Sagae Thessalae: the witches of Thessaly

OCR GCSE Latin Set Text 2023 and 2024

Sagae Thesselae (the Witches of Thessaly) is an adapted story from the mid 2nd century, published in the Cambridge Latin Anthology. The original story comes from our only complete surviving example of a Roman novel. Its formal title was Metamorphoses (Transformations) but it was most commonly known by its nickname, Asinus Aureus (The Golden Ass: the word “golden” is used in a metaphorical sense and could also be translated as “remarkable” or “miraculous”).

The novel was written by Lucius Apuleius and tells the story of a character, also called Lucius, whose fascination with magic results in his unfortunate transformation into an ass. Apuleius seems to have had his own brushes with magic, as he was accused (and acquitted) of using sorcery to attract the romantic attentions of a wealthy widow named Pudentilla. Apuelius was widely travelled, spending much of his life in Carthage in North Africa, where he became a chief priest. He was known for his neoplatonic philosophical writings, as well as for his famous novel.

In the novel, Lucius suffers many trials and humiliations in his transformed state, and the story explores themes of animal cruelty not often addressed in the ancient world. Lucius is ultimately converted back into a human by the goddess Isis, of whom he then becomes a devotee. A blend of humour, adventure, magic and susperstition in what was an unusual and emergent genre in the ancient world, The Golden Ass remains one of the most influential novels in Western literature.

The selected section for the OCR GCSE prescription sees Lucius in his original human form and takes place prior to his asinine transformation. The text is a story within a story, and indeed forms one of several such tales, strung together in what was known in the ancient world as a Milesian discourse – a collection of fables or anecdotes from traditional popular storytelling, embellished for an educated audience.

At our point in the text, Lucius is travelling through Thessaly, in northern Greece. By chance he meets a lady called Byrrhaena, who invites him to a banquet, where Lucius is asked what he thinks of Thessaly. Lucius replies that he is impressed by the region, but is worried by stories he has heard about the local witches, who are apparently in the habit of cutting pieces of flesh from corpses. One of the guests points to a man hidden away at a table in the corner of the room, saying that he has suffered this very fate while still alive. The man, whose name is Thelyphron, is urged by Byrrhaena to tell Lucius his story, and he reluctantly agrees.

As a young man, Thehyphron, found himself in Thessaly and short on cash. In a fit of youthful arrogance or perhaps desperation, he took on the task of watching over a corpse in return for money, but during the night he fell asleep under the influence of the witches’ magic spells. On awakening, all seemed to be well with the corpse and Thelyphron felt great relief. However, in a sub-plot thrown in to add colour, the corpse’s widow is accused of adultery and of causing his death and a necromancer is brought in to animate the body so that it can give testimony; the deceased is reluctantly awakened and reports (along with his wife’s guilt) that Thelyphron himself has been mutilated during the night. Only at this point does Thelyphron realise that he has indeed lost his nose and his ears, which were removed by the witches and replaced by imitations moulded from wax.

It is interesting to ponder what Apuleius’ purpose was in writing his novel, especially given our knowledge of his life and his other work. Many have argued that the book forms a set of warnings against meddling in magic; neoplatonic writers certainly saw a clear distinction between what they termed “magic” or “sorcery” and their belief in the workings of the gods. If Apuleius were a true neoplatonist he was probably very suspicious of spells and sorcery. The fact that he was accused of these very acts but successfully defended himself against the charge suggests that he was perhaps interested in the field and may well have studied the difference between sorcery and the emergent practice of theurgy, which came to influence the thinking of neoplatonic commentators in the later Roman empire. To us, from the outside, the rituals would look very much the same; but neoplatonists believed that theurgy was very different from magic.

In terms of an approach to the GCSE set text, students’ priorities will be to understand the meaning of the Latin (which is relatively simple and contains only one or two contrusctions that are beyond the GCSE language specification) and to learn the translation thoroughly. This they can do by making use of my flashcards on Quizlet, although if their teacher has provided them with a translation to learn they may wish to take a copy of the cards and edit them according to their teacher’s wording to avoid confusion.

I have provided my students with a colour-coded text. My version is based on an original produced by another Classics teacher named Mark Wilmore (whose outstanding resources I have made tremendous use of over the years whenever I could lay my hands on them), but I have adapted both the translation and the colour-coding according my own preferences. I have kept his original excellent idea of marking historic present verbs with an asterisk – this alerts students to the fact that the translation will be different from what they might expect (the historic present is not part of the language specification at GCSE level), and it also helps them from the outset to earmark and learn some aspects of the text that will be very useful to them when it comes to the syle questions.

The idea of the colour-coding is to help students to identify how the English translation relates to the Latin, but this can be further improved by the use of the flashcards. I encourage students to use the flashcards in a two-stage proces. Firstly, they should work through the flashcards in order, stating out loud the English translation that matches with the Latin on the card before flipping it to check. They should do this repeatedely until the process is easy. Once they are fully confident with it, they should then shuffle the deck: being able to quote the translation of any section at random is the point where they have truly mastered the text and its translation.

Author: Emma Williams

Latin tutor with 21 years' experience in the classroom. Outstanding track record with student attainment and progress.

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