King Lycaon of Arcadia and the Lykaia

Being that this is October, I felt it appropriate to post something I wrote back in 2009 concerning the mythological origins of werewolves. 

Now, obviously, the Greek origin isn’t the only one that exists.  Like vampires, werewolf and shape-shifter myths exist in cultures from virtually all over the world.  However, being partially of Greek (and, specifically, Arcadian) descent myself, and having a first name that means “wolf with a shield,” and having been born in the year of the dog under the Chinese zodiac and under Sagittarius the Hunter under the Western zodiac, and being a dog person…well, I felt it more than a bit neat to communicate this particular myth to my Facebook friends at the time.  And now, I’d like to share this myth with you.

I think I intended this to become a series of short articles dealing with the unexplained and the supernatural, but nothing really came of that intent.

At least, not yet.

Originally posted as a Facebook Note on November 18, 2009.

When it comes to werewolves in folklore, the vast majority of the horror-loving population doesn’t know much.  Hollywood artistic license has polluted the well of good ol’ myth and legend, and so a lot of what people think they know is less tradition and more someone pounding out a script at a typewriter during a drunken afternoon back in the 1940s.

The best place to begin one’s schooling on true werewolf folklore is at the beginning, so here are two werewolf entries (under one heading, because I cheated) coming at you from ancient Greece.

King Lycaon (also referred to as Lycaeus) was the mythical first king of the Greek city-state Arcadia. A tyrant and sociopath, King Lycaon ruled his people with sadistic cruelty. One day, Lycaon thought it might be fun to piss off Zeus, the king of the gods, by playing a little joke on the divine monarch.

So, Lycaon called Zeus down from Mount Olympus and invited him to a feast at the Arcadian palace. Zeus naturally accepted. If you know anything about Greek myth, Zeus usually just invited himself over whenever he felt like it, so it must have surprised him when he actually received an honest-to-God invitation.

Anyway, the time of the feast arrived and everything was ready. Zeus was pleased with what he saw and everything was going great for Lycaon until dinner itself was served. During the meal, Lycaon served Zeus a heaping helping of dead child–and if that wasn’t bad enough, the dead child was none other than the youngest of Lycaon’s fifty sons (yes, ladies, you read correctly: I said fifty). Outraged at Lycaon‘s barbarism and disrespect, Zeus slaughtered Lycaon’s remaining forty-nine sons with lightning bolts, resurrected Lycaon’s dead youngest son, and transformed Lycaon himself into a wolf, damning Lycaon to eat the flesh of animals and humans alike for the rest of his days.

This ancient Greek myth as well as the name Lycaon is, as you may have guessed, the origin of the word “lycanpthropy.” The myth also gave rise to a festival observed by the ancient Arcadians and referred to as the Lykaia.

The festival called the Lykaia took place on the side of Mount Lykaion (the tallest peak in Arcadia at the time) and occurred annually, probably sometime in the month of May. This, like many festivals, was actually one giant ritual meant to keep the gods happy (in this particular case, it was Zeus). Plato claims in his work The Republic that every nine years, a different Arcadian clan would sacrifice an animal on the altar of Zeus during the festival. After the sacrifice, the clan would then prepare what remained of the animal and everyone would eat. There was just one catch: part of the meal preparation involved a required human sacrifice.

From that human sacrifice, one small piece of human entrails would be placed in the animal meat and served randomly to the patrons. The lucky patron who ate the human entrails was believed to become a wolf, which supposedly kept Zeus from turning any and all Arcadian adolescents into wolves like Lycaon (though why the Arcadians thought that Zeus would turn the youths in the city to wolves is beyond me–but the expected heavy-handed punishment speaks to the perceived relationship between the divine and mankind back in those days). Now, if the afflicted patron could keep himself from eating human flesh for nine years, the patron would be returned to human form by the time of the next sacrifice at the end of that nine year cycle.

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