widow of Ephesus story in three retellings

widow of Ephesus

Combining sex, crime, and outrage, the widow of Ephesus story has been at the sweet spot of communicative attention for at least two millennia. The widow of Ephesus mourned her husband in continual vigil at his grave. One day, she encountered there a soldier. He had been given responsibility for guarding the dead bodies of criminals hanging crucified. The widow and the soldier fell in love. They began having sex in her husband’s sepulcher. While the soldier was engaged with the widow, someone stole a criminal’s body from a cross. The soldier faced charges of neglect of duty. The widow rescued the soldier by having her husband’s body raised on the cross to replace the lost body of the criminal. Like rape and poisoning on a college campus, this sort of story makes news.

Among fables attributed to Phaedrus from about two millennia ago, the widow of Ephesus story warned of the madness of carnal passion. The Phaedrus retelling described the soldier falling madly in love after a glimpse of the widow within her husband’s sepulcher:

The soldier espied through the slightly open
Door a lady, a dream of loveliness.
Immediately, the man became madly enamored,
Possessed by a passion impossible to control. [1]

When the soldier found a criminal’s body missing, he was fearful and despondent. The widow, his lover, responded calmly and dispassionately:

And this paragon of wives said, “There’s one way
To save you. Don’t be afraid.” And she gave him
Her husband’s corpse to hoist on the cross,
So rescuing him from the penalty due for his default.

The fable of the widow of Ephesus ends with an epimythium describing moral disorder:

Thus dishonor usurped the place of righteous praise. [2]

Rather than continuing her praiseworthy grieving for her husband, the widow of Ephesus entered a dishonorable relationship with the soldier and treated her husband’s body dishonorably.

In Lamentationes Matheoluli, a thirteenth-century masterpiece of men’s sexed protest, Matheolus’s anger at his abusive wife strongly colored his retelling of the widow of Ephesus story. In Matheolus’s version, a knight merely offered the widow words of consolation within the philosophical tradition of consolation.[3] After the criminal’s body had been stolen, the widow propositioned the desperate knight. She offered to rescue him in exchange for his promising to marry her. The knight agreed. The widow then dragged her husband’s corpse from the grave and hung it on the cross. When the knight pointed out that her husband’s head lacked the two wounds that were on the criminal’s head, the wife bashed her husband’s head to create similar wounds. The knight, outraged, reneged on his promise to marry the widow. He declared:

I’d rather lose my skin than be married to you. For what you did, in justice, you deserve to be burned. [4]

In Phaedrus’s fable, the widow and the soldier secured their shared personal interests against the social order. In Lamentationes Matheoluli, the knight defended the social order in condemning the widow for seeking her personal love interests.

In the Satyricon, probably from the first century, the widow of Ephesus story is sophisticated literary entertainment. The soldier in the Satyricon version seduced the widow. Facing charges for neglect of duty, he prepared to commit suicide:

But the woman’s sense of pity matched her chastity. “The gods must not allow me,” she said, “to gaze on the two corpses of the men I hold most dear. I would rather surrender the dead than slay the living. She followed up this declaration with an instruction to remove her husband’s corpse from the coffin, and to have it fastened to the vacant cross. The soldier took advantage of the ingenious idea of this most thoughtful of women, and the next day the locals speculated on how a dead man had managed to mount the cross. [5]

To appreciate the sophistication, consider carefully: “the widow’s sense of pity matched her chastity.” The widow lacked chastity. She similarly lacked pity for her husband’s dead body. But is pity relevant to a dead body? The widow had pity on the soldier facing punishment for dereliction. That’s meaningful pity. The claim that the widow’s pity matched her chastity has multiple levels of irony.

The ending of the story is also ironic. The locals, speculating on how a dead man had mounted the cross, apparently recognized the body of the widow’s husband. That means the corpse substitution failed to obscure the soldier’s dereliction. The “ingenious idea of this most thoughtful of women” appears laughably foolish. A stolen, crucified body leading to a miraculous mounting of a cross also suggests parody of the Christian gospel:

Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, “… come down from the cross.” … {after Jesus’s death and burial} some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” [6]

The widow of Ephesus story in the Satyricon emphasizes public spectacle. The story itself is a virtuoso display of rhetorical skill.

The widow of Ephesus story shows the imperatives of the living trumping respect for the dead. The exacting science of philology works to provide accurate transmission and understanding of texts. Philology deserves respect. Yet philology isn’t sufficient for lively humanities. Retelling stories in one’s own interests propagates life in literature.[7]

*  *  *  *  *

Read more:


[1] Phaedrus, “The Widow and the Soldier,” Perotti’s Appendix, No. 15, from Latin trans. Widdows (1992) pp. 151. The subsequent quote is from id., p. 152. Here’s the Latin text with an alternate prose translation into English. Konstan (2015) documents that in ancient Greece, beauty (kállos) was associated with sexual desire.

[2] My translation of sic turpitudo laudis obsedit locum. Id., p. 152, has “Thus was decency defeated by dishonor.”

[3] The European Middle Ages lacked the mass army of soldiers that the Roman Empire had. In Matheolus’s version, a knight replaced the soldier. Moreover, in Matheolus’s version, the widow had been a poor chambermaid before she married her husband, a knight. Marrying up made her a lady. Matheolus’s version thus adds a twist of class disparagement.

[4] Lamentationes Matheoluli, l. 850-1, Klein, Rubel & Schmitt (2014) p. 109 or Van Hamel (1892) p. 62, my translation of the Latin. The full story of the widow of Ephesus is l. 823-851. The story is referenced again in l. 2717-20. The knight’s concluding rejection of the widow occurs in an earlier version in the Seven Sages / Sindibad corpus. Lacy (1967) p. 36, Van Hamel (1892) v. 2, pp. 160-3 (pdf pages 726-30). For an English translation the widow of Ephesus story from Jehan Le Févre’s Old French translation of the Lamentationes Matheoluli, Blamires, Pratt & Marx (1992) pp. 185-6.

[5] Satyricon, s. 112, from Latin trans. Walsh (1996) p. 104, with some minor changes for clarity. Eumolpus the poet tells the story. The widow’s maid quotes to her Virgil, Aeneid 4.34. That’s rich parody. McGlathery (1998) pp. 323-9. The Satyricon Latin for “the woman’s sense of pity matched her chastity” is mulier non minus misericors quam pudica. John of Salisbury in his Policraticus (written about 1159) incorporated nearly verbatim the Satyricon text of the widow of Ephesus story. See Policraticus, Bk. 8, Ch. 11, Webb (1909), Vol. 2, pp. 301-4.

[6] Matthew 27:39-40, 28:11-15.

[7] Other retellings of the widow of Ephesus story have survived. Moretti (2013) interprets the story of Drusiana in the Apocryphal Acts of the apostle John as a response to stories like that of the widow of Ephesus. Hrotsvit drew on the story of Drusiana for her work Drusiana and Calimachus. The fabliau Celle qui se fist foutre sur la fosse de son mari (La femme au tombeau) is a variant of the seduction portion of the widow of Ephesus story. Ibn Zabara included a variant in the Book of Delight, written in Hebrew about 1200. For an English translation, Abrahams (1894) pp. 516-7. More generally, the story is Arne-Thompson type 1510 and motif K2213.1 in the Stith-Thompson categorization. For other related stories, see D.L. Ashliman, “Widows in (short-lived) mourning.”

A collection of Aesop’s fables put into Latin elegiac verses by Gualterus Anglicus {Walter of England} in the second half of the twelfth century includes a version of the tale of the widow of Ephesus. This version ends with a strong, general statement of men’s sexed protest:

Woman alone oppresses men living and dead with fear and pain;
Woman’s work does not end well.

{ Sola premit vivosque metu penaque sepultos
Femina: femineum nil bene finit opus. }

Gualterus Anglicus, De viro et uxore {Of the husband and wife}, Fable 48, Latin text from Aesopica, English trans. Pepin (1999) p. 204. Since Gualterus Anglicus’s Aesop collection became one of the Auctores octo {Eight authors} of the medieval school curriculum, it was widely disseminated and read in the late Middle Ages.

[image] Widow of Ephesus pulling her husband’s body from its coffin and hanging it on a cross. Engraving, from image 32 in edition of Jehan le Fèvre, Matheolus qui nous monstre sans varier les biens & aussi les vertus: qui viennent pour soy marier (Lyon: Olivier Arnouillet, 1550), in Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon, Rés. B 487656. Thanks to Gallica.


Abrahams, Israel. 1894. “Joseph Zabara and His Book of Delight.” The Jewish Quarterly Review. 6 (3): 502-532.  Augmented version, without notes, in Abrahams, Israel. 1912. The book of delight, and other papers. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Blamires, Alcuin, Karen Pratt, and C. William Marx. 1992. Men Impugned, Woman Defamed and Woman Defended: an anthology of medieval texts. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Klein, Thomas, Thomas Rubel, and Alfred Schmitt, eds. 2014. Lamentationes Matheoluli. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann.

Konstan, David. 2015. Beauty: the fortunes of an ancient Greek idea. New York: Oxford University Press.

Lacy, Norris J. 1967. La femme au tombeau: anonymous fabliau of the thirteenth century. Ph. D. Dissertation. Indiana University.

McGlathery, Daniel B. 1998. “Petronius’ Tale of the Widow of Ephesus and Bakhtin’s Material Bodily Lower Stratum.” Arethusa. 31 (3): 313-336.

Moretti, Paola Francesca. 2013. “The Two Ephesian Matrons: Drusiana’s Story in the Acts of John as a Possible Christian Response to Milesian Narrative.” Pp. 35-48 in Pinheiro, Marília P. Futre, Judith Perkins, and Richard Pervo, eds. 2013. The Ancient Novel and Early Christian and Jewish Narrative Fictional Intersections. Ancient Narrative Supplementum 16. Havertown: Barkhuis.

Pepin, Ronald E. 1999. An English translation of Auctores octo, a medieval reader. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press.

Van Hamel, Anton Gerard, ed. 1892. Mathéolus, Jean Le Fèvre. Les lamentations de Mathéolus et le livre de leesce de Jehan Le Fèvre, de Ressons: poèmes français du XIVe siècle. Paris: Bouillon.

Walsh, P.G. trans. 1996. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Webb, Clement Charles Julian. 1909. John of Salisbury. Ioannis Saresberiensis episcopi Carnotensis Policratici sive De nvgis cvrialivm et vestigiis philosophorvm libri VIII. Oxonnii: e typographeo Clarendoniano.

Widdows, P.F. trans. 1992. The fables of Phaedrus. Austin: University of Texas Press.

One thought on “widow of Ephesus story in three retellings”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *