In Greek mythology, Lycaon (/laɪˈkeɪɒn/; Greek: Λυκάων) was a king of Arcadia, son of Pelasgus and Meliboea, who, in the most popular version of the myth, tested Zeus by serving him the roasted flesh of his son Nyctimus, in order to see whether Zeus was truly omniscient. In return for these gruesome deeds, Zeus transformed Lycaon and his offspring into the forms of a wolf; Nyctimus was restored to life.
Despite being notorious for his horrific deeds, Lycaon was also remembered as a culture hero: he was believed to have founded the city Lycosura, to have established a cult of Zeus Lycaeus and to have started the tradition of the Lycaean Games, which Pausanias thinks were older than the Panathenaic Games. According to Hyginus, Lycaon dedicated the first temple to Hermes of Cyllene. The Arcadian town Nonakris was thought to have been named after the wife of Lycaon.
Versions of the main myth
There are several version of the Lycaon myth already reported by Hesiod (Fragmenta astronomica, by Eratosthenes, Catasterismi), told by several authors. The most popular version is the one reported by Ovid in the first book of his Metamorphoses.
The different versions of the myth are as follows:
- According to the Bibliotheca, Lycaon had sired 50 sons with many wives. These sons were the most nefarious and carefree of all people. To test them Zeus visited them in the form of a peasant. They mixed the entrails of a child into the god's meal, whereupon the enraged Zeus threw over the table with the meal, which explains the name of the city Trapezus (from τράπεζα "table"), and killed Lycaon and his sons with lightning. Only the youngest son, Nyctimus, was saved due to the intervention of Gaia.
- John Tzetzes records two similar versions which agree with Apollodorus' account; one mentions that the idea to serve Zeus a slaughtered child belonged to Maenalus, one of Lycaon's sons, while the other makes Nyctimus the victim.
- According to Pausanias, Lycaon was instantly transformed into a wolf after sacrificing a child on the altar of Zeus and sprinkling the blood on the altar.
- According to Lycophron, all were transformed into wolves for having devoured Nyctimus. Lycophron extends the characteristics of Lycaon and his sons onto all the Arcadians.
- The version recounted by Hyginus in his Fabulae is basically the same as that of Pseudo-Apollodorus. In Astronomica, Hyginus describes the victim of Lycaon as being Arcas, son of Jupiter (Zeus) and Callisto, the daughter of Lycaon. When saved and restored to life, Arcas was brought up to be a hunter. By mistake, he hunted himself and his mother (for the moment transformed into a bear) into a temple where entrance was punished by death. Both were saved by Zeus to constitute the constellations Arctophylax and the Great Bear.
- Nicolaus Damascenus tells that Lycaon's sons were nefarious. To test Zeus they mixed the flesh of a boy into the sacrifices, whereupon all who were present during the murder of the child were killed by lightning.
- According to Ovid, Lycaon mistrusted and derided the signs of Zeus' divine nature which the god openly demonstrated upon arrival to Arcadia. Determined to find out whether the guest was truly a god or a mortal, Lycaon served Zeus the flesh of a prisoner, partly cooked and partly roasted. Moreover, in his quest to test Zeus' immortality Lycaon attempted to murder the god while he slept. Thereupon Zeus brought the roof down and transformed the fleeing Lycaon into a wolf.
- According to the dictionary Suda, Lycaon had diligently been guarding the laws established by his father for the Arcadian people. In order to keep his subjects from injustice, he would tell them that Zeus frequented his home in the guise of a mortal man so as to keep watch over how lawful the humans were. One day when he was about to perform a sacrifice, the people were eager to know if the god was present; to find out if Lycaon told them the truth about Zeus' visits, they killed one of the king's fifty sons and mixed him in with the sacrificial meat, whereupon all of them were killed by lightning.
- According to Eratosthenes, Lycaon butchered his grandson (that is, Arcas), who was put together again by Zeus and placed upon the constellations, whereas Lycaon's house was struck by a thunderbolt.
Sons of Lycaon
- Nyctimus succeeded to Lycaon's power
- Pallas founded Pallantium
- Orestheus, Oresthasium
- Phigalus, Phigalia
- Trapezeus, Trapezous
- Daseatas, Dasea
- Macareus, Macaria
- Helisson, town of Helisson (also gave his name to a nearby river)
- Acacus, Acacesium
- Thocnus, Thocnia
- Orchomenus, Orchomenus and Methydrium
- Hypsus, Hypsus
- (name missing), Melaneae
- Thyreus, Thyraeum
- Maenalus, Maenalus
- Tegeates, Tegea
- Mantineus, Mantinea
- Cromus, Cromi
- Charisius, Charisia
- Tricolonus, Tricoloni
- Peraethus, Peraetheis
- Aseatas, Asea
- (name missing, Lyceus?), Lycoa
- Alipherus, Aliphera
- Heraeus, Heraea
- Oenotrus (the youngest), Oenotria in Italy
According to Tzetzes, some of the names of Lycaon's sons were Maenalus, Thesprotus, Nyctimus, Caucon, Lycius, Phthius, Teleboas, Haemon, Mantineus, Stymphalus, Cleitor, and Orchomenus, all of which also appear on the lists above.
Plutarch gives the names of two sons that stayed aside from the abomination: Eleuther and Lebadus.
- Theoi: Lykaon
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8. 2. 1
- Hyginus, Fabulae, 225
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8. 17. 6
- Hertz, Wilhelm (1862). Der Werwolf. Beitrag zur Sagengeschichte (in German). von A. Kröner, Stuttgart.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3. 8. 1 - 2
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 481
- Pausanias, Description of Greece, 8. 2. 3
- Lycophron, Alexandra, 480
- Hyginus, Fabulae, 176
- Theoi: Astronomica, Bear-watcher, by Gaius Julius Hyginus (translated by Mary Grant).
- Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1. 216 - 239
- Suda s. v. Lykaōn
- Pseudo-Eratosthenes, Catasterismi, 8
- Apollodorus. Library and Epitome. 3.8.1.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece, 8.3.1 - 5.
- Tzetzes on Lycophron, 481
- Plutarch, Quaestiones Graecae, 39
- The 50 sons of Lycaon according to different authors- by Greek Mythology Link - of Carlos Parada
- Theoi Project - Lycaon
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