Beliefs of Modern Greece: Sample Pages

pp. 176-177 (click to enlarge)
pp. 178-179 (click to enlarge)


Now our attention is required by the insects and bugs which eat the leaves of vegetables—especially those which Greeks call campae, because of the way they can arch their body; the same which Latins call erucae, from the verb ‘to erode’. It is well known that there are various ways to keep them off vegetables. Many people who distrust nature’s means turn to other sorts of silly tricks. I was told that a very efficient remedy is to summon these bugs to court as if they were criminals, citing them by name through a herald or a written order. For this way they vanish at once. If they continue to cause damage, they are summoned again with repeated citations. And if they still persist, sentence is pronounced against the noncompliant creatures.  There are even some people who call witnesses regarding the loss and damages suffered.  They say that it is amazing how these little bugs, which are resistant to anything, cannot endure to stand trial at all, but scatter away all at once and disappear to avoid paying the penalty. If they see them defying the court’s orders, some people go as far as executing some of them and leaving them to hang from a gallows in the garden. The other bugs, then, move to another place in order to escape punishment. If you laugh, they will testify to the same thing under oath. Nor are any different the stories which one reads in book 12, ch. 8, of the Geoponica,

In gardens infested with caterpillars, some folks take a menstruating woman, shoeless and loose-haired, dressed only in a small cloak and nothing else, without underwear or any other cover. In this attire she walks around the garden three times and, when she exits through the center, all caterpillars are gone.

Michael Psellus takes a different approach concerning the extermination of these bugs,

There were two learned men, versed in the powers of nature through direct experience, Julian the Chaldean and Apuleius the African. One was concerned more with matter; the other with the spirit and the divine world (as would say those who admire and worship him). Using amulets and spells placed directly on objects, Apuleius was able to contain the assaults of some animals; others he was unable to control. Julian, on the other hand, without any incantations or amulets, could confront them all. So I do not want you to come up with any amulets either, in order to repel a caterpillar infestation. Even if I wanted to, the action would have no effect in and of itself. It definitely seems to me that what is said about those two men does not differ much from fairy tales. The philosopher Proclus (I never understood why) did not dismiss such stories, but praised them as some sort of divine fiction, or, if you will, tall tale. Nevertheless I am going to give here a summary of what I know myself to be very effective as a countermeasure and as strong as deadly poison against pests, caterpillars, locusts, as well as rust and all other plagues which attack vineyards and eat up crops. You might have heard of the constellation Hydra. Do not let it escape you when it rises, but as soon as you see it appear, go and capture a viper (it is not hard to catch and anybody can recognize it by its marks), place it on its back and slice it from head to tail. Then, after you tie it to a thin thread, you carry it around the field in a circle, building, so to speak, an invisible wall around the place. From that time on, rust will disappear from your plants, nor will any locusts fly over them, nor any caterpillars be born in their flowers. And I dare say—no flattery intended—that you are superior to Alexander in both wisdom and intellect, since he had Aristotle as a tutor, while you have Psellus.

Others adopt a better way, successfully seeking divine assistance through the prayers prescribed in the Euchologium. I was told, by people who would swear to it, that the Basilian monks of Grottaferrata use St. Trypho’s prayer from the Euchologium to keep away similar kinds of pests from the Tuscan countryside and other locations. After mass, fasting and wearing a stole, they walk around the garden reciting what are called Trypho’s prayers and sprinkling water which they have blessed themselves on the previous year’s Epiphany. After they are done walking around the garden, they move out to uncultivatd pasture land, or to a swamp. For, if they moved to another garden, there would be no result. Amazing to say, shortly after, the obedient little brutes rush en masse to that place, using the same path as the monks, and, after devouring all which is edible there, they finally disappear. If the place is a swamp, or if there is any water, they drive themselves compulsively into it and drown.


No study of an agrarian belief system such as that of Early Modern Greece could be complete without a section on agricultural pests. Combining scholarly materials with personal communications, Allatius draws a brief but delightful overview of caterpillar-related folklore that is among the most entertaining chapters in BMG.

Campae …  Erucae:
For once Allatius is presenting his readers with a plausible etymology: kampê, the ancient Greek term for caterpillar, is indeed formed from the same stem as the verb kamptô, ‘to bend, curve; similar formations are also found in contemporary Greek vocabulary, e.g. kampyli, ‘bend’; kampouris, ‘hunchback’; etc. As for the Latin erucae, Allatius is reiterating an explanation that dates back to the seventh century encyclopedist Isidore of Seville (Origines 12, 5, 9, “The caterpillar is a leaf-worm that wraps itself in vegetables or vine-shoots. It is named eruca from gnawing, erodendo.”)

A very efficient remedy is to summon these bugs to court:
Contrary to what Allatius’ attitude might suggest, the legal prosecution of caterpillars and other vermins was not a laughing matter in the Early Modern world, nor was it confined to culturally and economically ‘backwards’ countries like Greece. From the twelfth to the eighteenth century, the practice of bringing animals to court (from large quadrupeds like pigs and bulls to minute invertebrata like bees) is documented all across Western Europe, with the majority of records coming from France. Despite the nature of the defendants, these were not mock or ritualistic procedures performed by peasants, but real trials usually carried out in ecclesiastic courts. Given the frequent involvement of the church in such matters, Allatius’ dismissive approach seems a bit strange.

Animal trials (bees, pigs, and bulls): Evans 1906, pp.9; 155-162; appendix g-k; m-q. Prosecution of caterpillars: Weiss 1937, pp.257-258. For a modern interpretion of vermin trials: Leeson 2013.

The stories which one reads in book 12, ch. 8, of the Geoponica:
The Geoponica, or ’Agricultural Pursuits’ (cited as Georgicorum scriptores Graeci in Allatius’ original text), is a digest of agricultural knowledge compiled for the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in the tenth century CE. Mostly based on the De Re Rustica Eclogae, or ‘Extracts on Agriculture’, by the 6th century compiler Cassianus Bassus Scholasticus, it preserves a large amount of material from earlier agricultural literature, such as the passage cited here, presumably excerpted from a lost work by Apuleius of Madaura (on whom see below.)

History, sources, and content of the Geoponica: Dalby 2011, pp.9-49; (with special emphasis on the folklore elements) Rose 1933, pp.55-70.

A menstruating woman:
The belief in the magic powers of menstrual blood is an old and widespread one. Ancient Mediterranean farmers thought that menstrual blood could have both positive and negative effects on their cultivations. Used ritually, as in the procedure mentioned here, it worked as an effective charm against agricultural pests and hailstorms; on the other hand, a menstruating woman accidentally passing through a melon field could cause the withering of the entire crop (Geoponica 12, 20; effects on rue and walnut trees: 10, 25; 67.) Likewise, a menstruating woman that would flash her pudenda in the direction of the sky could avert a hailstorm (Geoponica 1, 14; a ritual of this kind is also described in the ancient Near Eastern treatise Nabatean Agriculture, on which see below.)

Julian the Chaldean and Apuleius the African:
Not much is known about the second century mystic Julian the Chaldean, except that he and his son, Julian the Theurgist, were associated with the composition of the so-called Chaldean Oracles, a collection of poetic aphorisms on the mysteries of the universe which was held in great regard by later Neoplatonists. As is clear from Psellus’ comments, by the Middle Ages the elder Julian had been elevated to a semi-legendary status as a wise and powerful spell maker. Similar wizardly prerogatives were attributed to Julian’s more famous contemporary Apuleius of Madaura, the celebrated author of the Golden Ass and one of the major figures of the Middle Platonic School. As is known, Apuleius had to defend himself from an official charge of witchcraft brought against him in AD 160 (Apologia sive de Magia). In addition to the works which have farming (De Re Rustica?), and dendrology (De Arboribus?), in which he appears to have discussed remedies such as the ones to which Psellus is referring. About a dozen references to Apuleius ‘the Roman’ appear in the Medieval compilation Geoponica cited above.

Julian the Chaldean and the Chaldean Oracles: Majercik 1989, pp.1-5. Apuleius’ lost books: Harrison 2000, pp.26-28; (with special reference to the author mentioned in the Geoponica: Dalby 2011,pp. 37).

Michael Psellus takes a different approach:
It is difficult to trace this passage to any of Psellus’ known works. An epistle by Psellus on agriculture (Peri geōrgikōn) survives in a manuscript at the National Library in Paris (Paris. Gr. 1630, fols.245r-246v) but despite the compatibility of the subject matter, the two texts seem to have little in common.

Psellus: Moore 2005, p.416.

The philosopher Proclus … did not dismiss such stories:
Proclus was very appreciative of the Chaldean Oracles, on which he wrote a commentary now lost.

Go and capture a viper:
Like menstrual blood, snakes appear in many ancient rituals for the aversion of vermins and hail. A number of such procedures are described in the Babylonian treatise Nabatean Agriculture, preserved in the 10th century Arabic translation by Iraqi alchemist Ibn Wahshiyya (Kitāb al-filāḥa al-nabatiya):

Some say that if you wish to avert hailstorms from a place above which clouds have risen, you should take a snake and chop it into pieces which you should then throw on burning coals, piece by piece. This should be done  in a place from which wind blows. They say that the smoke rising from the snake will cut the hail clouds in pieces or divert them completely from that place. Others say that one must take a snake and crucify it on two pieces of wood, the head on the one, the tail on the other. Then it should be tied tightly on the two pieces which should then be set up in the middle of the plantation. Then hailstorms will not fall on that place where the snake is set crucified but it will turn away from that place and pass it by. (Transl. Anttila 2006, 257.)

History, sources, and content of the Nabatean Agriculture: c, 3-80. On the section of the Nabatean Agriculture dealing with snake charms for the prevention of hailstorms: Hämeen-Anttila 2006, 256-261; Rodgers 1980, pp.3-4.

Others adopt a better way, successfully seeking divine assistance:
As in other occasions, Allatius likes to emphasize that in the folklore of his homeland superstitious practices often co-existed with harmless, or even doctrinally sound, ones.

St. Trypho’s prayer:
This exorcism for the protection of fields, vineyards, and orchards from ‘insects or other species of animals that may happen to harm them’ is found in the Euchologion, or Greek Prayer book, pp. 696-699. Caterpillars appear at the very top of the long list of pests named in the text.

They walk around … sprinkling water:
The original instructions specify that the sprinkling should be done in the shape of the cross. The practice of marking a path for the caterpillars to follow seems to be, instead, a local custom.


  • Dalby, A. 2001. Geoponica. Farm Work. Devon, UK.
  • Evans,E.P. 1906. The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals. London
  • Goar, J. 1647. ΕΥΧΟΛΟΓΙΟΝ sive rituale graecorum. Paris.
  • Hämeen-Anttila, J. 2006. The Last Pagans of Iraq: Ibn Waḥshiyya and his Nabatean Agriculture. Leiden-New York.
  • Harrison, S.J. 2000. Apuleius. A Latin Sophist. Oxford.
  • Leeson, P.T. 2013. ‘Vermin Trials’. Journal of Law and Economics 56, pp.811-836.
  • Majercik, R. 1989. The Chaldean Oracles. Text, Translation, and Commentary. Leiden-New York.
  • Moore, P. 2005. Iter Psellianum. Toronto: Subsidia Medievalia 26.
  • Rodgers, R.H. 1980, ‘Hail, Frost, and Pests in the Vineyard: Anatolius of Berytus as a Source for the Nabataean Agriculture‘. Journal of the American Oriental Society 100, pp.1-11.
  • Rose, H.J. 1933. ‘The Folklore of the Geoponica’. Folklore 44, pp.57-90.
  • Weiss, H.B. ‘The Criminal Prosecution of Insects’. Journal of the New York Entomological Society 45, pp.251-258.