Books Reviews

Hairy Hearts

The Werewolf in the Ancient World by Daniel Ogden

The Werewolf in the Ancient World by Daniel Ogden

The Werewolf has an excellent pedigree.

As Scholar Daniel Ogden has discovered, through meticulous research outlined in his new book, the ancient world was full of werewolf tales. Take this example from the Satyricon, (Chapter 62):

Two men are travelling at night, by the light of the moon. As they walk past some gravestones by the side of the road, one of the men, a soldier, steps aside. He undresses himself and urinates around his clothes. 

Suddenly he turns into a wolf and disappears into the night!

His clothes have turned to stone. The other man is horrified and runs to his destination (he is sleeping with the local innkeeper’s wife). When he arrives, his lover tells him that a wolf broke into their sheep folds but a slave ran a spear through his neck and the wolf fled.

In the morning, he travels back home passing the place where the clothes were laid, now a pool of blood. He continues on his way and when he returns, he finds the soldier in bed with a nasty neck wound.

“I know then that he was a werewolf”

There are other weird and wonderful tales. 

A first century mystic, Apollonius of Tyana, arrived in a town threatened by a possessed man. He immediately gathers a posee who stone him to death. When they remove the stones, instead of a human body they discover the body of a wolf. 

Tales like this remind us both of the similarities and also the distance between ourselves and the ancient world. We are more horrified, quite rightly, by vigilante justice than werewolfism.

Another example taken from Aesop’s Fables (Story 419): 

A man wants to steal a fancy cloak from an innkeeper. Seeing him alone, he sits down next to him and yawns, howling like a wolf. The inn keeper asks him why he does this. The man replies, ‘I will tell you but you must take care of my clothes. I don’t know why I yawn but every time I do it three times in quick succession, I turn into a man-eating wolf”. The man yawns a second time. The innkeeper turns to flee but the man grabs his cloak, begging now “Please stay and look after my clothes’. He begins to yawn for the third time and the innkeeper removes his cloak and flees.

The man laughed, took the cloak and went away.

Although this story is comedic, we see the same themes as the first story from the Satyricon and other tales also recorded in antiquity. Clearly these tales were doing the rounds, before they were written down.

What was the werewolf? 

Ogden identifies two broad ways in which ancient people conceived what it meant to be a werewolf. He calls these ‘human carapace around a wolf core’ and inner human and wolf carapace. 

In the first example, people seemingly turn into werewolves by taking off their clothes. The clothes are an extension of human skin. Greek writers had a more fluid understanding of what it meant to be human. Several male figures were said to have hairy hearts, a condition otherwise unknown today but which were most likely associated with canines on a symbolic level. The accounts that survive don’t really elucidate the meaning for us. 

The second type of werewolf is more complicated, the human who transforms into a wolf by putting on a wolf skin. One strange story from much later, recorded by Gerard of Wales (c. 1178), is a good example:

A priest travelling in Ireland comes across a wolf at night. The wolf tells the priest not to be afraid. He is from Ossory, which was put under a curse by the Abbot Natalis. Every 7 years, a man and a woman must leave the town and all human society, becoming wolves. If they survive the seven years they can turn back into humans.

The wolf explains to the priest that his wife is dying and requires last rites. The wolf takes the priest to his house and to ensure the priest knows he is not committing blasphemy, he rolls back his wife’s wolfskin to reveal that she is a human.

Ogden quite rightly points out, if the wolves could roll back their skin why didn’t they just do this and be done with it. This defeats the point of the tale which suggests something more is going on here.

There are similar tales about temporary transformation into wolves. Ogden analyses these accounts in great detail arguing that we may see evidence for rites of initiation. At this point we get into a tricky situation, creating arguments from inference and transforming tall tales into ritual descriptions. Nevertheless, there is clearly something going on.

It is fascinating just how many werewolf tales there are from antiquity.

The terms used for werewolf are varied: the Latin term vespicilis is better translated as skin-changer, while there is no equivalent Greek term for the phenomenon. The term ‘Lykanthropia’ (literally the same word, wolfman) is better understood as a medical description for mental illness. 

Although the terms are varied, Ogden has identified several stories with strong parallels both in the ancient world and later. 

He hones in on the lupine descriptions given to the boogeymen of antiquity: striga witches who would transform themselves into owls to steal children or corpses; Gellos and Lamias, demons derived ultimately from Mesopotamia (Gellu and Lamashtu). 

In Latin Poetry these figures are said to be able to transform themselves into animals:

‘She was bold enough to bewitch the moon and impose her orders on it, and to change her form into that of the nocturnal wolf’

Propertius 4.5.1-18

These figures were more commonly associated with the strix owl, a screeching nocturnal bird.

Why was the wolf chosen? 

The wolf was clearly associated with wildness, but also then as now, the symbolic importance of the wolf pack was understood. The wolf was subtly different to humans, the values of culture turned on its head while retaining the same structures, “a paradigm of human-style intelligence, civilisation, and cooperation within the animal world”. 

Xenophon, for example, writes that when a wolf pack attacked an animal, each wolf was given a specific role. Aelian, the great mystic animal lover of antiquity, writes that a wolf pack will cross a river by creating a chain, each wolf clamping the tail of the wolf in front. 

The wolf may also have had associations with death. The Etruscan divinity Aita-Calu was depicted wearing a wolf cap. Only rarely attested in visual evidence, artists clearly drew on visual representations of the Greek god Hades to represent him. 

Within Greek culture, the dog was associated with death in the form of Cereberus, a ferocious dog with many heads. Within Egyptian culture, of course, the Jackal headed god Anubis was also associated with death. His image spread across the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic and Roman period, as part of the cult of Isis. By the Imperial period, he would have been a relatively common sight. Several oil lamps have been found portraying him and he was likely represented on wall paintings in Isis Temples. 

In antiquity werewolves were often associated with ‘liminal’ spaces, the in between spaces, or the other: wildness, death, night. Then, as now, these phenomena were scary. Personifying it within the figure of a wolf both expressed this fear and also to some degree contained it: it is not the night itself which is scary, but the unworldly creatures who inhabit it. Yet for ancient Greek and Roman writers, the werewolf was not out there, but within. Each of us could have a hairy heart and not know.

The Werewolf in the Ancient World by Daniel Ogden (published by OUP) 978-0198854319

Ogden’s book is an important new study both for its subject and its approach to analysis. Recommended.

By Rhakotis Magazine

Classic beyond the classics