Serpent Possession: Dimidia

21 Jan

Junius Porcius Carus, traveling from Rome to Eugubium in Umbria, should have had an escort of guards. That had been the general opinion back at the capital, but not his.

It was a sunny day in late spring when the appointed official approached the base of Montus Inginum. The oak forest was topped by a green mantle of leafage as the bay steed with a gray-cloaked rider entered it. His large, sinewy body marked Junius as a person of the highest status. He was traveling to Eugubium to take over the post of protractor of the province. The appointment was a result of the wealth, prominence, and political influence of his family and clan relatives, the young man knew and recognized.

Junius had from early childhood possessed the self-confidence of a member of the noble Roman equites, the oldest and most powerful class of the ever-expanding republic. He belonged to the wealthy, ruling elite. High status was a large part of his personal identity.

He had journeyed by himself up the course of the Tiber, into the central region of the Apennines, conquered less than two generations ago by the armies of Rome.

Nothing to fear hereabouts, thought the young office-holder. The wild Umbrians seem to be undergoing fast taming and assimilation, according to all reports. They are learning to accept the taxes now owed to their masters to the west in Latium. These people should now be accustomed to being subjected to Rome.

I am going to continue teaching them what good government consists of, the traveler said to himself. His appearance with aquiline Roman nose and shining blue eyes would impress these dark, hairy mountaineers, Junius was certain.

But then an event unimaginable to him occurred in but a couple of minutes of time.

Three figures wearing leather appeared out of the woods to the right of the road. Simultaneously, three more emerged on the left. The path forward was blocked before the rider could signal his horse to speed forward to safety.

Someone sneaking up behind suddenly seized hold of one end of his reins, then exactly the same happened to his left.

Junius looked about in dismay and shock.

Before he knew it, he was surrounded by a dozen lowly country ruffians.

Control of the horse was no longer his, but theirs.

Were these men robbers? But he carried little beyond the coins in his purse, Junius realized. What was their goal?

Did these ladrones want his cloak and inner clothing? he wondered.

All of a sudden, one of the attackers spoke to him in the Umbrian dialect, close enough to Roman Latin to be understood by the well-educated official.

“You must dismount and come with us into the forest. No harm shall fall upon you if you cooperate with us. But any attempt at escape will meet with severe and painful punishment. I warn you that it will not be pleasant for you.”

What should he do? considered the overwhelmed Roman. What should he say to these robbers? How was he to behave now?

“Do you know who I happen to be?” he shouted at his captors in a roaring tone of voice.

“Certainly,” replied the leader.”We have been watching as the new propraetor rides along, the man who wishes to govern us. When our sentries reported that you had arrived, we decided to meet with you and offer our simple Umbrian hospitality. You are now the guest of your humble subjects, Porcius Carus.

“May I introduce myself? I am known as Favo of the Mountain. My band of silvans are now your guard of office, sir. Let me take you to our encampment. There is much to interest our new propraetor there.”

A gigantic cavern concealed by almost impenetrable thickets served as home to the large brotherhood of outlaws.

Once Junius had been fed, Favo came close to him and spoke in a soft tone.

“There is a person who wishes to see you. His name is Gnae and he is chief of all the lucumones of this area. Do you understand what his post is?”

“It sounds like what we in Rome call a pontifex. Is that what the man is, a priest? One who is knowledgeable about secret matters that others are ignorant of?”

Favo grinned. “That title originates in our Umbrian pontis. It signifies one who makes a sacrificial puntis to the gods. That is the duty of our Gnae, among his other activities. He is also responsible for our auspicia, telling the future by the flight of flocks of birds. Yes, the man has many things that keep him busy.”

Junius, gazing beyond Favo toward the mouth of the cavern, noticed a short, small man wearing a red cap and stepping toward them. This person halted beside Favo.

“So, this is the prisoner who was taken on the road,” said the dark-skinned stranger.

The mountaineer then introduced Junius to the lucumone.

“Your presence here is going to be valuable to  us,” announced the latter. “You are the key to the restoration of the ancient rights of the people of Umbria. That shall be the price that Rome must pay for your release. I hope that you realize how important you are to us.”

Junius stared defiantly at Gnae, who appeared to be the brains behind his kidnappers. “How much money are you planning to ask for me?” he boldly inquired.

“No pecunia at all,” replied the lucumone. “As I told you, we seek the end of our slavery to Rome. That is the extent of the ransom that will redeem you.”

“I am confused by all that has happened in this province since we took control of it,” said the Roman. “The rulers of Umbria for a long time were not native individuals, but Etruscans from the north.”

Gnae made an ugly grimace. “You do not know the truth about this land of ours. My own grandfather came to Eugubrium from Etruria as an official in his time. We have lived here for three generations now. The language and customs of the Umbrians have become my own. We have become one united people, although our earliest ancestors happened to be Etruscans.”

“But you call yourself a lucumone,” returned Junius. “I know that to be a religious post that is Etruscan in origin.”

The man called Gnae scowled at the Roman. “My maternal grandfather came to this country to serve as lucumone to his own people who had come from the north, but in time the Umbrian natives were worshiping the gods of our immigrants, like Tins and Minerva. I inherited my grandfather’s position after learning from him the secrets of the birds. I am now an avispex.”

“Those who follow you must therefore believe you are a foreteller of what will come,” cautiously said the prisoner. “Is that what inspired them to seize me?”

Gnae made no reply to this, but gave a derisive laugh.

“Now is not the time for lengthy explanations,” he replied. “We shall have opportunity to talk in greater detail later.”

That evening, the prisoner was placed in a specially built cubiculum, his hands bound in maniculae. Here it was that Junius lay on a pallet for several hours before sleep came to him. His thoughts whirled in a chaotic uproar. What was he to do about his horrible misfortune? How was he to escape these enemies of the Roman patria? There was no conceivable way of escape for him. He was forced to see his position and condition as hopeless.

Only a precious few hours of sleep came to the propraetor that night.

It was Favo who woke him up the following morning. Holding a torch, the Umbrian led Junius to the front of the cave, where Gnae awaited them.

“We are going to take you to be presented to the residents of the mountain village called Arari. They will be curious to see their new governor and make a judgment on him.”

A vigorous walk surrounded by a small guard of his captors brought the Roman into a clearing of huts and cottages. Here a small crowd had already gathered to have a look at the young man sent to be their provincial ruler.

The lucumone, with Junius beside him, addressed the inhabitants of the village in a loud, powerful voice.

“It is today possible for me to present before you the person sent from Rome to act as the propraetor of this province. He, of course, is not one of us by birth. This foreigner arrives as an outsider chosen by faraway officials to decide all important matters of a public nature for us. It is our duty to show him what the people of Umbria think and feel about the questions that come up before him. He has to be made to understand that he is to be our servant, not our master. Nothing arbitrary on his part can be permitted. Until he agrees to the people’s terms. We will keep him under our eye, restricting all his movements and actions. He shall not have the ability to commit evil deeds. Is that what you want, inhabitants of Arari?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” rose a thunderous cry from the crowd of villagers.

Gnae then continued. “We shall therefore hold this official until he agrees to all the terms demanded by us. That is the shared decision of everyone here.”

With that, the party escorting Junius marched him out of the clearing, into the forest, back to the cavern on the mountain side.

A meal of bread and allium soup awaited the group upon its arrival. Sitting on a great rock by himself, Junius considered whether there was any way to free himself and restore the power of the office he had been appointed to. His first priority had to be to find some means of escape. It had to be attempted as soon as possible. His highest chances for that appeared to be at night.

Junius had a conversation with Favo under a quercus tree near the mouth of the cave. To learn whatever might help him get away was the aim of the prisoner.

The Umbrian expressed overwhelmimg admiration for the lucumone, Gnae.

“He is a true veneficus with wizardly capabilities. Whenever there is an animal to be sacrificed to the gods, Gnae can foretell what will happen by reading the ilia, the viscera, and the intralia. He is a genuine haruspex, with all the arcane knowledge of that ancient craft. For instance, he has memorized all sixty-six sections of the jecur.”

“The what?” questioned the prisoner, his voice full of perplexity.

“That is what he calls the hepaticus, the organ that serves as the receptacle of life forces.” Favo pointed to the side of his abdomen, where he believed that his liver was. “He can tell when the divinities are favorable and when they are not. All the signs are well known to him.”

“That is an amazing power,” said the Roman, impressed by what was being claimed in front of him.

“When there is lightning or thunder, he can interpret what the gods of the sky are saying. Nature holds few secrets from him. Our lucumone owns books written in the language of the ancients. He finds many meanings of significance in them” He lowered his voice. “Gnae has access to the book of the Acheruntici. You know who they are?”

“No, not at all,” admitted Junius, intrigued by what he was being told.

At this point, one of the band holding him interrupted them, approaching from the cavern mouth. He informed the two that the repastum was ready to eat.

Favo turned to Junius. “We shall discuss this further another time,” he promised.

That evening, when the propraetor was taken to his cubiculum, Favo made a sudden, unexpected decision. “I see no need to bind you if a promise not to try any escape is given. Will you vow not to attempt anything, on your word of honor?” he asked the prisoner in a beseeching tone of voice.

“I will,” replied Junius. “Yes, I make that promise.”

No maniculae were placed on him by the Umbrian.

A major dilemma now faced the Roman. He found it impossible to fall asleep, despite his exhaustion from the day’s activities. What was he to do? He ardently wished to be gone, to be free of the band that held him. Was he going to break his word to Favo? Was he about to attempt an escape?

Hours of wrestling with the problem tormented his mind. No sleep came. From the outer part of the cavern, no noise or sound reached him. The absolute silence had an eerie  character. It came to throw a spell of fascination over Junius.

All at once, a new idea came to him. Why not examine the other, larger area of the cave? By now all members of the company had to be slumbering. He had never before experienced such silence in any group of sleeping human beings.

He would be able to carry out an exploration without breaking his word, he realized.

Curiosity won out. The prisoner convinced himself that he would merely look, but not try to run away from his captors. He would return to his pallet once he looked about. That surely would be safe.

Into the dark great chamber of the cave he slowly crept.

No snoring or breathing was audible. No sounds at all reached his ears.

Stars of the night sky shone through the front entrance of the cavern, the only source of any visible light.

Junius cautiously advanced  between the bodies of the Umbrians. What was the cause of this sense of emptiness he felt? Why did he feel so extraordinary tonight?

Gradually, he made it to the entrance of the cave.

I could at this moment escape if I dared to, an inner voice told him. If I were gone, it would be a long time before anyone knew it. There appeared to be a high chance of success involved.

From behind, a whispering voice startled him with its strength and clarity.

“I advise you not to attempt fleeing,” warned Gnae, the lucumone. “You will not get far, for I can wake my band of dimidia and they will quickly recapture you. The chance of successful escape from here does not exist for you.”

Junius turned around, making out the small shape of the priest. A brief silence followed,each of the two gazing into the face of the other.

To the mind of the propraetor, a greenish glow shined in the dark eyes of Gnae.

The latter finally spoke, sensing the need for explanation.

“Please note that I refer to my followers as dimidia. They have, in a sense, been divided up by me. Each individual is only partially what they once were. A kind of half-man, not a whole one.”

“I do not understand what you are saying to me,” countered Junius. “Not at all.”

Gnae extended his right hand, placing it on the forearm of the prisoner.

“I own the Book of the Dead, the Acheruntici. These hold the forgotten wisdom of my Etruscan ancestors. With this knowledge I am able to form an unending half-life for human beings. Let me explain: when my men are awake in the daytime, they live. But when night falls and they lie down, death arrives for each of them. True, genuine death. They no longer breath or move.

“Notice how still the cave now is. No one is snoring or even breathing. It is a state of complete dormancy. Only with the dawn will living and breathing return. That is why I call my men dimidia. They are half-dead, and only half-alive beings. Their nature and character is double.” Gnae opened his mouth widely enough so that the Roman could look into it. What he saw there amazed, astounded, and shook him. It was the horrible head of a small serpent. Its eyes glowed with a sinister, bluish light. The sight was horrifying.

“It is the inner snake that I carry that gives me my power and control over my followers, the half-dead dimidia. Every one of them is under its sway, and I am the one who commands in the name of the magical serpent that I hold in me.”

“What you say is hard to believe!” muttered Junius.

“Touch this man’s brow,” ordered the lucumore.

The prisoner did so, feeling the deadly coldness of the head. “He is like dead,” whispered Junius.

“Not like dead, but actually dead,” corrected Gnae. “This is my invisible army that will one day free Umbria of Roman rule. Each of their lives is stretched out without limit through their nightly periods of temporary death. That is the secret force that will bring us victory.” He stared at the Roman. “I wish you to study the “Books of the Dead”, for you are ready to become a dimidium too. The secret serpent within me shall become your master too, as it is for me and all of my dimidia warriors. You will have to unite with us.”

Junius realized that he was never to sleep or dream again, but fall each evening among the dead. Their cycle was soon to become the one that he followed. He would never again be the way he had been. His customary life was over for good.

The Roman official swooned to the floor of the cave, not unconscious but dead for a time.

When he again awakened, he was to come alive as a soldier of the Etruscan serpent that schemed to free Umbria from the rule of Rome.

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