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Erichtho






When Sextus sought Erichtho he chose his time in the depth of the night,
when the sun is at its lowermost distance from the upper sky. He took
for companions the associates of his crimes. Wandering among broken
graves and crumbling sepulchres, they discovered her, sitting sublime on
a ragged rock, where Mount Haemus stretches its roots to the Pharsalic
field. She was mumbling charms of the Magi and the magical gods. For she
feared that the war might yet be transferred to other than the Emathian
fields. The sorceress was busy therefore enchanting the soil of
Philippi, and scattering on its surface the juice of potent herbs, that
it might be heaped with carcasses of the dead, and saturated with their
blood, that Macedon, and not Italy, might receive the bodies of departed
kings and the bones of the noble, and might be amply peopled with the
shades of men. Her choicest labour was as to the earth where should be
deposited the prostrate Pompey, or the limbs of the mighty Caesar.

Sextus approached, and bespoke her thus: "Oh, glory of Haemonia, that
hast the power to divulge the fates of men, or canst turn aside fate
itself from its prescribed course, I pray thee to exercise thy gift in
disclosing events to come. Not the meanest of the Roman race am I, the
offspring of an illustrious chieftain, lord of the world in the one
case, or in the other the destined heir to my father's calamity. I stand
on a tremendous and giddy height: snatch me from this posture of doubt;
let me not blindly rush on, and blindly fall; extort this secret from
the gods, or force the dead to confess what they know."

To whom the Thessalian crone replied: "If you asked to change the fate
of an individual, though it were to restore an old man, decrepit with
age, to vigorous youth, I could comply; but to break the eternal chain
of causes and consequences exceeds even our power. You seek, however,
only a foreknowledge of events to come, and you shall be gratified.
Meanwhile it were best, where slaughter has afforded so ample a field,
to select the body of one newly deceased, and whose flexible organs
shall be yet capable of speech, not with lineaments already hardened in
the sun."

Saying thus, Erichtho proceeded (having first with her art made the
night itself more dark, and involved her head in a pitchy cloud), to
explore the field, and examine one by one the bodies of the unburied
dead. As she approached, the wolves fled before her, and the birds of
prey, unwillingly sheathing their talons, abandoned their repast, while
the Thessalian witch, searching into the vital parts of the frames
before her, at length fixed on one whose lungs were uninjured, and whose
organs of speech had sustained no wound. The fate of many hung in doubt,
till she had made her selection. Had the revival of whole armies been
her will, armies would have stood up obedient to her bidding. She passed
a hook beneath the jaw of the selected one, and, fastening it to a cord,
dragged him along over rocks and stones, till she reached a cave,
overhung by a projecting ridge. A gloomy fissure in the ground was
there, of a depth almost reaching to the infernal gods, where the
yew-tree spread thick its horizontal branches, at all times excluding
the light of the sun. Fearful and withering shade was there, and noisome
slime cherished by the livelong night. The air was heavy and flagging as
that of the Taenarian promontory; and hither the god of hell permits his
ghosts to extend their wanderings. It is doubtful whether the sorceress
called up the dead to attend her here, or herself descended to the
abodes of Pluto. She put on a fearful and variegated robe; she covered
her face with her dishevelled hair, and bound her brow with a wreath of
vipers.

Meanwhile she observed Sextus afraid, with his eyes fixed on the ground,
and his companions trembling; and thus she reproached them. "Lay aside,"
she said, "your vainly-conceived terrors! You shall behold only a living
and a human figure, whose accents you may listen to with perfect
security. If this alarms you, what would you say if you should have seen
the Stygian lakes, and the shores burning with sulphur unconsumed, if
the Furies stood before you, and Cerberus with his mane of vipers, and
the Giants chained in eternal adamant? Yet all these you might have
witnessed unharmed; for all these would quail at the terror of my brow."

She spoke, and next plied the dead body with her arts. She supples his
wounds, and infuses fresh blood into his veins: she frees his scars from
the clotted gore, and penetrates them with froth from the moon. She
mixes whatever nature has engendered in its most fearful caprices, foam
from the jaws of a mad dog, the entrails of the lynx, the backbone of
the hyena, and the marrow of a stag that had dieted on serpents, the
sinews of the remora, and the eyes of a dragon, the eggs of the eagle,
the flying serpent of Arabia, the viper that guards the pearl in the Red
Sea, the slough of the hooded snake, and the ashes that remain when the
phoenix has been consumed. To these she adds all venom that has a
name, the foliage of herbs over which she has sung her charms, and on
which she had voided her rheum as they grew.

At length she chants her incantation to the Stygian Gods, in a voice
compounded of all discords, and altogether alien to human organs. It
resembles at once the barking of a dog and the howl of a wolf; it
consists of the hooting of the screech-owl, the yelling of a ravenous
wild beast, and the fearful hiss of a serpent. It borrows somewhat from
the roar of tempestuous waves, the hollow rushing of the winds among the
branches of the forest, and the tremendous crash of deafening thunder.

"Ye Furies," she cries, "and dreadful Styx, ye sufferings of the damned,
and Chaos, for ever eager to destroy the fair harmony of worlds, and
thou, Pluto, condemned, to an eternity of ungrateful existence, Hell,
and Elysium, of which no Thessalian witch shall partake, Proserpine, for
ever cut off from thy health-giving mother, and horrid Hecate, Cerberus
curst with incessant hunger, ye Destinies, and Charon endlessly
murmuring at the task I impose of bringing back the dead again to the
land of the living, hear me!--if I call on you with a voice sufficiently
impious and abominable, if I have never sung this chaunt, unsated with
human gore, if I have frequently laid on your altars the fruit of the
pregnant mother, bathing its contents with the reeking brain, if I have
placed on a dish before you the head and entrails of an infant on the
point to be born----

"I ask not of you a ghost, already a tenant of the Tartarean abodes, and
long familiarised to the shades below, but one who has recently quitted
the light of day, and who yet hovers over the mouth of hell; let him
hear these incantations, and immediately after descend to his destined
place! Let him articulate suitable omens to the son of his general,
having so late been himself a soldier of the great Pompey! Do this, as
you love the very sound and rumour of a civil war!"

Saying this, behold, the ghost of the dead man stood erect before her,
trembling at the view of his own unanimated limbs, and loth to enter
again the confines of his wonted prison. He shrinks to invest himself
with the gored bosom, and the fibres from which death had separated him.
Unhappy wretch, to whom death had not given the privilege to die!
Erichtho, impatient at the unlooked-for delay, lashes the unmoving
corpse with one of her serpents. She calls anew on the powers of hell,
and threatens to pronounce the dreadful name, which cannot be
articulated without consequences never to be thought of, nor without the
direst necessity to be ventured upon.

At length the congealed blood becomes liquid and warm; it oozes from the
wounds, and creeps steadily along the veins and the members; the fibres
are called into action beneath the gelid breast, and the nerves once
more become instinct with life. Life and death are there at once. The
arteries beat; the muscles are braced; the body raises itself, not by
degrees, but at a single impulse, and stands erect. The eyelids unclose.
The countenance is not that of a living subject, but of the dead. The
paleness of the complexion, the rigidity of the lines, remain; and he
looks about with an unmeaning stare, but utters no sound. He waits on
the potent enchantress.

"Speak!" said she, "and ample shall be your reward. You shall not again
be subject to the art of the magician. I will commit your members to
such a sepulchre; I will burn your form with such wood, and will chaunt
such a charm over your funeral pyre, that all incantations shall
thereafter assail you in vain. Be it enough, that you have once been
brought back to life! Tripods, and the voice of oracles deal in
ambiguous responses; but the voice of the dead is perspicuous and
certain to him who receives it with an unshrinking spirit. Spare not!
Give names to things; give places a clear designation, speak with a full
and articulate voice."

Saying this, she added a further spell, qualified to give to him who was
to answer, a distinct knowledge of that respecting which he was about to
be consulted. He accordingly delivers the responses demanded of him;
and, that done, earnestly requires of the witch to be dismissed. Herbs
and magic rites are necessary, that the corpse may be again unanimated,
and the spirit never more be liable to be recalled to the realms of day.
The sorceress constructs the funeral pile; the dead man places himself
upon it; Erichtho applies the torch, and the charm is ended for ever.





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Previous: Sertorius And His Hind



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