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Walking dead

photo credit: Wikipedia

Ancient Greek parents had the right to expose a newborn child. Poor families with too many children, parents who only wanted sons, or girls who had been raped may not have been inclined to raise the child. Rather than killing the hapless newborn, they opted to expose it in a much-frequented place, in the hope that someone else would find it and protect it. The story of Oedipus is perhaps the most famous example of this mentality.

But there were also cases of abnormal children whose birth affected the entire community. A teras (monster) constituted an ominous sign from the gods. The state would attempt to eject it from the city territory, but without killing or burying it. A murdered teras could become a harmful and angry spirit eager to avenge its violent death. If the abnormal child was buried, it would return to the earth intact and might be reborn in the same form. The solution to the problem of an unnatural birth required much careful thinking, as evidenced by a report provided by Phlegon of Tralles, a freedman of Emperor Hadrian who wrote On Marvels, a compilation of sensational (and supposedly true) stories.

The hermaphrodite

Polycritus was a citizen of Aetolia and was elected aetolarch for a period of three years by the people on account of his virtue. During his time in office, he married a woman from Locris, a region to the east of Aetolia. Unfortunately, the couple only got to spend three nights together, for on the fourth night Polycritus died. Nine months later the widow gave birth to a child who had two sets of genitals; the upper portion was hard and masculine, whereas the lower part was soft and feminine. The child was a hermaphrodite, a deviation from nature that ushered into a whole series of bizarre events.

When public opinion runs wild

The relatives of Polycritus brought the child to the agora and called a general assembly of the people. They also summoned sacrificers and diviners to deliberate on what they should do. The astonishment was general and the offered opinions differed wildly. Some claimed that the child was a portent of war to come among the Aetolians and the Locrians since the infant was descendant from two different lineages. Others argued that both mother and child should be taken beyond the frontiers of Aetolia and burned to death, supposedly on the assumption that being consumed by flames while still alive is not really murder and therefore there is no chance that the child will come back furious and vindictive.

Zombie in a hurry

In the midst of these deliberations, Polycritus suddenly appeared. He had been dead for nine months and yet there he was, standing before the assembly, dressed in black. Many people tried to flee, while others were stricken with amazement and terror. The specter approached the child and addressed the citizens of Aetolia with a weak voice, informing them that the gods of the underworld had listened to his pleas and had allowed him to return among the living to save his child.

He called upon them to hand over to him the infant in order “that no violence takes place as a result of [their] reaching some other decision and that [their] hostility towards [him] not be the beginning of difficult and harsh troubles”. If the diviners were mad and wanted to burn the child, he would not allow them to do so. He also asked his compatriots to hurry up and make a decision for “those who rule beneath the earth” would not permit him to linger much longer.

Nutritious meal

When Polycritus was finished, the citizens were even more baffled than before. Some wanted to hand the baby over, while others were reluctant to do so and called for more deliberations. Polycritus, pressed for time, threatened them with serious trouble on account of their procrastination and their willingness to harm his child. Despite these direct threats from a zombie, the people continued arguing, at which point Polycritus decided he had had enough. He took hold of the infant, pushed the men back and tore it hastily limb from limb. Then he devoured the body of his child except for the head. The Aetolians threw stones at him, but to no avail. When the ghastly meal was over, Polycritus disappeared, leaving the child’s head lying on the ground.

Talking head

This series of unfortunate and bizarre events was obviously far too baffling for the good people of Aetolia. Divine help was in order, so they decided to send a delegation to Delphi. But the head of the child decided to spare them the trouble of an arduous journey and began to foretell the future. He told them not to visit the sanctuary of Phoebus for their hands were unclean from the blood. Death had been ordained for all of them and a bloody drizzle was going to be poured on their heads; women would grieve forever and no children would grow in the houses where their fathers were mourned. They should expose the head of the child to the rising dawn and then abandon their land.

The Aetolians headed the advice of the talking head and sent their wives, children and the elderly away. But the men stayed behind and awaited the impending disaster. Which begs the question of why a group of supposedly rational adults would refuse to listen to the words of a talking head that survived being consumed by a man who came back from the dead. In any case, the prophecy was soon fulfilled. The Aetolians went to war with the Acarnanians (their neighbors to the west) and suffered great destruction.