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  • A Roman Werewolf and a Dinner Tale January 18, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    Beachcombing still has the werewolf itch and it will not be exorcised unless he manages to spit out the story of Niceros the Freedman. The tale appears in Petronius’ Satyricon, the incomplete and bawdy Roman road novel that is best know today for its description of a Roman feast – where, in fact, this story is told. Beachcombing was complaining the other day about the death of belief in werewolves in Strasburg in the sixteenth century. In first-century Italy, however, the belief was clearly alive, kicking and, perhaps, every so often, biting.

    Niceros was still a slave at the time his story is set and was after a girl, Melissa. He had, he tells us, waited till his master is away and then had persuaded ‘a guest of the house to accompany me as far as the fifth mile-stone’.

    ‘[the guest] was a soldier, and as brave as the very devil.  We set out about cock-crow, the moon was shining as bright as midday, and came to where the tombstones are.  My man stepped aside amongst them, but I sat down, singing, and commenced to count them up.  When I looked around for my companion, he had stripped himself and piled his clothes by the side of the road.  My heart was in my mouth, and I sat there while he urinated a ring around them and was suddenly turned into a wolf!  Now don’t think I’m joking, I wouldn’t lie for any amount of money, but as I was saying, he commenced to howl after he was turned into a wolf, and ran away into the forest. I didn’t know where I was for a minute or two, then I went to his clothes, to pick them up, and damned if they hadn’t turned to stone!  Was ever anyone nearer dead from fright than me?  Then I whipped out my sword and cut every shadow along the road to bits, till I came to the house of my mistress.’

    When Niceros arrives, however, he learns that there has been a development.

    ‘My Melissa wondered why I was out so late.  ‘Oh, if you’d only come sooner,’ she said, ‘you could have helped us: a wolf broke into the folds and attacked the sheep, bleeding them like a butcher.  But he didn’t get the laugh on me, even if he did get away, for one of the slaves ran his neck through with a spear!’  I couldn’t keep my eyes shut any longer when I heard that, and as soon as it grew light, I rushed back to our Gaius’ house like an innkeeper beaten out of his bill, and when I came to the place where the clothes had been turned into stone, there was nothing but a pool of blood! And moreover, when I got home, my soldier was lying in bed, like an ox, and a doctor was dressing his neck!  I knew then that he was a werewolf, and after that, I couldn’t have eaten a crumb of bread with him, no, not if you had killed me.’

    The word for werewolf is versipellis, ‘turn-fur’, and werewolf veterans will notice some familiar traits. The moon is very much in evidence in Petronius’s story. There is also the topos of the man injured as a wolf who carries the injury back into the world: Beachcombing is reminded of an Ursula Le Guin short-story where some wolves are horrified to find that one of their number turns into a human, a fact revealed by a fictional device not dissimilar to this one. The connection with the cemetery is not so familiar, but brings us back to the ancient world where ghosts and ‘turn-furs’ were not easily distinguishable. The less said about the urine the better, though there is a considerable literature on that circle…

    Beachcombing would not be doing his duty to history, his source or the reader if he did not report that Niceros is portrayed in the Satryicon as a bit of an idiot.

    Beachcombing is now sated with modern werwolf stories and would be interested in any from ancient civilisations: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    The whole Niceros story is on the source page.