Wednesday, September 8th, 2010...4:38 PM


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The question came up in my myth class today: do all these werewolf and vampire stories go back to ancient Greece and Rome?

The short answer is: not all, but some. Blood-drinking ghosts are a feature of Greek myth from its earliest recorded period; that’s a good start on vampires. And werewolves are more unambiguous: there’s the story of Lycaon (which is why the topic came up today), and the famous werewolf from Petronius’ Satyricon, who pauses after he becomes a wolf and urinates in a ring around his clothing. According to strict scientific principles, this makes them change into stone (so that nobody can run off with them while he’s running around in lupine form).

As it happens, I was reading around in Pliny’s misnamed Natural History today, and he records some werewolf legends, too. He doesn’t seem to believe them, and he’ll believe almost anything, so maybe they weren’t in general circulation in Rome… but Pliny thinks they explain why versipellis (“skin-changer; werewolf”) is used as an insult in common speech (which it is as far back as Plautus, more than two centuries earlier).

I’ll put the Latin (because Everything is better with Latin!™), complete with ethnic slurs, a translation and some visual evidence after the jump.

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.

–Pliny, NATURALIS HISTORIAE 8.34-80-82

“That men are turned into wolves and changed back into themselves again, we must confidently suppose to be false, or else disclose that we believe all the ridiculous stories from every age. I’ll show where that fable comes from, which has been planted so deeply in the common people that they use skin-changer as a curse.

“Euanthes, not despised among Greek writers, records an Arcadian tradition that someone was chosen by lot from the family of a certain Anthus, and taken to a particular lake of the area. There, with his clothes hung on a tree, he swims across (the lake) and goes away into the empty lands, and is transformed into a wolf. He lives with others of the same type for nine years. If he has kept himself away from human beings in that time, he returns to the same lake and, when he swims across it, he recovers his form in his previous shape, with the added age of nine years. Euanthes adds this also: that he recovers his same clothing. It’s amazing what the gullibility of the Greeks will lead to! No lie is so outrageous that it lacks a witness.

“Likewise Apollas, who wrote the Olympionicae, tells that Demanetus from Parrhasia (in Arcadia), tasted the innards of a child roasted in a sacrifice (because the Arcadians even then were making human sacrifices to Lycaean Zeus) and was changed into a wolf. In the tenth year, he was restored and he pursued athletics and returned from Olympia as a victor in boxing.”

Most of these stories involve Arcadia, which has a pretty good claim to being the Transylvania of the ancient world (although Thessaly is the place to go to for sinister witches when you want them, as one does sometimes).

When I was ranting about this stuff on the CLASSICS-L list this afternoon, Susann Lusnia tipped me the hint that there are some werewolfy sculptures from the Etruscan city-states that cast such a long shadow over Rome. She provided a couple of links to images online: the first one looks more like a were-horse to me (still interesting) but the second is more unambiguously werewolfy.

So these stories are pretty old. But I wouldn’t claim a unique Greek or Roman origin for them. I expect any place you have human beings and other animals in the same place, people start to mix and match critter-parts in their storytelling.

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