Non-Fiction Reviews

The Werewolf in the Ancient World

(2021) Daniel Ogden, Oxford University Press, £25, hrdbk, xviii + 261pp, ISBN 978-0-198-85431-9


This is an academic text, looking at werewolves in (very) ancient literature. Its author, Daniel Ogden, is Professor of Ancient History at the University of Exeter, and this meticulously researched text is as comprehensive consideration of the origins of werewolves in folk stories as I would imagine anyone could ever need.

all starts with Zeus, who issued a ‘divine curse’ on Lycos who had attempted to feed him the flesh of a human sacrifice. His punishment is to find himself transformed into a wolf. Then there’s a second century tale of the Hero of Temesa, where a ghost in wolfskin demands an annual sacrifice or he’ll indiscriminately kill townsfolk, and the Legend of Aristomenes, where a Greek war hero is killed and cut open to reveal a ‘hairy heart’, and Petronius’ first-century werewolf story, where a traveller transforms into a wolf by moonlight and by removing his clothes. He keeps them safe by urinating in a circle around them. Then, by putting on human garments he once again becomes human.

re are many other stories. Early tales were as likely to feature were-bears as werewolves but there appeared to be something about the intelligence, the cunning and the ruthlessness of wolves that attracted early writers. They are closely connected to stories of magic and wizardry, right back to tales of strix-witches and screech owls. The book purports to provide ‘a comprehensive sourcebook for werewolfism in Greco-Roman antiquity’ and I do not doubt it is successful in that aim. Why werewolves? They are ‘the ultimate icon of wildness’, according to Ogden, and they ‘straddle the divide between savagery and civilisation’. They are often depicted as cursed, frequently cannibalistic (in some stories the beast must remain in wolf form if it eats human flesh – restraint will lead to transformation back into human form) and tragic.

If you find yourselves researching werewolves in the ancient world, this book’s for you. It clearly points to where werewolf myths started and how they developed. But if you’re looking for light reading or entertainment, look elsewhere.

Mark Bilsborough


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