of those ‘original sin’ tales from Greek myth–like the story of Tantalos and Pelops, it hearkens back to a golden age when gods and men hung out together. Its details about werewolves are similar to those offered by Pliny (especially the 9-10 year period as a wolf).
“Cecrops was the first to declare Zeus the Highest god and he thought it wrong to sacrifice anything that breathed, so he burned on the altar the local cakes which the Athenians call pelanoi even today. But Lykaon brought a human infant to the altar of Lykaian Zeus, sacrificed it, spread its blood on the altar, and then, according to the tale, turned immediately from a man into a wolf.
This tale convinces me for the following reasons: it has circulated among the Arcadians since antiquity and it also seems probable. For in those days men were guests and tablemates of the gods because of their just behavior and reverence. Those who were good received honor openly from the gods; divine rage fell upon the unjust—then, truly, gods were created from men, gods who have rites even today such as Aristaios, Britomartis the Cretan, Herakles the son of Alkmene, Amphiaros the son of Oicles and, finally, Kastor and Polydeukes.
For this reason we should entertain that Lykaon was turned into a beast and that Niobe became a stone. In our time, when wickedness has swelled to its greatest size and looms over every land and city, no god can come from men, except in the blandishment offered to rulers. Today, divine rage lies in wait for the wicked when they leave for the lower world.
In every age many ancient events—and even those that are current—end up disbelieved because of those who create lies by using the truth. Men report that since the time of Lykaon a man always transforms from a human into a wolf at the sacrifice of Lykaian Zeus, but that he doesn’t remain a wolf his whole life. Whenever someone turns into a wolf, if he refrains from human flesh, people say he can become a man again ten years later. But if he does taste it, he will always remain a beast.”