Wednesday, March 30, 2016


This is just one of those random things that startled me. Some friends and I read Joyce's Finnegans Wake together every couple of weeks, and having reached the neighborhood of page 480, we encountered the word "lyceum". I know vaguely what a lyceum is, or at least that it has something to do with  education. I even know that it goes back to a teaching center of the ancient Greeks, though whether to Plato or Aristotle, I couldn't tell you.

But the odd thing is that this little passage we were reading is strewn with references to wolves--no, don't ask me why--and that lyceum is one of them. What do wolves have to do with education?

 The Salem Lyceum, circa 1830

As to current meanings, in America, a lyceum can be many things, including a hall where public lectures take place, or the series of lectures and events themselves. It can be a school, particularly a private one and may also mean a secondary school, like the French  lycée, a word to which it is related. In England, it was often the name that British literary societies adopted, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. And there is some overlap with the word "gymnasium", which is not a gym as in American usage, but a school preparing students for higher education in Germany and many other European countries. The overlap of the words' meanings is due to the fact that the gymnasium and the lyceum overlapped in time and space in their origins in ancient Greece.

Aristotle's School, by Gustav Adolf Spangenberg, 1880s

First of all, the original Greek Λύκειον or lykeion was indeed the name of a school in which Aristotle taught,  first in an open public area in a grove of trees, where many other philosophers and sophists had taught before him, Plato and Socrates being among them. Wikipedia tells us that the grove was named in honor of  Apollo. Although we tend to think of Apollo as the sun god, he had many other associations (here is a list of many of them-perhaps the most amusing to me is Apollo Erythibios, "Apollo of the mildew"). One of these many titles was Apollo Lyceus, meaning something like "Apollo in the form of a wolf". However, Apollo was also a protector against wolves. In Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men, he speaks of the many strong links between Apollo and wolves, which can be contradictory. For example the myth of Apollo's birth is that  his mother Leto, impregnated by Zeus,had disguised herself and hidden in a pack of wolves when she fled to give birth to Apollo on the island of Delos, trying to escape notice of the predictably jealous Hera. But he is also invoked by shepherds to defend their sheep against wolves. (This, I feel, is an ambiguity that the Joyce of the Wake would be particularly at home with.)

the ruins of the lyceum in Athens (open to visitors)

Lopez writes that the lyceum became a gymnasium and then a hall where Aristotle taught. So in its earliest incarnation as an actual structure, the lyceum was also a gymnasium. Lopez writes that "at the southern end of the Acropolis in Athens stand the ruins of the Lyceum." Although it is contested, he goes on to say that it is probable that the building was once the temple of Apollo, the Wolf Slayer. 

Quite by chance, I was led to a book by John Patrick Lynch, who happened to be my much revered professor way back in college, with whom I studied a little bit of early Greek history and a full year of Ancient Greek language. Lynch wrote a book called Aristotle's School, which is partially available through Google books, and less so elsewhere. Here is what he has to say about Apollo Lyceus at the beginning of that book:

Despite all the later developments in the sanctuary, there is no evidence in any period to suggest that it contained a monumental temple of Apollo Lykeios. The Lyceum did include a famous statue of Apollo Lykeios, which was described by Lucian (Anacharsis 7) and is known from Roman copies...The Lyceum was clearly important in Athenian life just as a sanctuary, and even after it came to serve other functions, the site continued to be a public religious center.

Just to make things a little more ambiguous, if you look up "Apollo Lyceus" on Google, you'll soon find yourself at the Wikipedia page "Lyceus", which is all about an Apollo Lyceus type, which is a certain way of  depicting Apollo in art. It's a type that supposedly has its source in, you guessed it, the vanished statue of Apollo at the Lyceum. The type, according to Wikipedia, shows  "the god resting on a support (a tree trunk or tripod), his right forearm touching the top of his head and his hair fixed in braids on the top of a head in a haircut typical of childhood."

Apollo Lykeios at the Louvre

Not, I'm thinking, very much in his wolf-slaying mode.


  1. There are lyceums in the Polish education system, though I know it more as the name of a London rock venue in the '70s!

  2. Thanks, Paul. Yes it looks like a lot of Eastern European countries have kept the name alive. But of course the London rock venue sounds much more entertaining!

  3. Seana: You will know, of course, that Paul writes about a lycanthrope detective. Whether his Roman Dalton was schooled in a lyceum, I don't know.

  4. I do indeed, Peter. Although I must admit to being a bit behind on Roman Dalton's adventures. Probably a good time to catch up.