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Lycaon: First Werewolf King

Lycaon's Rule and Family

Lycaon, the ancient king of Arcadia, held a reign marked by bubbling streams, fertile lands, and prosperous citizens. But Lycaon and his 50 sons were far from ideal role models, with their pride and impiety threatening their success.

Lycaon's family tree is intricate. He was the son of Pelasgos, believed to have brought life to Pelasgia, later renamed Arcadia in honor of Lycaon's grandson, Arcas. Pelasgos married either Meliboea, an Oceanid, Cyllene, an Oread, or possibly Deianeira, depending on the version.

Lycaon had many wives and fathered 50 sons, each with a city or town to their name. Mainalos founded Mainalos city, once the jewel of Arcadia. Oenotrus ventured to Italy, renaming the land Oenotria and kick-starting Greek colonization.

Despite being a founding hero, Lycaon's darker deeds—testing Zeus by serving human flesh—transformed him from a prosperous king to a horrifying wolf. His son Nyctimus became king after Zeus decimated his brothers, and Arcadia endured, peppered with cities bearing the marks of Lycaon's lineage.

Lycaon's legacy is a tapestry woven with prosperity and deadly pride, reminding us of the thin line between revered leader and cursed legend.

An illustration of Lycaon, the ancient Greek king, sitting on his throne in Arcadia, surrounded by his 50 sons. The land is lush and fertile, with bubbling streams and prosperous citizens in the background.

Test of Zeus and Transformation

One fateful day, Lycaon decided to test Zeus's divinity by serving him a dish containing the roasted flesh of a human child. As the feast commenced, Lycaon and his sons disguised the gruesome dish among standard Arcadian fare.

Zeus immediately sensed something was amiss and, enraged by the blasphemous meal, brought the wrath of Olympus to the dinner table. With a flick of his wrist, thunderbolts rained down, obliterating the palace and reducing Lycaon's fifty sons to mere footnotes in history.

For Lycaon, Zeus reserved a special punishment that mirrored the king's heinous nature—transformation into a wolf. Fur sprouted where regal robes once draped, fingers stretched into claws, and the proud king found himself trapped between the consciousness of a man and the instincts of a beast.

Ovid captured it poetically:

"Terror struck, he took to flight, and on the silent plains, is howling in his vain attempts to speak; he raves and rages and his greedy jaws, desiring their accustomed slaughter, turn against the sheep—still eager for their blood."1

Lycaon became the mythological prototype of the werewolf, his regal life replaced by feral exile. His tale serves as a stark warning: hubris and sacrilege invite the kind of punishment that leaves you neither man nor myth.

An illustration showing Lycaon, the ancient Greek king, being transformed into a wolf by Zeus as punishment for serving human flesh. Lycaon is shown with a human body and a wolf head, looking distressed and feral.

Variations of the Lycaon Myth

The myth of Lycaon has several variations, each offering a different perspective on the king's downfall.

  • In Ovid's "Metamorphoses," Lycaon is the skeptic who questions Zeus's divinity by serving him human flesh. This version portrays Lycaon as the main antagonist, personally orchestrating the gruesome affair that leads to his transformation into a beast.
  • Pseudo-Apollodorus, in "Bibliotheca," paints a different picture. Here, Lycaon's pride is shared among his 50 sons, who collectively decide to test Zeus by serving him the seasoned innards of a local child. In this account, the sons are turned into wolves or zapped out of existence, with only Nyctimus surviving to reluctantly take the throne.
  • Pausanias, in his "Description of Greece," suggests that Lycaon's sin was a human sacrifice to Zeus Lycaeus. As Lycaon drags a human baby to the altar, his zeal for divine testing leads to instant canine karma.

These variations bring different shades to Lycaon's story. Ovid frames Lycaon as the central figure of divine defiance, while Pseudo-Apollodorus showcases how corruption can be a familial affair. Pausanias, on the other hand, emphasizes the societal aspects of the sin and the consequences of sacrificial hopes gone wrong.

Despite the differences, all versions share a unifying theme: stepping on divine toes leads to dire consequences. Lycaon's myth explores foundational lessons in Greek culture, reminding us to tread carefully when dealing with the gods.

Cultural Impact and Lycanthropy

Lycaon's legacy extends far beyond Greek mythology, influencing the rich fabric of global folklore and culture. The concept of lycanthropy, or the ability to transform into a wolf, has captivated human imagination across centuries and civilizations.

The ancient Greeks were among the first to document stories of human-to-wolf metamorphosis, but they were not the last. The Romans adopted and adapted these tales, with writers like Petronius describing soldiers who transform into wolves.2 Norse mythology introduced berserkers—warriors believed to channel animalistic strength by wearing wolf or bear pelts.

In medieval Europe, the fear and fascination with lycanthropy took root, with werewolf trials echoing the hysteria of witch hunts. Individuals were accused of shapeshifting and terrorizing communities, a testament to the persistence of old fears in new forms.

Today, Lycaon's influence is woven into modern media, with werewolves being a staple in horror films, novels, and TV series. From the cursed protagonist in "An American Werewolf in London" to the brooding heartthrobs of "Twilight," the idea of human-to-wolf transformation remains irrevocably linked to our fascination with duality and metamorphosis.

Interestingly, lycanthropy has also found a place in psychological and medical lexicons. Clinical lycanthropy is a rare psychiatric syndrome where a person believes they can transform into a wolf—a fusion of myth and modern mental health that continues to intrigue scientists.3

In contemporary storytelling, werewolves are often portrayed as tragic figures wrestling with their own nature and curse, circling back to the myth of Lycaon and the boundaries between man and beast, civilization and savagery, control and chaos.

Lycaon's story serves as a powerful reminder of the timeless human fascination with transformation and the eternal dance between our best and worst selves. As myths evolve with each retelling and adaptation, they continue to help us grapple with our fears, celebrate our triumphs, and understand our place in a world teeming with mysteries.

A collage of various werewolf characters from modern films, TV shows, and books, showcasing the enduring influence of lycanthropy in popular culture. The images depict werewolves in different styles, from frightening to brooding.

Lycaon's tale, woven with prosperity and deadly pride, continues to echo through time, urging us to ponder the boundaries between man and beast, civilization and savagery. As we reflect on his transformation from king to wolf, we are reminded that myths aren't just antiquated tales—they're living narratives that help us grapple with our fears and understand our place in a world teeming with mysteries.

  1. Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by Anthony S. Kline, University of Virginia Library, 2000.
  2. Buxton R. Wolves and Werewolves in Greek Thought. In: Bremmer J, editor. Interpretations of Greek Mythology. London: Routledge; 1990.
  3. Blom JD. When Doctors Cry Wolf: A Systematic Review of the Literature on Clinical Lycanthropy. History of Psychiatry. 2014;25(1):87-102.

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