Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The Curse of Lycaon

Though thought of primarily as born of modern horror and medieval superstitions, the werewolf is in fact a far older creation. Indeed, in the lore of ancient Greece, it is a part of the creation. Not so long ago I wrote of the story of the Titan Prometheus, and his ceaseless struggle for the betterment of the lot of humanity (to find it quickly, please click here). The Titan, at great personal cost, gave to man ingenuity, craft and fire. But the struggle for the balance between men and gods was far from over. Indeed, it had barely begun. Enraged by the Titan's audacity, Zeus the Thunderer, King of the gods, determined to exact terrible retribution upon mankind for their complicity in accepting the forbidden secrets of the gods.

The Golden Race
Painting by Lucas Cranach.
The race of men crafted by the Titan Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus were not the first people to inhabit the Earth, but the third, known as the Bronze Race. In the earliest times of the cosmos, the first race of men were the Golden Race. Living under the rule of the Titans, with Kronos as their supreme deity and King, men "lived like gods, with carefree heart, remote from toil and misery". This was an age without suffering or sin, an age of bliss, an age of unending bounty upon the Earth. Men did not have to work the land to sustain themselves, as the land itself burst forth with the fruit and crop of the Earth. Mankind harvested the land at his leisure, and their bodies did not grow old. A time before the creation of women, the Golden Race eventually passed into sleep, with only their spirits left walking the Earth. After the younger gods cast the Titans from the Heavens into the depths of Tartarus (for this story, please click here), Zeus created a new line, the Silver Race. These people however, were nothing of their forebears in spirit. Cruel and selfish beyond imagining, there were no limits to their crimes. When their trespasses distracted these men from the honour they owed to the gods, in a fit of rage Zeus hurled them all into the depths of Tartarus, the land of fire and ash within which all evil souls are bound.

Hermes bears Pandora to Epimetheus
Painting by Jean Alaux.
Disheartened by the failure of the Silver Race, Zeus turned to Prometheus and Epimetheus to furnish the Bronze Race (this they did, and their story is told here). With the chaining of Prometheus to endless torture for his spurning of the gods in favour of man, Zeus turned his vengeance upon man. Summoning all the gods of Olympus, Zeus ordered Hephaestus to forge a human shape, and all the goddesses to furnish it with charm and scheming thought. Their creation was the first woman, named Pandora (meaning "All gift", symbolising the hand each divinity had played in her creation), conceived as the truest curse of man. The gods brought Pandora before Epimetheus, offering her as a wife to him. Promtheus warned his brother not accept any gifts from Zeus, but Epimetheus had ever lacked his brother's wits. Welcoming her in and accepting her, Epimetheus and Pandora wed. Epimetheus however, possessed a jar, a spoil taken from the House of the gods by Prometheus, which contained "harsh toil and the grievous sicknesses that are deadly to men". Epimetheus forbade Pandora to open it.The gods knew very well, however, that the very curiosity that Prometheus had fused into the minds of humans would conquer her sense of obedience. One day, her curiosity afire, she unstoppered the jar, and to her horror, all evils rushed forth from the darkness within, unleashed upon the world. Grief, war, malice, hate, plague, death: all these things stormed forth as a pestilence upon the world of men. Panicking, Pandora closed the jar, trapping only a single thing within it which had not yet escaped - Hope.

Lycaon becomes the wolf
Engraving by Hendrick Goltzius.
The Bronze Race ever after was corrupted by the curses of Pandora, and were the first to work bronze, crafting great weapons and engines of war. Reduced to new levels of savagery by their wretched state, Zeus once again grew displeased with man. Assuming the shape of a man, Zeus came down to the Earth and walked among men. Seeing their cruelty all around, he one night came to the palace of Lycaon, the King of Arcadia. Giving a sign that a god had come, some people bowed in reverence, but not all. That night, as the King of the gods slept in his palace, no thoughts of piety were in the mind of Lycaon. Deigning to test the god's immortality, Lycaon considered murdering the god as he slept. His blade however, did not pierce the sleeping god. Lycaon therefore struck down one of the men who showed reverence to Zeus and ordered the servants to prepare him as though a roast boar. The next day when Zeus came to the banquet, the servants placed the meat before the god and Lycaon. Lycaon eagerly devoured his meal, but at once the omniscience of Zeus saw through the deception. The slaying of a guest was one of the gravest of crimes, second only to tasting the flesh of man. In his divine fury, the Thunderer hurled lightning to and fro. The palace crumbled under his rage, and Zeus turned his wrath upon Lycaon's fifty sons, slaying them all with thunderbolts. Lycaon fled in terror to the countryside, but Zeus placed a curse upon him:

             " He tried to speak, but his voice broke into an echoing howl.

               His ravening soul infected his jaws;

               His murderous longings were turned on the cattle;

               Still possessed of bloodlust was he.

               His garments now were as a shaggy coat, and his arms as legs "

                                    - ZEUS PLACES THE CURSE OF LYCANTHROPY UPON LYCAON

His fury mounting, Zeus sent a great deluge upon the Earth. Torrential rains battered the gound and churned the seas, as the oceans rose to swallow the land. All but the mightiest pinnacles were claimed by the stormy seas, and all but two humans perished under the violent ocean. Prometheus, distraught at the fate of his progeny, spurned Zeus one last time. Calling to his son Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, he warned them of the coming flood, and ordered them to built a craft to keep them afloat. The waters eventually subsided and the craft was set down atop Mount Parnassus, and the two humans emerged. Giving a sacrifice to Zeus, begging his mercy, they got it. Remembering that not all humans had refused him reverence, Zeus was filled with guilt at what he had done. Sending the Titaness Themis to the humans, he bade her restore the human race. Themis instructed Deucalion and Pyrrha to walk along the beach, casting stones over their shoulders without looking back. Wherever a stone cast by Deucalion hit the sand, the stone became a man; wherever Pyrrha hurled a stone, the stone became a woman. This was the Heroic Race, the heirs to the Bronze Race. From this progeny would be born all the greatest heroes of legend, from Perseus to Achilles, and all who would be joined in war before the Gates of Troy...

A powerful episode in the saga of Creation, the story of Pandora and Lycaon marks the birth of the transition from the Age of the gods to the Age of man. From here on in, the line between god and man would be increasingly blurred, until the climactic Trojan War, which saw the human sons of gods march to war with each other, as their parents do in the skies above. What of Lycaon? Perhaps the first werewolf to appear in Western legend, his great legacy was to give his own name to his affliction. For his name became the word in Greek for wolf (lycos), and the term used to describe the condition by which a man becomes a wolf is known today as lycanthropy, from the Greek lycos and anthropos - 'Wolf' and 'Man'. The story is present in various guises in ancient lore, all readily available at a nominal price from Amazon:

United Kingdom

The Story of Lycaon:
Metamorphoses: A New Verse Translation (Penguin Classics)
(A powerful telling crafted through poetry)

The Story of the Ages of Man:
Theogony and Works and Days (Oxford World's Classics)
(Found in Works and Days, a lyrical and easy to read account)

The Story of Pandora and Lycaon:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A Roman epic poem, which recounts the story of Lycaon and his affliction)

United States

The Story of Lycaon:
Metamorphoses (Penguin Classics)
(A powerful telling crafted through poetry)

The Story of the Ages of Man:
Hesiod and Theognis (Penguin Classics): Theogony, Works and Days, and Elegies
(Found in Works and Days, a lyrical and easy to read account)

The Story of Pandora and Lycaon:
The Library of Greek Mythology (Oxford World's Classics)
(A Roman epic poem, which recounts the story of Lycaon and his affliction)

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