Werewolf Wednesday: Augustine of Hippo’s The City of God (Fifth Century)

In last week’s post I talked about Johann Weyer’s sixteenth-century writing on werewolves. Weyer drew upon a text published more than a thousand years beforehand: Augustine of Hippo’s fifth-century work De civitate Dei contra paganos (On the City of God Against the Pagans). I decided to take a closer look at the volume in question — specifically, book 18 of the Marcus Dods translation, which contains the relevant passages about lycanthropy and other human-animal transformations.

The book offers a version of history that mixes together elements of the Old Testament and classical mythology. In the latter case, the members of the Grecio-Roman pantheon are either secularised altogether or brought in line with Christian theology. For example, Augustine portrays Atlas a great astrologer whose knowledge of the heavens was mythologised as an ability to hold up the heavens. Meanwhile, he appears to have believed that Neptune may well have some power over the waves — albeit by summoning demons.

Augustine’s history reaches the fall of Troy, and he mentions the legend that Diomedes’ companions were turned into birds. Could such a transformation have actually occurred? Yes, said Roman author Marcus Terentius Varro, whose opinion is articulated at length by Augustine:

In support of this story, Varro relates others no less incredible about that most famous sorceress Circe, who changed the companions of Ulysses into beasts, and about the Arcadians, who, by lot, swam across a certain pool, and were turned into wolves there, and lived in the deserts of that region with wild beasts like themselves. But if they never fed on human flesh for nine years, they were restored to the human form on swimming back again through the same pool. Finally, he expressly names one Demænetus, who, on tasting a boy offered up in sacrifice by the Arcadians to their god Lycæus according to their custom, was changed into a wolf, and, being restored to his proper form in the tenth year, trained himself as a pugilist, and was victorious at the Olympic games. And the same historian thinks that the epithet Lycæus was applied in Arcadia to Pan and Jupiter for no other reason than this metamorphosis of men into wolves, because it was thought it could not be wrought except by a divine power. For a wolf is called in Greek λυκὸς, from which the name Lycæus appears to be formed. He says also that the Roman Luperci were as it were sprung of the seed of these mysteries.

Augustine then acknowledges that such stories are still being spread:

Indeed we ourselves, when in Italy, heard such things about a certain region there where landladies of inns, imbued with these wicked arts, were said to be in the habit of giving to such travellers as they chose, or could manage, something in a piece of cheese by which they were changed on the spot into beasts of burden, and carried whatever was necessary, and were restored to their own form when the work was done. Yet their mind did not become bestial, but remained rational and human, just as Apuleius, in the books he wrote with the title of The Golden Ass, has told, or feigned, that it happened to his own self that, on taking poison, he became an ass, while retaining his human mind.

But Augustine takes a skeptical stance on such matters. In his opinion as a theologian, these transformations would be the work of demons — and demons, unlike God, have no power of creation and therefore cannot transform a human into an animal. He does, however, express belief in what would now be called out-of-body experiences, and acknowledges that a sleeping person’s spirit might take on animalistic form:

I cannot therefore believe that even the body, much less the mind, can really be changed into bestial forms and lineaments by any reason, art, or power of the demons; but the phantasm of a man which even in thought or dreams goes through innumerable changes may, when the man’s senses are laid asleep or overpowered, be presented to the senses of others in a corporeal form, in some indescribable way unknown to me, so that men’s bodies themselves may lie somewhere, alive, indeed, yet with their senses locked up much more heavily and firmly than by sleep, while that phantasm, as it were embodied in the shape of some animal, may appear to the senses of others, and may even seem to the man himself to be changed, just as he may seem to himself in sleep to be so changed, and to bear burdens; and these burdens, if they are real substances, are borne by the demons, that men may be deceived by beholding at the same time the real substance of the burdens and the simulated bodies of the beasts of burden.

He then provides two unsourced classical accounts describing out-of-body experiences:

For a certain man called Præstantius used to tell that it had happened to his father in his own house, that he took that poison in a piece of cheese, and lay in his bed as if sleeping, yet could by no means be aroused. But he said that after a few days he as it were woke up and related the things he had suffered as if they had been dreams, namely, that he had been made a sumpter horse, and, along with other beasts of burden, had carried provisions for the soldiers of what is called the Rhœtian Legion, because it was sent to Rhœtia. And all this was found to have taken place just as he told, yet it had seemed to him to be his own dream. And another man declared that in his own house at night, before he slept, he saw a certain philosopher, whom he knew very well, come to him and explain to him some things in the Platonic philosophy which he had previously declined to explain when asked. And when he had asked this philosopher why he did in his house what he had refused to do at home, he said, “I did not do it, but I dreamed I had done it.” And thus what the one saw when sleeping was shown to the other when awake by a phantasmal image.

Finally, Augustine applies his Christian theology to the Grecian human-animal transformations mentioned above:

Therefore what men say and have committed to writing about the Arcadians being often changed into wolves by the Arcadian gods, or demons rather, and what is told in song about Circe transforming the companions of Ulysses, if they were really done, may, in my opinion, have been done in the way I have said. As for Diomede’s birds, since their race is alleged to have been perpetuated by constant propagation, I believe they were not made through the metamorphosis of men, but were slyly substituted for them on their removal, just as the hind was for Iphigenia, the daughter of king Agamemnon. For juggleries of this kind could not be difficult for the demons if permitted by the judgment of God; and since that virgin was afterwards, found alive it is easy to see that a hind had been slyly substituted for her. But because the companions of Diomede were of a sudden nowhere to be seen, and afterwards could nowhere be found, being destroyed by bad avenging angels, they were believed to have been changed into those birds, which were secretly brought there from other places where such birds were, and suddenly substituted for them by fraud.

Having finished his thoughts on the topic of transformation, Augustine returns to his overview of history.

The conclusions reached by Augustine are the same as those reached by Weyer a millennium later, reminding us of how intellectuals of the early modern era were still indebted to much earlier works of scholarship.

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