In the city-state of Aetolia on the north coast of the Gulf of Corinth there lived a man called Polykritos. He was a man of good standing, of noble blood, and well-like by all the citizens. One year the people (i.e. the men) of Aetolia voted him their leader. During his term of office he married a girl from the neighbouring Locrian community, but after just three nights Polykritos died leaving his young bride pregnant.
Nine months later the young widow gave birth to a healthy baby. However, the birth caused a good deal of fear in the Aetolians for the baby was born with both female and male genitalia, the baby was intersex. In ancient Greek societies an intersex baby, or hermaphrodite, as they would say, was a sign of bad luck.
Polykritos’s family took the baby to the agora, the city square, where they had called for a meeting of all the citizens and priests. The assembly debated and argued about what to do about the baby. Some people were worried that taking the baby away from its Locrian mother might cause a deterioration of the friendly relations between the Locrians and Aetolians. The priests said that both the mother and baby should be taken far away and burnt to death like an animal sacrifice.
As they were still debating a dark phantom appeared. It was the ghost of Polykritos.
The crown recoiled in terror and began to run away, but the ghost called out to them, “Don’t be afraid.” It took a little while for the crown to settle down but they were still a bit frightened. The apparition spoke again:
“Citizens. Although I am dead, because of the goodwill I feel towards you I have appealed to the masters of the underworld to let me come and help you. I beg you, hand over my child to me so that no violence will come to it. I won’t let you harm my child as the priests demand. I can understand that my appearance has frightened you and caused some confusion, but if you do as I ask all fears will be removed and you’ll be saved from any disaster as a result. If you come to another decision your distrust of me will only result in disaster. I’m telling you this for your own good. So, don’t wait, make the right decision and give me my child now, because the masters of the underworld won’t let me stay here much longer.”
After a stunned silence the crowd began discussing Polykritos’s plea. Some suggested that they hand over the baby straight away. Others thought that they needed more time to think about it, but Polykritos’s ghost could wait not longer. “Okay, don’t blame me for what happens next”, it said, and with that the ghost picked up the baby and without waring began tearing the child’s arms and legs out of their sockets and ripping at its body. The ghost then ate the bleeding flesh.
The crowd stared in horror and tried to stop the ghost by throwing stones at it, but they went straight through it. Then, as suddenly as it appeared, the ghost vanished. All that was left of the baby was its head, lying in a pool of blood on the ground.
The crowd didn’t know what to do next. Perhaps they should go to consult the oracle at Delphi. Before they could discuss it further the baby’s head began to speak.
“You cannot go to the oracle because your hands are steeped in blood” the head said. “I will tell you what the oracle will foretell. One year from today death will come to everyone in this place. The offspring of Aetolians and Locrians will live together, but there will be no escape from the evil to come. A rain of blood will fall upon you and the gods will render your descendants inglorious.” The head told the crowd to leave the city if they wanted to live. The women, children and elderly were sent away leaving the men behind to await their fate.
One year later the remaining Aetolians fought a battle against their rivals to the west, the Akarnanians. Very few Aetolians survived.
I’m not much of a storyteller, I know, but I hope you found this tale nice and spooky enough for Hallowe’en. But what are we to make of it? Was it real?
The story comes from a 2nd century work by Phlegon of Tralles called “The Book of Marvels” (“Rebus Mirabilus”). Books about marvels, trivia and lists were all the rage in Phlegon’s lifetime. Phlegon himself wrote three – his Book of Marvels, a history of ancient Olympians, and a book on the longest lived humans in history. Modern scholars have given this sort of ancient trivia mania a name – paradoxography.
Modern popular culture still has a fascination for unusual and trivial facts and there are many books, and especially YouTube channels, on the subject. They are all copying what the ancient writers did a couple of thousand years ago.
So, who was Phlegon of Thralles anyway? He wasn’t a historian. He was a freedman, a former slave of the gay Roman Emperor Hadrian. He must have been fairly intelligent and literate to be able to read and write several books. But that doesn’t tell us if the story of Polykritos and the talking baby’s head was true. Phlegon said he got the story from an earlier writer called Hieron of Ephesus. A later account of the story adds that Hieron wrote about the ghostly encounter in a letter to King Antigonus of Macedonia, a contemporary of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC.
Scholars aren’t even sure where Hieron of Ephesus got the story from in the first place, and in the later account which mentioned the letter it is claimed that Hieron was even an eye-witness to the grisly affair. In the end it may all have been ancient urban legend or folk tale which Phlegon believed to have been true, something else which is also a feature of modern popular culture. What ever it’s ultimate origin the two surviving accounts serve as a gruesome and ghostly tale for any Hallowe’en party.