uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Spooky Stories From Antiquity: A Reading List for Halloween

Odysseus, middle, meets the shade of
Elpenor, left, in the Underworld.
Hermes accompanies at right.
Something on the lighter side: a list of works to read this Halloween from the ancient Greeks and Romans, who pass down to us the precursors of our own fireside narratives. Stretching a millennium -- from the eighth century BCE to the second century of the Common Era -- these all feature the sorts of stories we're accustomed to at Halloween: tales of death, magic, and the supernatural. This is of course not an exhaustive list, but represents some of my favorites.


1. Homer's Odyssey Book 11: Commonly called the Nekuia (the Dead Ones), this is Odysseus' trip to the underworld to hear the counsel of the dead prophet Tiresias, who like the other shades must be awakened from his semiconscious, afterlife slumber by drinking the blood of a sacrificial lamb. While there the hero encounters other souls, including the ghosts of Agamemnon and Achilles.

2. Euripides' Medea: The witch par excellence from antiquity, Medea is nonetheless sympathetic in Euripides' tragedy, and her power and cunning is clearly to be feared. After bartering an agreement for asylum by agreeing to cure Aegeus' impotence, she takes her revenge on her husband Jason for his decision to marry a new bride, killing the bride and then disturbingly killing her own children by Jason. She then escapes in a chariot of her father Helios, leaving a grieving Jason behind.

 3. Theocritus' Idyll 2: In this enchanting poem, the Hellenistic poet narrates a fire spell chanted by the Coan girl Simaetha, cast to win back her neglectful lover. When the ashen mixture is ready and she sends it off with her maid to smear on his door, she then utters a soliloquy to the moon about her love for the young man.

4. Vergil's Aeneid Book 6: In a mirror to Odysseus' travels, Aeneas also must visit the underworld, and Vergil's vivid descriptions would later provide Dante with much of his material for the Inferno. From the echoing responses of the Sybil to the judgment of the damned in the underworld, to Aeneas' (somewhat boneheaded) lament for his ex-lover Dido, Aeneid Book 6 is a classic unto itself, and via Dante, it has become the archetype for western notions of Hell.

5. Lucan's Bellum Civile Book 6: In a direct allusion to the same book of the Aeneid (some have called this lesser-read work the anti-Aeneid), Pompey the Great's son Sextus enlists the witch Erictho to reanimate the corpse of a slain soldier from the battlefield so that he can issue a prophesy of the future. During the necromancy, the corpse prophesies the defeat of Pompey and the assassination of Julius Caesar.

6. Petronius' Satyricon 61-63: During the Cena Trimalchionis (the Dinner of Trimalchio) the guests decide to tell some ghost stories. Niceros tells the story of a fellow traveler who shed his clothes, urinated around them, and then turned into a wolf. Trimalchio follows it with a story about witches who turn a boy into straw.

7. Pliny the Younger's Epistle 83: In this letter, Pliny inquires of Sura whether he believes in ghosts, and then relays a ghost story he himself heard: of a house in Athens which was beset by a phantom that rattled its chains at night. A particularly brave and logical philosopher decides to purchase the house and stays there. When the ghost appears, he follows it to a patch of ground, where later some bones are found wrapped in chains. When the skeletal remains are buried properly with the chains removed, the ghost goes away.

8. Lucian's Lover of Lies: A series of stories about ghosts, magic, and the supernatural, including animated statues, a near-death experience that leads the not-yet-deceased to the underworld, and ghosts who reappear to loved ones after their departure, it also features the first recorded version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Lucian's tales (ironically told in the mouth of a skeptic who doesn't believe in the supernatural) also include another version of Pliny's story above.

9. Apuleius' Golden Ass, Books 1-3: Lucius, a curious visitor to Thessaly (the ancient world's capital of magic) ends up staying in the home of a witch and accidentally gets turned into an ass, a condition from which he spends the rest of the work trying to cure himself. Before this transformation, two inset stories include the supernatural and the macabre. In the first in Book 1, a man tells of two witches who broke into the room where he and his friend were staying, carve out his friend's heart and replace it with a sponge, before urinating on him on the way out. The second is a recurring tale about the guarding of a corpse overnight, which leaves the guard disfigured when he fails to be alert.

Suggestions? Something glaring I overlooked? Feel free to leave them in the comments!

Happy Halloween!

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