curing Encolpius’s impotence: Proselenos & Oenothea unlike Jesus

Jesus healing blind man

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, persons sought the help of gods and physicians to cure their infirmities and diseases. Jesus of Nazareth about two millennia ago quickly acquired the reputation of a good physician among many bad ones. In the Satyricon, written about 65 GC, the old women Proselenos and Oenothea attempted to cure Encolpius of his impotence. These women’s healing techniques had similarities with Jesus’s methods of healing. But unlike Jesus did for the blind man, Proselenos and Oenothea effected no lasting cure for Encolpius’s impotence.

Jesus, who was a fully human man, acted in earthy ways. Here’s how Jesus cured a blind man:

he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So the blind man went and washed and came back able to see.

{ ἔπτυσεν χαμαὶ καὶ ἐποίησεν πηλὸν ἐκ τοῦ πτύσματος καὶ ἐπέχρισεν αὐτοῦ τὸν πηλὸν ἐπὶ τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὕπαγε νίψαι εἰς τὴν κολυμβήθραν τοῦ Σιλωάμ ὃ ἑρμηνεύεται ἀπεσταλμένος ἀπῆλθεν οὖν καὶ ἐνίψατο καὶ ἦλθεν βλέπων } [1]

According to Christians, this was a cure that lasted longer than life. The formerly blind man declared that Jesus was a prophet and a man from God. He witnessed to the miracle Jesus had done for him. He became a disciple of Jesus. Jesus promised his disciples resurrection and eternal life. Christians believe that promise for the blind man who gained sight.

Proselenos sought to cure Encolpius’s impotence in a way that seems to mock Christian belief. “To sign with a cross {cum cruce signare}” persons’ foreheads was already a common Christian practice by the second century.[2] Imagine that the impotent Encolpius knew this Christian practice and watched Proselenos do this to him:

She pulled from her bosom a twisted strand of various-colored threads and bound it around my neck. Then she mixed some dust with her saliva, dipped her middle finger in it, and signed my forehead as I tried to disengage from her.

{ Illa de sinu licium protulit varii coloris filis intortum cervicemque vinxit meam. Mox turbatum sputo pulverem medio sustulit digito frontemque repugnantis signavit } [3]

A profoundly wise Greek woman counseled Maximianus that men’s impotence signifies “universal chaos {generale chaos}.” Did Proselenos tell Encolpius when she signed his forehead, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return”?[4] That would seem not a cure for impotence, but a ritual expression of it.

Apart from Christian practices, similar practices of anointing are attested in the ancient Greco-Roman world. Persius, a Latin poet who died in 62 GC, described the behavior of an old woman:

Look — a grandma or superstitious aunt has from his cradle
lifted a boy and first protects his forehead and wet lips
with her wicked finger and magical saliva.
She’s an expert at warding off the withering evil eye.

{ Ecce avia aut metuens divum matertera cunis
exemit puerum frontemque atque uda labella
infami digito et lustralibus ante salivis
expiat, urentis oculos inhibere perita } [5]

The “wicked finger {infamis digitus}” is the middle finger. Like Proselenos, this old woman anoints a male’s forehead with her middle finger and saliva. She sought not to overcome his impotence, but to ward off the evil eye. That evil eye connects to Jesus’s cure of the blind man. However, unlike Jesus and Proselenos, this woman didn’t mix saliva with mud.

In treating Encolpius’s impotence, Proselenos moved from a Christian analogue to a Homeric one. The phrase “she pulled from her bosom a twisted strand of various-colored threads {illa de sinu licium protulit varii coloris filis intortum}” would be interpreted, within a culture sophisticated enough to understand both Virgilian centos and Homeric centos, as a translated quote of “she loosed from her bosom the embroidered, interwoven strap {ἀπὸ στήθεσφιν ἐλύσατο κεστὸν ἱμάντα ποικίλον}” from Iliad 14.214-5. That describes Aphrodite giving her love girdle {κεστὸς ἱμάς} to Hera.[6] By the time the Satyricon was written, Aphrodite’s love girdle reportedly had sewn into it an obsidian stone engraved on both sides. One side showed a castrated man; the other side showed Aphrodite turning his back on him. Touching this stone was thought to make an man impotent.[7] That’s not Christian. Jesus touched and healed. Jesus taught love for men and didn’t seek to make men impotent. The ancient Greek allusions in Proselenos’s cure for Encolpius’s impotence pushed against its Christian allusions.

After a lacuna in the Satyricon, Proselenos engaged in traditional magic to cure impotence. A fragment from the ancient Greek iambic poet Hipponax describes a man apparently seeking to cure his impotence by dying his penis’s head red with mulberry juice and then spitting three times.[8] Proselenos similarly had Encolpius spit three times. In what was probably an allusion to Aphrodite’s love girdle, she also manipulated stones wrapped in fabric:

After reciting this chant, she ordered me to spit three times, and then throw stones into my bosom three times after she had pronounced a spell over them and wrapped them in purple cloth.

{ Hoc peracto carmine ter me iussit exspuere terque lapillos conicere in sinum, quos ipsa praecantatos purpura involverat } [9]

That’s far more complicated than Jesus’s healing practices. Unlike traditional magic, Jesus would only say the words “be healed,” and a person would be healed. He could say “love one another,” and a man would no longer be impotent.

Proselenos’s cure succeeded, but only temporarily. Encolpius’s penis failed again in his next attempt at sexual intimacy. His highly privileged lady partner Circe was furious. She ordered Encolpius to be hoisted and flogged. She threw Proselenos out of her house. In despair, Proselenos viciously belittled Encolpius:

What demonic owls have gnawed your nerve-ends? Or did you step on some shit or a corpse at the crossroads after dark? You could not prove yourself even with a boy; what an effeminate, tired weakling you are, puffing like a cab-horse on a hill, toiling and sweating to no purpose!

{ Quae striges comederunt nervos tuos, aut quod purgamentum in nocte calcasti in trivio aut cadaver? Ne a puero quidem te vindicasti, sed mollis, debilis, lassus tanquam caballus in clivo, et operam et sudorem perdidisti. }

Proselenos then beat him with a cane. Fortunately the cane broke; otherwise, Encolpius’s head and arms would have broken first. Encolpius wept profusely. Men’s burden of performance is an enormous, often crushing gender inequality.

Encolpius went to the temple of Priapus to try to appease whatever force was oppressing his penis. The self-proclaimed priestess of Priapus, Oenothea, as well as Proselenos were there. Proselenos explained:

this young man that you see here was born under an evil star. He can sell his goods to neither boy nor girl. You never set eyes on such an unhappy person. He has a piece of wash-leather instead of a penis. In short, what do you think of a man who would leave Circe’s bed without a spark of pleasure?

{ hunc adulescentem quem vides: malo astro natus est; nam neque puero neque puellae bona sua vendere potest. Nunquam tu hominem tam infelicem vidisti: lorum in aqua, non inguina habet. Ad summam, qualem putas esse, qui de Circes toro sine voluptate surrexit? }

Oenothea responded:

I’m the only person who knows how to cure this illness. Don’t either of you imagine that my treatment is complicated. I want the little young man to sleep a night with me. See if I don’t make that thing stiffer than a horn.

{ Istum inquit morbum sola sum quae emendare scio. Et ne putetis perplexe agere, rogo ut adulescentulus mecum nocte dormiat (perhaps a lacuna) nisi illud tam rigidum reddidero quam cornu }

In addition to kissing Encolpius repeatedly, Oenothea also prepared folk pharmacopeia to cure his impotence. She prepared burning coals, beans, and a moldy end of a pig’s head. After a mishap in her dilapidated kitchen, she briefly left to get additional supplies.

While Oenothea was out, three geese sacred to Priapus attacked Encolpius. One ripped his shirt. Another stole his shoelaces. The third bit him in the leg. Encolpius pulled a leg off the rickety kitchen table and counter-attacked. He killed the lead goose. The other two fled.

When Oenothea returned and heard what had happened, she cried out in horror. She exclaimed in a frenzy:

Do you not know what an enormous crime you have committed? You have killed the favorite of Priapus, the goose beloved by all married women.

{ Nescis quam magnum flagitium admiseris: occidisti Priapi delicias, anserem omnibus matronis acceptissimum. }

The great woman leader Empress Theodora had enjoyed a goose pecking with his long, strong neck. That was the sort of goose that would be a favorite of Priapus. Only an ignorant, impotent man wouldn’t understand.

Even after Encolpius killed the favorite goose of Priapus, Oenothea continued her effort to cure his impotence. She had them all quickly drink cups of strong wine. Then she soaked Encolpius’s genitals in nasturtium juice mixed with southernwood and flailed his genitals with green nettles. She burned his thighs with a peppery spray. She also worked his backside:

Oenothea pulled out a stiff-leather penis, sprinkled it with oil, ground pepper, and crushed nettle-seeds, and proceeded to insert it by degrees into my anus.

{ Profert Oenothea scorteum fascinum, quod ut oleo et minuto pipere atque urticae trito circumdedit semine, paulatim coepit inserere ano meo. } [10]

Encolpius pulled loose, got up, and ran. Proselenos and Oenothea, drunk and sexually aroused, chased after him. His legs fortunately had enough strength in them for him to outrun those old women.

Men’s impotence has long been rightly regarded as an enormous problem. Can men’s potency be established and strongly supported within a humane society? Petronius seems to have written the Satyricon with awareness of the works of Jesus.[11] Proselenos began her effort to cure Encolpius’s impotence with actions closely paralleling Jesus’s cure of a blind man. But her attempted healing, and the subsequent effort of Oenothea, depended mainly on intricate, traditional Greco-Roman magic. That magic had no enduring effect. The best hope for humanely promoting and supporting men’s potency is that which Jesus taught: love one another.

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[1] John 9:6-7. The Greek text is the morphological Greek New Testament via Blue Letter Bible. The English translation follows current English Biblical translations. For similar miraculous healings, Mark 7:32-5, 8:22-5. The healing in John 9:6-7 is distinctive in that Jesus mixes mud with his saliva. That mixture is allusively significant. Genesis 2:7 describes God making Adam from the dirt of the earth. In classical love poetry, saliva of the beloved was figured as ambrosia, the food of the gods. Jesus thus brought together heaven and earth to heal the blind man.

Non-canonical infancy gospels state that Jesus as a youth fashioned twelve sparrows from mud on a sabbath day. Infancy Gospel of Thomas 2.3, Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew 27. This miraculous work of creation violated the Sabbath, as did Jesus’s healing of the blind man. But miraculously creating sparrows and healing the blind man seem otherwise not closely related. Cf. Setaioli (2011) p. 358, n. 9.

[2] Drawing upon the work of Dögler (1958-59), Setaioli declared:

about the mid II century A.D. the custom to trace the sign of the cross on their own and other people’s foreheads {signaculum frontium} was already widespread among the Christians.

Setaioli (2011) p. 361. Tertullian, writing perhaps in 204 GC, provided important evidence. He stated:

At every forward step and movement, at every going in and out, when we put on our clothes and shoes, when we bathe, when we sit at table, when we light the lamps, on couch, on seat, in all the ordinary actions of daily life, we trace upon the forehead the sign.

{ Ad omnem progressum atque promotum, ad omnem aditum et exitum, ad uestitum, ad calciatum, ad lauacra, ad mensas, ad lumina, ad cubilia, ad sedilia, quacumque nos conuersatio exercet, frontem signaculo terimus. }

On the military garland {De corona militis} 3.4, Latin text from Fontaine (1966), English trans. from Thelwall (1869), both via Here are further ancient references to making the sign of the cross.

[3] Petronius, Satyricon 131.4, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913) (with some non-substantive adaptations), English translation mainly from Walsh (1996), but with some adaptations drawing on Heseltine & Rouse (1913). Subsequent quotes from the Satyricon are similarly sourced. Here’s an freely available Latin text; Allinson (1930) provides a freely available English translation. In recognition of its diversity, scholars now tend to call the Satyricon the Satyrica.

[4] “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” are words commonly said in English liturgies celebrating Ash Wednesday in the Christian liturgical calendar.

[5] Persius 2.32–4, Latin text and English translation (adapted slightly) from Braund (2004). Writing in Greek in the fourth century, John Chrysostom ridiculed a similar custom:

What then is this so very ridiculous custom? It is counted indeed as nothing (and this is why I grieve), but it is the beginning of folly and madness in the extreme. The women in the bath, nurses and waiting-maids, take up mud and smearing it with the finger make a mark on the child’s forehead. If one ask, “What means the mud, and the clay?” the answer is, “It turns away an evil eye, witchcraft and envy.” Astonishing! What power in the mud! What might in the clay! What mighty force is this which it has? It averts all the host of the devil. Tell me, can you help hiding yourselves for shame?

Chrysostom, Homilies 12, “On the first epistle to the Corinthians,” para. 13, cited as 12.7 (PG 61, 106) in Setaioli (2011) p. 360, n. 14, English translation (adapted slightly) from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers 1.12.

Horace in Epode 8 discussed erection labor under difficult circumstances:

So what if tomes of Stoics nestle
on your plush cushions of Chinese silk?
Do they stiffen an illiterate dick,
make an ivory cock droop less?
To gain from my superb crotch,
you must go down to work with your mouth.

{ quid quod libelli Stoici inter Sericos
iacere pulvillos amant?
inlitterati num minus nervi rigent
minusve languet fascinum?
quod ut superbo provoces ab inguine,
ore adlaborandum est tibi. }

Epode 8.15-20, my English translation. A scholiast known as pseudo-Acron commented on l. 18: “they think they ward off the evil eye by wiping their tongues on their newborns’ foreheads {lingua enim detersa fronte mulieres amputare se infantibus fascinum putant}.” An evil eye was thought to produce impotence in men. Setaioli (2011) p. 259, n. 13.

[6] Setaioli (2011) pp. 363-6 points out this parallel and discusses it.

[7] Setaioli (2011) p. 365, discussing Kyranides 1.10.53-57 and 1.10.64-65. For Kyranides, Waegeman (1987). On impotence and its cures in classical literature, McMahon (1998).

[8] Hipponax 78, Greek text and English translation in Gerber (1999) pp. 412-3. This fragmentary poem treats impotence in a way that has “obvious parallels” with Satyricon 131. West (1974) p. 142.

[9] Satyricon 131.5. The subsequent four quotes are from Satyricon 134.1-4 (What demonic owls…), 134.17-21 (this young man…), 134.22-25 (I’m the only person…); 137.2-4 (Do you not know…).

[10] Satyricon 138.1-3. Scholars regard this passage as being derived from Hipponax 92. Setaioli (2011) p. 367 (incorrectly referring to Hipponax 95). For analysis of Hipponax 92, West (1974) pp. 144-5.

Oenothea is a Latin transliteration of a Greek word meaning “wine goddess.” She falsely claimed that her cure for impotence wasn’t complicated. Oenothea appears to be a charlatan who “prescribes sexual medicines to satisfy her own desires rather than to cure the illness of her patients.” Panayotakis (2015) p. 44.

A school of literary criticism arising over recent decades analyzes imaginative literature to identify fictional characters that have engaged in sexual acts without affirmative consent. Professors then charge those characters with rape. On this school of criticism, see note [13] of my post on PamphilusAccording to their principles, Proselenos raped Encolpius. Schmeling (2011), a highly detailed commentary on the Satyricon, discussed Satyricon 138.1-3 without any commentary on the rape.

[11] On purported allusions to Christianity in the Satyricon, Ramelli (2006), pp. 41-50, and Blocker (2016). Proselenos’s effort to cure Encolpius has arguably the most plausible Christian reference, yet it has attracted relatively little attention. Setaioli (2011) pp. 358-9, which expresses considerable skepticism about the most extensive claims about the Satyricon’s allusions to Christianity. Apuleius’s Metamorphoses has fairly clear allusions to Christianity.

At Trimalchio’s banquet, a freedman made a curious boast:

I redeemed my house-mate to free status so that no one could wipe his hands on her bosom.

{ contubernalem meam redemi, ne quis in sinu illius manus tergeret }

Satyricon 57, Latin text from Heseltine & Rouse (1913), my English translation benefiting from that of id. The word sinu has been supplied by the seventeenth-century scholar Nicolas Heinsius; the context indicates degrading action. Walsh translated this sentence less literally but insightfully:

I purchased my partner’s freedom to ensure that no one used her hair as a towel

Walsh (1996) p. 46. Cf. Luke 7:38, John 12:3. Petronius may have been linking the outlandish behavior of the freedmen at the banquet with an outlandish Christian claims.

[image] Jesus healing the Blind Man. Painting by Duccio di Buoninsegnam; made between 1308 and 1311. Preserved as accession NG1140 in the National Gallery (London). Image via Web Gallery of Art and Wikimedia Commons.


Allinson, Alfred R, trans. 1930. Petronius Arbiter. The Satyricon. New York: Panurge Press.

Blocker, David. 2016. “Allusions to Christianity and Post Neronian texts in the Satyricon’s Cena Trimalchionis, The Satyricon and Allegations of Christian Cannibalism: A Proposal that Titus Petronius Secundus, not Titus Petronius Arbiter, was the author of the Satyricon.” With table of claimed correspondences. Online post on 28 December 2016 at Jesus Granskad.

Braund, Susanna Morton, trans. 2004. Juvenal and Persius. Loeb Classical Library 91. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gerber, Douglas F., ed. and trans. 1999. Archilochus, Semonides, Hipponax. Greek Iambic Poetry: From the Seventh to the Fifth Centuries BC. Loeb Classical Library 259. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Heseltine, Michael and W. H. D. Rouse, trans., revised by E. H. Warmington. 1913. Petronius Arbiter, Seneca. Satyricon. Apocolocyntosis. Loeb Classical Library 15. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

McMahon, John M. 1998. Paralysin Cave: impotence, perception, and text in the Satyrica of Petronius. Leiden: Brill. (Holoka’s review)

Panayotakis, Costas. 2015. “Encolpius and the Charlatans.” Pp. 31-46 in Panayotakis, Stelios, and Gareth Schmeling, eds. Holy Men and Charlatans in the Ancient Novel. Groningen: Barkhuis & Groningen University Library.

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. 2006. “The Ancient Novels and the New Testament: Possible Contacts.” Ancient Narrative. 5: 41-68.

Setaioli, Aldo. 2000. “La scena di magia in Petr. Sat. 131.4-6.” Prometheus: Rivista di studi classici. 26: 159-172.

Setaioli, Aldo. 2011. “Magic at Petr. 131.4-6.” Appendix II (pp. 357-368) in Setaioli, Aldo. Arbitri nugae: Petronius’ short poems in the Satyrica. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang. An earlier version of Appendix II appeared in Italian as Setaioli (2000).

Schmeling, Gareth L. 2011. A Commentary on the Satyrica of Petronius. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

Waegeman, Maryse. 1987. Amulet and alphabet: magical amulets in the first book of Cyranides. Amsterdam: Gieben.

West, Martin Litchfield. 1974. Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus. Berlin: W. de Gruyter.

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