|"Lycaon," 1589. Engraving by Hendrik Goltzius (1558-1617) for Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book I, 209 ff.|
They set sails to the wind, though as yet the seamen had poor knowledge of their use, and the ships’ keels that once were trees standing amongst high mountains, now leaped through uncharted waves. The land that was once common to all, as the light of the sun is, and the air, was marked out to its furthest boundaries by wary surveyors. Not only did they demand the crops and the food the rich soil owed them, but they entered the bowels of the earth, and excavating brought up the wealth it had concealed in Stygian shade, wealth that incites men to crime... [I: 125-50]Lycaon was among the worst of a bad lot. His infamous crime was to attempt to trick Zeus into eating the limbs of a dismembered child in order to test his omniscience. But Zeus was not fooled:
"No sooner were these [limbs] placed on the table than I brought the roof down on the household gods, with my avenging flames, those gods worthy of such a master. [Lycaon] himself ran in terror, and reaching the silent fields howled aloud, frustrated of speech. Foaming at the mouth, and greedy as ever for killing, he turned against the sheep, still delighting in blood. His clothes became bristling hair, his arms became legs. He was a wolf, but kept some vestige of his former shape. There were the same grey hairs, the same violent face, the same glittering eyes, the same savage image. One house has fallen, but others deserve to also. Wherever the earth extends the avenging furies rule. You would think men were sworn to crime! Let them all pay the penalty they deserve, and quickly. That is my intent." [I:210-243]So how does this macabre tale connect to Valentine's Day? Mount Lykaion ("Wolf Mountain"), the mighty peak in Arcadia where King Lycaon was thought to have been transformed into a wolf, became the site of a secret ritual honoring the "Wolf-Zeus." According to Wikipedia, "The rituals and myths of this primitive rite of passage centered upon an ancient threat of cannibalism and the possibility of a werewolf transformation for the epheboi (adolescent males) who were the participants." Modern archeology has revealed that this mountain was a ritual site long before the name Zeus was even known in Greece: in 2008, it was announced that ritual activity dating from 3,000 B.C. was evident at the site.
|A view from the ash-altar on Mount Lykaion, showing temple ruins.|
|"Capitoline Wolf," bronze, approx. 13th century C.E., with figures added in 16th century C.E.|
|A 2007 photograph taken by an electronic probe of the lavishly decorated Roman chamber that may be the Lupercal grotto. Via National Geographic.|
At this time many of the noble youths and of the magistrates run up and down through the city naked, for sport and laughter striking those they meet with shaggy thongs. And many women of rank also purposely get in their way, and like children at school present their hands to be struck, believing that the pregnant will thus be helped in delivery, and the barren to pregnancy. [Life of Caesar, 61]
|A modern depiction of Lupercalia, author unknown to me (I found it here.)|
|14th century French codex depicting Bishop Valentine of Terni (BN, Codex: Français 185, Fol. 210).|
Valentine's feast day appears not to have acquired romantic overtones until the 13th or 14th centuries, but this is only based on evidence in written texts. Did the celebration of fertility of the Luperci and Lykaon survive among the common folk, later to be revived as a pseudo-Christian holiday of love? It is impossible to say with any certainty, but given what we know about the submerged survival of 'pagan' practices in Late Antiquity and medieval Christianity, it strikes me as probable.
So happy werewolf-day, everyone.