Supernaturalism in Latin Literature
Volume 1: From Gilgamesh to the End of the Nineteenth Century
In the realm of weird literature, as in many other realms, the Romans were mere copiers of the Greeks; they took over Greek myth nearly intact, fusing some of the Greek gods with native gods of approximately similar attributes and elaborating upon various Greek myth-cycles in a manner that rarely exceeds the originals in distinction or substance; but by a series of historical accidents, we have some striking examples of weirdness in Latin literature merely because the Greek originals have perished.
It is of some interest to note that the first extant instance of supernaturalism (or, rather, pseudo-supernaturalism) in Latin literature is a piece of buffoonery—the Mostellaria of T. Maccius Plautus (250?—184 B.C.E.). This play is generally translated as The Haunted House (from mostellum, a diminutive of monstrum); perhaps a more accurate, if clumsy, rendition would be “Place Where a Strange Entity Appears to Exist.” Of course, there is no ghost or “monster” in this comic play; rather, the ghost is a fabrication by the clever slave Tranio as a means of distracting Theopropides, the father of the wastrel Philolaches, from becoming aware that his son has frittered away a great deal of money by purchasing the freedom of a fetching female slave and giving a succession of lavish parties. Tranio makes no secret of the fact that his purpose is to “frighten his [Philolaches’] father” (421). The plan is to assert that the house has become haunted because its former owner had killed his guest—an appalling crime in Graeco-Roman civilisation and one, therefore, that could plausibly (among the credulous, at any rate) engender the kind of haunting that Tranio is attempting to put over. What is more, Tranio maintains that the guest was actually buried in the house. This, in the slave’s words, is what the spirit of the murdered guest told Philolaches:
“Diapontius am I, a guest from o’er the sea. Here do I abide, this house is the abode allotted to me. For Orcus [god of the underworld] hath denied me entrance into Acheron, I having been cut off before my time. I trusted, and I was betrayed. Here was I murdered by my accursed host, for the sake of gold, and in this very house did he give me secret, unhallowed burial. Hence with you now! Accursed is this house, ’tis a defiled abode!” (497—504)
All this sounds plausible enough, but the charade collapses very quickly.
The “haunted house” element in Mostellaria comprises a small element of the plot, but to the extent that it is the catalyst for the entire scenario it can be considered significant enough. The fear that Theopropides—in spite of his initial scepticism of the ghost’s appearance to Philolaches in a dream (his repeated queries, “In his sleep?” [in somnis?] suggest that he is initially inclined to interpret the dream merely as a dream and not as a spectral occurrence)—for a time experiences is meant to suggest nothing more than his own credulousness. In spite of Plautus’ racy and slang-ridden prose, clearly reflective of the language of the streets, the manner in which the ghostly phenomena are made the butt of jest suggests a degree of scepticism in even the more uncultivated members of his audience that argues for a substantial level of doubt among the Roman public as a whole as to the reality of supernatural phenomena.
It is, indeed, worth comparing this piece with a work of a very different sort written nearly three centuries later—the celebrated letter to Licinius Sura (Letters 7.27) by Pliny the Younger (61?—113? C.E.). This is, of course, the account of a purportedly “real” haunted house. It is remarkable that the otherwise learned and cultivated Pliny can state at the outset his inclination to believe in the existence of ghosts, based in part on a rather absurd story told to him by one Curtius Rufus—a governor’s assistant who claimed that the figure of a woman of immense size appeared to him and announced that she was the spirit of Africa—and in part on the story he proceeds to tell “just as it was told to me” (545). As in Plautus’ play, we are dealing with a house in Athens. It had a bad reputation, as on occasion the clanking of chains could be heard, followed by “the spectre of an old man, emaciated and filthy, with a long flowing beard and hair on end, wearing fetters on his legs and shaking the chains on his wrists” (545). This actually led some occupants of the house to perish in fear, whereupon the house was deserted and lay empty. A philosopher, Athenodorus, comes to Athens and takes note of the house. As in so many later works of Gothic fiction, he decides to spend a night there. He too hears the clanking; then the ghost appears. But being a philosopher, Athenodorus is not frightened. The ghost leads him into the courtyard of the house, then vanishes. The next day Athenodorus brings city officials to the place and—predictably enough—the bones of the “ghost” are discovered, “twisted round with chains” (547). I repeat my amazement that a figure so obviously civilised as Pliny could swallow this bit of hokum. His purpose, obviously, is not to terrify but to recount a narrative that he genuinely believes to be an indication of the reality of spectres.
Several Roman poets made use of ghosts, witches, and lamias (understood variously as witches or sorceresses); perhaps the most noteworthy is Horace (Q. Horatius Flaccus, 65—8 B.C.E.), whose fifth Epode is entirely concerned with Canidia, a witch with “locks and dishevelled head entwined with short vipers” (375), who utters a mad incantation intended to prevent a hapless youth from falling in love with any other woman but her. The poem is richly atmospheric, and Canidia’s evocation of her predecessors in witchcraft—specifically Diana and Medea—adds potency to her incantation.
It is difficult to pass over in silence the mad Poem 63 of Catullus (C. Valerius Catullus, 84?—54? B.C.E.), written in a highly unusual metre found almost nowhere in extant Latin poetry and dealing graphically with the self-castration of Attis, the son and lover of the great mother-goddess Cybele. In the end the poet can only conclude: “Goddess, great goddess Cybele, goddess, lady of Dindymus, far from my house be all thy fury, O my queen; others drive thou in frenzy, others drive thou to madness” (97). Perhaps the subject-matter of this poem is not as distinct from myth as a work of supernatural terror should be, but its vivid first-person depiction of religious frenzy and madness makes it a notable and virtually unique contribution to Latin literature.
Also unique, in a very different way, is the Satyricon of Petronius (T. Petronius Arbiter, d. 65 C.E.), the arbiter elegantiae who calmly committed suicide after earning the wrath of his former patron, the emperor Nero. The celebrated werewolf episode in the Satyricon (61—62) is of interest both for numerous details and for the manner in which the story is narrated. A man accompanies a soldier at dawn along a road, as “the moon shone high like noon.” At one point the soldier takes his clothes off, urinates on them, and turns into a wolf. He proceeds to howl and run off into the woods; the clothes, meanwhile, have turned to stone. Later the man hears that a wolf had killed many of the sheep on a farm but had been injured in the neck before he fled. The soldier shows up at an inn, wounded in the neck. This compact and engaging tale is told by one of Trimalchio’s guests at his banquet, and although he makes evident efforts to depict it as a tale of terror (“My heart was in my mouth, but I stood like a dead man”), the comic undercurrent is unmistakable. It is noteworthy that the narrator is keen on dispelling the incredulity of the assembled guests by vowing to the truth of the account: “Please do not think I am joking; I would not lie about this for any fortune in the world.” The extant text of the Satyricon is perhaps one-fifth, or even one-tenth, the size of the total work (it was itself probably left incomplete by Petronius’ death), so possibly it contained other supernatural episodes; but the general tone of this one bespeaks an aggressive scepticism of supernatural phenomena, at least on the part of the refined segments of Roman society.
Of the Metamorphoses of Ovid (P. Ovidius Naso, 43 B.C.E.—17 C.E.) it is difficult to speak in small compass, for the entire fifteen books of this epic deal with shape-shifting. Although most of his accounts deal with transformations brought about by the gods, some are of a different sort; and in other cases, the final transformation is only a contrived expedient that allows Ovid to tell several gripping tales of the supernatural, in poetry that is fluid and elegant, if at times glib. We have a half-parodic retelling of the account of Perseus’ slaying of the sea-monster and the rescue of Andromeda (4.663—764), a lengthy account of the witcheries of Medea (7.1—424), a rendering of the transformation of the maiden Scylla into a birdlike monster (8.1—151), and perhaps the most poignant surviving account (although many others must once have existed) of the failed attempt of Orpheus to rescue his dead wife Eurydice from the underworld (10.1—85). Ovid’s purpose is rarely directed toward terror; instead, he seeks to evoke wonder at the transmutation of human to animal.
The most celebrated Roman account of a visit to the underworld is of course the sixth book of the Aeneid of Virgil (P. Vergilius Maro, 70—19 B.C.E.), but here terror is even farther from the author’s purpose. At the outset the Sibyl—a witch- or sorceress-like figure—instructs Aeneas on the particulars of his descent (including the pregnant line facilis descensus Averno [6.126]—“the descent to Avernus [the underworld] is easy”—with the implication that the return is of a different order of difficulty). There is considerable horrific imagery in certain aspects of that descent—
a deep cave there was
By the dark mere and forest’s gloom, o’er which
Nothing that flies could wing a scathless way,
Such breath from the black jaws outpouring sped
Into the vault of heaven … (6.236—41)
—followed by a chilling depiction of the monsters he may encounter—
Grief and avenging Cares have made their bed;
And pale Diseases house, and dolorous Eld,
And Fear and Famine, counsellor of crime,
And loathly Want, shapes terrible to view,
And Death and Travail, and, Death’s own brother, Sleep,
And the soul’s guilty joys, and murderous War
Full on the threshold, and the iron cells
Of the Eumenides, and mad Discord, who
With blood-stained fillet wreaths her snaky locks. (6.274—84)
But Virgil’s manifest purpose is to lead Aeneas to the shade of his father, Anchises, who utters the imperishable prophecy of Roman greatness that comprises the heart of the book—and which Virgil deliberately confounds at the end of the epic, when Aeneas savagely kills the suppliant enemy Turnus, thereby repudiating Anchises’ command to “spare the defeated” (6.853).
It becomes evident that Virgil has consciously imitated numerous facets of Odysseus’ descent into the underworld, most notably in Aeneas’ attempt to embrace Anchises (as Odysseus had attempted to embrace the shade of his mother). Of some interest is Virgil’s account of the different types of shades in the underworld: aborted fetuses, those doomed to die of false accusations, suicides, and so forth. It is, of course, here that Aeneas has his poignant encounter with Dido, the Carthaginian queen whom he had rejected to pursue his fate as founder of Rome, and of whose death by suicide he had been ignorant until he sees her shade. She refuses to speak to him.
It has long been known that the plays of Seneca (L. Annaeus Seneca, 4? B.C.E.—65 C.E.) were a dominant influence on Elizabethan tragedy, in spite of the heavy debt they themselves owe to their Greek originals. Seneca, whose chief work is a succession of distinguished if somewhat rhetorically florid works of Stoic philosophy, made bold to rewrite a number of tragedies by the most celebrated Greek playwrights, infusing them with a degree of over-the-top flamboyance that would have been unimaginable to Aeschylus or Sophocles. But in so doing, he made some interesting emendations of the myths that enhance their supernaturalism.
It is instructive to compare Seneca’s treatment of the Herakles/Deianira story, in the play Hercules Oetaeus (Hercules at Oeta; translated in a recent edition as A Cloak for Hercules), with that of his apparent source, Sophocles’ Trachiniae. While the basic outlines of the story are followed, Seneca provides a radically different motivation for some of the central figures. Deianira, in particular, is portrayed as not merely enraged that Hercules has taken Iole as a paramour, but as manifestly wishing to kill her husband with a “spell” (cantus, 469). A Nurse, who figures as a very minor character in Sophocles’ play, takes on a significantly larger role, and in fact presents herself as endowed with supernatural powers:
I made the trees
leaf out in winter snow and jagged lightning
freeze in its sizzling course. I’ve made heavy seas
on a calm day and caused fresh springs to rise
from desert rocks. I’ve opened wide hell’s gates,
bid spirits speak and Cerberus keep silent,
while midnight saw the sun, and day sank, toppled
by darkness. Earth and its waters, heaven and
Tartarus do my bidding. Nothing holds sway
before my chanting; we will break him! My spells
will find the way and cause him to bow down. (453—63)
In this version, Hercules and others describe in even more gruesome detail the pain he is suffering (“The toxin decomposes / the skin, and the fabric merges with it” [830—31]; “my liver is being scraped dry; persistent fever saps / my blood” [1222—23]; and so forth). The play is of immense length, and it appears that it was expanded at a later date by some other hand.
Seneca adheres somewhat closer to his Euripidean model in his version of Medea; but he takes occasion to expand considerably on Medea’s supernatural powers. A Nurse expresses fear that Medea is reciting spells that will harm Jason or Creusa:
She prays to Horror
to accept her worship, bless her, inspire. Smoke
and sulphur rise up from the ground: she breaks them in
as if they were purest mountain breezes in Spring,
and her exhalations are dreadful. Curses and coughs
punctuate one another, and yet she thrives,
blossoms, looks much younger, and shines with a beauty
that terrifies more than it pleases. (680—90)
Medea, for her part, engages in an invocation to the “gods of the underworld” and the “suffering ghosts of Tartarus” (740—42) as part of an elaborate ritual that will apparently endow the “gifts” (the coronet and robe) she intends to bestow upon Creusa. Significantly, however, the Messenger does little but bluntly report the prompt death of both Creusa and Creon: it is as if Seneca were aware that he had no chance of duplicating the horrific brilliance of the Messenger’s speech in Euripides.
Seneca’s Hercules Furens (The Madness of Hercules) in general follows the plot of the Euripides play, but with different emphases that make it more pertinent to our concerns. In the first place, Seneca underscores the hatred of Juno (the Roman version of Hera) for Hercules by summoning up the “secret horrors of the damned” (95—96) from the underworld to battle her nemesis. Seneca also dwells at considerable length on Hercules’ plucking of Cerberus from the underworld, providing a vivid glimpse (probably derived at least in part from Virgil) of the archetypal horrors to be found there:
Beyond the Lethe, lies the foul Cocytus,
River of Tears, motionless as a swamp,
Where starving vultures and the mournful owl
Shriek overhead their prophecies of pain.
Here in the branches of a black-leafed yew
Sits drowsy Sleep, while desperate Famine lies
Writhing on the ground, stretching her wasted jaws.
Here futile Shame averts his burning face,
Always too late, and thin Anxiety
Stalks nervously, pursued by dark-eyed Fear.
Here is gnashing Pain and black-robed Sorrow,
Trembling Disease and iron-vested War,
And, last of all, Old Age, his staff in hand,
Tottering forward step by painful step. (679—96)
Seneca’s Thyestes is not based upon an extant Greek original, but plays on this theme among both Greek and Latin playwrights surely existed prior to his work. We are here dealing with one of the most gruesome episodes in Greek myth: Atreus, enraged that his brother Thyestes had seduced his wife Aerope, contrives to feed Thyestes a meal consisting of the flesh of his own sons. In the version of the myth that Seneca is following, this hideous event is the result of a familial curse, in that Tantalus—the grandfather of Atreus and Thyestes, and, as we have seen, one of the celebrated victims of punishment in the underworld—once fed the gods a similar meal made up of the flesh of one of his own sons. In Seneca, the Ghost of Tantalus emerges from the underworld to deliver a plaintive monologue before being chased back to Hades by a Fury. It is to be expected that Seneca dwells with the loving attention of a splatterpunk writer on the grisly feast that Atreus prepares for his wayward brother.
Seneca’s Agamemnon is an explicit sequel to Thyestes. Here we are introduced to the Ghost of Thyestes, who seeks vengeance against the house of Atreus, including Atreus’ son, Agamemnon. The Ghost again provides an extensive description of the underworld, but otherwise plays no role in the actual action of the play. But Thyestes has his revenge in any case, for Agamemnon is murdered by Aegisthus, the son of Thyestes by his own daughter Pelopia.
The Metamorphoses (or Golden Ass) of Lucius Apuleius (2nd century C.E.) is, at least in its title, a deliberate echo of Ovid, although it deals chiefly with only a single metamorphosis—that of a man named Lucius into an ass. Possibly the plural was used because this metamorphosis is preceded by accounts of several other bizarre events, one in particular performed by the female magician (saga) Meroe, who is said to have changed a lover into a beaver, another person into a frog (1.9), and so on. This story is told to Lucius by a traveller named Aristomenes, who goes on to recount the even more bizarre tale of one Socrates, whom Meroe and other witches or magicians killed with a sword wound to the neck, whereupon Meroe plucked out his heart and sealed up the wound with a sponge. Later Socrates is seen alive, but presently his body gives out, the wound opens, the sponge falls out, and he is dead for good.
It should be noted that a companion of Aristomenes immediately expresses scepticism of this outlandish story (“Verily there was never so foolish a tale, nor a more absurd lie than this” [1.20]), but Lucius swallows it (“I think nothing impossible” [1.20]). Lucius is, manifestly, attracted to the bizarre: he has expressly chosen to travel in Thessaly because it is the “birthplace of sorceries and enchantments” (2.1). Later, he is staying with a man named Milo whose wife, Pamphile, has the reputation of being a witch. Lucius, for his part, finds the situation fascinating (“I … was curious and coveted after such sorcery and witchcraft” [2.6]). A slave girl, Fotis, with whom Lucius has been carrying on a sexual dalliance expounds Pamphile’s witcheries at length and at one point tells him of an elaborate incantation she once uttered. Lucius now wishes to watch Pamphile in action, and he and Fotis presently see Pamphile turn herself into an owl. Lucius states that he wishes to be turned into an owl; but Fotis anoints him with the wrong ointment, and he turns into an ass instead. The rest of the novel becomes an adventure story in which Lucius is constantly attempting to eat some roses (although it is never explained that doing so will change him back into a man) while being beset by all manner of difficulties. At long last, after praying to Isis, he eats some roses offered by a priest and resumes his own form.
The fact that, in the very first paragraph of the novel, we are told that this is a “Milesian tale” transparently indicates the self-parodic (or, at the very least, comic and even buffoonish) nature of the narrative. The phrase “Milesian tale” (a tale putatively originating in the city of Miletus, in Asia Minor) was used throughout the Graeco-Roman world for a story of unbelievable and probably deceitful character, and its use at the very outset of the Metamorphoses is Apuleius’ tip of the hat that his tongue is being held firmly in his cheek in the entirety of his engaging novel.