Where REALLY did the werewolf come from?
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Just about any popular book on werewolves will tell you that the technical term for becoming one is lycanthropy, which comes from the myth of King Lycaon of Arcadia, who upon learning he would welcome Zeus took over. ill-advised decision to test the almighty god by serving him a meal of human flesh. Outraged, Zeus transformed Lycaon into the first werewolf.
But Daniel Ogden wants to question this story. Ogden is professor of ancient history at the University of Exeter in England and author of several authoritative books on Greco-Roman witchcraft and dragons. In his new book, The werewolf in the ancient world, Ogden launches a multi-pronged attack on the interpretation of King Lycaon’s myth as a werewolf story, first reminding us that werewolves are fundamentally shapeshifters, whereas Lycaon was just one man turned into a wolf. This kind of retaliation was also not unique in Greek myth, as the god Poseidon once turned a whole bunch of bandits into wolves.
Ogden maintains that while Lycaon was certainly a murderer and a blasphemer, he was not a cannibal. Rather, Lycaon’s metamorphosis appears to have been based on his name, which already means wolf, thus making Zeus’ choice of the animal a proper punishment. Werewolf in the ancient world also notes that while the term “lycanthropy” is today considered synonymous with werewolves, it was not used in this way by writers of the ancient world, who instead characterized those suffering from lycanthropy as being afflicted of an extreme “melancholy”, often bordering on “absolute misanthropy” (72).
Despite these criticisms, Ogden does not want to completely reject the myth of Lycaon, but simply “to distract him from the study of the subject.” […] of the ancient werewolf ”(166). In other words, Ogden acknowledges that the Lycaon myth is adjacent to the werewolf, but not to the werewolf proper.
For Ogden, the only true Greco-Roman werewolf story is the more obscure Niceros story, taken from Petronius. satirical (c. 66 AD), in which Niceros recounts an overnight trip he made to visit his girlfriend. Fearing the bandits, Niceros enlisted a Roman soldier as a bodyguard. As night fell, the pair stumbled upon a moonlit cemetery, at which point the soldier said he needed to pee.
Niceros looked away, but turned to see the man completely naked. The soldier urinated in circles, transforming into a wolf before fleeing into the night. Terrified, Niceros ran the rest of the way to his girlfriend’s house and passed out. When he recovered, he was informed that a wolf had arrived shortly after him and attacked his girlfriend’s sheep, but was chased away by a farm worker who stabbed the wolf in the throat. Niceros met the same soldier on his return home, who now had a suspicious neck injury.
Most of The werewolf in the ancient world consists of a very careful reading of the history of Petronius, going through it line by line, examining every detail and trying to explain every mystery. In Chapter 1, Ogden asks how this anonymous soldier became a werewolf as he examines the rich tradition of witches transforming themselves and others into animals. Chapter 2 asks why the story takes place in a graveyard and what werewolves have to do with ghosts and the dead. Chapter 3 examines whether Petronius’ werewolf is an animal that transforms into a man or a man that transforms into an animal, as well as the “identifying wound” trope. Chapter 4 concludes Ogden’s analysis of Petronius’ werewolf tale by asking if this could be evidence of a surviving shamanic ritual.
Chapter 5 of Werewolf in the ancient world changes focus as he examines the story of Euthymus, an Olympic winner who frees the town of Temesa from a monster. Ogden notes that descriptions of this monster are often confusing – he appears to be both a ghost, a demon, and a guardian deity – but claims that his true identity may in fact be a werewolf. His argument is rather roundabout, making comparisons to several different dragon slayer myths. Despite having a detailed table outlining the differences and similarities between these myths, I found this chapter the most difficult to follow.
Chapter 6 then returns to King Lycaon and develops Ogden’s critiques of this myth, as already explained. The book ends with three appendices: one dealing with the character of Homer’s Circe The odyssey, a second with ancient accounts of Cynocephali (men with dog heads), and a last concerning two Greco-Roman stories of pseudo-werewolves.
Globally, The werewolf in the ancient world represents an immense work of erudition. He is to be commended for not succumbing to the unusually common problem of hyper-fixation over a period of time, so as to give the impression that the werewolf is not a myth that has existed since antiquity. Rather than focusing solely on ancient Greece and Rome, Ogden endeavors to show how the tropes established by Petronius in the satirical appear repeatedly in medieval and Renaissance folklore, and even early 20th century works of fiction such as “Dracula’s Guest” by Bram Stoker (1914) and Guy Endore Paris werewolf (1933).
However, the breadth and depth of Ogden’s work also makes it disappointing that The werewolf in the ancient world is no longer accessible to the general public. Some chapters are easy to digest for the non-specialist, but others delve into the subjects of philology and theoretical structuralism, requiring a greater degree of scholarship and possibly a dictionary of proximity. One can only hope that the ideas provided by Ogden will eventually find their way into the popular literature on the subject, of which he is so critical.
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