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The Story of Lycaon

In this passage, Ovid, a Roman poet (43 B.C.–17 A.D.) has Zeus, known in this Roman context as Jupiter, describe the punishment of an impious king named Lycaon for failing to recognize the god and worship him. This event was one of the factors that led Zeus to send a flood to destroy humans. The Metamorphoses, an important source for Greek and Roman mythology, contains stories in which characters undergo transformations.
A bad report about this age had reached our ears. Hoping that this report was false, I went down from lofty Olympus and, though a god, I walked on earth in human guise. It would take a long time to relate how much evil I found everywhere. The report was not as bad as the truth. I traversed the mountains of Maenalus, frightful with the hiding places of wild beasts, and the pine forests of chilly Lycaeus and Cyllene. Here is the throne and the hostile palace of the Arcadian king. I went in at the time when the late shadows were drawing on the night. I gave signs that a god had arrived, and the people began to worship me. At first Lycaon ridiculed the pious offerings. Soon he said, “I am going to find out by means of a guaranteed test whether this is a god or a mortal. The truth will not be in doubt.” He prepared to kill me at night while I was heavy with unexpected sleep. He settled on this test of the truth, but he was not content with it. With a knife he slit the throat of a hostage sent from the Molossian tribe and softened his limbs, though not yet fully dead, by boiling some of them and roasting others in the fire. As soon as he placed this meal on the table for me, I used my avenging thunderbolt to overturn the palace on its Penates; they were worthy of their master. Lycaon himself fled in terror. When he had come to the deserted reaches of the countryside, he howled and tried in vain to speak. As a result of his own nature his appearance took on a kind of madness and he exercised against the flocks the lust for slaughter to which he had become accustomed. He began to take pleasure in blood. His clothes became fur and his arms turned into legs. He became a wolf, but he kept vestiges of his former self. There was the same grayness and the same fury about his face; the same eyes shone in his head; he had the same appearance of fierceness.

our—These lines are spoken by Jupiter (Zeus), who is addressing the other gods and goddesses.

Olympus—The reference to Olympus shows that this story was originally Greek: the Roman gods did not live on Mount Olympus in Greece until they became identified with their Greek counterparts.

Maenalus—The Maenalus mountain range is in Arcadia in the center of the Peloponnese. The mountains were said to be sacred to Pan.

Lycaeus—The gods Pan and Zeus were worshiped on the mountain known as Lycaeus, which is in the middle of Arcadia.

Cyllene—On the high mountain called Cyllene, in northeastern Arcadia, Hermes was said to have been born.

Molossian—The Molossi lived in the northeastern part of Epirus. It was a common practice in the classical world for the two parties involved in a treaty or contract to exchange “hostages.” Neither party would be inclined to violate the treaty if one of its valued citizens, say the son or daughter of the king, was vulnerable in the hands of the other party. To kill a hostage without provocation, as Lycaon does in this tale, was a serious breach of trust.

Penates—The Penates were Roman household gods. They were personifications of the spirits of a Roman home. Zeus says they were worthy of their master because, despite their power and influence, they did not keep Lycaon from committing his heinous crime.

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