Apuleius: "The Witches of Thessaly": An Extract from "The Golden Ass" | Sabidius.com
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Latin Text

Apuleius: “The Witches of Thessaly”: An Extract from “The Golden Ass”


Lucius Apuleius was born in c 124 A.D. in Madaura, a town in North Africa. He was educated first at Carthage and afterwards at Athens, where he studied Platonic philosophy and was initiated into the rites of Isis. He then went to Rome, where, after studying Latin rhetoric, he practised with some success at the bar. After travelling extensively, he returned to Africa and married a wealthy widow Pudentilla. When she died after leaving him all her money, he was charged by her relatives with having gained her affections by magic and having poisoned her. His successful and very amusing speech in his own defence survives under the title “A Discourse on Magic”.

His most important work, “The Metamorphoses” (or” Transformations”) is, with the exception of Petronius’ “Satyricon”, the only surviving example of the Latin novel. There is an autobiographical aspect to the work – the central character is called Lucius after Apuleius himself – and its title is based not only on his “transformation” into an ass, but in a secondary sense on his “spiritual transformation” into a devotee of Isis. The book’s more popular title of “The Golden Ass” stems from the use of the word “golden” to describe popular stories. The eccentric Latin style, in which the book is written, reflects the story-telling genre. He probably did not invent the stories which are included in the book but took them from a wide range of existing folk-tales. For instance the plot of the “Metamorphoses” comes from either the “The Ass” of Lucius of Patra, or the “Lucius” of Lucian of Samosata, who was his contemporary. Apuleius certainly possessed a good knowledge of witchcraft, and as a priest of Isis made use of beneficent magical rites performed in honour of the goddess. Behind the amusing stories of “The Golden Ass” there is a serious moral purpose, consistent with Apuleius’ devotion to Plato and his status as a priest of Isis.

The text of the extract translated below is taken from the “Cambridge Latin Anthology”, Cambridge School Classics Project, Cambridge University Press, 1996. It is an abridged version of the original Latin of Apuleius.

Book 2: Chapters 21-30. The Story of Thelyphron.

“Sagae Thessalae” (The Witches of Thessaly)

Lucius is travelling through Thessaly, in Greece. By chance, he meets a lady called Byrrhaena, who invites him to a dinner party. At the party, Lucius is asked what he thinks of Thessaly; he replies that he is impressed but worried by stories he has heard about the local witches, who are in the habit of cutting pieces of flesh from corpses. One of the guests laughingly points to a man hidden away at a corner in the room, saying that he has suffered this fate while still alive. The man, whose name is Thelyphron, is urged by Byrrhaena to tell Lucius his story. He reluctantly agrees.

(As) a young man, setting out from Miletus for the Olympic games, since I also wished to visit places in the famous province, the whole of Thessaly having been travelled through, I came to Larissa. And, while, wandering through the city, my travelling allowance having been diminished, I was seeking a remedy for my poverty, I catch sight of an old man in the middle of the forum. He was standing on a stone and proclaiming in a loud voice that, if anyone was willing to guard a corpse, he would receive a large reward. And I said to someone passing by, “What is this I am hearing? Are corpses accustomed to run away here?”

“Hush (lit. Be silent),” he replied. “For you are a boy and a mere stranger, and, naturally, you do not know that you are in Thessaly, where witches frequently bite pieces out of the faces of dead men, which are supplements for their arts of magic.”

In reply, I said, “What sort of protection is needed?”

“Now first,” he replied, “you must (lit. it is necessary [for you] to) stay fully awake for the whole night and with your open and sleepless eyes directed all the time at the corpse, and your gaze must never (lit. it is necessary for your gaze not ever to) be diverted, since these most wicked witches creep up secretly, their shape having been changed into whatever animal you wish. For they take the shape of birds and dogs and mice, (and) indeed even flies as well.”

The man ends with a warning that, if anyone fails to deliver the body intact in the morning, he is forced to replace missing pieces of flesh with pieces sliced from his own face.

These things having been understood, I strengthen my mind, and, approaching the old man at once, I said, “Stop crying out now. There is a guard ready.” I had scarcely finished when he led me at once to a certain house, where he showed (me) a weeping lady wrapped in mourning clothes. She arose and led me into a bed-chamber. There she uncovered with her hand a body wrapped in shining white sheets. When she had anxiously pointed out the individual features, she went out.

Thelyphron begins his vigil.

(I was) left alone for the comfort of the corpse, my eyes having been rubbed and prepared for guard duty, while I soothed my mind with songs. Up to the middle of the night I stayed awake. Then, however, fear (was) built up within me, when suddenly a weasel, creeping in, stood in front of me, and fixed its eyes on me. Such great boldness in so small an animal disturbed my mind. Finally. I spoke to it thus: “Go away, (you) dreadful creature, before you speedily experience my strength! Go away!”

The weasel turns its back and forthwith goes out of the bed-chamber. Without delay so deep a sleep suddenly overwhelms me that not even the god of Delphi himself (i.e. Apollo) could easily have decided, out of the two of us lying (there), who was the more dead.

At last, having been awoken at first light, and terrified by a great fear, I run over to the corpse, and, the lamp having been brought near, and his face having been uncovered, I inspect everything carefully: nothing is lacking. Behold, the poor wife bursts in weeping: the body having been inspected, she pays the reward without delay.

While I was recovering my strength in the street next to the house, the body was brought out. Because it was the body of one of the leading citizens, it was carried in procession around the forum according to local custom. As this was taking place, an old man suddenly appeared. He was weeping and tearing out his fine white hair. He ran up to the bier and embraced it. Amid sobs and groans he cried out:

For the sake of your honour, citizens,” he said, “for the sake of your public duty, stand up for a murdered citizen and punish severely the most vile crime of this wicked and villainous woman. For she, and no one else, has killed with poison this wretched young man, the son of my sister, to please her lover and for the sake of inherited profit.”

She, with tears pouring down, and swearing by all the gods (as) piously as she could, denied so great a crime. Therefore, that old man (said): “Let us refer the judgment of the truth to divine providence. Here is Zatchlas the Egyptian, a very well-known prophet, who has promised me that for a large fee he will lead back the soul of this corpse from the nether regions and reanimate his body for a short time.”

The prophet was stirred into action. He took a special herb and laid it three times on the mouth of the dead man. Then he took another and put it on his breast. Then he turned to face the east and in silence prayed to the sacred disc of the rising sun. The people waited in the expectation of a miracle.

I pushed myself into the crowd and standing on a stone behind the bier itself I watched everything with curious eyes. Now the chest of the corpse was raised by swelling, now the body was filled with breath. And the corpse arises and speaks out: “Why, I beg (you), do you bring me back to the cares of this transitory life? Stop now, I pray (you), stop, and allow me to remain in my rest!”

This voice from the body was heard, but the prophet said rather more forcefully: “Why do you not tell the people everything about your death?”

From the bier he replies and with a deep groan addresses the people thus: “Murdered by the evil arts of my new wife and sentenced by a poisoned cup, I have yielded up my warm bed to an adulterer. I shall give you very clear proof of the truth, and I shall reveal what absolutely no one else could have known or have predicted.

Then, pointing at me with his finger, (he said): “When this very keen-witted guard of my body was keeping his intensive watch over me, some witches eager for my remains appeared in a changed form. Since they could not elude his unremitting diligence, finally, a fog of sleep having been cast over (him), they buried him in a deep rest. Then they began to arouse me by name, nor did they stop until my sluggish joints and cold limbs struggles slowly in obedience to their magic arts. However, he who was alive, and only dead in a trance, has by chance the same name as I. So, at the sound of his name, he got up unwittingly, and proceeding mechanically in the manner of a lifeless ghost he goes to the door. Although the doors of the bed-chamber had been carefully locked, first his nose and then his ears having been nibbled through a certain hole, he suffered mutilation in my place. Then the witches attached to him wax shaped in the manner of the ears which had been cut off, and fitted on a nose similar to the one cut off. And now the poor fellow stands here, having earned a fee not for his hard work but for his mutilation.”

Terrified by these words I begin to test my appearance. I grasp my nose with my hand: it comes away. I touch my ears: they fall off. And while the crowd identifies me with pointed fingers and with nods, I, dripping with cold sweat, escape between the feet of those standing around. Nor afterwards, thus maimed and thus ridiculous, could I return to my native land, but I have hidden the wounds of my ears with hair hanging down on this side and on that, and indeed, for the sake of decency, I have covered the disgrace of my nose with this piece of canvas.

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