"Scilicet illum tetigerat mala manus". Inganni e disinganni delle streghe in Petr. 63

Laura Cherubini


In the disturbing Petronian episode where certain supernatural creatures called strigae disrupt the vigil of a dead boy and replace his corpse with a straw puppet, the action of the characters is clearly marked by a dance of senses signaling and substituting one another. These nocturnal witches manifest themselves as a loud presence, concealing themselves from the sight of their victims; their voices, though, sound 'different' to people's ears. But it is actually in a 'tactile' way that humans gauge themselves against strigae, through a network of contacts strongly underlined in the text. At the centre of the 'tactile' relationships interwoven in Trimalchio's story we find the so-called mala manus – that is, the witch's 'evil touch' and the uncanny effects it produces. The aim of this essay, then, is to investigate the cultural meanings conveyed by the image of such contacts – as well as, more generally, the witch's affinity for 'touch' and, ultimately, the relationship between this figure of ancient belief and this particular sense.

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