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Mount Lykaio: Haunt of Ancient Werewolves - an excerpt from Peloponnese & Athens

Et in Arcadia Ego. As the expression goes, death exists, even in Arcadía. But even without stories of werewolves and human sacrifice as an incentive, the isolated top of Mount Lykaio, or ‘Wolf’ Mountain, would be worth visiting. From Lykósoura, drive up past Áno Kariés to the top of the mountain. Much of the road is unpaved after Áno Kariés, but it is a good road. You can drive there, or it’s about an hour’s hike.

Think of the entire mountaintop as a shrine complex, albeit a sparsely built one. The setting itself inspired the worship. The stupendous view reveals at least a third of the Peloponnese on a clear day, giving the sensation of being on top of the world. and a slightly alien world at that. The dome-like summit, the traces of deserted terraced fields, stone walls and slate grey huts, all combine to create an austere backdrop for a shrine that goes back to some of the earliest Greek rain-making rites. The Arcadians adamantly claimed that Zeus was born here, not in Crete, and appealed to him at all times, but especially during drought. Somewhere up here was a spring called Hagnos. The priest of Lykaion Zeus dipped an oak branch in it, a mist would arise, cover the mountaintop, and then it would rain – sympathetic magic, pure and simple, the imitation of the desired end.

Yet it was rumoured all through antiquity that human sacrifices were also offered on the altar to the rain god, a rite initiated by Lykaion, son of Pelasgos. Legend had it that when a child was sacrificed, it changed into a wolf as its blood splashed on the altar. Zeus, according to more civilized Greeks, took umbrage at this, and turned Lykaion himself into a wolf and struck his house with lightning. This failed to get the message across, and when Lykaion’s sons brazenly offered Zeus a bowl of umble soup made from one of their brothers’ guts, he was so disgusted that he released too much rain – a flood, in fact, to kill off all humanity. But even these extreme measures failed to do the trick. Besides Deucalion and Pyrrha (the Greek Noah and his wife), a band of Parnassians survived the flood, migrated to Arcadía and, as soon as there was another drought, revived the wicked rites. (No one seemed to mind the fact that Zeus comes out in this attempt to reconcile different traditions as a deranged schizophrenic.)

A system of sorts developed: a shepherd, chosen by lot, would eat the soup prepared from the human sacrifice and turn into a werewolf. If he didn’t kill anyone, he would regain his human shape after eight years. One famous ex-werewolf, Damarchus, even went on after his eight-year stint to win the boxing event at the Olympics.

The altar in Classical times was flanked by two columns surmounted by golden eagles which faced east and the rising sun. The image seems more Hollywood than holy, but the two column bases and part of a column are still there to back up the story. Strange taboos surrounded this shrine. Part of it, no doubt the part struck by Zeus’ lightning bolt, was fenced in by stones and no one was allowed to enter, at the risk of losing their shadow and dying within a year. Even animals wandering in lost their shadow.

Ascending from Áno Kariés, you come to a flat area containing the confusing ruins of a 4th-century stoa and small hotel, a Temple to Pan, a stadium, and the very obvious hippodrome; you may be inclined to think prizes should have been awarded just for getting here. The road then ascends above the hippodrome and divides. The left fork goes to the summit with the altar and temenos where a wrong move might cost you your shadow. Look for the ruins near the little church of the Prophet Elijah (the Christian version of the weather god). The other fork continues quite a way, to the very scarce remains of the Archaic Temple of Parnassian Apollo, located just north of the church of Ag. Ioánnis, which incorporates much of its ancient stones. Also a weather shrine, they say a boar was sacrificed annually in Megalopolis and brought here to encourage the god to bring rain. Its bones and thighs were burned on the Altar of Apollo and the rest was cooked and eaten on the spot.

© Dana Facaros