“Seems you’ve had a pretty thorough grounding in tackling Dark creatures – you’ve covered boggarts, Red Caps, hinkypunks, grindylows, Kappas and werewolves, is that right?”
– Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
Nowadays, werewolves have become a staple of fantasy literature, partially due to the Harry Potter series. But did you know werewolves are over 38 centuries old? Many fantastical beasts in literature function as a reflection of some aspect of human nature, and the werewolf from J.K. Rowling’s world-famous Harry Potter series is no exception. Of course, the history of the werewolf started long before Harry Potter, as early as the 18th century BCE. The Epic of Gilgamesh contains the first case of lycanthropy – man-to-wolf transformation. Since then, the werewolf myth has popped up persistently, and it was during antiquity that such myths became more defined. But do the werewolves in Harry Potter still resemble those described in antiquity? This article pairs werewolves from ancient Roman authors Ovid and Petronius with those from Harry Potter. Has the concept evolved beyond recognition during the time between them, or do core values still live on?
Dinner for a Werewolf
The Roman poet Ovid was one of the first writers to fully develop a werewolf as a character, in 8 CE. He did this in his crowning achievement, the Metamorphoses, in which he retold the myth of Lycaon. Lycaon is the king of Arcadia, a region of mainland Greece. When Zeus, the king of the gods, appears to him, Lycaon doubts that he really is the god. He wants to test Zeus by serving him human flesh as a meal, trying to see whether he would notice. Zeus notices, and destroys Lycaon’s palace in retribution. To complete the punishment, he turns Lycaon into a wolf forever. When the transformation is complete, it becomes clear that Lycaon has merely turned from a human monster into a literal one. Meanwhile, there are traces of the man still visible in the wolf, with ‘gleaming eyes’, ‘grey hair’ among them. According to Ovid, the ‘beastly savagery’ of Lycaon remains the same.
Their predilection for some of the worst sins and urges in human nature has literally twisted them into beasts.
Finding an equivalent in the Harry Potter series leads us to the villainous Fenrir Greyback, who first appears in part six of the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Some differences can be found in their transformations. For example, Lycaon is only transformed into a wolf once, while Greyback does so every month during the full moon. Lycaon’s transformation is a direct consequence of his crimes, while the circumstances of Greyback’s infection with lycanthropy remain unclear in the Harry Potter series.
But like Lycaon, Fenrir Greyback blurs the lines between wolf and human. His physical description is full of wolfish traits, even in his human form. His hair is matted, his voice bark-like and his nails are yellow and long. The cannibalistic tendencies from Ovid’s tale also return, as Greyback’s appetites have been influenced by the wolf; he has a taste for human flesh even when human himself. The main character trait of both werewolves is a savage evil. Their predilection for some of the worst sins and urges in human nature has literally twisted them into beasts.
A Werewolf for Dinner
A few decades after Ovid’s masterpiece, the Roman senator and consul Petronius published the Satyricon (c. 60 CE). One of the earliest forms of a novel, the Satyricon is a sharp and lewd parody of Homer’s Odyssey. A large part of the novel consists of a lavish dinner party, at which the guests take turns telling stories. One of the dinner guests, Niceros, recounts a tale in which he took with him a companion, only named as a soldier, to travel the countryside at night in order to win the hand of a woman. To Niceros’ consternation, his friend stripped down while they were walking among the gravestones along the road. The soldier urinated around the clothes he had put on the ground, and suddenly transformed into a wolf. The wolf howled and ran into the woods. Full of fear and incomprehension, Niceros went on to his destination alone. When he arrived there, he found that the estate had been plagued by the wolf. It had succeeded in killing all the sheep, though one of the slaves managed to pierce his neck with a spear. Niceros was terrified, and returned to his own estate at dawn. There he found his friend asleep, with a wound in his neck. Upon seeing him as a man again, Niceros realized with horror that his friend was a werewolf.
Apart from the bizarre requirements for the transformation of this werewolf, another especially interesting feature is Niceros’ reaction. When the transformation occurs, he is extremely frightened, though he doesn’t seem to understand the lycanthropy right away. However, when Niceros does recognize his friend as the werewolf, his only comment is that thereafter ‘I was not able to share bread with him, not even if you’d killed me.’ Despite the terror Niceros experienced during the night due to the transformation, there is no mention of any kind of retaliation. He does not intend to hunt the werewolf down, only to cast him aside as a friend.
The werewolf can be used as a cautionary tale regarding the ostracism of those who are different, even when difference does not imply danger.
Similar exclusion occurs in the Harry Potter series, concerning Remus Lupin. Lupin is first introduced as a teacher at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third book of the series. He is described as poverty-stricken, and in a later book Lupin explains that this is because he is unable to hold down a job as soon as his employers discover his status as a werewolf. Even social contacts fade, as Lupin remarks: “I’m not a very popular dinner guest with most of the [wizarding] community, … It’s an occupational hazard of being a werewolf.” Being rejected from polite company, and society at large, is what defines Lupin. Moreover, it is where the comparison to Petronius’ werewolf is the strongest. Both are denied a place at the dinner table, but not deemed enough of a threat to be hunted down entirely.
This brings us to the similarity in the marginal danger that these werewolves pose to humans. Petronius’ werewolf friend never even threatens Niceros after the initial transformation. He only attacks animals, and is handily warded off by a slave. Similarly, Lupin goes out of his way to avoid being a danger during his transformations by drinking the so-called Wolfsbane Potion, in order to keep his human mind while taking the shape of a wolf. Thus, he can refrain from harming anyone.
This also shows that the exclusion of Lupin and Petronius’ werewolf from society is rather unfair. After all, they have done nothing in the narrative to deserve the punishment of lycanthropy and pose very little threat to humans (as opposed to Lycaon and Greyback). Thus, the werewolf can be used as a cautionary tale regarding the ostracism of those who are different, even when difference does not imply danger. In fact, many have pointed to the way Lupin’s lycanthropy can be read as a metaphor for people with HIV/AIDS. Whether they present an imminent danger or merely an unlikely risk, whether they have the best of intentions or not, these werewolves are distrusted by their communities.
Just by looking at these two examples, it becomes clear that certain aspects of the werewolf are fundamental to the myth. Two remaining elements have been highlighted by these case studies. The two villains, Lycaon and Greyback, were defined about 2,000 years apart. Both are criminals even when human, with their savagery and cruelty manifesting in their animal form. With these characters, Ovid and Rowling use the werewolf legend to explore the beast within human nature. Meanwhile, Petronius’ soldier and Lupin pose a minimal risk to the other characters in their stories, though this does not protect them from being excluded from societal conventions; they are still werewolves. Thus, Petronius and Rowling show a different side of the werewolf – one who is mostly harmless, though still judged for his lycanthropy. In conclusion, the same holds true for both ancient and modern werewolves: whether a werewolf will eat you or not, you probably won’t invite him over for dinner.
Editor: Thom Hamer
 Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000, 186.
 Anderson, W.S., Ovid’s Metamorphoses: book 1-5. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997, 1.216-239.
 Anderson, W.S., Ovid’s Metamorphoses: book 1-5. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.
 Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005, 553-554.
 Petronius, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Edited and translated by Gareth Schmeling. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020, 61-62.
 Petronius, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Edited and translated by Gareth Schmeling. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2020, 62.
 Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003, 89.
 Hughes, B.G.A. “The HIV Metaphor: JK Rowling’s Werewolf and Its Transformative Potential.” In Wizards vs. Muggles: Essays on Identity and the Harry Potter Universe, edited by Christopher E. Bell, 72-88. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2016.