Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Was the dog-demon of Ephesus a werewolf?

Apollonius of Tyana was a Pythagorean sage and miracle-worker whose life was roughly conterminous with the first century AD. He is often, accordingly, referred to as “the pagan Jesus.” We owe almost all we know about him to a Life written by Philostratus shortly after AD 217.

In one of the biography’s more striking episodes (4.10), the great man eliminates a plague (a timely subject indeed for us!) that has fallen upon the people of Ephesus. The suffering citizens send an appeal for help to him in Smyrna, some 35 miles distant. Apollonius does not delay, but presents himself in the afflicted city instantaneously, either by teleporting himself or by projecting his soul from his body in visible form and sending it flying (a familiar Pythagorean feat). He undertakes to put an end to the disease at once and leads the townspeople into their theatre. There he points out an old, ragged beggar, toting a bag with a morsel of bread in it, and squinting. He assembles the citizens around the beggar and tells them to collect as many rocks as they can and stone him with them, as he is an enemy of the gods. Understandably, they are taken aback, and reluctant to kill a stranger, not least one in such an unfortunate condition. The beggar begs Apollonius for pity, but the sage is uncompromising and eventually prevails upon the citizens to start pelting him. At this point the beggar looks up and opens his eyes, revealing them to be full of fire and proving that he is a demon (daimōn). The Ephesians now proceed with the act of stoning, with all the greater confidence and alacrity. In the end, the beggar is completely buried beneath a great pile of rocks. After a little while, Apollonius asks them to remove the rocks at see what beast (thērion) they have killed. They find that the man they think they have stoned has disappeared, and in his place is the carcass of an enormous dog, resembling a Molossian hound in form, but a lion in size. It has been crushed by the stones and is spitting foam from its mouth, as if rabid. The act is in due course commemorated by the erection of a statue of Heracles the Averter in the place where the apparition (phasma) had been pelted to death.

We must bear in it mind that the Life is complex and ironic product of the so-called “Second Sophistic” movement. The story need not be taken to document folk beliefs in any simple or unmediated way, nor need it be fully coherent or consistent with any one set of beliefs. Nonetheless, there is much about this episode that makes appeal to the ancient imagery of the werewolf.

The terminology Philostratus applies to his antagonist is centrifugal, to say the least. Phasma (“apparition”, “manifestation”) might be applied to a god, a demon or, especially, a ghost. Normally it would denote something intangible, but our antagonist is clearly highly tangible, at least in his dog form; perhaps the term phasma is intended to relate more specifically to the physical dog’s cloaking of itself with the beggar’s form. “Demon” (daimōn) seems an appropriate enough term for an entity able to inflict plague—but then one would expect such things to be immortal, not killable; a subcategory of demon, the neky-daimōn (“dead-demon”, i.e. “ghost”) is already dead, but ought not to be killable a second time.

It may be, nonetheless, that the imagery of the ghost is evoked. In antiquity, werewolves had rather greater affinities with ghosts and the dead than they do in the modern imagination. In Petronius’ famous werewolf story (Satyricon 61-2; AD 66) a soldier transforms himself into a wolf in a cemetery; after witnessing the change, his companion, Niceros, the narrator, imagines himself to be beset by ghosts on all sides. The second-century AD physician Marcellus of Side used the metaphor of werewolfism to characterize a condition he identified. He termed the condition lykanthrōpia (“wolf-human-ism”, the source, of course, of our word “lycanthropy”) and its principal symptom was compulsion to hang around tombs (Aëtius of Amida Libri medicinales6.11; iv AD). But let us note that, in more recent times, the vrikolakas of Balkan folklore is found in the forms of the werewolf and the vampire alike.

Marcellus and Aëtius help to clarify a point that will already have been troubling most readers hitherto: can a dog really count as a wolf, or be regarded as sufficiently similar for our purposes? Yes, it can: they give kynanthrōpia (“dog-human-ism”) as an alternative term for the condition in question. Furthermore, our dog’s foaming mouth also makes appeal to the wolf: the term Philostratus uses for “rabid” (lyttōntes) literally signifies “going wolf.” And indeed the Molossian, the large and fierce hunting dog to which Philostratus compares the form of his beast, was surely the most lupine of all the ancient breeds.

One detail in particular that seems to draw the demon close to the ancient paradigms of werewolfism is that of the beggar’s bag with its morsel of bread: a colourful detail, though one that initially seems to lead nowhere within the swiftly narrated tale. But in the case of Petronius’ werewolf story once more, the narrator, Niceros, concludes his tale with the affirmation that, having discovered his friend to be a werewolf (versipellis), he refused ever again to break bread with him. We must not be misled by the English idiom here: Niceros does not metaphorically refuse to converse with his friend, but rather literally refuses to share a piece of bread with him. The implication evidently is that the wolf-transformation can be triggered by the ingestion of a bit of bread. So Philostratus may be offering us the idea that the beggar had used his bread in his final moments to bring on his own transformation, in hopes of being able to escape or to get the better of the townspeople in his dog form.

Philostratus’ tale shares a range of common motifs with another problematic werewolf tale from the ancient world: Pausanias’ story of the Hero of Temesa (6.6; later ii AD). Like our antagonist, the Hero is presented as both a demon and a ghost; like our antagonist, he is clothed in rough fashion—in an all-important wolfskin, no less; like our antagonist he is stoned to death, albeit at the beginning rather than at the end of his story.

All in all, there surely is enough here to justify the dog-demon of Ephesus’ inclusion in, or strong association with, the canon of the werewolves of the ancient world.

The central motif of Philostratus’ tale is saluted (consciously or otherwise) in the appendix to Guy Endore’s 1933 novel The Werewolf of Paris, which has the name—amongst werewolf aficionados at any rate—of being the only werewolf novel of any literary merit. Here Bertrand, the werewolf, is buried, after his suicide, in humanoid form. When his coffin is accidentally opened some years later, it is found to contain only the remains of a dog.

Feature image by David Dibert

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *