The Golden Ass, Book II

Book II:1-3 Aunt Byrrhena



As soon as darkness had dispersed and the rising sun brought daylight, I emerged from sleep and bed. Anxious as ever to investigate, with all my excessive eagerness, the rare and marvellous, and knowing that there I was in the heart of Thessaly, the home of those magic arts whose powerful spells are praised throughout the world, and remembering that my dear friend Aristomenes’ tale was set in this very city, I was possessed with desire and impatience, and set out to examine everything carefully.  Nothing I saw in that city seemed to me to be what it was, but everything, I thought, had been transformed by some dreadful incantation; the rocks I came across were petrified human beings, the birds I heard were people with feathers, the trees round the city walls were the same with leaves, and the water in the fountains had flowed from human veins; soon the statues and images would start to walk, and the walls to talk, and the oxen and other cattle to prophesy, and an oracle would speak from the very sky, out of the face of the sun.

I was in such a state of awe, or rather so stupefied by the torments of longing, that though I could find not a trace, not a shred of what I yearned to see, I still kept wandering from place to place, like a man determined on spending his money somehow or other. I stumbled upon the market. And there a woman was passing by with a large crowd of servants. I quickened my pace and caught up with her. The gold settings of her jewels, and the gold threads woven into her dress marked her out as the wife of some wealthy person. An old man weighed down by the years was clinging to her arm who, the moment he caught sight of me, cried: ‘It’s Lucius, by Hercules, it’s Lucius!’ He embraced me and whispered something in the woman’s ear. ‘Why don’t you go and kiss your aunt?’ he said. I blushed, replying: ‘I’m embarrassed to greet a woman I don’t know’ and stood there with my eyes on the ground.

But she turned and stared at me: ‘He inherited his virtue from his pure and sainted mother Salvia, and the physical resemblance is clear: not unusually tall, slight yet vigorous, a reddish complexion, tawny hair quiet plainly cut, the same alert blue-grey eyes, with a brilliant gaze like an eagle’s, the glowing face, the attractive unaffected way of walking. Lucius,’ she said, ‘I raised you with these very hands, naturally, since I’m not just a close relative of your mother’s, I was brought up with her, and we’re both descendants of Plutarch’s family, suckled together by the same wet-nurse, and reared in the bonds of sisterhood. Only our position in society differentiates us, since she married an eminent man, I a private citizen. I am Byrrhena, whose name I think you’ll often have heard among those who educated you. So come, and trust yourself to my hospitality, or rather to a house you must treat just like your own.’

Once my blushes had receded, I replied: ‘I ought not to desert Milo, my host, without a reason, aunt. But I’ll try hard to do what I can without failing my obligations. Whenever I’ve reason to come this way I’ll call on you without fail.’

While we were talking in this manner, we had walked a short distance, and reached Byrrhena’s house.


Book II:4-5 At Byrrhena’s House


The reception hall, the atrium, was especially beautiful, with a column at each corner on which stood a statue of a palm-bearing goddess, wings outspread, the motionless dew-wet feet barely touching the polished surface of the spinning globe, so as to appear in flight not stationary. Then a Parian marble at the centre to balance these, an absolutely excellent work, carved in the likeness of Diana running towards you as you entered, awing you with her divine majesty, her tunic sculpted by the wind. There were hounds of marble too, protecting her flanks; their eyes menacing, ears pricked, nostrils flaring, and jaws open so fiercely that if the sound of barking had reach you from nearby, you’d have thought it had emerged from the marble; and then the noted artist had shown the best proof of his skill by having the dogs leap up, so that with chests held high, and their rear paws firm on the ground, with their front ones they yet seemed to be bounding forward. Behind the goddess was a cave in the rock, with moss and grass, and leaves, and bushes, and vines everywhere, and little trees blossoming in stone. Inside the cavern the statue’s reflection shone from the polished marble, and under its lip hung apples and skilfully carved grapes, art emulating nature in a work resembling reality: you would have thought them ripe for picking, at that moment when Autumn the harvester breathes rich colour into the fruits, and if you bent and stared into the pool, where a gently shimmering wave flowed, beneath the goddess’s feet, you would have thought the grapes hanging there in reflection possessed the quality of movement, besides those other aspects of reality. Actaeon was represented too, amongst the marble foliage, both in the stone and mirrored in the water, leaning towards the goddess, waiting with eager gaze for her to step into the pool, at the very moment of his transformation into a stag.

As I examined the statuary, time and again, with intense delight, Byrrhena spoke: ‘Everything you see is yours,’ she said. And with that she ordered the rest to leave so we could talk in private. When they had been dismissed she said: ‘My dear Lucius, I swear by this goddess herself that I’m very anxious and fearful for you, as if you were my own son, and I want to forewarn you well in advance, beware especially of the evil arts and immoral charms of that woman Pamphile, the wife of Milo who you say is your host. They call her the first among witches, mistress of every kind of fatal charm, who by breathing on twigs and pebbles and such like can drown all the light of the starlit globe in the depths of Tartarus and plunge the whole world into primal Chaos. No sooner does she spy a handsome young man than, captivated by his looks, she directs her gaze and all her desire towards him. She sows the seeds of seduction, invades his mind, and fetters him with the eternal shackles of raging passion. Then any who are unwilling, rendered loathsome by their reluctance, in a trice she turns them into a rock, or a sheep or some other creature; there are even those she annihilates completely. That’s why I fear for you and warn you to take care. She’s always on heat, and you are young and handsome enough to suit.’ All this Byrrhena told me with great concern.


Book II:6-10 The charms of Photis


But my curiosity was aroused, and as soon as I heard the word ‘magic’ instead of being cautious of Pamphile I longed to embark, willingly and of my own accord, on an apprenticeship in such matters, whatever the cost, and go leaping headlong into the deepest pit. Mad with impatience, I loosed myself at last from Byrrhena’s clasp as from handcuffs, added a quick ‘Farewell!’ and fled swiftly back to Milo’s house. While speeding along like a man out of his mind, I kept talking to myself: ‘Now Lucius keep your wits about you and stay in control. This is the opportunity you’ve been waiting for. You’ll have your fill of marvellous adventures as you’ve always wanted. Forget your childish fears, and get to grips with things vigorously, hand to hand; avoid any dallying with your hostess, and respect religiously good Milo’s marriage bed, though you can chase Photis the maid as much as you wish. After all she’s pretty to look at, has playful ways, and she’s as sharp as a needle. Last night when you were giving way to drowsiness, she led you to the bedroom in a friendly way, turned down the sheets seductively, tucked you in quite tenderly, and kissing you on the head showed by her expression how reluctant she was to leave, and then she turned and looked back several times. So that seems good and promising, quite favourable even, and though it may be bad for your health, let Photis be seduced.’

I’d arrived at Milo’s door still debating with myself and, as they say, making the decision with my feet. I found that neither Milo nor his wife were at home, but only darling Photis. She was preparing diced innards for stuffing, minced meat, soup from the offal, and what I’d already divined with my nostrils, a wonderfully tasty sausage. She was neatly dressed in a linen tunic gathered in with a bright red band beneath her breasts, rotating the cooking pot in her flowerlike fingers, stirring it with a circular motion, at the same time flexing her body smoothly, her hips subtly wiggling, her supple spine gently shaking, rippling delicately. I was transfixed by the sight, completely stunned; I simply stood, and so did that which a moment before had been limply asleep. At last I spoke: ‘How beautifully, how delightfully, my dear Photis, your hips rotate that little pot! What a lovely treat you’re about! Happy, and blessed for sure, that man whom you’d allow a dip of his little finger.’

With a ready and witty tongue she replied: ‘Away with you, my lad, keep far away from the heat. If the tiniest flame should touch you even lightly, you’ll be badly burned, and no one but me would be able to quench the blaze, I who season things sweetly, and know how to make a stew or a bed to please.’

Saying this she turned towards me and laughed. But I refused to go till I’d diligently explored every aspect of her appearance. My first delight has also been – why speak of anything else – the hair on a woman’s head; to consider it carefully first in public, and enjoy it later at home. The reason behind this preference of mine is perfectly well-considered: namely that as the main part of the body openly and clearly seen it’s the first thing to meet the eyes. And then what gaily-coloured clothes do for the rest of the person, its own natural beauty does for the head. And finally when women wish to prove their true loveliness they remove their dresses, slip off their garments, wishing to show their naked forms, knowing they will be better liked for the blushing glow of their skin than the gilded tissue of silks. But in truth – though it’s forbidden to say so, and I hope as such no dreadful example of it ever occurs – if you were to shave the hair from the head of the most marvellously beautiful woman and leave her face naked of its natural adornment, though she had come down from heaven, was born from the sea, nurtured by the waves, even though, I say, she were Venus herself, ringed by the choir of Graces, with a whole throng of Cupids at her side, wearing that famous belt, fragrant with cinnamon and dripping balsam; if she were bald as a coot, she’d not even please a husband like Vulcan.

But when hair gleams with its own dear colour and brilliant sheen, when it flames to life in the sun’s rays or softly reflects them, and varying in shade displays contrasting charms, now shining gold massed in smooth honeyed shadows, now with raven blackness imitating the purple collar of a pigeon’s neck; or when it’s glossed with Arabian oils, and parted with a finely toothed comb, caught up behind to greet a lover’s eyes, and like a mirror reflect a more pleasing image than reality, or when bunched up its many tresses crown her head, or released in long waves flow down her back! In the end, such is the glory of a woman’s hair that though she adorns herself with garments, gold and gems and other finery, unless her hair is groomed she cannot be called well-dressed.

As for my Photis, her hair was not elaborate but its casualness added charm. Her soft luxuriant tresses were loosened to hang over her neck, to cover her shoulders and rest a moment on the slightly curved hem of her tunic, then gathered in a mass at the ends and fastened in a knot on the top of her head.

I could bear no longer the excruciating torment of such intense delight, but rushing at her I planted the sweetest of kisses on the place where her hair rose towards the crown of her head. She twisted her neck towards me then, and turned to me with a sidelong glance of those sharp eyes. ‘Oh you child,’ she said, ‘bittersweet the taste you sample. Take care not to feel a lasting ache from eating too sugary a honey.’

‘What matter, my jester,’ I replied, ‘if you’ll revive me with a little kiss, I’m ready to be stretched out over the flame and roasted.’ And with that I clasped her tight and started to kiss her. Her ardour now began to rival my own, mounting to an equal crescendo of passion; her mouth opened, her breath was like cinnamon, and her tongue darted against mine with a taste of nectar, in unrestrained desire.

‘I’m dying,’ I gasped, ‘I’m already lost unless you show mercy.’ After kissing me again, she answered: ‘Don’t despair! Since we both want the one thing, I’m your slave; you won’t have to wait much longer. When they light the torches tonight I’ll come to your room. Off with you now and gather your strength: since I’ll be battling with you all night, courageously and with spirit.’


Book II:11-14 Diophanes the Chaldaean


After this banter we parted. It had just turned noon when some gifts arrived from Byrrhena, a succulent pig, five chickens, and a cask of expensive old wine. So I summoned Photis: ‘Behold, Bacchus, the prompter and arms-bearer of Venus, has appeared as well. We should drink all this wine today, to quench modesty’s reticence, and inculcate spirit and vigour into our games. The only provisions Venus’s barque requires, are enough oil in the lamp and enough wine in the cup to see us through the night.’

The rest of the day was devoted to bathing, then supper. I had been invited to join good Milo’s elegant little table, and remembering Byrrhena’s warning seated myself, as far as I could to avoid his wife’s gaze; and as fearful, whenever I glanced at her face, as if I were staring into Lake Avernus. I kept turning around to look at Photis serving, and that restored my spirits. Evening came, and Pamphile looked at the lamp: ‘What a monstrous rain-storm we’ll have tomorrow!’ When her husband asked her how she knew, she replied the lamp had told her. Milo replied with a laugh: ‘We’re nourishing a mighty Sibyl indeed in that light, one that looks on all heaven’s affairs, and the sun itself, from the crow’s-nest of the lamp-stand.’

To this I retorted: ‘It’s my first experience of this kind of divination. But it’s no surprise that your tiny flame lit by human hands still retains awareness of that greater celestial fire, as if it was its begetter; thus by divine presentiment it knows and can proclaim to us whatever that orb will enact in the zenith. Now at Corinth where I live there’s a Chaldaean astrologer causing universal uproar in the city with his marvellous oracles, collecting donations for his public declarations of arcane fate.  He predicts which days are favourable for a successful marriage, or for building lasting foundations to a wall, which days are good for business, or suitable for a journey, or opportune for sailing. When I asked him about the outcome of this trip of mine, he gave several odd and quite contradictory replies; on the one hand it appears my reputation will truly grow, on the other hand my future will be a long story, one in several volumes, a tale no one will believe.’

At this Milo asked with a smile: ‘What does this Chaldaean of yours look like, and what’s he called?’ ‘He’s tall,’ I replied, ‘and rather swarthy, Diophanes by name.’ ‘That’s him,’ he said, ‘the very man. He’s been here too, handing out the same kinds of prophecies to various people. He’d amassed rich profits, not just small donations, when the poor man met with a perverse, or should I say a vicious change of fortune.

One day surrounded by a crowd of citizens he was telling the audience their fate as they clustered about him, when a salesman called Cerdo appeared needing to know the right day to travel. Diophanes chose one and told him. Well, Cerdo had just slapped down his purse, poured out his money, and counted out four gold coin’s worth as payment for the prediction, when suddenly a young man came up behind the Chaldaean, grasped him by the cloak, swung him round, kissed him and hugged him tightly. The astrologer returned his embrace, and made the young man sit beside him, so astonished and dumbfounded that he forgot what he was about. “I hoped you’d get here,” he said, “when did you arrive?” “Yesterday evening,” the other said, “but now your turn, dear fellow. After you sailed in haste from Euboea, how did the journey go, by sea and land?”

Then Diophanes, our sublime Chaldaean, his senses still awry, answered, without thinking: “Would that our enemies, all those hostile to us, might experience so dreadful, so truly Odyssean a peregrination. First the ship we sailed on was blasted by gales on every side, lost its rudder, was beached after much labour on the further shore then sank straight to the bottom. We lost everything and barely managed to swim to land. And then what we were given by friends from kindness, or strangers out of pity, was stolen from us by a band of brigands, and Arignotus, my only brother, while defending us against their fierce assault, had his throat cut, poor wretch, before my very eyes.”

He was in the midst of this dreadful tale when all of us standing there fell about with laughter, for Cerdo the salesman snatched up the coins meant to pay for his prophecy, and ran off as fast as his legs would carry him. It was only then that Diophanes came to his senses, and realised at last the disaster his lapse of mind had caused!

So I hope young Lucius that our Chaldaean has told you, if no one else, the truth: may you be fortunate and may your journey prove fair.’


Book II:15-18 A night with Photis


As Milo rambled on, I groaned silently, not a little angry with myself for having prompted willingly a whole series of inopportune tales, losing the best part of the evening, and its delightful fruits. So at last I ignored good manners, saying to Milo: ‘May Diophanes endure his fate, gather men’s gold again and lose it to sea or land alike, but as for me, I am still feeling yesterday’s exhaustion, so forgive me if I retire a little early.’ With that I left and headed for my room, there to find a banquet elegantly prepared. To keep the slaves as far away as possible – I suppose to send them out of range of our nocturnal murmurs – a bed had been made for them on the ground well away from the door. Beside the bed, a little table was covered with tasty dishes of food saved from supper, and generous half-filled cups of wine awaiting a little water, and next to them a flask with a cut-down spout making it wider and easier to pour – all just the perfect appetisers to Venus’s gladiatorial encounters.

I had only just lain down when dear Photis, who had seen her mistress off to bed, waltzed in with wreaths of roses, more roses riding loose in the neck of her gown. She kissed me warmly and fastened a garland on my head then she showered me with petals, before pouring warm water into a cup of wine and handing it me to drink. But before I could swallow it all she gently pulled it away and gazing at me the while sipped at the rest like a little bird, and made it vanish sweetly between her lips. A second cup and a third went swiftly back and forth between us till I was flushed with wine, and mind and body in truth grew restless and eager. Feeling the pain of the dart already I pulled my nightshirt up to my thighs and showed Photis proof of my impatience. ‘Have pity,’ I said, ‘come quickly to my rescue. Now the duel, you challenged me to, is upon us as you see and no herald to part us. I’m strung taut with expectation. Feeling Cupid’s first arrow strike to the depths of my heart, I’ve stretched my bow so tight, I’m afraid of the string breaking from the tension. But indulge me even more, loose your flowing tresses, let your hair ripple like waves and embrace me, lovingly.’

Without delay, she snatched away all the plates and dishes, pulled off every stitch of clothing, let down her hair, and with joyful wantonness transformed herself to an image of Venus rising from the waves. For a while she even held her little hand on purpose over her smooth-shaven mount, coyly rather than to hide it modestly. ‘Do battle,’ she cried ‘and fight hard, since I’ll not retreat an inch, nor turn my back. If you’re a man, attack me face to face; take aim; strike eagerly; kill me as you die. Warfare today admits no quarter.’

So saying, she climbed onto the bed, tentatively settled on top of me, then plunged up and down repeatedly, with sinuous movements of her supple hips as she satiated me with the fruits of over-arching pleasure, until our energy flagged, our limbs grew slack, and we collapsed together exhausted, caressing each other and panting for dear life. We spent the whole night duelling like this, drinking wine now and then to ease fatigue, rouse our passion, and renew our pleasures, till a while before dawn. With that night for our model, we constructed many another just the same.

One day it chanced that Byrrhena pressed me to come to supper at her house, and though I tried various excuses, she was having none of it. So I had to go to Photis and ratify it with her, as if I were taking the auspices. Though she was reluctant for me to stray even a hair’s breadth from her, she generously granted me brief leave from military duty. But she warned me: ‘Take care to come back early, because there’s a gang of wild young noblemen who disturb the common peace. There are people murdered, and their bodies are left lying in the street, and the town’s too far from the nearest army barracks to put an end to all their slaughter. Envy of your fine clothes, and their contempt for foreigners might count against you.’

‘Darling Photis don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I’d rather my own pleasures than someone else’s banquet, so I’ll ease your concern with a swift return. Besides, I won’t go unaccompanied: with a short sword at my side as usual I’ll be wearing a guarantee of safety.’

And so prepared I ventured out to supper.

Book II:19-20 The supper party


The supper table was crowded, and since Byrrhena was one of the leading hostesses of Hypata, the flower of society was there. The tables of polished citron wood were richly-inlaid with ivory, the couches were draped in cloth of gold, and each of the various ample wine-cups was a costly work of art: skilfully moulded glass here, flawless crystal there, shining silver and gleaming gold, cleverly carved amber, and precious stones hollowed for drinking; every barely-possible kind was there. A crowd of elegantly-dressed waiters served from loaded platters, while curly-headed lads in handsome gear offered vintage wines in those jewelled cups. After the lamps were brought, conversation flourished, with plenty of wit and banter bringing laughter on every side.

Then it was that Byrrhena turned to me and asked: ‘How does our town suit you, nephew? As far as I’m aware, our temples, baths and other public buildings are far superior to other cities, and we’re well provided with life’s necessities. We offer freedom to the leisured, the bustle of Rome to the travelling businessman, and then there are quiet little villas for the unassuming tourist. In short we’re the pleasure-seeker’s destination for a whole province.’

‘What you say is true’, I answered. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever achieved a greater freedom, though I live in terror of the dark inescapable lairs of the magic arts. They say not even the sepulchres of the dead are safe, that the old witches hunt for relics and severed bits of corpses at gravesides and pyres, in order to work the living deadly harm; and even while the funeral rites are being performed they flit there before the family and forestall the burial.’

To this another guest added: ‘Indeed; and here they don’t even spare the living; there was a man who was subjected to that kind of thing, whose face was completely mutilated and disfigured.’

At his words the whole party dissolved into unrestrained mirth, and every face turned towards a guest who reclined alone in a corner. Embarrassed by the general gaze, he murmured in annoyance, and tried to rise and leave, but Byrrhena cried: ‘No, no, dear Thelyphron, please stay a while longer; be kind, as ever, and tell us that tale of yours again, so my nephew Lucius here can enjoy the charm of your delightful story-telling.’

‘My lady,’ he said, ‘you, as ever, are true to your inviolable good manners, but some people’s rudeness is scarcely to be borne.’ He was really upset, but Byrrhena persisted, and despite his reluctance, swearing her guests to silence, she urged him to continue, and finally won her wish.

And so Thelyphron pushed back the coverings of his couch, in a heap, and sitting half-upright leaning on his left elbow, stretched out his right hand in oratorical style: curving the little and ring fingers inwards, fully extending the middle and index fingers, raising the thumb ready to strike, and leaning forward gently as he began.


Book II:21-24 Thelyphron’s tale: guarding the body


‘When I was still a student in Miletus I sailed across to watch the Olympic Games, and since I wanted to visit this region too of the famous province, I travelled all through Thessaly and arrived one unlucky day at Larissa. Since my purse was feeling rather thin, I was wandering all over town seeking a source of funds when I saw a tall old man standing on a block of stone in the middle of the market-place announcing that anyone willing to guard a corpse for a night might bid for the work. “What’s this?” I asked, of a passer-by, “Are corpses here in the habit of running off?”

“Hush, young man!’ he replied. “You’re an innocent stranger and it seems you don’t realise you’re in Thessaly where witches are always gnawing away bits of dead men’s faces to use in their magic arts.”

“Tell me then, if you would” I countered, ‘what this guardianship involves.’

“Well firstly,” he replied, “you need to stay wide awake all night, eyes straining unblinkingly and fixed on the corpse, and never glancing around you or letting your concentration waver, because those dreadful women have the power to change their shape and can creep up on you silently, transformed to any sort of creature they wish, defeating the sun’s eye or the gaze of justice. They can look like dogs, or birds, or mice or even flies. Then they send the watcher to sleep with dreadful incantations. No one could count the number of tricks those evil women contrive to gain their wish. Yet only four or five pieces of gold are the pay for this dangerous task. Oh yes – I almost forgot to say – that if, by the morning, any piece of the body’s face is damaged, the watcher must part with bits sliced from his own face to replace the portions removed.”

Despite this I plucked up my courage, like a man, went straight up to the crier and said: “You can stop advertising. Hand over the cash.” “Ten gold pieces,” he said, “will be waiting for you. But now, young man, beware. The dead man was a son of one of our leading families: guard him carefully from those evil Harpies.” “That’s all nonsense to me,” I replied, “not worth a trifle. You see before you a man of iron, unsleeping like Argus; I’m eyes all over, and keener of sight than Lynceus himself.”

I’d barely finished speaking when he dragged me off swiftly to a house whose entrance was bolted, and led me through a small back door and into a darkened room with barred windows, where he pointed to a weeping woman robed in black. He approached her saying: “Here’s the man I’ve contracted to guard your husband’s body securely. She parted her hair that fell loose and with her hand brushed it either side of a face beautiful even in grief, then looking at me she said: “Please see that you watch as vigilantly as you can.” “Don’t worry!” I replied, “Just give me a little bonus.”

The matter being agreed, she took me into an adjoining room where the corpse lay, covered with pure white linen. She called in seven mourners as witness, uncovering the body with her own hand, and after a lot more weeping, she made all swear a solemn oath and, while one dutifully wrote down her inventory of the dead, she pointed out each individual feature: “Behold,” she said, “one nose intact, two untouched eyes, two ears whole, the lips unscathed, one chin complete. Citizens, good and true, bear testimony to this.” Once finished, the tablets were sealed, and she prepared to leave.

But I said: “Madame, would you see that I’ve everything I need.” “And what might that be?” she answered. “A large lamp,” I said, “enough oil to keep it burning till dawn, hot water, wine and a cup, and a plate of what’s left from supper.” “Away with you, you fool,” she replied, with a shake of her head, “asking for a meal in a house of mourning! There’s been no food, not a puff of smoke in the house for days on end. Do you think you’re here for a banquet? Adapt yourself to the moment, with tears and lament.” And turning to her maid as she spoke she cried: “Myrrhine, hand him the lamp and the oil then lock him in, and go at once.”


Book II:25-28 Thelyphron’s tale: conjuring the dead


Left alone to look after the corpse, I rubbed my eyes and readied them for vigil, keeping up my spirits by humming a song, as twilight fell and darkness came, then deeper darkness, and deepest hush, and at last the dead of night. Fear gradually crept over me. Suddenly a weasel appeared, halted in front of me, and fixed me with its piercing eyes. It was far too bold for such a tiny creature, and that was troubling. In the end I shouted: “Off with you, impure beast, go and hide with your weasel friends before you feel the weight of my hand, and make it quick! Off you go!”

It turned at once and fled from the confines of the room. Instantly I fell into a profound abyss of sleep. Even the god of Delphi would have had trouble deciding which of us in the room might be the corpse. I lay so motionless I was barely alive, and needed another watcher for myself.

The cockcrow from the crested ranks was sounding a truce to night when I woke at last and in a panic ran in terror to the body. I brought the lamp up close, uncovered the face, and examined it carefully item by item, but everything was there. Then the poor weeping wife entered the room with the witnesses as before. At once she fell anxiously on the corpse, kissing it long and passionately, and subjecting every detail to the lamp’s judgement. Then she turned and summoned her steward, Philodespotos, and told him to give the successful guard his reward without delay. He paid me there and then. “We’re extremely grateful to you, young man,” she said, “and by Hercules in return for this dedicated service of yours we count you among our friends.”

I was filled with joy by this welcome windfall, and delighted at the gleaming gold coins that jingled together in my hands. “Rather, my lady” I said, “consider me one of your servants, and whenever you need the like again call on me without question.”

No sooner had I uttered such an inauspicious omen than the household began to curse me, and launched themselves at me with whatever weapons they could muster. One thumped my jaws with his fist, another pounded my shoulders with his elbows, a third thrust violently at my ribs with the flat of his hands; they jumped on me, kicked me, grabbed my hair and tore my clothes. Torn and mangled like Pentheus, or Orpheus the bard, I was tumbled out of the house.

As I recovered my strength in the street, I reflected on that thoughtless, ill-omened remark, and couldn’t but agree I deserved an even worse beating than I’d had. Just then the bier emerged from the house, and the dead man was celebrated and mourned for the last time. He was borne through the market-place in open funeral procession, a hereditary rite appropriate to a leading citizen. Then an old man dressed in black, grieving, weeping, tearing at his fine white hair, hastened to take hold of the bier with both hands, and cried out in a passionate voice, broken by frequent sobs: “Citizens, for honour’s sake, it’s your public duty to grant justice to a victim, and take stern vengeance on this wicked guilty woman for the worst of crimes. For she herself, none other, poisoned this poor young nephew of mine in order to please her lover and steal the estate.”

The old man kept on shouting these lamentable accusations, till the crowd on all sides were aroused, the plausibility of the motive lending him credibility. The called for fire, rooted out stones, and urged a gang of youths to kill the woman. With serviceable tears, and swearing by all the gods as devoutly as one can, she denied the dreadful deed.

So the old man spoke again: “Let’s put the truth to the test, let divine providence judge. There’s a man here called Zatchlas, a first-rate Egyptian seer, whom I’ve paid a fortune to conjure my nephew’s spirit back from the dead, and re-animate his corpse for a moment, as it was before his death.” And here he introduced a youth with shaven head, wearing a long linen robe and palm-leaf sandals. The old man kissed the seer’s hands a while, and clasped the knees in supplication. “Take pity on us, priest, take pity!” he begged, ‘By the heavenly stars, by the powers of hell, by the natural elements, by the silence of the night; by the sanctuaries of Coptus, by the Nile’s inundations, by the mysteries of Memphis, and the sistra of Pharos, grant eyes closed for eternity a brief glimpse of the sun, and illuminate them with its rays. We have no argument with fate, nor deny the earth its own; we only ask for an instant of life to solace us with revenge.”

The seer, yielding to his request, touched the corpse’s mouth with a certain little herb and placed another on its chest. Then he turned to the east and invoked in silence the vast power of the rising sun, rousing the spectators at the awesome sight to ready expectation of miracle.


Book II:29-30 Thelyphron’s tale: what the corpse said


Now, I’d thrust my way through the crowd, and standing on a fairly tall stone right behind the bier, I was watching everything with curious eyes. The corpse’s chest swelled and filled, then the major arteries and veins pulsated, the lungs began to breathe, the body rose, and now the dead man spoke: “Why do you bring me back to life an instant, when I was close to drinking Lethe’s draught, and about to swim the Stygian Lake? Desist, I beg you, desist, and let me return to rest.”

Such were the corpse’s words, but the seer replied excitedly: “No, tell these people everything, and illuminate the mystery of your death. Or know that I’ll invoke the avenging Furies with my curse, and your weary flesh will end in torment!”

The dead man answered from his bier, after a deep groan, speaking to the crowd: “Through the evil arts of my new bride, murdered by a cup of poison, I yielded my still warm marriage bed to an adulterer.”

At this the brazen wife, showing amazing presence of mind, began to defend herself by arguing blasphemously with the husband. The crowd swayed to and fro, pulled in opposite directions. Some said the dreadful woman should be buried alive at once, alongside the corpse, others that a corpse’s utterances were hardly to be trusted.

But their doubts were removed by the dead man’s next speech. He groaned deeply again: “I’ll give you proof,” he said, “clear proof of the unchallengeable truth. I’ll tell you something no one else could know or guess.” Then he pointed his finger – at me! “You see, while this attentive watchman was keeping close guard of my corpse, some old witches tried to get at my remains. They’d changed shape for the purpose, but in vain, since despite repeated attempts they couldn’t evade his unremitting care. At last they veiled him in the mists of sleep, and drowned him in deep slumber. Then they began to summon me by name, and carried on till my cold limbs with their rigid joints were slowly struggling to obey the demand of their magic art. But because the watchman, Thelyphron, has the same name as mine, and was still alive but only dead asleep, unconsciously woke at the sound of their call, and rose mechanically like a mindless zombie. He brought on himself the mutilation meant for me, and though the bedroom door had been tightly bolted, the witches removed his nose and then his ears through the keyhole. Then to conceal what they had done, they shaped waxen ears like the ones they’d taken, fitted them to suit, and fashioned him a nose like his own. And there the poor wretch stands, having earned the reward of mutilation for all his efforts.”

Terrified at his words, I clapped my hand to my face, and grasped my nose: it came away; I rubbed my ears and they fell off. Everyone craned their necks to see, pointed at me and burst out laughing. In a cold sweat I escaped through the legs of the encircling crowd. Maimed as I was, ridiculous, I couldn’t return to my native city. I’ve let my hair grow long at the sides to hide the scars that were my ears, and I’ve stuck this canvas nose to my face for the sake of decency.’


Book II:31-32 An encounter with thieves


As Thelyphron ended his story, the guests, drenched in wine, renewed their delighted laughter. While they were giving their orders for fresh drinks, Byrrhena spoke to me: ‘Ever since Hypata was founded, tomorrow has been a unique holiday, a day when we seek to propitiate the sacred god of Laughter, with pleasant and joyful rites. Your presence will make it a happier occasion for us, and I hope you’ll think of something witty of your own to honour the great god with, so we can recognise his divinity more gloriously than ever.’

‘Let it be as you command,’ I said, ‘and, by Hercules, I’d hope to find a scrap of bright material with which to drape the deity.’

I was full of wine myself, so when my servant gave a sign to remind me what time it was, I staggered to my feet, said a quick goodbye to Byrrhena, and tottered off towards home.

But on reaching the nearest square, a gust of wind extinguished the torch on which we were relying. It was only with difficulty that we disentangled ourselves from the black indifference of night and, stumbling over the stones, reached our lodgings, exhausted. As we approached, arm in arm, we saw three strapping great fellows with bodies like barrels thumping against our door with all their might. They weren’t the least bit bothered by our arrival, but went on banging the door with a furious show of force. We thought, not unreasonably – and I especially– that they were robbers, and desperate ones at that. In a trice I freed my sword from the folds of my cloak, where I’d hidden it for just such an emergency, rushed at them, without hesitation, and plunged the blade into each of them in turn, right to the hilt, until perforated with wound after gaping wound, they gurgled out their last breath at my feet.

So much for the brawl, meanwhile dear Photis woken by the row had opened the door. I crawled inside breathing heavily and bathed in sweat and, at once, as befitted a man worn out by battling with thieves in the manner of Hercules’ slaying tri-formed Geryon, I surrendered to bed and sleep.