Spartans and the way of the wolf

The outskirts of the city-state of Sparta in the ancient world would have been littered with wolf packs and Sparta had an unusual association with the wolf and in one way or another alot of charactiristics between the two are intertwined.

More than any other city-state Sparta, worshipped the god who of all the Olympians, was most closely associated with the Dorian people, namely Apollo. In fact, almost all the major Spartan religious festivals were in honour of Apollo. Including the Carneia, Gymnopaediae (where 'gymno' probably means 'unarmed' rather than 'naked') and the Hyacinthus. A sanctuary was built just south of Sparta to Apollo in Amyclae which held the important three day festival called the Hyacinthus. Hyacinthus, in myth was the adolescent boy, whom Apollo loved but unfortunately killed accidentally by cast of a discus.

One of Apollo's epithets is 'Lykegenes', which translates to 'wolf-ish', this is because one of the gods characaristics is that he is often represented as a loner and who likes staying on the outskirts of towns and is often described to be 'in the company of wolves'.


In the opening line from Plutarch's 'Lycurgus' he says:
'Generally speaking it is impossible to make any undisputed statements about Lycurgus the lawgiver, since conflicting accounts have been given of his ancestry, his travels, his death, and above all his activity with respect to his laws and government; but there is least agreement about the period in which the man lived.'
This statement pretty much sums up everything we know about Lycurgus now, even in Plutarch's time nothing was certain about him.

This may be because Lycurgus may not have been one single person, but either a number of law givers or maybe a period of time when the new laws were institutionalised, all in the name of or under the banner of the god Apollo. Thus the connection between their names. (Apollo and Lycurgus, both have a connection with the wolf).

Lycurgus who is attributed with most of Sparta's founding laws is said by Herodotus to have gone to see the Oracle of Delphi who no sooner than he did enter the shrine than the oracle proclaimed:

'Hither to my rich shrine you have come, Lycurgus
Dear to Zeus and to all the olympus-dwelling gods.
I know not whether to decare you human or divine,
But I incline to believe, Lycurgus, that you are a god'

Lines, 2, 3 and 4 are more clearly seen as refering to the god Apollo.

The Delphi honour        
After the 'First Sacred War' of 585 B.C.,when the Lacedaemonians marched into Delphi and returned the city to its inhabitants. The Delphins in honour of having the city restored back to them had commissioned a bronze wolf to be made and engraged into its forehead the record of the Spartan privilege to consult the oracle before others. [1]

Spartan youth       
The association between the Spartans and the wolf are constantly being shown in anicent literature. This can been seen as the Spartan's seeing themselves as best represented by the wolf. Spartan boys lived and belonged in "ageles",which literally means in greek 'a band of wolves'. The lone outsider, who at an early age had to fend for themself in the wilderness, to scronge for food where they could get it, were encouraged to use stealth and to steal. The food a Spartan would eat was enough to make citizens of other city-states puke, cooking the worst parts of an animal to make a black broth. All of these are also charactaristics of the wolf, who would also consume all parts of its prey, including right down to the hoofs of dead animals.

It is no wonder then that a Spartan that was part of the Krypteria,who as part of their training had to stalk down a Messenian helot and kill him without being caught, can be compared to the actions of a wolf.


Roman link      
There also may be a Roman link to wolves as well - Romulus and Remus for instance or the Roman light infantry unit called the Velites, which wore wolf skins over their helmets . Much of sourthern Italy too saw itself as having links to Sparta (even mythical) including the Sabines, Samnites etc.


In 'Lysistrata' written around 411 B.C by Aristophanes, the story about the women of Greece withholding sex from their men until they agree to peace between themselves. When the women hole up in the acropolis the leader of the men in his description of the women says "The blandishments of Sparta's wolves believe" in his description of the women of Sparta in the acropolis.

Further reading     
"Apollo the Wolf God" by Daniel Gershenson,
"Apollo: the Wind, the Spirit and the God" by Karl Kerenyi and
"Cults of Apollo at Sparta: the Hyakinthia the Gymnopaidiai and the Karneia" by Michael Pettersson





*01 'Lives' by Plutarch (Pericles 21)






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