Autolycus – roughly translated to lone wolf (self + wolf) was known for his great mastery and thievery. He was the son of the God Hermes, and Chione, a beautiful maiden who Hermes put under a spell of sleep and then violated.
For round two of what can only be called supernatural rape, Apollo (Phoebus) took on the form of an elderly nurse to “tend” to the still passed out Chione, reulting in another child, Philammon.
And so Autolycus and Philammon, both semi-divine, both born of the same mortal woman, enetered the world as twins.
Philammon would go on to sing great songs, like his father.
Autolycus would also follow in his father’s winged foot-steps, taking on Herme’s role as a trickster…
More specificlly, as the Master of Thieves.
When her mature womb had completed time Autolycus was born, a crafty son, who certainly inherited the skill of wingfoot Mereury, his artful sire, notorious now; for every kind of theft. In fact, Autolycus with Mercury’s craft, loved to make white of black, and black of white. – Ovid (Trans. Brookes More) Metamorphoses Book xii
Autolycus was a master of trickery and illusion who could not only change his own shape, but could also change the shape of the items he stole so that they would forever remain undetected.
Add to that a helmet of invisibilty, and Autolycus was unstoppable.
The most often told story of Autolycus can be found in his encounter with King Sisyphus, an equally cunning fellow. The two were neighbours and Sisyphus long suspected Autolycus of stealing his cattle, a simple observation gleaned from the fact that his own herd grew smaller at the exact rate the Autolycus’ grew. He could never prove it though, as the missing beasts could not be found amongst Autolycus’ flock, mostly because Autolycus would change their forms to avoid detection:
Now, Autolycus was a past master in theft, Hermes having given him the power of metamorphosing whatever beasts he stole, from horned to unhorned, or from black to white, and contrariwise. – Graves, The Greek Myths 67 c
Convinced his neighbour was to blame, Sisyphus engineered a master plan and engraved his own initials onto the beasts hooves, the letters SS (some accounts claim he wrote ‘stolen by Autolycus’). The next morning Sisyphus followed the hooveprints bearing his initials, raising a following of neighbours as he went. They marched right into the stables of Autolycus where they found Sisyphus’ beasts – changed of form, but still bearing the identifying marks on their hooves.
As the neighbours levelled accusations at Autolycus, Sisyphus slipped off and exacted his own revenge by seducing Autolycus daughter in her father’s house. The child born from this union was none other than the hero Odysseus, and it is claimed he found his own exceptional cunning from his grandfather, Autolycus.
Autolycus and Odysseus
Odysseus clearly spent time with his grandfather; in The Odyssey when Odysseus is returned home undercover and disguised as a wandering stranger he is recognised by Penelope’s maid by the scar upon his foot.
So she drew near and began to wash her lord, and straightway knew the scar of the wound which long ago a boar had dealt him with his white tusk, when Odysseus had gone to Parnassus to visit Autolycus and the sons of Autolycus – Homer (Trans A.T. Murray) The Odyssey book 19
Autolycus even named Odyesseus, which means “to hate”. When the child’s nurse charged him with naming the infant, he responded:
“Lo, inasmuch as I am come hither as one that has been angered with many, both men and women, over the fruitful earth, therefore let the name by which the child is named be Odysseus.” – Homer (Trans A.T. Murray) The Odyssey book 11
But outside of Odysseus, Autlycus’ theivery would have other consequences. For one thing, his student, Heracles, would be blamed for one of his robberies. As with Sisyphus, Autolycus went cattle rustling. When the owners of the stolen animals mistakenly blamed Heracles, he when into a blind rage and killed them, resulting in three years of punishment for the hero.
So what does a life of crime get you?
Bragging rights about your grandson, Odysseus?
Bragging rights about your student, Heracles?
Or just a lot of cows?
No matter what, Autolycus appears to have gotten away it all…
Which is only fitting for the Master of Thieves,
The Lone Wolf,