Petronius Arbiter


Part VIII: Priapic moments

Landscape with the Education of Bacchus

‘Landscape with the Education of Bacchus’
Francesco Zuccarelli, 1702 - 1778
The Getty | Open Content Program

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2018 All Rights Reserved

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133: A prayer to Priapus

There is nothing more erroneous than a man’s foolish convictions, nor more foolish than sham severity. When I had finished talking to myself, I summoned Giton and said: ‘Tell me dear, on your honour: that night when Ascyltos took you from me, did he stay awake till he’d had you, or was he content with a chaste and lonely night? The lad pressed his eyelids and swore a most formal oath that Ascyltos had used no force. I knelt at the threshold, and prayed to that god who had turned away from me, Priapus:

‘Companion of Bacchus and the Nymphs, to whom lovely

Dione gave power over the woodland, whom famed Lesbos

and green Thasos obey, whom gold-bearing Lydia worships,

whose temple you sited in your very own city of Hypaepa:

be with me, O protector of Bacchus, delight of the Dryads,

and hear my humble prayer. I do not come to you stained

with dark blood, I’ve not laid hands like some vile enemy

on your shrine, but when I was poor, oppressed with want,

I committed sin, yet not with my whole body: less guilty

he who commits a sin when he’s poor. Here’s my prayer:

unburden my spirit, and forgive the lightest of offences

and, whenever some hour of good fortune smiles on me,

I’ll not suffer your glory to go unhonoured. Sacred one,

a horned goat, shall see your altars, the sire of the herd,

and a sow’s suckling brood of squealers too, in sacrifice.

You’ll know this year’s vintage, and all the young men,

tipsy, will tread thrice round your sanctuary, joyously.’

As I was praying, and making ingenious plans regarding how to take care of my promise, the old crone, Proselenos, in ugly black clothes and with straggling hair, entered the shrine and, laying hands on me, dragged me out of the porch.

134: Oenothea priestess of Priapus

Proselenos cried: ‘What witches have squandered your strength, what foulness or corpse have you trodden on by night at the crossroads? You’ve never spared yourself since you were a lad, no doubt, but weak and tender, tired as a pack-horse on a slope, you’ve wasted your effort and sweat. Not content with offending yourself, you’ve roused the gods’ anger against me!’ And she led me, unresisting, into the priestess’ room once more, threw me onto the bed, snatched a cane from beside the door, and when I remained unresponsive beat me again. If the cane hadn’t snapped at the first stroke and lessened the force of the blow, she might even have broken my head or my arm. I groaned out loud on account of my manhandling, and shed tears copiously, leaning against the pillow, with my right arm covering my head. Troubled, she wept no less, and sitting on another part of the bed, she proceeded to condemn the tardiness of old age in a tremulous voice, until the priestess entered.

‘Why come to my room as if it were an open tomb,’ she said, ‘especially on a festive day, when even mourners smile?’ ‘O,’ she replied, ‘Oenothea, this lad you see was born under an evil star; he can’t sell what he has to boy or girl. You’ve never met so unfortunate a young man: it’s a bit of wash-leather not a prick. What, indeed, can one say of a man who could rise from Circe’s couch without taking his pleasure?’ Hearing this Oenothea sat down between us, shook her head for a while, and said: ‘I’m the only one who knows how to cure that affliction. And lest you think it’s too complicated to manage, I propose the young man should sleep with me at night, and see if I don’t render the thing more rigid than horn:

‘Whatever you see on earth obeys me. When I wish,

the flowery turf faints and withers, the juices drying,

when I wish, it pours riches, and crags and boulders

spurt water like the Nile. The sea quietens its waves,

listless before me, the winds silently lay their gales

at my feet. The rivers obey me, the Hyrcanian tiger,

and the serpents that I command to rear up and hiss.

And why not greater still? The moon’s disc I draw

down to me by my spells, the anxious sun I compel

to wheel his fiery team, forced to reverse his course.

Such is the power of words. The angry bull is calm,

quietened by a virgin’s rites; Circe, child of the sun,

transforms Ulysses’ crew with magical incantations;

Proteus takes what form he will. And I, cunning in

such arts, can plant Mount Ida’s thickets in the sea,

or drive great rivers back to their mountain sources.’

135: Preparations for the ritual

Horrified by such wondrous claims, I proceeded to gaze at the woman cautiously. ‘Now,’ cried Oenothea, ‘obey my orders!’ and cleansing her hands scrupulously she leant over the bed and kissed me once and then again. Then she set up a table in the centre of the altar-top, which she covered with live coals and, with warm pitch, repaired a wooden wine-cup cracked with age. Then she drove a nail, which had come loose when she took the cup down, back into the smoke-blackened wall. Next she donned a square wrap, placed a giant cooking-pot on the hearth and, from a meat-hook, took down a bag holding a supply of broad beans and half a pig’s head hewn into a thousand mouldy fragments. Loosening the drawstring, she poured a pile of broad beans onto the table, and told me to shell them carefully. I obeyed orders and, with delicate touch, parted the beans from the lowly pods that held them. But she, reproaching me wickedly for my lack of skill, snatched them from me, swiftly tore the pods with her teeth and spat them on the ground like the empty husks of flies.

I gazed around, marvelling at the devices of poverty, and the artistry displayed by each and every thing:

‘No Indian ivory, set in gold, gleamed here,

nor did the earth, her gifts scorned, shine

with trodden marble, but the empty ground

of Ceres’ sacred grove was set with willow

hurdles, with clay cups turned on the wheel.

Here the soft lime-wood bowl, pliant plates

of willow-bark, and there a wine-stained jug.

And the walls around, made of humble straw

and the clay to hand, with rows of rough nails,

and hanging there the slender stalks of rushes.

Their little cottage’s smoke-blackened rafters

held their stores, ripe sorb-berries hung there

in fragrant woven wreaths, and dried savoury

and bunches of raisins; such a hostess here as

once in Athens: Hecale, worthy of reverence,

whom the Muse bequeathed to every age of

eloquence to admire, in Callimachus’ verse.’

136-137: The death of the goose

Meanwhile Proselenos was gathering up bits of meat, and as she was replacing the bag, containing the pork as ancient as her, on the meat-hook, the stool she was standing on, to gain height, broke, and the old hag’s weight sent her tumbling into the coals. The cooking-pot broke at the neck, and put out the fire which was just beginning to burn. A glowing brand scorched her elbow and her whole face was covered with scattered ashes. I leapt up in alarm and lifted her back onto her feet, though not without a smile. Oenothea ran off immediately to the neighbours to fetch some coals, lest the ritual was delayed.

The old hag was out, and I was at the door of the house, when behold, three sacred geese, who I suppose were used to getting their daily feed from her at noon, rushed at me, and gathered round me, as I trembled, honking madly. One tore at my tunic, another untied the strings of my sandals, and dragged them off,; the third, the ringleader, and chief of these savages, even chose to attack my shin with his rough bill. So, oblivious to trifles, I wrenched a leg from the little table and began hammering the ferocious creature with the weapon in my hand. Not content with this perfunctory blow, I took revenge with the death of the goose:

‘So, I think, the Stymphalian birds might have fled,

driven, by Hercules’ use of cunning, into the sky;

so, the Harpies, dripping vileness, when that table

baited with food by Phineus ran with their venom:

the air above trembling, shaken by strange shrieks,

and all the courts of heaven thrown into disarray.’

The remaining geese had already picked up the beans, spilt and scattered all over the floor and, with their leader gone, returned, I suppose, to the shrine, while I, proud of my spoils and my victory, threw the dead goose behind the bed, and bathed the wound on my shin, which was not too deep, with vinegar. Then, fearful of reproaches, I planned my escape, collected my gear, and started to leave the house. I’d not yet quitted the room when I glimpsed Oenothea striding back with a pot of live coals. So I retreated, threw off my coat, and stood in the entrance as though I’d been awaiting her return all along.

She made up the fire with a heap of dead reeds and, piling on some dry wood, began to apologise for her delay, saying that her friend would not let her go without draining the usual three glasses. ‘And what did you do, while I was gone,’ she asked, ‘and where are the beans?’ Thinking I might have achieved something worthy of praise, I described the whole of my fight, in detail, and lest she prove distressed for long I produced the goose to offset the losses. When she saw the bird, she raised so great an outcry, you’d have thought the geese were back. Troubled and amazed at the strangeness of it being thought a crime, I asked why she was in a temper, and why she’d more sympathy for the goose than for me. But, beating her hands together, she cried: ‘You wicked wretch, you dare to speak? Don’t you realise the deadful sin you’ve committed: you’ve killed Priapus’ darling bird, the goose all wives welcome. Don’t think what you’ve done is trivial, if the magistrate finds out, you’re for crucifixion. You’ve defiled my house, inviolate till today, with blood, and as for me, any enemy of mine who wishes, can turn me out of the priesthood.’ ‘Please don’t shout,’ I replied, ‘I’ll get  you an ostrich to replace the goose.’

While I stood stupefied, and Oenothea sat on the bed, bewailing the goose’s fate, Proselenos entered with things for the ritual and, seeing the dead goose and ascertaining the cause, began to weep vehemently, and pity me as if I’d killed my own father instead of a common or garden goose. So tired and weary I said: ‘Please let me wash my hands of this by paying; it’s as if I’d provoked  you, or even done murder. Look, here’s two gold pieces, you can buy a goose and reimburse the god with that.’ Oenothea, on seeing the money, said: ‘Young man, forgive me for being distressed because of you. It’s a matter of anxiety, not ill-will. We must try our best to keep the matter  secret. Only, beg the gods to pardon your actions.’

‘Whoever has cash, sails before the wind,

and governs good-fortune as he pleases.

Let him wed Danae, he could command

Acrisius himself to trust him, like Danae.

Let him write verse, declaim, snap his

fingers then win his cases, outdo Cato:

let him have his ‘proven, not proven’

in court, and be a Servius or a Labeo.

Enough: desire what you will, money

brings it: your purse has Jove’s power.’

Oenothea positioned a wine-jar beneath my hands, then rubbed my outstretched fingers with leeks and celery stalks and dropped hazelnuts into the wine, while muttering a charm. She drew her readings from them, according to whether they floated to the surface or sank. I didn’t fail to notice however that the empty nuts without a kernel, full of air, rose to the surface, while the ripe ones, full of the fruit, fell to the bottom!

Next she cut the goose open, extracted the extremely fatty liver, and from it prophesied my future. Moreover, to remove all trace of the crime, she ran a spit through the goose, and prepared a fine meal, which I ate heartily, though, as she said, I’d seemed at death’s door only a moment ago, while the cups of pure wine flowed swiftly amongst us.  

138-139: Encolpius is anointed, but escapes

Next, Oenothea drew out a leather phallus, dipped it in oil, ground pepper and bruised nettle seeds, and proceeded to insert it gradually into my anus. The old crone, Proselenos sprinkled my thighs with the mixture, most cruelly and, drenching my loins with the juice of nasturtiums mixed with artemisia, took a handful of green nettles and began to gently lash everything below my navel…

Leaping up, I ran for it. Though the poor old things were drunk on wine and wilfulness, they took the same road, and pursued me, as I fled, through several streets crying; ‘Stop, thief!’ yet I escaped, feet bloody from my headlong flight.

Back home, I said to myself: ‘Chrysis, who scorned your fate, previously, will follow you now even at the risk of her life. What beauty did Ariadne or Leda have to rival hers? What might Helen or Venus have to match her? Paris himself, who judged between the goddesses, would have sacrificed Helen and all the goddesses for her, if his eager gaze had viewed her beside them. If only I were allowed to kiss her, if I could embrace those divine and heavenly breasts, perhaps my body would regain its vigour, and the parts, as I believe, lulled by venom, might return to normal. May no insult tire me: let me forget my floggings, and think it fine sport to be sent packing. Only let her be kind once more.’ And I plagued the bed with tossing to and fro, as if I sought the image of my love.

‘The powers that be, and implacable fate, cannot

pursue me alone. Hercules, before me, was driven

from the Inachian shore, he bore the sky’s weight;

Laomedon suffered the unholy wrath of two gods;

Pelias knew Hera’s; Telephus fought unknowingly;

and Ulysses went in fear of Poseidon’s wide realm:

just as the heavy anger of Priapus pursues me, now,

through all the earth, and over hoary Nereus’ waters.’

I now proceeded to enquire of Giton, if anyone had asked for me. ‘No one, today,’ he answered, ‘but yesterday a not inelegant lady came in at the door, and spoke at me for a long time until I was weary of her accusatory tone; finally, she proceeded to say that if the injured party persevered with their complaint, you would merit punishment and be tortured like a slave.’ I had not yet finished making plaintive noises, when Chrysis entered, took me in her arms warmly, and cried: ‘Now I have you, as I wished; you are my desire, you will never quench this fire except with my blood.’

It was at this point that one of Eumolpus’ new slaves suddenly appeared saying their master was furious because I had been absent from duty for two days, and the best thing I might do was to prepare to some fitting excuse, or his wild anger would scarcely abate without a flogging for me.

But I explained myself to Eumolpus, saying: ‘There are greater powers, and they’ve restored me to wholeness. For Mercury, who guides souls to Hades and back again, has granted me those blessings again that his anger took away, so know that I am now more favoured than Protesilaus, or any other of the ancients.’ At this, I lifted my tunic, and offered myself complete for Eumolpus’ approbation. He was in awe, at first, then, in order to credit it, he felt the god’s blessing all over with both hands.   

140: Philomela and Eumolpus

There was a married woman, of the highest respectability, named Philomela, who, by years of attentiveness, had been in the habit of extorting legacies, but now, being old and past her prime, frequently pressed her son and daughter on childless old men hoping to continue the practice of her art through her children.

She therefore visited Eumolpus, to commend both them, herself, and all her hopes, to his wisdom and kindness, he being, of a certainty, the only person in the whole world who could instruct the young people in sound principles each day. In short she would leave her children in his household, to listen to his discourse, the only inheritance she could leave them. Nor did she stray from her word; leaving her most beautiful daughter and the brother, already a young man, behind, she departed, under the pretence of going to the temple to pay formal thanks.

Eumolpus, who was so intemperate that even I might seem to him a child, did not hesitate to introduce the girl to the rites of sodomy. But, since he always told everyone he was gouty and had weak loins, if he could not maintain the pretence intact he ran the risk of almost ruining the plot. So to establish belief in his deceit, he persuaded the girl to settle down on top of this ‘excellent thing he recommended’, and ordering Corax to climb into the bed in which he was himself lying and place his hands on the floor, to set his master in motion with his loins. Corax obeyed the order in slow motion, rewarding the girl’s efforts with an equivalent action. When the business seemed close to being accomplished, Eumolpus, in a loud tone, exhorted Corax to intensify the action. Thus situated between the paid-servant and the girl, the older man pleasured himself while oscillating up and down. This Eumolpus did time and again, to huge laughter, including his own.

I too, not to lose the habit through idleness, approached her brother as he was gazing at his sister and her human automata, to see if he was open to assault. This cleverest of lads did not run away from my flatteries, but, alas, some inimical power visited me in this situation also…

141: Eumolpus’ promise

I said: ‘Eumolpus, that ship from Africa, you promised, with your money and slaves has not arrived. The fortune-hunters are weary, and their generosity is diminishing. Either I’m mistaken, therefore, or our mutual good fortune is about to turn again to regret. ‘Socrates,’ he replied, ‘that friend of gods and men used to boast that he had never so much as glanced at the market-place, nor allowed his eyes to rest on any substantial gathering. Indeed nothing is more proper than to converse perpetually with wisdom.’ ‘All very true,’ I said, ‘and no one deserves to incur ill-fortune more than those who covet other’s wealth. But how would imposters or thieves make a living if they failed to bestow little boxes and purses jingling with coins on the crowd as bait? Just as dumb animals are snared with food, human beings will not be caught unless they have a morsel of expectation to feed on.’

‘Well,’ Eumolpus answered, ‘all those who stand to gain a legacy under my will, except my freedmen, will receive what I grant them, though on one condition, that they cut my body up, and consume it in front of the populace. We know that among some nations this rule is still observed, that dead people shall be eaten by their relatives, with the result that people who are ill are often blamed for marring the taste of their own flesh. I therefore warn my friends not to ignore what I command, but to consume my body with the same spirit as they curse my soul.’ His great reputation for wealth dulled the eyes and minds of poor fools. Gorgias was ready to follow his plan for the funeral.

Eumolpus told him: ‘I’m not afraid of your stomach revolting, it will obey orders if you promise to repay it with plenty of good things for one hour of unpleasantness. Simply shut your eyes and imagine you’re eating ten thousand gold pieces and not human innards. Added to which, we shall find some sauce or other to modify the taste. For no flesh is naturally pleasing, it has to be dressed with art, and reconciled to the unwilling digestion. But if you’d like precedents for my intention, the people of Saguntum when besieged by Hannibal, ate flesh, without anticipating a legacy. The residents of Petelia did the same, in the extremities of famine, and had no profit from their diet, except that of banishing hunger. And when Numantia was taken by Scipio Aemilianus some mothers were found clutching the half-consumed bodies of their children to their breast…

The end of the extant Satyricon