It’s that time of year. Shadows are lengthening, the air is growing colder, and unknown monsters are lurking about. Soon neighborhoods will be filled with the raucous ramblings of zombies, ghosts, and witches. Today I’d like to share some ways that you can bring some frightful festivities into your classroom! And, if you read all the way until the end, O indefatigible reader, I offer a chance at a CANE Press prize.
The Greeks and Romans loved scary stories just like we do. Perhaps the most famous is Pliny the Younger’s tale of Athenodorus confronting a ghost haunting his Athenian home (Letters 7.27). You can find this in many places, but my favorite is an annotated version in Ecce Romani Scriptores. But that is only one tale in that letter; there are three other weird stories contained within, including a pair of spectral barbers. Another curious tale also provides inspiration for students of the Ecce Romani series; told by Chrysippus, it tells of a murdered man’s ghost seeking justice. While the original is Greek and found in a fragment by Aelian, I found a nice Latin version in H. J. Haedy’s A Latin Reader for the Lower Forms in Schools (search for Chrysippus refert apud Megaream).
If it’s not ghosts but witches you’re interested in, Apuleius is your source for an excellent tale of stolen body parts and shape-changing crones. Often called Thelyphron’s Tale, it’s been published as a comic book under the name Custos Cadaveris. Good luck getting one, since it’s out of print, but you’ll have better luck in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. The Cambridge School Classics Project has an online version with word-clickable definitions and includes a number of extra resources to explore. The Golden Ass is generally a great source for stories of witches and the supernatural – my other favorite is Aristomenes’ Tale, about witches who replace the eponymous tale teller’s heart with a sponge in revenge for spurned love.
Lucan, although his Latin is both difficult and gruesome, is the source of a particularly rich story of Sextus Pompey’s supposed approach to the witch Erictho as he tries to learn the future events of the civil war. See A. Zithos’ great website exploring Lucan and necromancy, including many Latin citations for your reading pleasure and possible inspiration for a student project.
Don’t forget about the Middle Ages, either. Monks seemed particularly imaginative when discussing all things supernatural. John de Alta Silva, a 13th century Cistercian monk, tells a terrible tale about a bandit’s experience with cannibal witches in his Dolopathos, Sive de Rege et Septem Sapientes. I’d suggest finding a copy of Ecce Romani Scriptores, which also has this story annotated for easy reading.
William of Newburgh (Willelmus Parvus) has perhaps the first stories in extant Latin of the walking dead in his Historia Rerum Anglicarum (see Book 5, Chapters 22-24, starting at p. 182). Here’s a slightly truncated example from Chapter 23 –
Ibi quidam vir pecuniosus sed pessimus, post fata sepultus, operatione ut creditur Sathanae, noctibus egrediebatur ex tumulo et, canum cum ingenti latratu prosequente turba, huc illucque ferebatur et multo cunctis accolis terrore incusso ante lucem tumulo reddebatur.
Good stuff, right? I’ll always thank Ken Kitchell, my advisor, mentor, and friend, for clueing me into the magic and wonder of Medieval Latin.
Some Halloween Activities
In my own classes I ask students to come up with a list of Halloween related vocabulary; you can be sure that sagae, vespertiliones, cadavera, sepulchra, cucurbitae, sanguisugae, umbrae daemones, nocte accidit caliginosa obscuraque, et ita porro are high on the list. I ask them to create their own story, inspired both by this vocabulary and by the ancient/medieval stories we read. They then huddle around with flashlights in darkened rooms and try to terrify one another.
Making monsters is always good fun, and it’s a great way to teach adjectives, body parts, and genitives/ablatives of description.
The Roman holiday of the dead, the Lemuria, happens in May (Ovid claims it makes sense, since Maius is related to Maiores…), but why not do a ceremony in October instead? Students need black beans to throw over their shoulders, and could go barefoot for authenticity, while reciting the ancient warding incantation ‘haec ego mitto, his’ inquit ‘redimo meque meosque fabis‘ 9 times and holding their thumb between their fingers. See Fasti 5.422ff. for details!
Finally, monumenta. Students could create a little graveyard, possibly commemmorating a loved one, or perhaps themselves as a momento mori. A quick trip to the Boston MFA or local churches and graveyards will provide lots of exempla to draw from.
Do you do anything special for Halloween? Tell us about it by posting what you do below and we’ll enter you into a drawing for a lovely CANE Calendar. The deadline is Halloween, of course!