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Detail of ‘Jupiter and Lycaon’ by Jan Cossiers. Source: Public Domain

King Lycaon of Arcadia – The First Werewolf?

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Lycaon was a king of Arcadia mentioned in Greek mythology. He is believed to have lived in the period before the Great Deluge, and therefore was a contemporary of two other legendary kings, Deucalion of Thessaly, and Cecrops of Athens. In Greek mythology, Lycaon is remembered as the king who was punished by the god as a consequence for his pride and impiety.

Apart from this rather gruesome story, Lycaon is also known to have been the father of many sons, who founded the villages and towns of Arcadia and gave their names to them. Thus, in a way, Lycaon may be considered a founder-hero, despite the heinous crime that he committed.

Lycaon’s Family Ties

According to Greek mythology, Lycaon was the son of Pelasgos, who is generally considered to have been the progenitor of the Pelasgians, the earliest inhabitants of Greece. According to one version of the myth, Lycaon’s mother was Meliboea, while another claims that his mother was Cyllene. Both figures are said to be nymphs (Meliboea being an Oceanid, or daughter of Oceanus, and Cyllene an Oread, or mountain nymph) who inhabited Mount Cyllene, a mountain in the Peloponnese. It has been suggested that Meliboea and Cyllene may have in fact been the same figure. A third version of the myth suggests that Lycaon’s mother was Deianeira, whose father, incidentally, was also named Lycaon.

Lycaon is said to have had many wives, and, through them, produced a number of offspring. In general, Lycaon is said to have fathered as many as 50 sons. Nevertheless, the various sources differ regarding their number, as well as their names.

During the time of Lycaon the region of Arcadia was known as Pelasgia, in honor of its founder, Pelasgos. The region was only renamed later on as Arcadia, in honor of Arcas, who was a grandson of Lycaon. Arcas was the son of Callisto, a daughter of Lycaon.

In the Greek myths, Callisto was a hunting companion of the goddess Artemis and swore to preserve her virginity. This vow was eventually broken and Callisto gave birth to Arcas. The myth ends with Callisto being transformed into a bear, hunted down, and placed in the sky as the constellation Ursa Major. There are, however, several versions of the myth.

For instance, one version states that Zeus took on the guise of Artemis to seduce Callisto. When her pregnancy was revealed, Callisto naturally placed the blame on Artemis. The goddess was not pleased at all, and turned her into a bear. In another version, it was Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera, who transformed Callisto into a bear after she found out about what her husband had done. The goddess then persuaded Artemis to shoot the bear. After Callisto’s death, Hermes was sent by Zeus to retrieve Arcas from Callisto’s womb and the child was given to the nymph Maia to be raised.

‘Diana and Callisto’ (1712-1716) by Sebastiano Ricci. (Public Domain)

‘Diana and Callisto’ (1712-1716) by Sebastiano Ricci. (Public Domain)

The Myth of Lycaon

Unlike his daughter Callisto, whose demise was a consequence of the whimsiness so characteristic of the ancient Greek gods, Lycaon’s downfall was the result of his own doing. Like the myth of Callisto (and many other Greek myths, as a matter of fact), there are several variations to the story of Lycaon. The most famous version of this myth can be found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

In this version, Zeus reported to the rest of the gods that ‘An infamous report of this unholy age’ had reached his ears, and hoping that it would prove to be false, the king of the gods decided to visit the world in human form. As night approached, Zeus arrived in Arcadia and revealed himself as a god to the people. While the Arcadians prayed and worshipped Zeus, only Lycaon ‘mocked their pious vows,’ and said that ‘A fair experiment will prove the truth if this be god or man.’

Lycaon intended to kill Zeus during his sleep and served human flesh to the god during a meal. According to Ovid, ‘he cut the throat of a Molossian hostage sent to him, and partly softened his still quivering limbs in boiling water, partly roasted them on fires that burned beneath.’ The dish was served to Zeus, but the god, aware of the trick Lycaon was trying to play on him, was furious, and destroyed his house with thunderbolts.

As for the evil king, Zeus had him transformed into a wolf, ‘Terror struck he took to flight, and on the silent plains is howling in his vain attempts to speak; he raves and rages and his greedy jaws, desiring their accustomed slaughter, turn against the sheep--still eager for their blood. His vesture separates in shaggy hair, his arms are changed to legs; and as a wolf he has the same grey locks, the same hard face, the same bright eyes, the same ferocious look.’

‘Lycaon transformed into a wolf’ by Henrik Goltzius. (Public Domain)

‘Lycaon transformed into a wolf’ by Henrik Goltzius. (Public Domain)

At the end of the tale, Ovid has Zeus remark ‘Thus fell one house, but not one house alone deserved to perish; over all the earth ferocious deeds prevail, - all men conspire in evil. Let them therefore feel the weight of dreadful penalties so justly earned, for such hath my unchanging will ordained.’ No doubt Ovid intended to warn his readers against committing evil, lest they suffer divine justice.

Variations on the Lycaon Myth

Another version of the myth is found in the Bibliotheca of Pseudo-Apollodorus, commonly dated to the 1st or 2nd century AD. Unlike Ovid’s version of the myth, the one given by Pseudo-Apollodorus states that the evil deed was perpetrated by Lycaon’s sons, rather than the king himself. Incidentally, Pseudo-Apollodorus states that Lycaon had 50 sons and provides the names of each one of them.

In any case, the sons of Lycaon are said to have ‘exceeded all men in pride and impiety.’ Zeus, who intended to see for himself the pride and impiety of these men, visited them in the guise of a day-laborer. The sons of Lycaon ‘offered him hospitality and having slaughtered a male child of the natives, they mixed his bowels with the sacrifices, and set them before him, at the instigation of the elder brother Mainalos.’

Needless to say, Zeus knew what they did, was furious, and ‘blasted Lykaon and his sons by thunderbolts.’ Only the youngest son, Nyctimus, was spared, as Gaia ‘was quick enough to lay hold of the right hand of Zeus and so appease his wrath.’ It was Nyctimus who succeeded Lycaon as king, and it was during his reign that the Great Deluge occurred, which some say was Zeus’ punishment for the impiety of Lycaon’s sons. It may be added that in some versions of the myth, Nyctimus is said to be the one whom Lycaon slaughtered and prepared as a meal for Zeus.

The Deluge, by John Martin, 1834. Yale University ( Public Domain )

The Deluge, by John Martin, 1834. Yale University ( Public Domain )

Yet another version of the myth is found in Pausanais’ Description of Greece, which was written during the 2nd century AD. The story provided by Pausanias is quite different from the ones already mentioned. For instance, Pausanias makes no mention about Lycaon’s pride or impiety. In addition, he does not mention anything about Lycaon serving cooked human flesh to Zeus.

Instead, it was the human sacrifice that the king performed that incurred Zeus’ wrath, ‘Lycaon brought a human baby to the altar of Zeus Lycaeus, and sacrificed it, pouring out its blood upon the altar, and according to the legend immediately after the sacrifice he was changed from a man to a wolf’. Therefore, it may be said that Lycaon’s crime, according to this version of the myth, was his unfortunate choice of sacrifice to the gods.

As a comparison, Pausanias mentions Cecrops, the king of Athens, who was a contemporary of Lycaon, and the type of sacrifice he instituted, ‘My view is that Lycaon was contemporary with Cecrops, the king of Athens, but that they were not equally wise in matters of religion. For Cecrops was the first to name Zeus Hypatos (the Supreme god), and refused to sacrifice anything that had life in it, but burnt instead on the altar the national cakes which the Athenians still call  pelanoi.’

There were Some Positive Contributions too

While other ancient writers mention only the crime and punishment of Lycaon, Pausanias also wrote about the positive contributions of this king. According to Pausanias, Lycaon founded the city of Lycosura on Mount Lycaeus and gave Zeus the surname ‘Lycaeus’ (which was also given to certain divinities, such as Pan and Apollo, who were worshipped on Mount Lycaeus). Pausanias states that a precinct of Zeus Lycaeus was established on the mountain and that people were forbidden to enter it.

If a person broke this rule and entered the precinct, he/she is would die within a year. Pausanias also recounts a legend surrounding this sacred area, which is as follows, ‘everything alike within the precinct, whether beast or man, cast no shadow. For this reason when a beast takes refuge in the precinct, the hunter will not rush in after it, but remains outside, and though he sees the beast can behold no shadow.’

Pausanias also credits Lycaon with the institution of the Lycaean Games and claims that they predate the famed Panathenaic Games. According to the Parian Chronicle (known also as the Parian Marble), the Lycaean Games were established between 1398 and 1294 BC. Like the ancient Olympic Games, the Lycaean Games took place once every four years. The Lycaean Games may be divided into two parts - the rituals and the sporting events. The former involved sacrifices and offerings to the gods, while the latter included chariot and horse races, wrestling, boxing, and the pentathlon.

One of the two stelae recording victors in the Lykaian Games, in the municipal museum of Ano Karyes. (Dan Diffendale/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

One of the two stelae recording victors in the Lykaian Games, in the municipal museum of Ano Karyes. (Dan Diffendale/CC BY NC SA 2.0)

In addition, Pausanias mentions that the sons of Lycaon founded many cities in Arcadia. Unlike Pseudo-Apollodorus, Pausanias notes that Nyctimus was the eldest of Lycaon’s sons, and that he was the one who succeeded Lycaon as king. Nevertheless, his brothers ‘founded cities on the sites they considered best.’ Pausanias goes on to list all the cities that the sons of Lycaon founded. These include Mainalos (founded and named after Mainalos), which was ‘in ancient times the most famous of the cities of Arcadia,’ and Oenotria, which was founded by Oenotrus.

According to Pausanias, ‘But Oenotrus, the youngest of the sons of Lykaon, asked his brother Nyctimus for money and men and crossed by sea to Italia; the land of Oenotria received its name from Oenotros who was its king.’ Pausanias also asserts that Oenotria was the first colony founded by the Greeks, ‘This was the first expedition despatched from Greece to found a colony, and if a man makes the most careful calculation possible he will discover that no foreigners either emigrated to another land before Oinotros.’ Thus, Pausanias paints a different picture of Lycaon and his sons. Rather than merely impious and proud mortals, Pausanias’ writings depict them as founder-heroes who were a civilizing force in Arcadia.

Manuscript of Pausanias' ‘Description of Greece’ at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. (Public Domain)

Manuscript of Pausanias' ‘Description of Greece’ at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana. (Public Domain)

The First Werewolf?

Another interesting aspect about Lycaon that is found in Pausanias’ Description of Greece is his association of the king to lycanthropy, or werewolfism. Incidentally, the word ‘werewolf’ is derived from Old English and literally means ‘man-wolf.’ Nevertheless, Lycaon is often considered to be one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon.

The story of a man being transformed into a wolf is also found in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is regarded as the oldest surviving piece of literature in human history. In this epic, the eponymous hero, Gilgamesh, refuses the advances of the goddess Ishtar, as he knew that she turned one of her previous lovers into a wolf. As already mentioned, Lycaon’s transformation into a wolf is found in both Ovid’s and Pausanias’ versions of the Greek myth.

Nevertheless, the latter has some additional information regarding this subject. Pausanias states that ‘ever since the time of Lycaon a man has changed into a wolf at the sacrifice to Zeus Lykaios, but that the change is not for life; if, when he is a wolf, he abstains from human flesh, after nine years he becomes a man again, but if he tastes human flesh he remains a beast for ever’. Pausanias, however, seems skeptical about this story, as he says that ‘All through the ages, many events that have occurred in the past, and even some that occur today, have been generally discredited because of the lies built up on a foundation of fact.’

A werewolf. (chainat /Adobe Stock)

A werewolf. (chainat /Adobe Stock)

Top Image: Detail of ‘Jupiter and Lycaon’ by Jan Cossiers. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren


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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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