Wednesday, 30 October 2013

The Bride of Corinth: A Ghost Story from the 2nd Century AD

"A youth to Corinth, whilst the city slumbered,
Came from Athens: though a stranger there,
Soon among its townsmen to be numbered,
For a bride awaits him, young and fair.
From their childhoods' years
They were plighted feres,
So contracted by their parents' care. ...

... All the house is hushed; - to rest retreated
Father, daughters - not the mother quite;
She the guest with cordial welcome greeted,
Led him to a room with tapers bright;
Wine and food she brought,
Ere of them he thought,
Then departed with a fair good-night. ..."

The verses above are translated from Goethe's poem, Die Braut von Korinth (in Volume 9 of Nathan Haskell's 19th Century English edition of his collected works), but the story Goethe tells is a much older one, originally collected by Phlegon of Tralles (a freedman of the Emperor Hadrian) in the 2nd Century AD. It is, perhaps, the oldest surviving ghost story in the European literary tradition.

The opening of Phlegon's story is missing, but its sense is clear enough. What follows is my own free re-telling of it.


The young man, Machates, exhausted by his travels, had little appetite for the food and wine left by his prospective mother-in-law, Charito. Still fully clothed, he lay down on his bed and fell asleep. He was awoken during the night by a creaking of the door and, by the glow of the waning lamp placed beside his bed, he saw a young girl at the door, in a white dress and with a black and gold band around her forehead.

"I am sorry," said the maiden. "Nobody told me that we had a guest. I will leave you to sleep."

But Machates, enchanted by her beauty, had risen to his feet. "Please stay," he insisted. "There is wine and food that we can share. My name is Machates. I think we are betrothed."

The damsel smiled at him. "I am Philinnion," she said, sitting down on the bed beside him.

Machates poured a cup of wine and handed it to her. She drank eagerly from it, then handed it to him. Merely to place his lips where hers had been sent him into a rapture of ecstasy. He offered her bread and olives, but she said she was not hungry. They talked late into the night. Suddenly she placed her finger to his lips. There was a rustling outside the bedroom door. "One of the slaves must have heard us," she whispered in his ear. They held each other in a silent embrace. Through a chink in the door, they saw the light of two lamps. When they had gone, and the rustling ceased, Philinnion stood up.

"My parents should not know of my visit to you," she insisted. "For they deserve the honour of introducing us." She took a silk scarf from her bosom and wrapped it around his neck, and a gold ring from her finger, which she placed on his. He went to his chest and took out a silver cup, a family heirloom from the time of the Divine Augustus. He presented it to her, along with an iron ring from his own hand. She asked if she might take with her a lock of his hair. He reached for his razor and cut one for her. "I will come to you again tomorrow evening," she whispered. Bidding him good night, she slipped quietly out of the door, anxious not to wake her parents or their slaves.

When he awoke in the morning, he placed the scarf and the ring in his travelling chest, and was about to go downstairs. There was a knock on the door, and Charito entered with two of her maids. Charito gestured to one of them. "Fortunata heard you talking to a woman last night," she said. "I must ask you who it was."

Machates blushed. "It was your daughter," he admitted. "My betrothed. I swear by all the gods that I laid not a hand on her. We merely introduced ourselves and supped together."

"Did she tell you her name?" Charito asked.

"Philinnion," he replied.

He watched as Charito turned quickly to Fortunata, both womens' mouths falling open, gazing at each other at each other, dumbstruck.

"Philinnion is not your betrothed," said the other slave. "It is to her sister you are plighted."

Charito started wailing and tearing at her hair. The two slaves ushered her from his room. He began to wonder if he had entered the house of a mad woman.

All that day, Machates wandered in the garden, catching not a glimpse either of Philinnion or her un-named sister. At noon he fetched a writing tablet and stylus from his room, and sat down at the foot of a pear tree to write a letter to his father, telling of his love for Philinnion, and asking that the arrangements be changed so that he could marry her.

After he had retired for the evening, Philinnion came to him again, as she had promised, and climbed into bed with him. He took her in his arms and made love to her with passion. But they were disturbed by a sharp rap on the door. Charito entered with her husband, Demostratus. They gazed in astonishment at their daughter.

                                    Edvard Munch, "The Vampire."

"How dare you defile your sister's marriage bed?" Charito shrieked. "You have no right even to be here."

Machates put a protective arm around he shoulder, but she shook him off and stood to face her parents.

"Mother and Father," she said, calmly. "You are both cruel and unjust, that you begrudge me just three nights of love, here beneath my father's roof. Now, because of your busy curiosity, you shall be made once again to mourn. But for me, I return to my appointed place, for you cannot think that I came here without the assistance of the gods."

Philinnion, having spoken, collapsed onto the bed. Machates felt for her pulse, found none, and realised that her flesh was cold. He stared up at her parents. "What have you done?" he cried. "You have killed your daughter with your words."

"Words cannot kill," Demostratus insisted. "And you saw for yourself that neither I nor her mother laid hands on her. In any case, how could we kill her, when we ourselves have buried her these six months since?"

Distraught, Machates spent the morning in the garden, whilst Demostratus's male servants searched the family vault. Fortunata sought him out and told him that all of the bodies had been found in their allotted places, with the exception of Philinnion's. "These were found where that had lain," she added, handing him the iron ring and silver cup that he had given to his dead lover when they had first met.

Grave-stone of a Roman girl of the 2nd Century AD, from Virunum, Austria. Photo: O. Harl (licensed under CCA).

Machates ran from the house and through the streets of Corinth until he came to a steep wooded slope. He climbed it, and there looked down on the city. He watched as the body of Philinnion was carried to be cremated outside the walls of Corinth. As the smoke rose from the pyre of her second funeral, he heard her voice call to him. Unwilling to live without her, he took his dagger from his belt and fell upon it.

Grave-stone of a Roman girl from Stallhofen, Austria. Photo: O. Harl (licensed under CCA).


Goethe adds a twist to the tale, which is not there in Phlegon's original. In his telling of it, Demostratus and Charito are Christians, whilst Machates and his family are Pagans. With her last undead words, Philinnion rejects the faith of her parents:

"Mother, to this final prayer give ear!
Let a funeral pyre be straightway dress'd;
Open then my cell so sad and drear,
That the flames may give the lovers rest!

When ascends the fire
From the glowing pyre,
To the gods of old we'll hasten, blest."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed ShoresAn Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. A sad tale! Though, an enjoyable post. ;-)

  2. Sad, beautiful and I wish I had heard of this before! To think that ghost stories of that kind have been around that long. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Beautifully told, Mark. Thank you for sharing this.

  4. Very well told and very accurate to the original pagan lore of old. Although, I do remember the original ending had a little bit more to it. Otherwise PERFECT!

  5. I'd never heard this legend before. Thank you for introducing me to it.

  6. Saw the reference to it in the pdf page 190 of the excellent "Memoirs of Hadrian" by Marguerite Yourcenar. Thanks for having the original here. I believe the Sumerians had something like ghost stories too; these ideas go way back.

  7. Yes, indeed, that's one of my favourite novels of all time.