Widow of Ephesus in the Satyricon  

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The Widow of Ephesus is part of the Satyricon by Petronius

Eumolpus tells the story of a widow of Ephesus. At first she planned to starve herself to death in her husband's tomb, but she was seduced by a soldier guarding crucified corpses, and when one of these was stolen she offered the corpse of her husband as a replacement (110-112).

Full text

translated by W. C. Firebaugh

"There was a certain married lady at Ephesus, once upon a time, so noted for her chastity that she even drew women from the neighboring states to come to gaze upon her! When she carried out her husband she was by no means content to comply with the conventional custom and follow the funeral cortege with her hair down, beating her naked breast in sight of the onlookers! She followed the corpse, even into the tomb; and when the body had been placed in the vault, in accordance with the Greek custom, she began to stand vigil over it, weeping day and night! Neither parents nor relations could divert her from punishing herself in this manner and from bringing on death by starvation. The magistrates, the last resort, were rebuffed and went away, and the lady, mourned by all as an unusual example, dragged through the fifth day without nourishment. A most faithful maid was in attendance upon the poor woman; she either wept in company with the afflicted one or replenished the lamp which was placed in the vault, as the occasion required. Throughout the whole city there was but one opinion, men of every calling agreed that here shone the one solitary example of chastity and of love! In the meantime the governor of the province had ordered some robbers crucified near the little vault in which the lady was bewailing her recent loss. On the following night, a soldier who was standing guard over the crosses for fear someone might drag down one of the bodies for burial, saw a light shining brightly among the tombs, and heard the sobs of someone grieving. A weakness common to mankind made him curious to know who was there and what was going on, so he descended into the tomb and, catching sight of a most beautiful woman, he stood still, afraid at first that it was some apparition or spirit from the infernal regions; but he finally comprehended the true state of affairs as his eye took in the corpse lying there, and as he noted the tears and the face lacerated by the finger-nails, he understood that the lady was unable to endure the loss of the dear departed. He then brought his own scanty ration into the vault and exhorted the sobbing mourner not to persevere in useless grief, or rend her bosom with unavailing sobs; the same end awaited us all, the same last resting place: and other platitudes by which anguished minds are recalled to sanity. But oblivious to sympathy, she beat and lacerated her bosom more vehemently than before and, tearing out her hair, she strewed it upon the breast of the corpse. Notwithstanding this, the soldier would not leave off, but persisted in exhorting the unfortunate lady to eat, until the maid, seduced by the smell of the wine, I suppose, was herself overcome and stretched out her hand to receive the bounty of their host. Refreshed by food and drink, she then began to attack the obstinacy of her mistress. 'What good will it do you to die of hunger?' she asked, 'or to bury yourself alive'? Or to surrender an uncondemned spirit before the fates demand it? 'Think you the ashes or sepultured dead can feel aught of thy woe! Would you recall the dead from the reluctant fates? Why not shake off this womanish weakness and enjoy the blessings of light while you can? The very corpse lying there ought to convince you that your duty is to live!' When pressed to eat or to live, no one listens unwillingly, and the lady, thirsty after an abstinence of several days, finally permitted her obstinacy to be overcome; nor did she take her fill of nourishment with less avidity than had the maid who had surrendered first."

"But to make a long story short, you know the temptations that beset a full stomach: the soldier laid siege to her virtue with the selfsame blandishments by which he had persuaded her that she ought to live. Nor, to her modest eye, did the young man seem uncouth or wanting in address. The maid pled in his behalf and kept repeating:

   Why will you fight with a passion that to you is pleasure,
   Remembering not in whose lands you are taking your leisure?

"But why should I keep you longer in suspense? The lady observed the same abstinence when it came to this part of her body, and the victorious soldier won both of his objectives; so they lay together, not only that night, in which they pledged their vows, but also the next, and even the third, shutting the doors of the vault, of course, so that anyone, acquaintance or stranger, coming to the tomb, would be convinced that this most virtuous of wives had expired upon the body of her husband. As for the soldier, so delighted was he with the beauty of his mistress and the secrecy of the intrigue, that he purchased all the delicacies his pay permitted and smuggled them into the vault as soon as darkness fell. Meanwhile, the parents of one of the crucified criminals, observing the laxness of the watch, dragged the hanging corpse down at night and performed the last rite. The soldier was hoodwinked while absent from his post of duty, and when on the following day he caught sight of one of the crosses without its corpse, he was in terror of punishment and explained to the lady what had taken place: He would await no sentence of court-martial, but would punish his neglect of duty with his own sword! Let her prepare a place for one about to die, let that fatal vault serve both the lover and the husband! 'Not that,' cried out the lady, no less merciful than chaste, 'the gods forbid that I should look at the same time upon the corpses of the two men dearest to me; I would rather hang the dead than slay the living!' So saying, she gave orders for the body of her husband to be lifted out of the coffin and fastened upon the vacant cross! The soldier availed himself of the expedient suggested by this very ingenious lady and next day everyone wondered how a dead man had found his way to the cross!"



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