Changing Stories: Ovid’s Metamorphoses on canvas, 1 – Lycaon, cannibalism, and werewolves

Jan Cossiers (1600–1671), Jupiter and Lycaon (c 1640), oil on canvas, 120 × 115 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

The first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses starts, just like the Bible and several other major compilations of ancient writing, with the creation of the world. You may be tempted to view Metamorphoses as the classical Roman version of a pagan Bible, but that would be extremely misleading. All cultures and civilisations have had their own creation myths, and Ovid simply offers his account of a Roman view.

This leads Ovid into a short summary of pre-history through four ages, starting in the Golden Age, and ending in the Iron Age, which is quite a perceptive metaphorical account of human pre-history, perhaps, considering the very limited knowledge of the Romans. Ovid then mentions what is generally known as the Age of the Titans or gigantomachy, which preceded the reign of the classical gods. This leads the text in to the first mythical story involving a metamorphosis: that of Lycaon, narrated by Jupiter himself.

The Story

Jupiter, the god of the sky, atmosphere, and thunder, and the king of the gods, hears of the infamy of the last of the four ages on earth, the Iron Age. Among that infamy, Jupiter picks out that of Lycaon, the King of Arcadia, whose name is derived from the Greek word for wolf, lycos (λύκος). However, Lycaon himself has decided to try Jupiter out too. To do this, the earthly king kills a hostage, cooks his body, and serves it up as a meal for Jupiter, following which Lycaon intends to kill the god.

Jupiter is outraged by this behaviour, and destroys Lycaon’s palace with thunderbolts. As Lycaon flees, so he is transformed into a wolf:
but not content with this he cut the throat
of a Molossian hostage sent to him,
and partly softened his still quivering limbs
in boiling water, partly roasted them
on fires that burned beneath. And when this flesh
was served to me on tables, I destroyed
his dwelling and his worthless Household Gods,
with thunder bolts avenging. Terror struck
he took to flight, and on the silent plains
is howling in his vain attempts to speak;
he raves and rages and his greedy jaws,
desiring their accustomed slaughter, turn
against the sheep—still eager for their blood.
His vesture separates in shaggy hair,
his arms are changed to legs; and as a wolf
he has the same grey locks, the same hard face,
the same bright eyes, the same ferocious look.

Jupiter proposes to a counsel of the gods to destroy humanity because of its behaviour. However, they quickly realise that without mankind, there would be nobody to worship them. Jupiter therefore agrees to transform humans into something better.

The Paintings

Very few painters seem to have been aware of this myth, and few paintings appear to depict it prior to the twentieth century.

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1617), Lycaon Transformed into a Wolf (1589), engraving (book 1, plate 9), 17.15 x 25.4 cm, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Hendrik Goltzius was one of the few visual artists to produce a full set of images, in this case engravings, to Ovid’s text. Lycaon Transformed into a Wolf (1589) is actually the ninth plate of the first book. It shows Jupiter sat at King Lycaon’s table, his eagle at his feet, with the cannibalistic dish in front of him. Amid the burning buildings, Lycaon flees: as he does so, his head is already transforming into that of a wolf.

Jan Cossiers (1600–1671), Jupiter and Lycaon (c 1640), oil on canvas, 120 × 115 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons.

Jan Cossiers recomposes the same basic elements into his impressive Jupiter and Lycaon (c 1640). Jupiter’s eagle vomits thunderbolts at Lycaon, who sits opposite the god. Lycaon’s head is thoroughly wolf-like already, as he hurriedly gets up from the table. Thunderbolts are seen behind the pillar in the background.

Mediaeval folk mythology also developed stories of humans turning into wolves, although these were temporary transformations associated with cannibalistic episodes. These were progressively refined and popularised into the Gothic ‘horror’ stories of werewolves feeding on human blood, although these did not reach painting until the twentieth century.

Stuart Pearson Wright (b 1975), Woman Surprised by a Werewolf (2008), oil on linen, 200 x 315 cm. Courtesy of and © Stuart Pearson Wright.

Stuart Pearson Wright’s magnificent Woman Surprised by a Werewolf (2008) was inspired by the movie An American Werewolf in London (1981), which was itself a further transformation of the story of werewolves into comedy horror form. The artist intended “to explore that uncharted place where the mystery and sublime of the romantic landscape meets the high camp and melodrama of Hammer horror”, which has come a long way from Ovid’s original story of lycanthropy.

In a strange twist to Ovid’s story, others (Pausanias in particular) claimed that lycanthropic rituals originated in an Arcadian cult at the temple of Zeus – the Roman god Jupiter.

The English translation of Ovid above is taken from Ovid. Metamorphoses. Tr. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922, at Perseus. I am very grateful to Perseus at Tufts for this. I also wish to thank Stuart Pearson Wright for permitting the use of his image here.