Werewolf Week Continues: A Ghost Story from Petronius

Earlier this week we saw how Plato makes being a tyrant equivalent to a type of lycanthropy. The Romans were also into that kind of thing. One of our oldest werewolf tales comes from Petronius’ Satyricon (61-62):

“Trimalchio turned to Niceros and said: “You used to be more pleasant company—I don’t know why you are now so quiet and subdued. If you want to make me happy, please tell us what happened to you.

Niceros, excited at his friend’s request, replied: “May all profit escape me, if I cannot deflate your joy—when I see how you are. Nevertheless, may happiness be ours, even if I am afraid that these scholars will laugh at me. Let them look on: I will tell the story nonetheless, what difference is it to me? It is better to tell a joke than be one.”

werewolf

Once he had uttered these words, he began the following tale:

‘When I was a slave, we were living in a narrow street where the home of Gavus is now. There is was where the gods decided I would fall in love with the wife of Terence the Innkeeper. You do remember Melissa from Tarentum—that most beautiful little package? By god, I loved her less for her body and sexcapades than I did for her fine morals. She didn’t deny me anything I sought. She made a penny, I got half! I put everything I had into her lap, and I was never cheated.

Her husband passed away at the inn one day. As you can imagine, I risked Skylla and Charybdis so I could get to her: for, as they say, Friends are present in times of need.

By chance, my master was visiting Capua in pursuit of some business. I took my chance and compelled a guest to accompany me to the fifth milestone. He was a soldier and as strong as Orcus. We blundered off around the time of the cock’s crow while the moon was shining as bright as midday. We went among the graves and my friend went among the stones to defecate. I sat singing and counting gravemarkers. And then, as I looked for my companion, he appeared and placed all his clothes near the road.

My breath nearly jumped out my nose—I was standing like a corpse. But he pissed around his clothes and suddenly became a wolf! Don’t you dare imagine I am joking, that I am lying. I make up nothing for such an inheritance as this! But, back to what I started to say, after he turned into a wolf, he began to howl and fled into the forest. At first, I didn’t remember where I was: then I went to gather up his clothes, but they had transformed into stones! What could I do but die from fear?

I drew my sword and struck all the shadows before me until I made it to my girlfriend’s home. I entered as pale as a ghost with sweat rushing down to my groin, my eyes nearly dead. I could hardly regain myself. My Melissa was at first surprised because I had gone out so late. And then she said “I wish you had come earlier, you could have helped us: a wolf entered the house and loosed more blood from the ship than a butcher! He escaped, but he didn’t laugh: an older slave tore his throat with a spear.”

Once I heard these words, I could not sleep any longer. At first light I fled the home of Gaius like an angry landlord. But once I came to the place where his clothing had turned into stone, I found nothing but blood. Honestly, I went home and my soldier was lying like a bull on his bed as a doctor was tending to his neck. I knew that he was a shapeshifter* then, and I wouldn’t have been able to share a meal with him even if you threatened to kill me. Let these men believe what they want about this, but if I am lying, let the gods hate me.”

*”shapeshifter”: Latin, versipellis (lit. “pelt-changer”) is used several times for form-changing in Latin literature. Often, this example and that of Pliny EN 8.80 (cf. LSJ s.v.) are translated as “werewolf”. I chose the more general sense.

[LXI] … Trimalchio ad Nicerotem respexit et: “Solebas, inquit, suavius esse in convictu; nescio quid nunc taces nec muttis. Oro te, sic felicem me videas, narra illud quod tibi usu venit.” Niceros delectatus affabilitate amici: “Omne me, inquit, lucrum transeat, nisi iam dudum gaudimonio dissilio, quod te talem video. Itaque hilaria mera sint, etsi timeo istos scolasticos ne me rideant. Viderint: narrabo tamen, quid enim mihi aufert, qui ridet? satius est rideri quam derideri.”

Haec ubi dicta dedit talem fabulam exorsus est:

“Cum adhuc servirem, habitabamus in vico angusto; nunc Gavillae domus est. Ibi, quomodo dii volunt, amare coepi uxorem Terentii coponis: noveratis Melissam Tarentinam, pulcherrimum bacciballum. Sed ego non mehercules corporaliter aut propter res venerias curavi, sed magis quod benemoria fuit. Si quid ab illa petii, nunquam mihi negatum; fecit assem, semissem habui; in illius sinum demandavi, nec unquam fefellitus sum. Huius contubernalis ad villam supremum diem obiit. Itaque per scutum per ocream egi aginavi, quemadmodum ad illam pervenirem: nam, ut aiunt, in angustiis amici apparent.
[LXII] “Forte dominus Capuae exierat ad scruta scita expedienda. Nactus ego occasionem persuadeo hospitem nostrum, ut mecum ad quintum miliarium veniat. Erat autem miles, fortis tanquam Orcus. Apoculamus nos circa gallicinia; luna lucebat tanquam meridie. Venimus inter monimenta: homo meus coepit ad stelas facere; sedeo ego cantabundus et stelas numero. Deinde ut respexi ad comitem, ille exuit se et omnia vestimenta secundum viam posuit. Mihi anima in naso esse; stabam tanquam mortuus. At ille circumminxit vestimenta sua, et subito lupus factus est. Nolite me iocari putare; ut mentiar, nullius patrimonium tanti facio. Sed, quod coeperam dicere, postquam lupus factus est, ululare coepit et in silvas fugit. Ego primitus nesciebam ubi essem; deinde accessi, ut vestimenta eius tollerem: illa autem lapidea facta sunt. Qui mori timore nisi ego? Gladium tamen strinxi et umbras cecidi, donec ad villam amicae meae pervenirem. In larvam intravi, paene animam ebullivi, sudor mihi per bifurcum volabat, oculi mortui; vix unquam refectus sum. Melissa mea mirari coepit, quod tam sero ambularem, et: ‘Si ante, inquit, venisses, saltem nobis adiutasses; lupus enim villam intravit et omnia pecora tanquam lanius sanguinem illis misit. Nec tamen derisit, etiamsi fugit; senius enim noster lancea collum eius traiecit’. Haec ut audivi, operire oculos amplius non potui, sed luce clara Gai nostri domum fugi tanquam copo compilatus; et postquam veni in illum locum, in quo lapidea vestimenta erant facta, nihil inveni nisi sanguinem. Vt vero domum veni, iacebat miles meus in lecto tanquam bovis, et collum illius medicus curabat. Intellexi illum versipellem esse, nec postea cum illo panem gustare potui, non si me occidisses. Viderint quid de hoc alii exopinissent; ego si mentior, genios vestros iratos habeam.”

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