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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