Lycaon (king of Arcadia)

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Zeus turning Lycaon into a wolf; engraving by Hendrik Goltzius.

In Greek mythology, Lycaon (/laɪˈkeɪɒn/; Attic Greek: Λυκᾱ́ων, Attic Greek[ly.kǎː.ɔːn]) was a king of Arcadia who, in the most popular version of the myth, tested Zeus' omniscience by serving him the roasted flesh of Lycaon's own son Nyctimus, in order to see whether Zeus was truly all-knowing.

In return for these gruesome deeds, Zeus transformed Lycaon into a wolf and killed his offspring; 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.[1] According to Gaius Julius Hyginus (d. AD 17), Lycaon dedicated the first temple to Hermes of Cyllene.[2]


Lycaon was the son of Pelasgus[2][3] and either the Oceanid Meliboea[4] or Deianira, daughter of another Lycaon.[5] His wife was called Cyllene, a naiad nymph who gave her name to Mount Cyllenê[6] though sometimes she was regarded as his mother instead.[7][3] In some accounts, the Arcadian town Nonakris was thought to have been named after his wife.[8] Lycaon was also known to have had at least three daughters: Callisto, Dia[9] and Psophis.[10]

Sons of Lycaon[edit]

According to the Bibliotheca (Pseudo-Apollodorus), Lycaon has 50 sons.[11] An alternate list of Lycaon's sons is given by Pausanias. According to his account, almost each of them founded a city in Arcadia and became its eponym.[12]

List of Lycaon's sons
Name Apollodorus Pausanias Others Notes
Acacus foster-father of Hermes; founded Acacesium
Acontes 1
Aegaeon 2
Alipherus 3 founded Aliphera
Ancyor 4
Archebates 5
Aseatas founded Asea
Bucolion 6
Canethus 7
Carteron 8
Caucon 9 [13] eponym of the Caucones that were believed to have settled in Triphylia
Ceteus [14] father of Callisto or Megisto
Charisius founded Charisia
Cleitor 10 [13] possibly eponym of Cleitor
Coretho 11
Cromus founded Cromi
Cynaethus 12
Daseatas founded Dasea
Eleuther [15] stayed aside from the abomination
Euaemon 13 possibly eponym of Euaemon
Eumetes 14
Eumon 15
Genetor 16
Haemon 17 [13] possibly eponym of Haemoniae
Harpaleus 18
Harpalycus 19
Helix 20
Helisson founded the town of Helisson (also gave his name to a nearby river)
Heraeus 21 founded Heraea
Hopleus 22
Horus 23
Hypsus founded Hypsus
Lebadus [15] stayed aside from the abomination
Leo(n) 24
Linus 25
Lycius 26 ✓(possibly) [13] founded Lycoa
Macareus 27 founded Macaria
Macednus 28 founded Macedonia
Maenalus 29 [13] founded Maenalus
Mantineus 30 [13] founded Mantinea
Mecisteus 31
Melaeneus 32 ✓ (possibly) founded Melaeneae
Nyctimus 33 [13] succeeded to Lycaon's power
Oenotrus [16] the youngest, founded Oenotria in Italy
Orchomenus 34 [13] founded Orchomenus and Methydrium
Orestheus founded Oresthasium
Pallas 35 founded Pallantium
Parrhasius [17] founded Parrhasia and said to be the father of Arcas
Peraethus founded Peraetheis
Peucetius 36
Phassus 37
Phigalus founded Phigalia
Phineus 38
Phthius 39 [13] possibly eponym of Phthiotis
Physius 40
Plato(n) 41
Polichus 42
Portheus 43
Prothous 44
Socleus 45
Stymphalus 46 [13] possibly eponym of the town Stymphalus
Teleboas 47 [13]
Tegeates founded Tegea
Thesprotus 48 [13] founded Thesprotia
Thocnus founded Thocnia
Thyraeus founded Thyraeum
Titanas 49
Trapezeus founded Trapezus
Tricolonus founded Tricoloni

Versions of the main myth[edit]

There are several versions 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:[18]

  • 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 the meal over the table, which explains the name of the city Trapezus (from τραπέζι "table"), and killed Lycaon and his sons with lightning. Only the youngest son, Nyctimus, was saved due to the intervention of Gaia.[19]
  • 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.[13]
  • 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.[20]
  • 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.[21]
  • The version recounted by Hyginus in his Fabulae[22] 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 Ursa Major, the Great Bear.[23]
  • 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.[24]
  • 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.[25]
  • 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.[26]

Modern interpretation[edit]

The English poet Robert Graves, in his The Greek Myths, explained the origin of Lycaon's myth as follows:

"The story of Zeus and the boy’s guts is not so much a myth as a moral anecdote expressing the disgust felt in more civilized parts of Greece for the ancient cannibalistic practices of Arcadia, which were still performed in the name of Zeus, as "barbarous and unnatural" (Plutarch: Life of Pelopidas). Lycaon’s virtuous Athenian contemporary Cecrops, offered only barley—cakes, abstaining even from animal sacrifices. The Lycaonian rites, which the author denies that Zeus ever countenanced, were apparently intended to discourage the wolves from preying on flocks and herds, by sending them a human king. "Lycaeus" means "of the she-wolf", but also "of the light", and the lightning in the Lycaon myth shows that Arcadian Zeus began as a rain-making sacred king—in service to the divine She-wolf, the Moon, to whom the wolfpack howls.[27] A Great Year of one hundred months, or eight solar years, was divided equally between the sacred king and his tanist; and Lycaon’s fifty sons—one for every month of the sacred king’s reign—will have been the eaters of the umble soup. The figure twenty-two, unless it has been arrived at by a count of the families who claimed descent from Lycaon and had to participate in the umble-feast, probably refers to the twenty-two five-year lustra which composed a cycle—the 110-year cycle constituting the reign of a particular line of priestesses."[28]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The 1980s boys manga Saint Seiya, Lycaon Phlegyas serves as one of Hades spectres. A fan made adult Doujin also featured a story between Miho and King Lycaon.
  • In Highschool DxD, the Mythological Lycaon who was transformed into a wolf by Zeus was sealed into a Sacred Gear the Canis Lykaon.
  • The television series Teen Wolf mentions Lycaon and his sons as an origin story of werewolves. Lycaon was said to have approached druids (called Emissaries) who had conquered the ability to shapeshift between animal and human forms. They helped Lycaon and his sons.
  • In The Heroes of Olympus series by Rick Riordan, Lycaon is depicted as a minor running antagonist, usually working for the villain of the story. He is a sworn enemy of Artemis and her Hunters.
  • The book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin describes a very similar story to Lycaon’s called The Rat Cook. In this story, similar events occur, with the titular character being transformed into a rat by the gods instead of a wolf.
  • In the anime adaption of the manga series Soul Eater, a villain exists who is a werewolf and has a theme song aptly named “Lycaon” in reference to this tale.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pausanias, Graeciae Descriptio 8.2.1
  2. ^ a b Hyginus, Fabulae 225
  3. ^ a b Fowler, Robert L. (2013). Early Greek Mythography: Volume II Commentary. Great Clarendon Street, Oxford, OX2 6DP, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-19-814741-1.CS1 maint: location (link)
  4. ^ Apollodorus, 3.8.1; Tzetzes on Lycophron, Alexandra 481
  5. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae 1.11.2 & 1.13.1; Greek Papyri III No. 140b
  6. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae 1.13.1
  7. ^ Apollodorus, 3.8.1; Scholia ad Euripides, Orestes 1642
  8. ^ Pausanias, Graeciae Descriptio 8.17.6
  9. ^ Tzetzes on Lycophron, Alexandra 480; Scholia on Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, 1.1213; Etymologicum Magnum, 288. 33 (under Dryops)
  10. ^ Stephanus of Byzantium, Ethnica s.v. Psōphis
  11. ^ Apollodorus, 3.8.1
  12. ^ Pausanias, Graeciae Descriptio 8.3.1–5
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Tzetzes on Lycophron, Alexandra 481
  14. ^ Hyginus, Astronomica 2.1.6 with Araethus of Tegea as authority
  15. ^ a b Plutarch, Quaestiones Graecae, 39
  16. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Antiquitates Romanae 1.11.2
  17. ^ The dictionary of classical mythology, Pierre Grimal, p. 346-7
  18. ^ Hertz, Wilhelm (1862). Der Werwolf. Beitrag zur Sagengeschichte (in German). von A. Kröner, Stuttgart.
  19. ^ Apollodorus, 3.8.1 - 2
  20. ^ Pausanias, Graeciae Descriptio 8.2.3
  21. ^ Lycophron, Alexandra, 480
  22. ^ Hyginus, Fabulae, 176
  23. ^ Theoi: Astronomica, Bear-watcher, by Gaius Julius Hyginus (translated by Mary Grant).
  24. ^ Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1. 216 - 239
  25. ^ Suda s. v. Lykaōn
  26. ^ Pseudo-Eratosthenes, Catasterismi, 8
  27. ^ Robert Graves. The Greek Myths, section 38: Deucalion's Flood
  28. ^ Robert Graves (1960). The Greek Myths. Harmondsworth, London, England: Penguin Books. pp. s.v. Deucalion's Flood. ISBN 978-0143106715.