The Grisly Tale Of King Lycaon, The World's First Werewolf
I will admit that for me, the werewolf is very close to the top of my own Mount Olympus of monsters. Vampires, ghosts, witches, sure, they’re all interesting enough, but there is something about a man turning into a wolf that is just unimpeachably cool as hell. While vampires are slowly rising out of their coffins to walk dramatically across the room, werewolves are bounding across rooftops and through forests until colliding with an unfortunate victim like a Looney Tunes dust cloud of blood and bone. Someone turning into a vampire or zombie is slow, basically the equivalent of watching someone get the flu and then start biting people. Someone turning into a werewolf, on the other hand? You get claws erupting from hands, teeth sharpening to points, and usually some amount of broken chains and chairs are involved. Thoroughly metal.
So, as a fan, I naturally got curious about when and how the legend of the werewolf began. Zombies and vampires are fairly clear, especially when the latter has some convenient publishing dates to go along with the growth of the legend. Werewolves, on the other hand, are a much cloudier affair. Frequently, though, searches for the OG lycanthrope lead you to a name that couldn’t be more clearly linked: that of the tale of King Lycaon, from Greek mythology.
King Lycaon, in these tales, was the ruler of Arcadia, which at that time was known as Pelasgia, named after his own father Pelasgos. Most of Lycaon’s rule was, according to legend, very prosperous, with the lands he ruled over thriving. As you might guess from the tone of this article and the energy with which Lycaon is mentioned, his stellar leadership skills are not the most enduring tale about him. If the whole story was “he was a pretty good king and then he died,” it would be a whole lot more boring for everyone, including Lycaon himself, though I’m sure he would have preferred boredom.
The thing about Lycaon and his sons, of which there were A LOT (most commonly listed as 50, the man’s vas deferens was in absolute overdrive) was that they were also known for being overly prideful. Being overly prideful in Greek mythology is like having sex in a horror movie: it very rarely results in your continued good health. They also had a reputation for lacking respect for the gods themselves, maybe feeling pretty invincible from their good fortune. If being prideful in Greek mythology is like ill-timed sex, being prideful AND disrespecting the gods is like saying “I think we’re finally safe” while standing with your back directly to a closed shower curtain. You’re done for, my man.
Hearing all these rumors, Mr. Big Beard And Barrel Chest himself, Zeus, decided to head down to Pelasgia himself to do a little bit of Undercover Bossing. He disguised himself as a thoroughly normal citizen and went about Pelasgia, seeing if these character failings were accurately reported. I assume this just meant walking around, asking people “Do you think Zeus is strong, and his lightning bolts sexy? Would you kiss him and rub his feet as a god deserves?” or whatever. Even though Zeus tried to keep a low profile while undercover as a mortal, it ended up being about as effective as an A-list celebrity throwing on a baseball cap and dark glasses. Basically, as retold, Civilian Zeus couldn’t completely stop some godly stuff from happening around him, and people pretty quickly were like, “I am 90% sure that is Zeus, man.”
As people are wont to do when in the presence of a God, they started worshiping this mysterious, new, and I assume, at least faintly glowing new stranger, which pissed Lycaon off to no end. So, Lycaon decided that it was time to call the bluff, and figure out whether this new arrival was man or god.
Now, here is where, as the great poets of the time never said, shit started to go completely off the rails. Beginning with the plan Lycaon cooked up to verify Zeus’ immortal status. I feel entirely comfortable saying that, if you are not already familiar with the story, it would take well upwards of a dozen guesses before you even got close to what he decided to do. You might imagine some sort of witch test type thing, where we find out that gods float, or some other strange detail. Incorrect. You might also expect some strange test of strength, where the god is tricked into picking up some massive boulder. Again, wrong. You might finally think, “hey, let’s just try to kill the immortal guy and see if he dies”. A high-risk strategy to be sure, and one that Lycaon, according to some sources, also planned to try, but he started with a separate test.
Lycaon decided to kill a child, chop him up, and mix the kid-meat in with the food at a feast he invited Not Zeus to. And now you know just how horrible of a joke “cooked up” was in the above paragraph. The plan, I guess, was that if it was a god, naturally he would be omniscient, and know that there were kid pieces in his food? Look, man, it’s a weird plan, and I didn’t come up with it. It sounds more like something out of one of the bad Hellraisers than anywhere near what Plan A should be, but you’ll have to take it up with Lycaon.
Of course, the man WAS Zeus, and as such DID know that they made kid stew, and immediately denounced Lycaon with whatever the ancient Greek form of “Are you f**king kidding me?” is. After which, he, predictably, went absolutely buckwild on the whole family. All of Lycaon’s sons were killed with his preferred ammunition of lightning bolts, but Lycaon wasn’t so lucky. He fled to the wilderness, where he suddenly found himself getting noticeably more hairy. He, as a reflection of his horrific nature, was turned into a wolf with the consciousness of a man. The poet Ovid describes:
When he had come to the deserted reaches of the countryside, he howled and tried in vain to speak. As a result of his own nature his appearance took on a kind of madness and he exercised against the flocks the lust for slaughter to which he had become accustomed. He began to take pleasure in blood. His clothes became fur and his arms turned into legs. He became a wolf, but he kept vestiges of his former self. There was the same grayness and the same fury about his face; the same eyes shone in his head; he had the same appearance of fierceness.
So, with a little bit of divine vengeance, and one particularly poor choice of main course, the King Lycaon had become the first werewolf. Later details like full moons might be missing, but we do have ourselves a man-wolf hybrid, complete with a classic transformation scene. The story carries with it an important message as well: for the love of the gods, stop f**king with them.