In Ancient Greece, the Lykaia (Greek: Λυκαία) was an archaic festival with a secret ritual on the slopes of Mount Lykaion ("Wolf Mountain"), the tallest peak in rustic Arcadia. 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. The festival occurred yearly, probably at the beginning of May.
The epithet Lykaios ("wolf-Zeus") is assumed by Zeus only in connection with the Lykaia, which was the main Arcadian festival. Zeus had only a formal connection as patron of the ritual. In the founding myth, of Lycaon's banquet for the gods that included the flesh of a human sacrifice, perhaps one of his sons, Nyctimus or his grandson, Arcas, Zeus overturned the table and struck the house of Lyceus with a thunderbolt; his patronage at the Lykaia can have been little more than a formula. Long afterward, in the late 3rd century CE, the philosopher Porphyry reported that Theophrastus had compared the sacrifice "at the Lykaia in Arcadia" with Carthaginian sacrifices to Moloch.
The ritual was nocturnal, to judge from the name of Nyctimus (nyx, "night") that was given to the son of Lycaeus who was killed and served up as part of the feast to Zeus. Rumors of the ceremony that circulated among other Greeks revolved around the theme of human sacrifice and cannibalism: according to Plato, a particular clan would gather on the mountain to make a sacrifice every nine years to Zeus Lykaios, and a single morsel of human entrails would be intermingled with the animal's. Whoever ate the human flesh was said to turn into a wolf, and could only regain human form if he did not eat again of human flesh until the next nine-year cycle had ended. The traveller Pausanias told of an Olympic boxing champion Damarchus of Parrhasia, who had "turned into a wolf at the sacrifice to Zeus Lykaios, and changed back into a man again in the ninth year thereafter", from which Walter Burkert affirms that, for Damarchus to have successfully participated at least nine years later, the participants in the ritual feast must have been ephebes.
There were several sites. At the summit on Mount Lykaion Pausanias saw the ash-pile altar to Zeus but, as attending the rite was impossible, he was obliged to "let it be as it is and as it was from the beginning".
Near the ancient ash-heap where the sacrifices took place was a forbidden precinct in which, allegedly, no shadows were ever cast. Anyone who entered would have to be sacrificed. There was the cave of Rhea, the Kretaia, where, according to local legend, Zeus was born and was cared for by the nymphs. There were games associated with the satisfactory completion of the Lykaia, which removed in the 4th century to Megalopolis; when it was founded in 371 BCE, Megalopolis was the first urbanization in rustic Arcadia; there the major temple was dedicated to Zeus Lykaios, though the Arcadians continued to sacrifice on the mountain-top to Pausanias' day (2nd century CE).
Modern archaeologists have found no trace of human remains among the sacrificial detritus, but recent discoveries at the mountain-top ash-heap altar that Pausanias saw but was reluctant to pry into, reveal that it was much older than the Classical Greeks themselves realised. Early 20th century excavations at the site had revealed nothing earlier than ca. 700 BCE, but the Greek-American interdisciplinary Mt. Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project excavated a trench and detected ritual presence at the site at the beginning of the third millennium BCE, a thousand years before Zeus was worshiped in Greece. A Late Minoan rock crystal seal bearing the image of a bull was a notable surprise.
A sanctuary of Pan was also located upon the mountain. According to tradition, Euandros, son of Hermes, led a colony from Pallantion in Arkadia into Italy, where he built a town Pallantion on the Palatine, and introduced the cult of Pan Lýkaios and the festival of the Lykaia, which later became the major Roman festival of Lupercalia.
In 1973, the Ano Karyes Association "Lykaios Dias" established the modern Lykaia, which are held every four years on the same place as the ancient games. The motto of these games is "Stefanites and not Chrimatites" (Greek: "Στεφανίτες" και όχι "Χρηματίτες"), meaning that the purpose of these games is solely the moral perfection of man and not rewarding the winners with pecuniary means. Modern Lykaia are usually held in the beginning of August. The games begin with the lighting of the flame on the Arcadian's sacred peak. The Estiades of Mount Lykaion, making their appearance from the north, bring the Arcadian's eternal flame. The first Estiada walks slowly towards the southern pillar base (where two golden eagles were placed in ancient times) and lights the torch. The head priestess recites the Lycean Ode by Pindarus and then gives the torch to an athlete named as torch-bearer. The torch-bearer then runs into the stadium and lights the altar which is placed there. The closing ceremony includes cultural events, the lowering of the flag and the playing of the Greece's national anthem. The winner of each athletic event is awarded with an olive branch, a cup, a tripod, a medal or a diploma. All the athletes who participated-regardless of their performance-receive a certificate of participation, thus justifying the Games' motto. The last Lykaia were held from the 29th of July to the 7th of August 2005. The next games took place in the summer of 2009.Τhe next games will take place from 27th of July to the 4th of August 2013.On the last day(4th of August) the athletic events of track and field will take place at the mountain stadium.
- Arthur Bernard Cook, Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion I (Cambridge: Cambridge UP) 1914 (on-line excerpt) citing P. Welzel, De Iove et Pane dis Arcadicis (Bratislava 1879) p. 23 n. 5, on the strength of Xen. 1. 2. 10 (at Peltai) and Walter Immerwahr, Die Kulte und Mythen Arkadiens (Leipzig 1891) pp. 20f.
- "He is related to the wolf even in his name, Lykaon." (Burkert, 1983:86).
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. Bibliotheke, 3.98-3.99.
- According to Lycophron and others.
- According to Catasterismi, following a lost reference of Hesiod.
- Some versions of the story of the Deluge were initiated by this episode, e.g. Pseudo-Apollodorus (Bibliotheke 3.98-3.99), Ovid (Metamorphoses, 1.240ff), Hyginus (Fabula, 176).
- A morphological connection to lyke "brightness" may be merely fortuitous, but see Cook 1914:63-69 "Zeus Lýkaios: Wolf-god or Light-god?"
- Porphyry. On Abstinence
- Plato, Republic, 565d-e.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece, 6.8.2.
- Burkert, "Lykaia and Lykaion", Homo Necans, tr. by Peter Bing (University of California) 1983:86ff.
- For primitive ash mounds at sacrificial sites, see W. Kramer, "Prähistorische Brandopferplätze" Helvetica antiqua (1966) pp. 111-22, noted by Burkert 1983.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece, 8.38.7.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece, 8.38.6.
- Arkadia — Lykaion — 4th c. BC - A Panhellenic List of Lycaeonicae Epigraphical Database
- Burkert 1983, p. 90; the recent archaeology has found many animal bones in the ash-heap altar, but still no human ones.
- Early Helladic pottery sherds were recovered; finds showed the site was in unbroken use to the Hellenistic period.
- (Science Daily) ""New Discoveries At The Ash Altar Of Zeus Offer Insights Into Origins Of Ancient Greece's Most Powerful God", 28 January 2008 Accessed 16 July 2008.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece, 8.38.5.
- Cook 1914, (on-line excerpt), citing Kourouniotes via Pauly-Wissowa Real-Enc. vi. 839ff.
- Potamianos, K. Mount Lykaion Throughout the Centuries. Edition of the Kotylio Association, Athens 2005.