“The head . . . proclaimed these verses”: Another (ancient) ghoulish story for halloween

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, '“The head . . . proclaimed these verses”: Another (ancient) ghoulish story for halloween,' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=191.

Last Hallow’s eve I related an ancient ghost story from Phlegon’s Book of Marvels: A ghost story (from Phlegon): Bouplagos stood up from among the dead (Bou!). Now it’s time for another scary one. (For other “marvels” related by Phlegon also see my posts here and here.)

Once again in relation to battles between Rome and the Hellenistic (Greek) kings, Phlegon relates an ominous story of fateful predictions regarding Rome’s armies. Receiving warning messages from the gods themselves, Publius, a general in the Roman army, “began to rave and behave in a deranged manner, making many utterances in a state of divine possession, of which some were in verse and some in prose” (Book of Marvels 3.8). In essence, again and again these messages are that Rome better watch out! The Greeks, with the assistance of their gods, will make the Romans suffer for their incursions into Greek territories.

These inauspicious warnings to the Romans from one of their own (but really from the Greek gods) culminate in Publius climbing an oak tree and uttering the following: “Romans and other soldiers, it falls to me to die and be devoured by a huge red wolf on this very day. . . take the imminent appearance of the beast and my own destruction as proof that I have spoken by divine intimation”(3.13).

No sooner had he uttered this (apparent) final prophecy before the wolf showed up, “ripped him open and devoured him while everyone looked on. . . [The wolf] consumed his body except for his head”. His head survived for good reason, for there was one more divine message in verse to come from the bodiless head:

“Touch not my head. . . But stop
And listen to the prophecy by means of which I shall declare the truth to you.
To this land there will come a great and powerful Ares [Greek god of war],
Who will dispatch the armed folk to Hades [Greek god of the dead] in the darkness below and
Shatter the stone towers and the long walls.
Seizing our wealth, our infant children, and our wives
He will bring them to Asia, crossing over the waves.
These sure truths Phoibos Apollo [Greek god of oracles] has spoken to you,
The Pythian [Apollo], who sent his powerful servant and
Led me to the abode of the blessed and of Persephone [wife of Hades].”

Time to smarten up and listen to the Greek gods, you Romans! It’s not everyday that a decapitated head talks like this, you know.   (Translations are from W. Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles’ Book of Marvels [Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1996]).


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