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Where did the werewolf REALLY come from?

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Where did the werewolf REALLY come from?

Reviewing Daniel Ogden’s ‘Werewolf in the Ancient World’

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.


Just about any popular book on werewolves will tell you the technical term for becoming one is lycanthropy, which comes from the myth of King Lycaon of Arcadia, who upon learning he’d play host to Zeus made the ill-advised decision to test the god’s omnipotence by serving him a meal consisting of human flesh. Outraged, Zeus transformed Lycaon into the first werewolf.

But Daniel Ogden wants to challenge this narrative. Ogden is professor of Ancient History at England’s University of Exeter, and the 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 the myth of King Lycaon as a werewolf story, by first reminding us that werewolves are fundamentally shapeshifters, while Lycaon was merely a man turned into a wolf. This kind of reprisal wasn’t unique in Greek myth, either, as the god Poseidon once turned an entire gang of bandits into wolves.

Where did the werewolf REALLY come from?

Ogden argues that while Lycaon was certainly a murder and blasphemer, he was no cannibal. Rather, Lycaon’s metamorphosis appears to have been predicated on his name, which already means wolf, thus making Zeus’ choice of the animal a fitting PUNishment. Werewolf in the Ancient World also notes that while the term “lycanthropy” is seen as synonymous with werewolves today, it wasn’t used that way by writers in the ancient world, who instead characterized those suffering from lycanthropy as being afflicted with extreme “melancholia,” often bordering on “absolute misanthropy” (72).

Despite these critiques, Ogden doesn’t want to throw the myth of Lycaon out altogether, but merely “decenter it from the study of the topic […] of the ancient werewolf” (166). In other words, Ogden acknowledges that the myth of Lycaon is werewolf adjacent, just not werewolf proper.

For Ogden, the only proper Greco-Roman werewolf story is the more obscure tale of Niceros, from Petronius’ Satyricon (c. AD 66), in which Niceros recounts an overnight trip he made to visit his girlfriend. Fearing bandits, Niceros enlisted a Roman soldier as a bodyguard. As night fell, the two men came across a moonlit graveyard, at which point the soldier said that he needed to pee.

Niceros averted his eyes, but then turned around to see the man completely naked. The soldier urinated in a circle, transforming himself into a wolf before running off into the night. Terrified, Niceros ran the rest of the way to his girlfriend’s house and passed out. When he came to, he was informed that a wolf had arrived shortly after him and attacked his girlfriend’s sheep, but was driven off by a farmhand who stabbed the wolf in the throat. Niceros encountered the same soldier when he returned home, who now bore a suspicious wound on his neck.

The bulk of The Werewolf in the Ancient World consists of a very close reading of Petronius’ story, going through it line-by-line, examining every detail and working to explicate each mystery. In Chapter 1, Ogden asks how this anonymous soldier became a werewolf by looking at the rich tradition of witches transforming themselves and others into animals. Chapter 2 asks why the story is set in a cemetery and what werewolves have to do with ghosts and the dead. Chapter 3 looks at whether Petronius’ werewolf is an animal that transforms into a man or a man who transforms into an animal, as well as the trope of the “identifying wound.” Chapter 4 concludes Ogden’s analysis of Petronius’ werewolf tale by asking if it could be evidence of a surviving shamanistic ritual.

Chapter 5 of Werewolf in the Ancient World shifts focus by examining the story of Euthymus, an Olympic prizefighter who liberates the city of Temesa from a monster. Ogden notes that descriptions of this monster are often confusing – it seems to simultaneously be a ghost, a demon, and a tutelary deity – but claims that its true identity might actually be a werewolf. His argument is rather circuitous, drawing comparisons with several different dragon-slaying myths. Despite the presence of a detailed chart 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 elaborates on Ogden’s critiques of that myth, as already explained. The book concludes with three appendices: one dealing with the character of Circe from Homer’s The Odyssey, a second with ancient accounts of Cynocephali (dog-headed men), and a final concerning two Greco-Roman pseudo-werewolf stories.

Overall, The Werewolf in the Ancient World represents an immense work of scholarship. It should be praised for not succumbing to the unusually common problem of hyper-fixation on a particular time period, so as to make it appear like the werewolf is not a myth that’s existed since antiquity. Rather than focusing only on ancient Greece and Rome, Ogden works to point out how the tropes established by Petronius in the Satyricon repeatedly pop up in medieval and Renaissance era folklore, and even early 20th century works of fiction like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula’s Guest” (1914) and Guy Endore’s Werewolf of Paris (1933).

Werewolf in Etruscan pottery?

The monster of Temesa?

However, the breadth and depth of Ogden’s work also makes it disappointing that The Werewolf in the Ancient World isn’t more accessible to general audiences. Some chapters are easily digestible for the non-specialist, but others delve deeply into the topics of philology and theoretical structuralism, requiring a greater degree of erudition and possibly a nearby dictionary. One can only hope  the insights Ogden provides will eventually make their way into the popular literature on the topic, of which he’s so critical.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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