One of the oldest werewolf stories in all literature comes to us from ancient Greece and relates to the shrine of Lykaian Zeus in Arcadia, where rumor had it human sacrifices occurred. Some form of the tale must be exceedingly old, since it is referenced obliquely in Hesiod, as preserved in the fragments of Pseudo-Eratosthenes' Catasterismi.
The classic version of the story is preserved in Hyginus, the Roman mythographer, and concerns the fate of a king named Lykaon, whose name was taken to be related to the Greek word for wolf, lykos.
Hyginus' text is parallel to Apollodorus, Library 3.8, though Apollodorus does not preserve the wolfish transformation.
This myth was closely related to the ritual enacted at Lykaian Zeus' shrine in Arcadia. Plato, in the Republic, is the first author to tell us about the werewolf in the temple: “The story goes that he who tastes of the one bit of human entrails minced up with those of other victims is inevitably transformed into a wolf…” (565d ff.; trans. Paul Shorey). Pausanias amplifies this with additional details about the alleged transformation of man to wolf following a human sacrifice:
A similar ritual appears in Pliny's Natural History, credited to a Hellenistic author named Euanthes.
Here Pliny is almost right. As Walter Burkert explained in Homo Necans (II.1), these texts seem to describe an ancient ritual related to hunting magic, whereby an adolescents were initiated into hunting/warrior parties (the "wolves") before returning to society as marriageable men nine years later. In time, such ancient rituals were misunderstood, leaving behind the weird echo of nocturnal rites designed to transform men into wolves.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter, The Skeptical Xenoarchaeologist, for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.