Lycanthropy in Greco-Roman literature


The stories about werewolves in antiquity are only framed within the legend or tale, since, despite the fact that it was possible to believe in the existence, in some way, of these beings, it was not considered authentic. . The short story is specifically immersed in the subculture, just like magic, but it is a subgenre cultivated by all levels of society. One situation in which the short story is considered marginal is because it is not exposed in literature as the epic is. The popular tale is based on the listener's admiration for the new, the distant, the strange, even knowing that what is being told is a lie. The story can be told in any place and circumstance.

In Rome, in banquet tales, the traveler brings the adventures of his travels as a gift to the banquet. The distant for the listeners must necessarily be strange, and the more distant, the stranger it must be, for this reason magic or enchantments are always present, just as witches are always foreigners or strange events take place in remote regions. Thus, the main purpose of these banquet tales is for listeners to "travel with their ears."

There is also a group of lower level tales among travelers, either in caravans or with less company. The function of stories in this area is for travelers to forget about their tiredness during the journey. However, it is not entirely true that the tales belong to the sphere of the lower classes of society, since both the nobles and the common people enjoy.

The popular stories that were told in Rome were called "old wives' tales." There are testimonies of this in poets like Horace and Tibullus. In the narrative, specifically in the Golden Ass of Apuleius, the old woman in charge of guarding the young Carite tells her aniles fabulae to reassure and entertain her.

In Rome, the men who traveled through the territories telling the different stories and legends, whose differentiation was not so clear, came to be called pejoratively as "circulatores". The term evokes both the circles of onlookers that formed around all the illusion artists who roamed the cities and the vagabonds. Likewise, to the sellers of stories, people without houses or homes, who barely make a living from their stories.

Telling tales about strange places and characters looked good until magic was mentioned. This had to be treated in a distant and often exaggerated way, since if one delved too deeply, then it could be assumed that he knew something about magic personally and suspicions of witchcraft could fall on the subject, as happened to Apuleius himself.

There are no extensive literary testimonies about lycanthropy. We are going to show some fragments of stories of werewolves that we find in Greco-Roman literature and that belong to the topic we are dealing with. To begin with, let's say that the tales narrated in these works do not mainly deal with stories of these beasts, but we can think that there was a conception that this type of creature could occur. Now, the monsters were different and the werewolves were part of the world of black magic that was not so acceptable at this time.

Within the classical sources, the things that are told about werewolves - gr. lykan-, wolf and anthropos, man - and the versipellis, - this word consists of two parts, versi- which comes from versus, which is the participle of the verb verto, which means "to change"; and -pellis from the noun pellis, which means "skin": together it is "the one who changes skin" -, are taken with a certain skepticism about their reality, however, behind these stories there are other realities different from those that appear .

The werewolves are usually united in the classical tradition with the dead, and that is why they are presented in the vicinity of cemeteries or within it. The wolves, according to Horace and Tibullus, used to prowl among the tombs looking for the bones of the dead. The Etruscan divinity of the dead or the Greek Thanatos are represented disguised as wolves. Horace, Epod.5, 97; and Tibullus, 1, 5, 97-98.

We also have the Greek myth of Lycaon, narrated by Ovid in his work Metamorphosis and which shows the belief that the transformation of this Arcadian king into a wolf occurred as punishment for the first crime that human beings committed against the gods. "I showed that a god had come, and the vulgar had begun to pray: Lycaon first mocks pious prayers, then he says: "I will test with a transparent experiment if this is a god or a mortal: and the truth will not be questioned. Machine to destroy me during the night heavy with sleep with an unexpected death. With his sword he cuts the jugular of a hostage sent from the town of the Molossians, and the limbs thus half-dead are partly softened in boiling water, partly roasted on the fire. He flees terrified and, reaching the silence of the field, howls and tries in vain to speak; his face concentrates his own rage and makes use of his customary desire to kill animals and his clothes are transformed into fur, his arms into legs: he becomes a wolf and maintains traces of his former figure». Ovid, Metamorphoses, I, 220-240.

Virgil tells of a sorcerer named Meris who could transform into a wolf at will. «From Meris himself these herbs I have, poisons chosen from the many that Pontus breeds. A thousand times I saw Meris ambush turned into a wolf, I saw him take the souls out of the graves, I saw him change from one feat to another, Bring me, spells, from the town to Daphnis». (Bucolic. VIII, 95 et seq.)

The tale where the soldier becomes a lycanthrope is introduced by Petronius in his Satyricon through a short dialogue between Trimalchio, who is the host of the banquet, and the freedman Nicerote. This "banquet tale" is confirmation that the tale belongs to a subculture, because it is untrained freedmen who expose these stories, they are the ones who tell these incredible folkloric and fantastic tales, no matter how hard they try to ensure their veracity, alleging that they themselves witnessed what they say, sprinkled with vulgarisms, proverbs and set phrases.

In this story, it is known that the story does not have a temporary situation outside of space and time, but that it happens at the time when Nicerote was a slave and at a certain moment, such as the night with the full moon, an element popularly directly related to lycanthropy. We expose the fragment with the transformation:

«It happened that my master had gone to Capua, capital of Campania and on the banks of the Volturno river, to place some serial remains. Seizing the opportunity, I persuade one of our guests to come with me to the fifth milestone. He was a brave as hell soldier. The moon gave a light like noon. We reached the height of the graves; our man began to relieve himself next to the tombstones. I sit humming and dedicate myself to counting the tombstones. Later, when I look at my companion, he is naked and has left all his clothes by the road. I was out of breath; he was like dead. Meanwhile, he pissed around his clothes and suddenly turned into a wolf» Satyricon of Petronius, fragment 62

It is known that there are two types of "believable" stories about werewolves. First, those that are related to the ancient cults that honored the wolf, such as the cult of Zeus Lykaios on Mount Lyceum (in the territory of the Peloponnese) or the famous Lupercales, which were celebrated by two brotherhoods: the Luperci Quinctiales and the Fabiani. , and in which strange ceremonies related to wolves were performed. They dressed in the skins of these animals, while they behaved like them and sometimes made human sacrifices covered by this animal character. Coincidentally, certain lupercal rituals were held in ancient burial grounds, again a relationship between werewolves and cemeteries.

There are some references to cults of werewolves, they do not have to be magical texts, but are references to them in philosophical works such as the following:

« -Therefore, it is evident that, wherever a tyrant appears, it is from the root of leadership that he springs from, and not from elsewhere.

-Very clear.

-And what is the beginning of this transition from a leader to a tyrant? Is it not clear that when the leader begins to do what is narrated in the myth regarding the temple of Zeus Lyceum in Arcadia?

-And what is narrated?

-That when someone likes dismembered human entrails among others from other victims, they must necessarily become a wolf. Or have you not heard the story?» Plato, Republic, 565

This text does not collect magical practices, but what it shows is a bit of the cultural and mythical tradition of Plato's time and even earlier.

Another festivity that the Romans had was the Lupercalia, which included a rite where its members undressed because the deity of this festival was Pan, the faun with the two horns. This festivity comes from the region of Arcadia and was the god of the bullfight, the god of the mares. The explanation of why this festivity was carried out in this way: «The deity itself enjoys running quickly through the high mountains and spontaneously undertakes sudden escapes. The deity herself is naked and orders her ministers to be naked, since the clothes were not very comfortable for the race. It is said that the Arcadians occupied the earth before the birth of Jupiter, and this race was before the Moon. » Ovid, Fasti II-

This was common in other cultures that were not alien to the Romans, such as Tacitus's references to the Harians (Tacitus, Germ, XLIII, 5). These rituals were framed within the warrior magic, through which the totemic animals or animals necessary for certain difficult situations were "awakened".

The second type of tale of werewolves is that related to sorcery and black magic. The use of certain herbs, such as belladonna, with hallucinogenic effects, made the subjects believe that they had taken the form of a certain animal. In addition, there was also the werewolf syndrome, attested in some ancient manuscripts. It was the belief that men had that they had become wolves, some put on the skins of these animals to get more into their role. Ideas that they haunt cemeteries may be due to necromancers using them to obtain bones from the deceased.

Virgil mentions in Aeneid., VII, 18 the victims that Circe turned into animals, some into wolves, and Ovid speaks of similar spells by Medea in Ovid, Met. VII, 269-271.

In the text of the Satyricon, one of the most representative about lycanthropy in Rome, activities or signs related to magic and lycanthropy are shown, which are the full moon, the cemetery, the nude, what is essential for transformation, for by this he assumes animal nature, and that he protects his clothing by urinating on it in a spell known as "circummiction," which turns it to stone.

In addition, the goddess Hecate was also related to lycanthropy by all its factions: as a goddess of the moon and animals, as a goddess of the underworld and as a goddess of sorcery, the so-called triform Hecate. The goddess could take the form of a wolf, and was often identified with the wolf Mormo, a spirit of the underworld.

Authors such as Wagner (1989) consider that this relationship between magic and werewolves has its origin in primitive shamanism, and in the use of certain herbal potions that alter consciousness. When these practices are gradually replaced by a more organized society and an institutionalized religion, the memory of these cults produces the idea that the causes are the magic practitioners -the ancient shamans- and that the werewolves -the ancient participants. - have been bewitched.

Ignacio Povedano Selfa -


-Rodríguez Morales, J. E Petronio, Satiricón 61, 5-62 y la licantropía en las fuentes latinas. Actes del Xè simposi de la secciò catalana de la SEEC. Tarragona 1990

-Torres Santiago, B.E., Cuentos de licántropos, de brujas y de fantasmas en la literatura latina, Universidad de Valladolid, TFG, 2016.

-Wagner, C. G. El rol de la licantropía en el contexto de la hechicería clásica. Anexos de Gerión II -UCM 1989

Related posts:
> The punishment for Magic in Ancient Rome.
> Magic in the work of Petronius (II): practices and beliefs.
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