previous next

These sinful rites and these her sister's songs
Abhorred Erichtho, fiercest of the race,
Spurned for their piety, and yet viler art
Practised in novel form. To her no home
Beneath a sheltering roof-her direful head
Thus to lay down were crime: deserted tombs
Her dwelling-place, from which, darling of hell,
She dragged the dead. Nor life nor gods forbad
But that she knew the secret homes of Styx
And learned to hear the whispered voice of ghosts
At dread mysterious meetings.1 Never sun
Shed his pure light upon that haggard cheek
Pale with the pallor of the shades, nor looked
Upon those locks unkempt that crowned her brow.
In starless nights of tempest crept the hag
Out from her tomb to seize the levin bolt;
Treading the harvest with accursed foot
She burned the fruitful growth, and with her breath
Poisoned the air else pure. No prayer she breathed
Nor supplication to the gods, nor knew
The pulse of entrails : logs from flaming pyres
She loves to cast on altars of the gods,
And incense pilfered from the smoking tomb.
The gods at her first utterance grant her prayer
For things unlawful, lest they hear again
Its fearful accents: men whose limbs were quick
With vital power she thrust within the grave
Despite the fates who owed them years to come:
The funeral reversed brought from the tomb
Those who were dead no longer; and the pyre
Yields to her shameless clutch still smoking dust
And bones enkindled, torches which but now
Some grieving father held, and fragments mixed
In sable smoke and ceremental cloths
Singed with the redolent fire that burned the dead.
But those who lie within a stony cell
Untouched by fire, whose dried and mummied frames
No longer know corruption, limb by limb
Venting her rage she tears, the bloodless eyes
Drags from their cavities, and mauls the nail
Upon the withered hand: she gnaws the noose
By which some wretch has died, and from the tree
Drags down a pendent corpse, its members torn
Asunder to the winds: forth from the palms
Wrenches the iron, and from the unbending bond
Hangs by her teeth, and with her hands collects
The slimy gore which drips upon the limbs.
Where lay a corpse upon the naked earth
On ravening birds and beasts of prey the hag
Kept watch, nor marred by knife or hand her spoil,
Till on his victim seized some nightly wolf; 2
Then dragged the morsel from his thirsty fangs;
Nor fears she murder, if some banquet fell
Need blood fresh issued from the gaping throat,
Or panting entrail. By unnatural means
Wombs yield to her the infant to be placed
On glowing altars: and whene'er she needs
Some fierce undaunted ghost, he fails not her
Who has all deaths in use. Her hand has chased
From smiling cheeks the rosy bloom of life;
And with sinister hand from dying youth
Has shorn the fatal lock: and holding oft
In foul embraces some departed friend
Severed the head, and through the ghastly lips,
Held by her own apart, some impious tale
Dark with mysterious horror hath conveyed
Down to the darkness of the Stygian shades.
When Sextus first, through rumours of the place,
Heard of the hag, what time beneath the earth
Titan was wheeling at full height, and here
Night in mid course, in quest of her he trod
Through desert fields. Meanwhile a faithful band,
His ministers of guilt, mid tombs and vaults
All ruined wandering, beheld the witch
Seated afar upon a lofty crag
Where Haemus reaches out Pharsalian spurs.3
There was she proving for her gods and priests
Of magic, words unknown, and framing chants
Of dire and novel purpose : for she feared
Lest Mars should stray into another world,
And spare Thessalian soil the blood ere long
To flow in torrents; and thus she forbade
Philippi's field, polluted with her song,
Thick with her poisonous distilments sown,
To let the war pass by. Such deaths, she hopes,
Soon shall be hers! the blood of all the world
Shed for her use! to her it shall be given
To sever from their trunks the heads of kings,
Plunder the ashes of the noble dead,
Italia's bravest, and in triumph add
The mightiest warriors to her host of shades.
This her sole toil, from Magnus' tombless corse
What she may snatch, on which of Caesar's limbs
Her grasp may fasten.
To whom the coward son
Of Magnus thus: 'Thou greatest ornament
Of Haemon's daughters, in whose power it lies
Or to reveal the fates, or from its course
'To turn the future, be it mine to know
'By thy sure utterance to what final end
'Fortune now guides the issue. Not the least
'Of all the Roman host on yonder plain
Am I, but Magnus' most illustrious son,
Lord of the world or heir to death and doom.
'The unknown affrights me: I can firmly face
The certain terror. Bid my destiny
Yield to thy power the dark and hidden end,
And let me fall foreknowing. From the gods
Extort the truth, or, if thou spare the gods,
Force it from hell itself. Fling back the gates
That bar th' Elysian fields; let Death confess
'Whom from our ranks he seeks. No humble task
I bring, but worthy of Erichtho's skill
Of such a struggle fought for such a prize
To search and tell the issue.'
Then the witch
Pleased that her impious fame was noised abroad
Thus made her answer : 'If some lesser fates
'Thy wish had been to change, against their wish
'It had been easy to compel the gods
'To its accomplishment. My art has power
When of one man the constellations press
The speedy death, to compass a delay;.
And mine it is, though every star decrees
A ripe old age, by mystic herbs to shear
The life midway. But should some purpose set
From the beginning of the universe,
And all the labouring fortunes of mankind,
'Be brought in question, then Thessalian art
'Bows to the power supreme. But if thou be
Content to know the issue pre-ordained,
'Simple the task and plain; for earth and air
And sea and space and Rhodopaean crags
'Shall speak the future. Yet it easiest seems
Where death in these Thessalian fields abounds 4
'To raise a single corpse. From dead men's lips
Scarce cold, in fuller accents falls the voice;
Not from some mummied frame in accents shrill
Uncertain to the ear.'

1 Coetus audire silentum. To be present at the meetings of the dead and hear their voices. So, in the sixth AEneid, the dead Greek warriors in feeble tones endeavour to express their fright at the appearance of the Trojan hero (lines 492, 493).

2 'As if that piece were sweeter which the wolf had bitten.' Note to'The Masque of Queens,' in which the first hag says:

I have been all day, looking after
A raven feeding on a quarter,
And soon as she turned her beak to the south
I snatched this morsel out of her mouth.'

Ben Jonson.
But more probably the meaning is that the wolf's bite gave the flesh magical efficacy.

3 Confusing Pharsalia with Philippi. (See line 685.)

4 The poet fills the plain with dead before the battle is fought.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Philippi (Greece) (2)
Italy (Italy) (1)
Haemus (1)

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide References (1 total)
  • Cross-references to this page (1):
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: