Surely everyone knows the legend of the werewolf. A half man, half beast that transforms once a month–on a full moon–into its most dangerous self. The original Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Werewolves have littered our popular culture, appearing in books, television shows and movies, from “Teen Wolf” and the Twilight Saga to the Harry Potter franchise. But with so much familiarity with werewolves, do most of us even know where they come from?
The oldest mention of a werewolf-esque creature appears in the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” written around 2,100 B.C.E. The story tells of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, and her love for a shepherd who she ultimately transformed into a wolf. Like the other creatures she has turned her lovers into, it is an attempt to create everlasting love, though it is truly a tale of the incompatibility of gods and mortals.
The origin story that is most like our modern idea of a werewolf comes from the Roman poet, Ovid. In his “Metamorphoses,” the Greek king Lycaon, whose name derives from the Greek word for wolf, ‘lykos’, is visited by the king of the gods, Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman tradition). Lycaon decides to test the omniscience of Zeus, so he murders a hostage and offers the meat for the god’s feasting. Zeus, being all-knowing, rejects the food and transforms Lycaon into a wolf who flees the wrath of the almighty god. Zeus then casts his thunderbolts down to destroy the king’s palace.
This brings us to our artwork, Hendrik Goltzius’s “Lycaon Transformed into a Wolf.” Engraved in 1568 by the notable Dutch artist, who by the end of his life was considered an equal of the Renaissance and Baroque masters, Titian and Peter Paul Rubens, this work depicts the very scene described by Ovid in his creationary tale. In the print, Zeus sits at a table, wrapped in a furling robe and adorned with a crown as an eagle rests at his feet. He raises his hand up, casting his powers as Lycaon begins to transform, head first, and runs from the room. In the background, his palace burns with great flames. On the table sits the human flesh that angered Zeus and condemned Lycaon for an eternity.
This story is not about love. Instead, it is about immorality. The scene does not depict an attempt at eternal passion, but rather a punishment for horrible acts and hubris. But it can be viewed on a deeper level, too. Few of us would argue that a mythical Zeus really did come down to earth and, fit with rage, created the fierce and feared werewolf. It is an allegory. Those who commit crimes are not physically turned into a monster, yet are morally monstrous. It is a change that does not come with more fur and sharper teeth, but with a loss of honor and a heightened drive to do more wrong.
Be safe this Halloween and remember that your actions may not always be judged by a higher power or by your fellow mortals, but they can still rear their ugly heads within.