Tuesday, November 01, 2005



To celebrate Halloween, I read Tibullus 1.2, which contains a description of an ancient witch (lines 43-52, tr. J.P. Postgate):
I have seen her drawing stars from the sky. Her spells turn the course of the hurrying stream. Her chaunting cleaves the ground, lures the spirit from its tomb, and down from the warm pyre summons the bony frame. Now with magic shrillings she keeps the troops of the grave before her; now she sprinkles them with milk and commands them to retreat. At will she chases the clouds from the frowning heavens; at will she musters the snow in the summer skies. Only she, men say, holds the secret of Medea's deadly herbs, only she has tamed the wild hounds of Hecate.

hanc ego de caelo ducentem sidera vidi,
  fluminis haec rapidi carmine vertit iter,
haec cantu finditque solum Manesque sepulcris
  elicit et tepido devocat ossa rogo;
iam tenet infernas magico stridore catervas,
  iam iubet adspersas lacte referre pedem.
cum libet, haec tristi depellit nubila caelo,
  cum libet, aestivo convocat orbe nives.
sola tenere malas Medeae dicitur herbas,
  sola feros Hecates perdomuisse canes.
Kirby Flower Smith, in his commentary on lines 45-48, gives some literary and historical parallels to the practice of nekyomantia, which he defines as "summoning the spirits of the dead in order to make them prophesy or answer questions." The literary parallels are:
  1. Homer, Odyssey 11
  2. Aeschylus, Persae (the ghost of Darius)
  3. Laberius, Necyomantia (lost)
  4. Lucan 6.419-830 (the ghost of Pompey)
  5. 1 Samuel 28.7 (the witch of Endor)
  6. Shakespeare, Macbeth 4.1
The historical examples are:
  1. Cicero, Against Vatinius 6.14
  2. Tacitus, Annals 2.28
  3. Suetonius, Life of Nero 34.4
  4. Herodian 4.12.3
  5. Ammianus Marcellinus 29.2.17
Here is the passage from Cicero's speech against Vatinius (tr. C.D. Yonge):
And since the beginnings of all great things are derived from the gods, I wish you to answer me,--you, who are accustomed to call yourself a Pythagorean, and to put forth the name of a most learned man as a screen to bide your own savage and barbarian habits,--what depravity of intellect possessed you, what excessive frenzy seized on you, and made you, when you had begun your unheard-of and impious sacrifices, accustomed as you are to seek to evoke the spirits of the shades below, and to appease the Dî Manes with the entrails of murdered boys, despise the auspices under which this city was founded, by which the whole of this republic and empire is kept together, and, at the very beginning of your tribuneship, give notice to the senate that the responses of the augurs and the arrogance of that college should be no obstacle to your proceedings?

et quoniam omnium rerum magnarum ab dis immortalibus principia ducuntur, volo ut mihi respondeas tu, qui te Pythagoreum soles dicere et hominis doctissimi nomen tuis immanibus et barbaris moribus praetendere, quae te tanta pravitas mentis tenuerit, qui tantus furor ut, cum inaudita ac nefaria sacra susceperis, cum inferorum animas elicere, cum puerorum extis deos manis mactare soleas, auspicia quibus haec urbs condita est, quibus omnis res publica atque imperium tenetur, contempseris, initioque tribunatus tui senatui denuntiaris tuis actionibus augurum responsa atque eius conlegi adrogantiam impedimento non futura?

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