I asked a question before about a passage in the Satyricon describing a werewolf: a man who transforms into a wolf and back. The Latin word used for this creature is versipellis, from vertō "turn" + pellis "skin": in other words, someone who changes their skin.

But unlike the English "werewolf", versipellis makes no mention of what the person turns into. Is this word used specifically for werewolves, or could other transformations qualify? For example, would the mythological Proteus (who could transform into all sorts of animals) be considered a versipellis?

1 Answer 1


This word was used by Pliny the Elder in The Natural History, and the text contains a footnote that addresses your question well:

[Versipellis] literally means "changing the skin;" it was applied by some ancient medical writers to a peculiar form of insanity, where the patient conceives himself changed into a wolf, and named λυκανθρώπια, "lycanthropy." The word appears to have been in common use among the Romans, and to have been applied by them to any one who had undergone a remarkable change in his character and habits; in this sense it is used by Plautus, Amphitryon, Prol. 1. 123, and Bacchides, A. iv. sc. 4, 1. 12.—B.

In case you're unfamiliar with the story of Amphitryon, it involves Jupiter transforming into the likeness of Amphitryon in order to seduce the latter's wife. In the text of the play, Plautus wrote:

Nam meus pater intus nunc est, eccum, Juppiter:
In Amphitruonis vortit sese imaginem,
Omnesque eum esse censent servi, qui vident:
Ita versipellem se facit, quando lubet.

In Bachides (Act IV, scene 4), Plautus wrote:

improbis cum improbus sit, harpaget, furibus
furetur quod queat,
vorsipellem frugi convenit esse hominem,
pectus quoi sapit: bonus sit bonis, malus sit malis;
utcumque res sit, ita animum habeat.

Here's a translation for that:

He must be a rascal among rascals, rob robbers, steal what he can. A chap that's worth anything, a chap with a fine intellect, has to be able to change his skin. He must be good with the good and bad with the bad; whatever the situation calls for, that he's got to be.

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