Periander was the second tyrant of Corinth. Although he was a dictator with extraordinary power, he is generally considered by modern observers to be a wise and greatly effective ruler. During the reign of Periander (r. 627-587/585 BCE), the city of Corinth drastically increased in prosperity and became a major power among the Greek city-states. Yet, with these impressive accomplishments, Periander was involved in something even more dramatic—he was featured in one of the weirdest stories in The Histories of Herodotus. Although little to any of the story is likely historically true, the tale remains ghoulishly fascinating.
This bizarre story, as Herodotus told it, all began when Periander lost an unnamed item lent to him by a friend. He was so baffled as to the whereabouts of the item, that he sought supernatural means to ease his search. He apparently asked an oracle of the dead for help, but it was not the oracle that actually appeared to help the tyrant. Oddly, the ghost of Periander’s dead wife, Melissa, returned to the world of the living in order to aid in the search for the lost item. To prove to her husband that she was who she claimed to be, the ghost of Melissa divulged to Periander that she knew of a disgusting act of necrophilia that he had performed on her dead body. Or, as she put it, “Periander had put his loaves into a cold oven” (The Histories, Book 5, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and John Marincola, 2002). Sadly, the disturbing comment convinced Periander of the ghost’s credibility.
Yet, the ghost did not offer her aid without conditions. She chastised her husband for not burning her burial clothes. Apparently, Melissa could not use the unburned clothes in the afterlife and, consequently, was quite cold. As a result of her discomfort, Melissa withheld the location of the lost item.
Periander, however, hatched a grand plan to send more than enough clothing for his deceased wife to wear in the realm of Hades. As tyrant of Corinth, Periander used his power and influence to make all the Corinthian women donate a garment for his dearly departed wife. Yet, according to Herodotus, he did not simply ask for clothes to be handed in—he had a much more creative method.
As the story goes, Periander demanded that all the women of Corinth meet in the local temple of Hera. Thinking that the gathering at the temple of Hera was a festival, fair or other ceremony, the women of Corinth all arrived wearing their very best attire. When the women had all congregated, Periander sprung his trap—he called in his soldiers and made the women of Corinth strip completely bare. He then heaped the mass of clothes into a large pile and burned it all, sending a whole city’s worth of garments for his wife to enjoy in the afterlife.
After this audacious feat, Periander contacted the oracle of the dead, once again. This time, when the ghost of Melissa was summoned, she was obviously pleased with her husband’s impressive gift, and she finally told Periander where to find what he had lost.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.