Friday, September 9, 2011
Witches of ancient Greece and Rome
Ancient Greek epics such as the Odyssey, and the Voyage of Argo tell of princely heroes destined for kingship who seek out legendary sorceresses, appealing to them to wield their magickal power for the sake of a royal line. Witches had pivotal roles in these stories, acting as guides for such heroes as Odysseus and Jason; men who were required to enter the feminine, womb-like space of the underworld, or to travel to the ends of the Earth, as part of their courageous journeying. Later on, in Roman literature, such as in Horace’s Odes and Epodes, or Lucan’s Pharsalia, Witches degenerated into the cemetery-scouring hags familiar to popular culture, no longer sending the hero down to search the underworld, but instead, bringing the realm of the dead up to their customers by performing necromantic rites.
There are many Witches featuring in Greco-Roman literature, some of whom have familiar names such as Circe and Medea, and others who may be somewhat lesser-known such as Simaetha, Perimede, Agamede, Pamphile, Fotis, Erictho, Dipsas, Sagana, Canidia, Veia, Diotima and Oenothea. This article, however, focuses only on Circe, Medea, Canidia and Erictho. Circe and Medea are demoted Goddesses, whereas Canidia is based on an actual real life character, and Erictho is a fearsome composite of several Witches - as well as of the goddess Hekate. These intriguing sorceresses inhabited the margins of society, they personified peripheries, edges, boundaries, and were fringe-dwellers in every sense of the word - if they didn’t live far out to sea on an island like Circe, then they might come from foreign countries like Medea and Erictho, or inhabit the fringe of ‘decent’ society as did Canidia.
Dealing with Witchcraft was a step away from the confines of normality for both the mythic hero and the average citizen, it was an adventure between the worlds where transformation was possible. Apart from goddesses and queens, Witches were practically the only women with fleshed-out personalities and important roles to play in classical literature, and their characters acted as ‘templates’ for the portrayal of Witches in literature for centuries to come.
And then the demon goddess lightly laid
Her wand upon our hair, and instantly
Bristles (the shame of it! but I will tell)
Began to sprout; I could no longer speak;
My words were grunts, I grovelled to the ground.
I felt my nose change to a tough wide snout,
My neck thicken and bulge. My hands that held
The bowl just now made footprints on the floor.
And with my friends who suffered the same fate
(Such power have magic potions) I was shut
Into a sty.
The first magical operation recorded in Greek literature is found in Book 10 of the famous Odyssey by Homer which was written in the 8th century BCE. This magic was performed by Circe, a Witch who lived on an island called Aeaea at the edge of the known world. Ancient Greeks believed the world was flat and that it was encircled by the ‘river of ocean’, Circe lived at the boundary of this world - practically as far away from civilisation as possible - near the entrance to Hades, the Underworld. She is a Heliade, a daughter of Helios the Sun God, and is sister to both Aeetes, the father of Medea, and Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur. It is likely that Circe herself was also originally an ancient Goddess of some sort, perhaps a ‘Potnia Theron’, a Mistress of Animals. She is also a predatory seductress, and her name in Greek, Kirke, is related to kirkos which means a circling bird of prey, or a wolf, and which in Homer, denotes a hawk.
On their way home from the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus and his companions arrive at her island where "...all about them were lions, and wolves of the mountains, whom the goddess had given evil drugs and enchanted, and these made no attack on the men, but came up thronging about them, waving their long tails..." No sooner does Circe meet with the men than she waves her wand over them and "they took on the look of pigs, with the heads and voices and bristles of pigs, but the mind in them stayed as they had been before... Circe threw down acorns for them to eat, and ilex and cornel buds, such food as pigs who sleep on the ground always feed on." Pigs were sacred to Demeter and Persephone and associated with the fertility of the earth, so perhaps Circe is, in a way, designating the men as offerings to the chthonic Earth Mother/Daughter duo.
With the aid of the god Hermes, who supplied him with a magickal plant called ‘moly’, Odysseus becomes immune to Circe’s magic and so instead of transforming him into a pig as well, she invites him to become her lover. Eventually Odysseus persuades her to change his companions back to their human form, and they all remain living on her island for a year. However, Odysseus needs to obtain the advice of a famous prophet called Tiresias, (who unfortunately is dead), to find out exactly how to reach his home to reclaim his kingship. Circe explains the ritual processes required to enter the underworld so he can consult with the Seer, and shows him how to get there. Here she seems to be a type of gatekeeper, and her island, a portal to the realm of the dead.
In addition to her role in the Odyssey, in later literature Circe had dealings with the prophetic divinity, Picus, who loved the fruit goddess, Pomona, and was consequently changed by Circe into a woodpecker for preferring Pomona over her. She also loved Glaucus but he was in love with Scylla, consequently Circe put poisonous herbs into the fountain where Scylla bathed and she was turned into the famous monster which lurked in a cliff overlooking the strait between Italy and Sicily. Circe was also associated with Marcia, mother of Latinus by Faunus, and with Aphrodite.
My magic song rouses the quiet, calms the angry sea,
I move forests, bid the mountains quake,
the deep earth groans, and ghosts rise from their tombs.
Thee too bright moon, I banish...
Medea is the niece of Circe, a Heliade, and also a Priestess and Witch in the lunar cult of Hekate. She is known to us from the Voyage of Argo, or as it is also known, Jason and the Argonauts by Apollonius of Rhodes, which was written in the 3rd century BCE. Probably the most infamous Witch of antiquity, many writers were fascinated by her and she also appears in works by Seneca, Euripedes and Ovid. In the story of the Argonauts, the goddesses, Athena and Hera, convince Aphrodite to send Eros to smite Medea with love for Jason, leader of the Argonauts, because it fits in with their plans which favour Jason. He had been sent to her kingdom of Colchis to find the Golden Fleece by his uncle who would not let him ascend the throne of his homeland without it. Medea consequently betrays her own people by helping Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, and then has to flee with him back to Greece.
Back in Jason’s kingdom Medea is seen as exotic and foreign and fails to be assimilated into society. Although she was instrumental in putting him on the throne and lives with him as a wife, ungrateful Jason later abandons her because he is offered a chance to marry a local princess for political reasons. Medea derives her sinister reputation from what she did to punish Jason - she made a poisonous robe for the princess he was to marry, who dies horribly, and then she kills her own children. Readers throughout later centuries have had difficulties reconciling their feelings of sympathy for Medea, with their abhorrence at her murderous behaviour. Many explanations for her actions have been suggested ranging from the obvious; that she was just desperate and furious, to the more subtle; that writers used it as a way of making her appear even more ‘alien’. Other versions of the story say that she left the children in the temple of Hera where they were stoned to death by the Corinthians and still other stories mention descendants of Medea and Jason, so if she did kill her children she only killed two of them. One of the survivors, Thessalus, was said to be the father of the Thessalian race.
Medea was not executed for her murders and infanticide, but flew away on her magical chariot and appealed to foreign kings for asylum. To one king, Aegus of Athens, she bore a son Medus whom in some versions of her story she took home to Colchis and who eventually became the father of the Medes, a powerful Asian race. Some writers say that she went to Italy where she was deified by people called the Marrubians as the obscure goddess, Angitia, whose name came from her abilities to kill serpents and cure snakebite; (anguis = serpent). She was also identified with the Roman goddess, Bona Dea, who was the chaste sister, or wife, to Faunus, and who was also associated with serpents. Bona Dea’s cult was a women-only affair, she was a goddess associated with healing, and medicinal herbs were sold in her temples.
Canidia and Erictho appear in Roman poetry, not in epic stories or plays, and so their characters are less-developed than Circe or Medea’s. They are meant to be repulsive, frightening hags, not sexy, amoral sorceresses, which seems to be the way Roman authors perceived Witches. Nevertheless, these types of Witches were to make a big impression on the readers of such literature and this Roman stereotype persisted for the next two thousand years. Hag-like, spooky Canidia, along with her companions, Sagana and Veia, are thought to be (besides the Norns and the Fates), the inspiration for Shakespeare’s ‘Weird Sisters’ from Macbeth. Canidia appears in poems by the Roman writer Horace (65 - 8 BCE), and seems to have been based upon a real Neapolitan pharmacist and perfume-maker called Grattidia, famous for her potions and poisons.
Canidia orders funeral Cypresses,
wild fig trees dug out from tombs,
a nocturnal screech-owl’s feathers,
and eggs smeared with the blood of a nasty toad.
Herbs supplied by poisonous, fertile Iolcos and Spain,
bones snatched from a starving bitch,
to be scorched in the Colchian flames.
~Horace, At o deorum.
According to Georg Luck’s essay in Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome, Horace deliberately satirises Canidia as a depraved practitioner of the black arts in an effort to debunk popular belief in Witchcraft and discourage people from paying Witches for their services. Just as in northern Europe, southern European Witches were always ready with an elixir or a poison and many people sought their aid: The love-struck, seeking to ensnare a beloved or to destroy a rival; young women unable to conceive a child, begged the Witch to bestow upon them the blessing of fertility; and men with impotence problems implored Witches to straighten out their dilemma.
Arrest and persecution of Witches, whether they were hexers or healers, was not unique to Christian Europe’s Witch trials. In the years 184, 180-179 BCE, (which was, incidentally, before Canidia/Grattidia’s time), Roman magistrates ordered the execution of thousands of people accused of veneficia (poisoning) or malign magic, in one case killing 2000 alleged magic-workers and in another 3000. Performing magick, and especially being famous for doing so, like Grattidia, was a dangerous business and practitioners were always at risk of being denounced by an unsatisfied client.
Nay, though the Witch had power to
call the shades forth from the depths,
‘twas doubtful if the cave were not a part of hell.
Discordant hues flamed on her garb as by a fury worn;
bare was her visage, and upon her brow dread vipers hissed,
beneath her streaming locks in sable coils entwined.
Such is the description of the Witch, Erictho, in Book 6 of the Pharsalia by the Roman author Lucan (39 - 65 AD). In this incredibly long epic poem about the Civil War between Julius Caesar and Pompey, we meet a fearsome figure who seems to be a combination of all the previous Witches, as well as being reminiscent of Virgil’s description of Hekate in The Aeneid. Erictho lives in Thessaly, the classic country of sorcery, and is consulted there by Pompey’s son on the eve of the battle of Pharsalus (48 BCE). She has enormous powers, more like a Goddess than a Witch, and emerges as a kind of Great Mother Kali scouring the cremation grounds, collecting the bones and ashes of the dead. In the Pharsalia, instead of guiding the supplicant to the underworld, Erictho brings the underworld up to him by performing necromancy and reanimating a corpse to foretell the future about the outcome of the battle. Such operations were believed to really work and reviving the dead was a subject discussed in scientific circles up to the 19th century. Georg Luck tells us that the poet Shelley read Lucan with his wife Mary, and that this is probably where she derived her idea about writing Frankenstein.
What can we learn from these Witches?
Investigation into the classical Mediterranean Witch figures (by reading the sorts of titles listed below) reveal the beginnings of the sexist stereotyping of women who practiced Witchcraft, as well as showing us interesting role models of what we would now call ‘Solitaries’ or perhaps ‘Hedge Wytches’: there are no covens (unless you call Canidia and her two friends a ‘coven’), no pentagrams, and no ‘Great Rites’. The Witches’ patron deity was Hekate and Witchcraft seemed to be more concerned with attainment of power, in a worldly sense, control of sex, fertility, life and death, and medicine for healing or harming, rather than any sort of religious practice. These ancient Witches are quite different to the rather pervasive ‘fluffy bunny New Age Wiccans’ of contemporary society. Although they are not necessarily based completely truthfully on real life ancient practitioners, personally I think that anyone who studies and/or practices Witchcraft today needs to be aware of these ancient Witchy prototypes and their role in the stereotype/archetype of the Witch.
Where to find Greco-Roman Witches
These once-popular classic works have been somewhat neglected of late by many Pagans, however these books are recommended reading for the popular revival/practice of Stregheria as well as any sort of Hellenic or Roman reconstructionist Paganism, and for those who have an affinity with Mediterranean cultures.
The Odyssey by Homer, (Penguin 1946), the Voyage of Argo by Apollonius of Rhodes (Penguin 1959 & 1971), Medea by Euripides (Penguin 1963), Metamorphosis by Ovid (Oxford University Press 1986) the Aeneid by Virgil (Penguin 1990), Complete Odes and Epodes by Horace (Penguin 1983), and Pharsalia by Lucan (Penguin 1992).
Other helpful titles
Arcana Mundi by Georg Luck. (John Hopkins University Press USA 1985), Women of Classical Mythology by Robert E. Bell (ABC-CLIO USA 1991) (Has lots of obscure goddesses as well as more familiar ones listed). Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: Ancient Greece and Rome. Ed. Bengt Ankarloo & Stuart Clark. (Athlone Press 1999) The Rotting Goddess by Jacob Rabinowitz. (Traces the development of Hekate from a local fertility deity into a somewhat sinister Witch Goddess). (Autonomedia USA 1998) and Goddesses of Sun and Moon by Karl Kerenyi. (Highly recommended for his analysis of the figures of Circe and Medea) (Spring Publications USA 1979).
Originally published in The Cauldron #106 (November 2002).