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In Greek mythology, Autolycus (/ɔːˈtɒlɪkəs/; Greek: Αὐτόλυκος Autolykos, "the wolf itself")[1] was a son of the Olympian god Hermes and Chione. He was the husband of Neaera,[2] or according to Homer,[3] of Amphithea. Autolycus fathered Anticlea (who married Laertes of Ithaca and was the mother of Odysseus[4]) and several sons, of whom only Aesimus is named.

Life and major events[edit]

There are a number of different accounts of the birth of Autolycus. According to most, he was the son of Hermes[5] and Chione[6] or Philonis.[7] In Ovid's version, Autolycus was conceived after Hermes had intercourse with the virgin Chione (Ovid 11).[8] Pausanias instead states that Autolycus' real father was Daedalion (Pausanias 8.4.6).[9]

Autolycus was husband to Mestra, daughter of Erysichthon (Ovid 8.738),[10] who could change her shape at will, or to Neaera (Pausanias 8.4.3), or to Amphithea (Homer, Odyssey, 19.394). He became the father of Anticlea and Polymede, of whom the latter was the mother of Jason, the famous Argonaut who led a group of men to find the coveted Golden Fleece (Apollodorus 1.9.16). A different Autolycus, the son of Deimachus, was a part of the Argonauts who went on the journey to find the fleece.

Through Anticleia, Autolycus was also the grandfather of the famous warrior Odysseus,[4] and he was responsible for the naming of the child as well. This happened when the nurse of the child Eurycleia "laid the child upon his knees and spoke, and addressed him: Autolycus, find now thyself a name to give to thy child's own child; be sure he has long been prayed for". Then Autolycus answered: "Since I have been angered (ὀδυσσάμενος odyssamenos)[11] with many, both men and women, let the name of the child be Odysseus".[12]

Autolycus obtained most of the same skills that his supposed father Hermes possesses, such as the arts of theft and trickery (Hyginus 201) and skill with the lyre and gracious song (Ovid 11.301). It was said that he "loved to make white of black, and black of white, from a hornless animal to a horned one, or from horned one to a hornless" (Hyginus 201). He was given the gift that his thievery could not be caught by anyone (Hyginus 201).

He had a helmet to make him invisible.[citation needed] Autolycus, master of thievery, was also well known for stealing Sisyphus' herd right from underneath him – Sisyphus, who was commonly known for being a crafty king that killed guests, seduced his niece and stole his brothers' throne (Hyginus 50-99) and was banished to the throes of Tartarus by the gods.

Heracles, the great Greek hero, was taught the art of wrestling by Autolycus (Apollodorus 2.4.9). However, Autolycus was a source of trouble in Heracles' life, because when Autolycus stole some cattle from Euboea and Eurytus, they accused Heracles of the deed; upon going mad from these accusations, Heracles killed them and another one of Eurytus' sons, Iphitus. This led to Heracles serving three years of punishment to repent the deed (Apollodorus 2.6.3).

In popular culture[edit]

Although not as well known as many other Greek mythological figures, Autolycus has appeared in a number of works of fiction.

  • Autolycus appears as a paragon of thievery in Thomas De Quincey's "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts".
  • A comic thief in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale boasts that he is named after Autolycus and, like the latter's father, Mercury/Hermes, is "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles".
  • Autolycus appears in Diana Wynne Jones' book The Game as a very mischievous brat.
  • In the television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, Autolycus appears as a comical antihero, portrayed by cult actor Bruce Campbell, who has a kinder heart than he lets on. As the self-proclaimed "King of Thieves", he is depicted as a thief of great cunning but even greater ego which typically results in him getting in over his head in one scenario after another and even getting caught by Hercules. His wardrobe includes a green tunic, possibly in reference to Robin Hood (also known as a thief, particularly in the title of a film featuring Kevin Costner).
  • Autolycus is the name of a fictional racehorse in the 1935 film The Clairvoyant, starring Claude Rains.
  • Autolycus is the name of Debbie Aldridge's horse in the BBC Radio 4 series The Archers.
  • Autolycus is the name of a midget submarine owned by the Lost Boys, the thieves of Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines series of books.
  • Autolycus is the name of a pet jackdaw belonging to the fictional detective Albert Campion in the novels by Margery Allingham.
  • Autolycus appears in an episode of the Canadian television series Class of the Titans episode "Bad Blood" voiced by Joseph May. He was hired by Cronus to steal Hercules' last surviving arrow.
  • The superhero/trickster figure of Uncle Sam in Robert Coover's The Public Burning (1977, New York, Grove Books) is described in the following terms (p. 7): "American Autolycus, they called him in the Gospels, referring to his cunning powers of conjuration, transmutation, and magical consumption (he can play the shell game, not with a mere pea, but with whole tin mines, forests, oil fields, mountain ranges, and just before Thanksgiving this past year made an entire island disappear!)”.
  • Autolycus was the pen name Aldous Huxley used when writing the 'Marginalia′ column in the Athenaeum.[13]
  • In the game Age of Empires Online, there is an army of computer-controlled opponents who call themselves the Followers of Autolycus. They must be defeated during several quests of the Greek civilization.
  • Autolycus was portrayed by Rufus Sewell in the 2014 movie Hercules.
  • Series 4, episode 5 of the British television series Father Brown is entitled "The Daughter of Autolycus".
  • The Blue Guitar (John Banville 2015 novel) begins with the line "Call me Autolycus."
  • The non-tailed dsDNA viruses that kill marine bacteria, Autolykiviridae, were named after Autolycus for being difficult to catch (Nature, 2018, doi:10.1038/nature25474).


  1. ^ KJ Gutzwiller. Theocritus' Pastoral Analogies: The Formation of a Genre (p. 37). Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1991 ISBN 0299129446. Retrieved 2015-04-12. 
  2. ^ Pausanias viii. 4. § 3 (cited in Smith)
  3. ^ Odyssey 19.416
  4. ^ a b Homer, Odyssey, 24.334
  5. ^ Bibliotheca, Library 1.9.16
  6. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae 201
  7. ^ Catalogue of Women fr. 64.
  8. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses - Book the Eleventh: The Transformation of Daedalion, translated by Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al (MIT): "unresisted revels in her arms ...".
  9. ^ Pausanias, Pausanias's Description of Greece (p. lix), translated by J G Frazer, Cambridge University Press, 2012, ISBN 1108047238.
  10. ^ I. Ziogas, Ovid and Hesiod: The Metamorphosis of the Catalogue of Women (p. 136), Cambridge University Press, 2013. ISBN 1107007410. Ziogas states a detail of Ovid 8.738, "Mestra is not actually mentioned by name in Ovid 8. 738".
  11. ^ ὀδύσσομαι at LSJ.
  12. ^ Homer, Odyssey, 19. 400-405
  13. ^ Murray, Nicholas, biography on Aldous Huxley 2002.


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