BMCR 2021.12.11

The werewolf in the ancient world

, The werewolf in the ancient world. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780198854319 $32.99.

Stories about werewolves, defined in this book as “a creature that changes form, or appears to do so, or can be inferred to do so, in whole or in part, between the humanoid and the lupine” (p. 7) are vanishingly rare in ancient Greek and Latin texts. Other than a vivid vignette told by Petronius in chapter 68 of the Satyricon (c. 66 CE), in which a soldier transforms into a wolf in a graveyard, terrorizes a local farm until it is wounded with a spear, and is later revealed to be a “skin-changer” (versipellis) by the persistence of that wound when he returns to human form, most ancient references to people changing into wolves and back again are pithy and laconic. Undeterred by this limitation, Daniel Ogden sets out in this book to examine ancient references to these skin-changers through the lens of folklore and to provide lengthy translations of primary sources that allude to “werewolfism.” The resulting book – part comparative history and part sourcebook – shares the hybrid character of its subject matter. The results are mixed as well. Readers lured by the title may be disappointed to find that not only are werewolves very scarce in this book, for the reasons cited above, but also in many places medieval, early modern, and modern comparanda overshadow the meagre ancient evidence.

The Werewolf in the Ancient World comprises six chapters. Chapter 1 argues that the metamorphosis of human beings into wolves and back again in ancient literature often involved the agency of witches, who could turn hapless people into animals, as Circe did to her visitors, or transform themselves in the same way, as Herodotus claimed the race of the Neuri could do. Much of the chapter is given over to the witches (striges) themselves, who were also known to take the form of animals, usually the eponymous screech owl (strix), but only rarely wolves. Chapter 2 explores the association between werewolves and ghosts in ancient thought. Here the tissue of evidence is very thin and largely associative. Ancient skin-changers, like Petronius’ soldier, often changed their form in graveyards, and individuals afflicted with medical lycanthropy, a condition that caused them to “go out by night in the month of February in imitation of wolves or dogs in all respects,” were known “to hang around tombs” (p. 71) until the sun rose. Chapter 3 examines some persistent motifs in premodern werewolve literature: the belief that skin-changers abandon their clothing to assume their wolf-form and must later recover them to become human again; the notion that some people are wolves on the inside, a fact only revealed upon their deaths when their hearts are found to be stuffed with hair; the claim that skin-changers in human form carry the wounds received when they were wolves; the idea that the ingestion of certain kinds of food, especially human flesh, precipitates the transformation from human to wolf or vice versa; and the impulse of the newly-changed wolf to abandon the city for the forest. While this chapter presents a rich summary of these folkloric motifs, most of the examples are not drawn from ancient sources. The reliance on post-ancient evidence also pervades Chapter 4, on the association of werewolfism with shamanistic soul-projection. Here Ogden dwells at length on late medieval, early modern, and modern examples, but contends that statements by Augustine and John Damascene and the feats of Greek shamans in the Pythagorean tradition hint at the ancient origins of this association. Building on the affinities presented in Chapter 2, Chapter 5 argues at length that the wolfskin-wearing ghost of Polites, a crewman of Odysseus, should be considered a werewolf, while Chapter 6 disentangles the myths and rites pertaining to the festival on Mount Lykaion in Arcadia, during which young men assume the lifestyle of wolves as a rite of passage. Both chapters provide dense textual analysis to make their respective arguments, but the werewolves themselves remain elusive. It is telling that the summary of “good stories about werewolves we can document, directly or indirectly, for the ancient world” (p. 206) barely takes up two pages of the book.

Unlike Ogden’s previous work on ancient dragons, which yielded a hefty monograph and a rich primary source reader, there is simply not enough evidence about ancient werewolves to sustain a treatment of this length.[1] The book’s frequent reliance on post-ancient source material suggests that a broader approach to the premodern werewolf that positioned the ancient sources alongside their medieval and early modern analogues would have reduced the significant burden that the Greek and Roman material struggles to bear in the present study.[2] Readers will most certainly find lasting value in the many long translations of primary source materials marshalled in The Werewolf in the Ancient World, which will provide a useful refernce for all future discussions of the ancient and mysterious versipellis.

Notes

[1] Daniel Ogden, Drakōn: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds (Oxford, 2013); and Dragons, Serpents and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds: A Sourcebook, ed. Daniel Ogden (New York, 2013).

[2] For a successful example of this approach, see Mercedes Aguirre and Richard Buxton, Cyclops: The Myth and its Cultural History (Oxford, 2020), reviewed by Scott G. Bruce in BMCR 2021.07.10.