During the wild party at the center of Petronius’s Satyricon, the host, Trimalchio, invites his friend Niceros, a freed slave like himself, to tell the company what once happened to him. Like the best spooky storytellers, Niceros begins with humdrum circumstances: he’d fallen in love with a married woman and one day, when his master was conveniently absent, he set out to join her in the countryside. However, not wanting to travel alone, he persuades “a soldier, as brave as the devil…to accompany me as far as the fifth milestone.”

They leave at dawn and are walking past the usual tombs lining the suburban road when the soldier stops for a pee against a gravestone. Niceros averts his eyes for a little while, then, looking up, finds that his companion has taken off his clothes and is pissing in a circle around them. The soldier then turns into a wolf—“Don’t think I’m joking,” warns the storyteller. Howling, the animal lopes off into the woods, and Niceros, investigating the clothes, finds a heap of stones instead. He sets off again and, scared, shivering, and sweating, at last reaches his lover, who tells him that overnight a wolf has ravaged their flocks but that they’d managed to spear him in the neck. On his return home, Niceros finds the soldier in bed, with a doctor tending his neck wound.

This dinner-party turn at Trimalchio’s is the “only one really good, corking story” in the classical corpus of werewolf lore, or so declares Daniel Ogden, author of The Werewolf in the Ancient World—and he has quested high and low for evidence. Moonlight, howling, marauding, bodily transformation into and out of lupine shape, and the telltale mark branding the culprit—these elements have always been part of the lore, which has only kept expanding since the Age of Reason. Today werewolves are a staple of mass entertainment, seething in the cauldron of story beside other grisly and ghastly elements, including vampires, zombies, ghouls, cannibal fiends, and even the dementors from Harry Potter, with whom some share several characteristics—among them nocturnal roaming, violent predation, and scavenging for carrion.

The werewolf fantasy and its multiple offshoots are the subject of this learned and often entertaining new study. The author is a teacher of classics at the University of Exeter, where, incidentally, J.K. Rowling studied—she is rumored to have based certain characters at Hogwarts on her professors, but this was before Ogden’s time. Still, the inspiration of classical monsters seems to be holding: his earlier books include Magic, Witchcraft, and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman Worlds (2002) and Dragons, Serpents, and Slayers in the Classical and Early Christian Worlds (2013).1

The Greeks had a word for writer-collectors of mirabilia, or wonderful, incredible things; they were known as “paradoxographers.” In The Werewolf in the Ancient World Ogden shows himself to be a keen contemporary paradoxographer. Combining detailed analysis of the sources with digressive reveries, he’s aiming at “a comprehensive sourcebook” and has hunted across the centuries for buried items of lore, ranging from ancient Greek texts to Christian commentaries on pagan thinkers (including by Augustine and the tenth-century nun Hrotswitha), then on to the medieval period, with busy digressions on Icelandic sagas, Grimm fairy tales, and Victorian ghost stories. In pursuit of his quarry, Ogden investigates sorcery, shapeshifting, initiation rites, mental derangement, spirit projection, and shamanic night flying, expounding with irrepressible enthusiasm on such things as werewolves’ relations with ghosts, vampires, sorcerers, and witches.

Two unusual principles underpin Ogden’s case studies. First, he makes clear his belief that urban myths, campfire horror stories, and folk material in general—even if recorded much later—can fill in the gaps or illuminate the elliptical and often fragmentary narratives of antiquity: “It is a maxim of folklore studies that tale types should be considered ancient already by the point of their earliest attestation.”2 Classical reports of shapeshifting into a wolf derive from a folkloric core and can be explored through the efflorescing evidence of the belief since before the Victorian era.

Accordingly, he can leap forward to “The Three Snake Leaves,” one of the Grimms’ fairy stories in Children’s and Household Tales, show its closeness to Marie de France’s twelfth-century wonder tale “Bisclavret,” and loop back to the classics to show that some werewolves aren’t malignant but rather wronged victims of enchantment, like the transformed beasts in Circe’s palace in the Odyssey. The interconnection Ogden sees among classical narratives and popular tales predominantly ascribed to oral transmission (as in the Satyricon) abolishes the generic distinction between humanist mythology and the fantasy genre, and overlooks the usual chronology of gothic narrative as a belated, decadent expression of modernity: Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, the 104-year-old vampire hero of her Twilight series, begin to appear to share more with classical heroes and monsters—in their powers of horror and, at the same time, their sinister male glamour—than to figure as symptoms of recent discontents.

Advertisement

The second motivating principle of Ogden’s approach is no less wide-ranging and unexpected. Writers such as Roberto Calasso—from The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony and its sequels to the new, posthumously published Book of All Books (a retelling the Old Testament)3—as well as Neil Gaiman with Norse Mythology and Stephen Fry with the Mythos trilogy shape similar masses of conflicting material into unitary, cogent, forward-moving narratives, winning them cult followings. By contrast, Ogden argues that synthesizing storytelling is misleading: it passes over pregnant details and misses clues to meanings concealed deep within the tales; a keen-eyed reader needs to tap these seams to yield the tale’s secrets. He takes pride in fingering discrepancies and lacunae and gives charts of variations and differences from one surviving text to another. He “disaggregates” (his preferred verb) the various sources and reads them centrifugally to determine their relevance. An earlier example of this approach is Robert Graves’s rich and now venerable collection The Greek Myths, in which he proceeds through a mythic figure’s multiple manifestations and then, in a separate body of notes, offers his own quixotic interpretations.

The result in The Werewolf in the Ancient World is a thicket of dense and demanding detail. Ogden’s omnium gatherum is enriched with numerous asides and notes—about screech owls and witches (striges) and the interrelations between the words for “wolf” (lykos) and “light” (lykē), as in Homer’s amphilykē: “around-light” or twilight, the hour of the wolf. The method carries signs of enthusiastic lecturing, but the way Ogden endorses one interpretation instead of another can feel a bit arbitrary. Also, he has his own inconsistencies: sometimes etymology serves his purposes, sometimes not. I couldn’t help thinking of John Ruskin in Modern Painters, where, defining the differences between true and false griffins, he decrees that, in a true griffin, this kind of claw or that kind of beak or tail is not admissible. Ogden similarly discriminates between true and false werewolves.

What do we learn makes for authentic werewolfishness? The origins of the English prefix were remain “mystifying and controversial,” Ogden tells us. The word werewulf itself first appears around 1000 CE in the Homilies of Bishop Wulfstan, when he is reminding the clergy to protect the faithful from “the wodfraeca werewulf, the ‘raging Devil,’” and again, soon after, in an ordinance by King Cnut (Canute); Ogden cites Gervase of Tilbury deriving it from vir, Latin for “man,” but Ogden prefers a connection to Anglo-Saxon w(e)arg, meaning “strangler” or “outsider.”

In this he follows the British occultist and Anglican pastor Sabine Baring-Gould, author of the influential Book of Werewolves (l865), who also noted the Gothic word varys for “fiend” and quotes the Anglo-Saxon law against both forms of wearg—beast and outlaw: “He shall be driven away as a wolf, and chased so far as men chase wolves farthest.” This law provides the theme of Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, in which the werewolf (wargus in his rendering) represents the figure of the interdicted bandit, the pariah and outcast. “What had to remain in the collective unconscious,” he writes,

as a monstrous hybrid of human and animal, divided between the forest and the city—the werewolf—is, therefore, in its origin the figure of the man who has been banned from the city.4

In popular culture today, the monstrous has acquired a new seductiveness. Particularly among Goth, New Age, and Wicca cultists, acoustic associations with “weird” prevail, however mistaken and fanciful—leading to new compounds, including the splendid Were-Rabbit from Wallace and Gromit, who erupts by the light of the full moon into a mighty monster. In French, loup-garou may derive from garer, “to beware,” as in gare à toi. It’s interesting that these derivations point to the underlying apotropaic motives of the myth, to warn of danger and hence defend against it and, at the same time, express compensatory wish fulfillment: “Watch out! Deep down I am a werewolf of extraordinary power!”

How does the beast-human conjunction work? Ogden wrestles with the varying arrangements of “carapace” and “core” in the different stories. By “carapace” he means the clothes, hair, skins, pelts, and hides that figure crucially in the magical transformations the tales enact. In the Marie de France story, her benign, wronged werewolf Bisclavret is condemned to remain in animal shape when his treacherous wife urges her lover to steal his clothes, knowing this will make it impossible for him to revert; by contrast, in the seventeenth-century fairy tale “Il serpente” (The Snake), by Giambattista Basile, a king burns the snakeskin of his daughter’s spellbound husband to free him from another bout of shapeshifting.

Advertisement

Shapeshifting beings in fairy stories, Eastern and Western, are usually ambiguous, intermediate creatures—Circe is described in Homer as both a goddess and a woman. Figures like the beautiful fairy princess Peri Banou, from The Thousand and One Nights, are neither fully divine nor monstrous, but like Circe they can bring mortals knowledge of other worlds. In the tale “Hasan of Basra,” the hero’s jinniya wife has an enchanted cloak of feathers that changes her into a bird; when she is bathing, she sets it aside and the smitten Hasan of Basra steals it, thus pinning her to this world as his wife—against her will.

This tale closely resembles many Celtic and northern tales of selkies—mermaids or mermen—who come to live a human life while their real skin is kept hidden; if their human partner destroys it, they can never return to their original form. But such seal husbands, serpent and bear bridegrooms, fox brides, fish- or dragon-tailed Melusines, and swan princesses share features with werewolves in this carapace-shedding aspect only. They do not convey the same degree of fear combined with attraction, that shiver of sexual excitement that werewolves inspire in their screen incarnations, including Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man series of horror film classics.

The “core” of the werewolf is the inner being, enclosed in the carapace; it is the spirit or soul of the person whose qualities are often made manifest, following a kind of ethical punning, in the metamorphosis. For example, Aristomenes, the seventh-century-BCE hero of the Messenian resistance against the Spartans, makes an appearance in several different histories by Herodotus, Pliny, and others: at his death he was cut open and the Spartans “found his innards to be extraordinary and his heart to be shaggy.” “The worst wolves,” Angela Carter tells us, “are hairy on the inside.” But in Aristomenes’ case, his shagginess betokened his cunning and valor.

Engraving of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf

Bridgeman Images

Little Red Riding Hood; engraving by Gustave Doré, 1869

The most cited origin story for lycanthropy—or shapeshifting between human and wolf—enacts a neat matching of carapace to core. It is alluded to in passing in the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, but Ovid gives the best-known and fullest version of the tale in the first book of his Metamorphoses. At the beginning of time, Lykaon rules Arcadia, a region famous for its many wolves—in this myth, his name reflects his territory even before he commits a sacrilege that exposes his barbarous inner nature. When Zeus, king of the gods, pays a visit, Lykaon scoffs at his guest’s claim to divinity and decides to test him by serving up human flesh—a “Molossian hostage” he is holding—in the casserole he offers him for dinner. Zeus detects the crime and, outraged, turns Lykaon into a wolf. The punishment confirms the Olympians’ general disgust with humans, whom they decide to destroy. The flood ensues and the world is swept away. Only Deucalion and Pyrrha survive, classical counterparts of the biblical Noah and his nameless wife.

In many ways Lykaon’s punishment is a classical version of the Fall, for his transgression exiles him and ruins Arcadia. But, Ogden asks, is Lykaon a true werewolf? His transformation is permanent, as are most of the etiological stories Ovid relates, whereas werewolves follow a lunar cycle and are restored—after differing periods of time and a return to their clothes—to their human form. “I sympathize a little,” Ogden writes, “with [the] protestation that Lykaon…is not thereby a werewolf.” No images of Lykaon survive from antiquity, but in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, he is usually depicted as a wolf-headed hybrid, a counterpart to a centaur or mermaid (see illustration at beginning of article).5

The Latin term Petronius uses for his werewolf in the Satyricon is versipellis, a skin changer or skin turner—in sum, a creature who can slough its carapace. For Ogden, it is this protean capacity that above all characterizes the true werewolf, and he reviews many accounts in antiquity of such magical transformations, mostly attributed to witchcraft. Of the Neuri, a Scythian tribe said to engage in cannibalism, for example, Herodotus reports, “These people may well be sorcerers. It is said…that every year each of [them]…becomes a wolf for a few days, before returning to his previous form.”

The lineage includes some of the most famous figures in myth and brings into this discussion of werewolves, who are commonly male, many female mages such as Circe, Medea, and Pamphile, from Apuleius’s The Golden Ass, as well as the terrifying Erictho, from Lucian’s Pharsalia. These “crawlers” (as Robert Louis Stevenson called such stories) are pretty lurid and lubricious: witches going about their business are wolfish in that they roam at night “bare-groined and howling through the cities,” and scrabble for herbs to brew their potions, finding the most potent growing on graves or from the body parts of the unburied dead. The drugs they concoct, as we know from the persistence of these beliefs in witchfinders’ handbooks, give their users the power to change shape, fly, and perpetrate horrors. Ogden seizes this connection to argue for the entanglement of werewolf lore with fantasies of witchcraft down the centuries, although he has to admit that the transformations in these stories rarely specify wolves as such.

However, he closes in on some fascinating overlaps. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the hero bitterly rejects the goddess Ishtar, reproaching her for destroying her lovers:

You loved the shepherd…
You struck him and turned him into a wolf,
so his own shepherd boys drive him away,
and his dogs take bites at his thighs.

In the Odyssey the animals who fawn on Circe include wolves and lions. They are, it is implied, her former victims—possibly lovers—whom she has enchanted and transformed, just as she transformed Odysseus’s men into pigs. When the hero resists her, defending himself against her magic with the milky flower moly, which Hermes has given him, she becomes pliant to his wishes and tells him how to reach the Underworld safely. She also changes his men back to their human shape, and “they look younger than ever,/taller by far, more handsome to the eye.” Circe’s forebears, Ogden suggests, are the goddesses of Babylon and Assyria, such as the figure known as the Mistress of Animals.

Lykaon’s name was echoed across the map of the ancient world and its stories. In the Natural History, Pliny relates that on Mount Lykaion, for example, it was said that a youth from the Anthid clan was chosen every year and taken out of the city to a pool: “[He] hangs his clothes on an oak tree, swims across the pool, goes off into the wilderness, is transformed into a wolf, and joins a pack with others of the same kind for nine years.” If for that entire time he manages to refrain from eating human flesh, he can return, recover his clothes from the same tree, and become a man again. On this, Pliny commented: “The extent of Greek gullibility is amazing. No lie is so outrageous as to want witness.”

A ritual expulsion from human company closely resembles scapegoating, as Agamben discusses in Homo Sacer, and Ogden identifies the Anthid custom with “lad sacrifice,” which condemned a youth to death each spring in order to protect his people from harm. But the expelled young Anthid man wasn’t necessarily killed; his ordeal might instead be seen as a form of initiation into manhood, as takes place in many cultures worldwide and has inspired countless imitations, from the Boy Scouts to various masculinity movements of more recent times. All this is anthropological territory, and Ogden shows an impressive command of the material, but its proliferation can become bewildering, and the data occasionally overwhelm the argument. In any case, a prohibition on eating human flesh, a maturation ordeal in the wilderness or the forest, and a cyclical lupine transformation form a narrative cluster that defines werewolf identity and also fulfills a prime function of myth: to trace the contours of civilization and provide a hinge between culture and nature.

For girls as young as five to ten years old, a corresponding rite of passage took place in Athens; accounts are “late and contradictory,” Ogden says, but the festival staged a propitiation of Artemis, goddess of the forest and a fierce guardian of virginity. The children dressed up in saffron clothes and participated by “playing the bear” in memory of a pet bear who was killed after he mauled a young woman.6 In both the Anthid and Athenian youth rituals, the animal embodies the wild, which—while defined as beyond and different from human society—needs its beauty to be respected and its power placated in acts of worship if humanity is to flourish.

But are ritual performers werewolves or were-bears? They aren’t themselves transformed but only playacting, and so Ogden sets them aside in the mythic lineage he is compiling. For him, the true werewolf story requires a complete metamorphosis: not a rite of passage or mimesis, but transubstantiation.

The German art historian Aby Warburg visited Arizona and New Mexico in l895–1896 and witnessed the Antelope dance of the local Pueblo Indians, in which scores of participants dressed up in elaborate masks and costumes and performed to music mimetic dances of the deer; in the Serpent Ritual of the Hopi, which was crucial in forming Warburg’s understanding of the function of art and the importance of performance, the participants handled dozens of venomous snakes. Warburg proposed that such elaborate masquerades, in Florentine pageants as in Puebloan rites, were honoring animals that on the one hand could harm them, and on the other provided their sustenance, shelter, clothing, and medicine. The performative artistry involved—the combined narrative, music, costumes, and choreography—was intended to secure the future for the whole society.

There was ample reason to placate wolves and bears in the ancient world, and tales of wolves harassing sheep and carrying off children recur in the chronicles of Northern Europe. In the early fifteenth century the diarist known as the Bourgeois de Paris records frequent incursions of wolves into the city; their attacks are seen as not only dreadful disasters but portents and punishment for the violence of the Hundred Years’ War: “At that time were the wolves so hungry…they entered by night the good towns and…the graveyards…As soon as the bodies had been buried, they…unearthed them and ate them.”

The incidents the Bourgeois de Paris reports repeat tropes that Ogden finds everywhere in the mythology—scavenging corpses by night and even appearing in anthropoid form, as when a predator is found not to have a tail:

The wolves were so desperate to eat the flesh of men, women or children, that in the last week of September they strangled and ate fourteen people, adults and little ones, between Montmartre and the Porte Saint-Antoine, in the vineyards as well as in the marshes; and if they found a large flock of animals, they attacked the shepherd and left the animals. The eve of Saint Martin’s feast a wolf was hunted down, such a terrible and horrible wolf that it was said that he alone had caused more of the griefs described before than all the others. The day he was taken [it was seen] he had no tail, and so he was called Courtaut [stump-tail], and people spoke of him as [one does] of a wood thief.

For the Bourgeois de Paris, the terrible wolf was only like a man, not a wolf changed into a man. The legends balance metaphor and fancy without stepping into assertion of fact, unlike the stories of Lykaon and of Niceros’s companion.

The strangeness of the belief in werewolves inspired speculation early on, by no less an authority than Augustine, that their change of shape might be altogether illusory, a derangement of the senses. In City of God, Augustine attributes the illusion to the work of the devil, but he isn’t satisfied, and goes on worrying at the phenomenon, changing his approach from theology to cognitive psychology. In a startling series of reflections, his hypothesis foreshadows the experience of shamanic flight in the circumpolar regions, the American Southwest, and Latin America:

But when a man’s bodily senses are asleep or overpowered, a figment of his imagination [phantasticum], which changes itself into countless sorts of things even as he thinks or dreams and takes on forms that resemble bodies with remarkable agility, even though it is not a body itself, can be brought to the perception of others as if in corporeal form, in some fashion I am unable to express. This happens in such a way that a man’s body may lie somewhere, quite alive, albeit with his senses much more strongly and emphatically confined than during sleep, whilst the figment of his imagination manifests itself to the senses of others as if embodied in the form of some animal, and the man even seems to himself to be transformed.

Links between the night flying of witches, shapeshifters, and magicians inspire Ogden to another excited series of analyses as the delusion—diabolical or cognitive—occurs across time and leaps across cultural borders. An example of this is “soul projection,” whereby the subjects “leave their true bodies behind” and travel in another form wherever they wish, as the eleventh-century bishop Patrick of Dublin described in his poem “On the Wonders of Ireland.” The delusion could be very tenacious: at the last werewolf trial in Western Europe, at Coutras in France in 1603, Jean Grenier confessed to being a werewolf and persisted in his self-inculpation even after he was condemned to death, then reprieved and imprisoned in a monastery.

Although the werewolf myth builds on some of the habits and characteristics of real wolves, the figure of the werewolf distorts their nature, since wolves live in packs and are noticeably cooperative and social. One of the most glaring discrepancies arises from the idea of the “lone wolf,” so close to the werewolf of legend and the social outcast. Yet actual lone wolves are young males looking for a family of their own, or older females, abandoned by the pack as no longer of any use, whereas in werewolf legends and urban lore a lone wolf is usually a solitary on the prowl, inimical to community, whose nature is wolfish, and who may—who knows!—be a werewolf in his innermost core. The Lykaon story dramatizes a rift between the gods and humanity, “but the accompanying closeness with the animal world and its perceived character is treated as purely malign,” the classics scholar Emma Aston has commented.

Trimalchio’s guest in the Satyricon recounts a terrifying episode—in that case darkly comic—when someone steps out of civilization into savagery. The horror of this possibility was still deeply imprinted in the medieval experience. But in times of ecological disaster, attitudes are changing and nostalgia for a lost connection to the animal world is growing. For Ogden, the werewolf myth continues because it is filled with trace memories of a time when humans had not severed ties with the forest, the woods, and the wild.

Yet this sense of exile from the wild, embodied by wolves, is itself very ancient. It has given stories of wolf children a long-lasting hold on the imagination. Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, were raised by a she-wolf; Mowgli in The Jungle Book grows up under the tutelage of Akela, the wise leader of the pack (after a word meaning “lone” in Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu). These mythic figures reveal a nagging yearning for reattaching civilization to a vision of unspoiled nature.

The swerve away from the werewolf’s repulsiveness and toward his allure becomes even more marked in Angela Carter’s retellings of classic fairy tales, in her collection The Bloody Chamber (l979). She dramatizes, in a Freudian key, her heroines’ repulsion and attraction to their ferocious lovers with matted hair, crawling with lice (“The Company of Wolves”); she also imagines a girl-werewolf cub (“Wolf-Alice”) and gives Red Riding Hood a happy ending by putting her in bed with the wolf: “See! sweet and sound she sleeps in granny’s bed, between the paws of the tender wolf.” The artist Kiki Smith continued the tale with her sculpture Daughter, a little girl with a hairy face and ears, the imagined offspring of Red Riding Hood and the wolf.

This deep-seated desire to reconnect with our animal nature is gaining ground throughout popular culture, including in the hugely admired animated film Wolfwalkers, Clarissa Pinkola Estés’s cult feminist manifesto Women Who Run with the Wolves, and young adult novels like Jean Craighead George’s Julie of the Wolves and its sequels, in which a young Inuit girl lives with a wolf pack and learns to communicate with them, not in human language but with sounds, posture, and gestures of nose and paw and tail. The yearning can inspire some disturbing measures to make contact with the wild: in a 2018 dance piece, Ainsi La Nuit, inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy and created by the choreographers Marilén Iglesias-Breuker and Luc Petton, the dancers performed duets with owls, a vulture, and a real live wolf. The terror of such close contact between human performers and wild creatures was palpable, but it is significant that since the piece was created, dance performances with animals onstage have been banned in France, as have animal performances in traveling circuses. Our values are undergoing transformation, and a separation needs to be respected—if only for the sake of the animal.

Environmentalists now advocate wilding and rewilding our natural habitat, and wolves, whose extermination was once considered a triumph of civilization, are being reintroduced in several European countries, as well as in the western US. Daniel Ogden reflects this nostalgia for a lost relation between wolf and human, and he has transformed his subject, setting aside the loathsome lycanthrope for the nobility of the animal in the wild. The book’s frontispiece shows, in close-up and in color, the face of a wolf: no slavering jaws or bare-groined howling to the moon, but instead a very steady, human look from those dark, ringed eyes. Or is this an illusion, an effect of enchantment?