Oddities From Herodotus—The Neurian Sorcerer-Werewolves

(Detail from an Attic red-figure lekythos, ca. 460 BC. Found in Italy, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

An interesting characteristic of the ancient father of history, Herodotus, was that the man often believed in the unbelievable—or, at least, gave off that impression in his writing. Odd folklore, mythology, tall tales and bizarre theories on science and geography all made appearances in Herodotus’ The Histories. Yet, in the peculiar collection of history, folklore and myth that is the work of Herodotus, the description of the Neuri people has to be one of the most baffling. It is such an odd tale that Herodotus, himself, blatantly stated his disbelief of the Neurian story, but he recorded the peculiar yarn all the same.

According to Book IV of The Histories, the Neuri people were neighbors of the Scythians. The Scythian people inhabited a large territory usually centered around Ukraine and southern Russia, but they lived a nomadic lifestyle, so their borders could be flexible. The Neurians were located somewhere on the border of this large swath of Scythian territory.

Readers of The Histories are introduced to the Neuri people at a time of chaos. Herodotus wrote that only a single generation before Darius I of Persia crossed the Danube River to attack the Scythians (around 513 BCE), the whole of the Neurian lands were infested with vicious snakes. Herodotus wrote that hordes of snakes just suddenly and mysteriously appeared throughout the territory. To make matters worse, even more snakes were apparently pouring in from an uninhabited land to the north. The snake infestation was so bad that the Neurians had to flee their lands and seek shelter with another nomadic group, the Bundinians, who lived in, or near, the area of Scythia.

After this odd introduction to the Neuri people, Herodotus made another shocking disclosure—the Neurians were sorcerers and werewolves. Supposedly, due to some sort of magic, the Neuri people (yes, the entire Neurian population) would turn into beasts for multiple days on a seemingly set annual cycle. After their few days as wolves were up, the Neurians would simply return to their original human form and life would go on, as usual. Again, Herodotus quickly pointed out that the story was too far-fetched for his taste and that he was only recording what was told to him by other Greeks and Scythians. He wrote, “I do not believe this tale; but all the same, they tell it, and even swear to the truth of it” (Herodotus (Book IV), The Histories, Penguin Classics, 2002). Nevertheless, the tale remained alive until the 1st century CE, when a Roman geographer named Pomponius Mela made a mention of the Neurian werewolves around 43 or 44 CE in his De situ orbis (A Description of the World).

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

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