Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Witches, Werewolves & Ghosts...Oh My!!!

Last year for Halloween I threw together a handout on ghastly and spooky beings for my Latin students and I’m updating it here with a little extra background info (and less Latin). The Romans, and Greeks, had their share of witches, werewolves and ghosts. Cemeteries were spooky places where witches gathered ingredients for potions and werewolves transformed.

Larva Convivialis from the Museo Nazionale Romano - Palazzo Massimo
(photo by author)

Witches were lamiae or strigae, particularly known to harm children and suck their blood. The term venefica could also be used for a witch; it specifically refers to one who makes/uses poison, but of course witches are the prime demographic for poison marketing! There are a number of famous witches from the ancient Greek and Roman world. Medea and her aunt Circe are perhaps the most famous, coming from far distant Cholchis on the eastern end of the Black Sea. Thessaly, in northern Greece, was also a hotbed of witches. Lucan's description (in Book 6 of his Bellum Civile) of Erichtho, as she revives the corpse of a dead soldier to foretell the future for Pompey the Great's son before the battle of Pharsalia, is absolutely terrifying. A number of Thessalian witches feature in Apuleius' Metamophoses, where we see them changing into animals, cutting out men's hearts and cutting off their ears and noses.

I give my students a passage from Horace's Epode 5 (lines 16-55) in which the witch Canidia prepares a love potion with the help of her friends Sagana, Veia and Folia. The main ingredient: 1 boy, buried and starved to death. Canidia makes an appearance in a few other of Horace’s poems, especially Epode 17. Here is David West's translation (Oxford University Press, 2008) of the passage (maybe by next Halloween I'll have had a chance to do some nice polished translations myself!):
"…Canidia, with tiny vipers binding her tangled
hair, commanded them to dig out the fig trees from
the graves, to bring her funeral cypresses, to gather
eggs and feathers of the screech-owl, bird of night,
and soak them in the blood of loathsome toads, to
pick whatever herbs Iolcus grows and poison-rich
Hiberia, and rip the bones from starving bitches’
jaws and burn all this on Cholchian fires.

But Sagana was rushing through the house,
sprinkling the waters of Avernus as she went. She
looked like some sea urchin, with her bristling hair,
or like a wild boar on the charge.

And Veia, conscienceless, scooped out the earth
with the iron-bladed mattock. Groaning she worked
to bury him, where each long day the boy would
three times see the rich fare served to him, and
seeing it, would die, only his face above the ground,
like swimmers treading water - all to cut out his
liver and the marrow of his bones and dry them as
an aphrodisiac, when once the pupils of his eyes,
long fixed on food forbidden him, were wasting
into nothing.

And Folia was there from Ariminum - her lusts
were those of men - so went the idle gossip in
Neapolis and all the neighboring towns. She can
bewitch the moon and stars with her Thessalian
chants and pluck them from the sky.

Savage Canidia now, with blackened teeth gnawing
her long-nailed thumb, what did she say? What did
she fail to say? 'O faithful witness of my this my life,
dark Night, and you, Diana, queen of silence when
the secret rituals are performed, be present now,
turn now your wrath and holy power against the
houses of my enemies...."

Werewolf stories, or versipellis (literally "skin changer") stories, seem to be less common. There is of course the werewolf origin story of Lycaon, transformed into a wolf by Zeus for his impiety, which gives us our word "lycanthropy". Arcadia, the home of Lycaon, had a certain reputation for lycanthropy according to Pliny the Elder (NH 8.80-82). Pausanias (6.6.11) describes a painting he once saw that depicted a possible werewolf, named Lycas, being driven from Temesa in Italy. There is also a nice plate in the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome depicting a wolf-headed man. But Petronius provides perhaps the best werewolf story in his Satyricon (62). At Trimalchio's dinner party, Niceros recounts how he once took advantage of a business trip to visit his girlfriend Melissa and persuaded a soldier to travel with him part way. I particularly enjoy Sarah Ruden's (Hackett Press, 2000) translation:

“…He was a soldier, strong as hell. We get our butts moving when the cocks are starting to crow, but the moon was shining bright as noon. We came to a graveyard, and this pal of mine went off to the tombstones to take a piss while I say a spell or two to keep off evil and count how many stones there are. But when I turned back to him, he’d taken off all his clothes and put em in a pile beside the road. That sure knocked the wind outta me. I stood there like I was dead. He pissed around his clothes, and all of a sudden he turned into s wolf. I’m not joking. I wouldn’t lie for all the money in the world. But like I was saying, once he was a wolf he started howling and ran off to the woods.
“First I was so scared I didn’t even know where I was. Then I went up to get his clothes, but they’d turned to stone. I was just about ready to fall over dead. But I drew my sword and jumped on every little shadow, and I finally got to my girlfriend’s place. By that time I looked like a ghost myself, I was practically takin’ my last breath, sweat runnin’ down through my crotch, blank eyes. The people there had some hard work bringin’ me around.
 “But my Melissa was amazed that I was out so late. She said, “If you’d come a little earlier, you could of helped us out. There was this wolf that got into the stockIt looked like a butcher’d been here. Well, he got away, but at least he don’t have nothin’ to laugh about. Our slave stuck his neck through with a spear.” “When I heard that, I wasn’t gonna sleep that night, that’s for darn sure. But when the sun was up I ran home fast as an innkeeper runs after the guy that’s gone without paying the bill. When I got back to the place where the clothes turned into rocks, I didn’t find nothing but blood. Then when I got home the soldier was lying in bed helpless like a sick ox, and a doctor was looking at his neck. I knew then that he was a werewolf, and I wouldn’t of sat down at the table with him if you’d killed me. You can have any opinion you want about what I’ve said. If I’m lying, your guardian spirits can get me for it.”

The Romans had a bunch of words for ghosts. Most of them reflect the fact that ghosts are ephemeral images of the deceased: idolon, phantasma (both of these were borrowed from the Greeks), similacrum, spectrum, and umbra. The terms larva and lemures seem to reflect spirits intent on doing harm to the living (see my post on the lemuria), while the manes are protective spirits of the dead. In a letter (VII.27) to his learned friend Licinius Sura, Pliny the Younger recounts a classic haunted house ghost story:

“...In Athens there was a large and roomy house, but it had a bad reputation and an unhealthy air. Through the silence of the night you could hear the sounds of metal clashing and, if you listened more closely, you could make out the clanking of chains, first from far off, then from close by. Soon there appeared a phantom, an old man, emaciated and filthy, with a long beard and unkempt hair. He wore shackles on his legs and chains on his wrists, shaking them as he walked. And so the inhabitants of this house spent many dreadful nights lying awake in fear. Illness and eventually death overtook them through lack of sleep and their increasing dread. For even when the ghost was absent, the memory of that horrible apparition preyed on their minds, and their fear itself lasted longer than the initial cause of that fear. And so eventually the house was deserted and condemned to solitude, left entirely to the ghost. But the house was advertised, in case someone unaware of the evil should wish to buy or rent it. 
“There came to Athens the philosopher Athenodorus. He read the advertisement, and when he heard the low price, he was suspicious and made some inquiries. He soon learned the whole story and, far from being deterred, was that much more interested in renting the place. When evening began to fall, he requested a bed for himself to be set up in the front of the house, and he asked for some small writing tablets, a stylus, and a lamp. He sent all his servants to the back of the house, and concentrated his mind, eyes, and hand on his writing, lest an unoccupied mind produce foolish fears and cause him to imagine he saw the ghost he had already heard so much about. “At first, as usual, there was only the night silence. Then came the sound of iron clashing, of chains clanking; yet Athenodorus did not raise his eyes or put down his stylus. Instead he concentrated his attention on his work. Then the din grew even louder: and now it was heard at the threshold – now it was inside the room with him! Athenodorus turned, saw, and recognized the ghost. It was standing there, beckoning to him with its finger as if calling to him. Rather than answering the summons, he motioned with his hand that the ghost should wait a while, and he turned back to his writing. The ghost continued rattling its chains right over the philosopher’s head. Athenodorus looked around again: sure enough, the ghost was still there, beckoning as before. With no further delay, the philosopher picked up his lamp and followed the phantom. The specter walked very slowly, as if weighed down by the chains. Then it walked to the courtyard of the house and suddenly vanished, abandoning its comrade. Athenodorus, now alone, plucked some grass and leaves to mark the spot where the ghost had disappeared. In the morning he went to the local magistrates and advised that they order the spot to be excavated, which they did. Bones were found, entwined with chains – bones that the body, rotted by time and earth, had left bare and corroded by the chains. These bones were gathered and given a public burial. After these rites had been performed, the house was no longer troubled by spirits....”
(translation by Deborah Felton, University of Texas Press, 1999)

If you find yourself in need of some basic Latin monster vocabulary this Halloween, monstrum and belua will suffice.

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