“As I grew toward my fourth year I was seized and killed, when I had the potential to be sweet for my mother and father. I was snatched by a witch’s hand, ever cruel so long as it remains on the earth and does harm with its craft. Parents, guard your children well, lest grief of this magnitude should implant itself in your breast.”
Roman epitaph of a child believed to have been snatched by witches. 20’s CE.
The stereotypical image of the female witch as a hag-like, baby-killing worshipper of Satan is a literary construction. Women never were performing acts such as gathering at night to offer the remains of aborted fetuses to the Devil, raise the dead, or destroy farms and livestock with magic. Witches and their activities are fantasy figures conveying the idea of inversion. They hold up concave mirrors to the “regular” world displaying oppositions to the “norm”. In particular, witches express what a society believes women should not be, and the fear that if women were to refuse to participate in heterosexual relations and the process of reproduction, society, agriculture and nature would devolve into chaos. So where did this sort of witch, so prevalent in the medieval and early modern European Witch Trials come from?
In the West we have relied for centuries on the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Our very culture grew out of the Roman Empire, which was in turn inspired by the glory that was Greece. Greco-Roman literature has been a staple in schools and universities for centuries, only very recently falling somewhat out of fashion. It is in Roman fictional literature that we find the first instance of the harridan-witch, the imaginary figure that later assumptions about women as witches were based on. This is not to say that there were no real women practicing magic in ancient Greek and Roman society - on the contrary, magical practitioners of both sexes were prevalent throughout ancient Mediterranean culture. The detailed descriptions of Greco-Roman female witches however, are only found in literature composed by men. If real witches ever wrote about their practices we now do not have their books so have to rely on the literary constructions.
Before the 1st century CE, in Greek literature, witches such as the famous Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, Medea as portrayed by Euripides, and Theocritus’s love-lorn Simaetha, were beautiful and deadly. Their sphere of expertise was in erotic magic and they were dangerous to men, but pleasantly so. Initially Roman writers continued the idea of the female witch and erotic desire, however the witches themselves became ugly and repulsive. Horace, writing around 30 BCE, introduced the fearsome hags, Canidia, Sagana, Veia and Folia, in his Epodes and Satires. These unattractive older women were intended to be ridiculous, as well as inappropriately masculine, in their relentless pursuit of love. In literature from the 1st century CE onwards a standard “witch” figure congealed that incorporated ideas such as lasciviousness, association with the dead, the use of noxious herbs, shape-shifting, control of nature and invulnerability. Witches were now not only dangerous, but foul, impious and hideous - qualities that later become stock characteristics in European depictions of the witch.
The epitome of the fictional Roman “horror-witch” was Erichtho who first appeared in a Latin epic poem, the Bellum Civile (Civil War), by a poet called Lucan. The poem was composed around 65 CE but concerns the events of the civil war of 49-45 BCE between the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar, and the representative of the republican cause, Pompey. Erichtho is introduced in Book Six, set during the evening before the decisive Battle of Pharsalus which was fought in Thessaly, northern Greece, in 48 BCE. On the eve of the conflict Sextus, the son of Pompey, desires to know who the winner of the battle will be. He seeks out Erichtho whom he has heard is a famous Thessalian saga (witch), in the hope that she will divine the future and tell him who will triumph. Erichtho is revealed to be an “extreme” witch. The personification of inverted order, she smashes every carefully maintained boundary around Roman concepts of place, society, gender, piety, law, religion, the gods, life and death.
The land of Thessaly is home to a race of witches who spend their time concocting complicated erotic spells, interfering with the weather, causing rivers to flow back to their sources, flattening mountains and drawing down the moon. The land itself also produces magically potent plants and stones. For the Romans, Thessaly is the witch-country par excellence, exemplifying extreme geography it is synonymous with magic. The idea of witches living in peripheral areas away from the center of civilization derives from Greek depictions of witches such as Circe, who lived on the island of Aeaea at the ends of the earth, and Medea who came from distant Colchis on the Black Sea. The theme of witches working their magic in liminal spaces can still be discerned 1600 years later in the example of the blasted heath in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The typical practices of Erichtho’s Thessalian witch-sisters are actually “too holy” for her. What is already outlandishly foreign by Roman standards is not extreme enough and she prefers to apply herself to “unknown rites”, demonstrating that she is even further outside of what is already severely alien. Not only does Erichtho live in an extreme environment however, she actually lives beyond it. Lucan situates her dwelling in a cemetery - no regular house for her, she lives in a tomb, inverting conventional Roman society by refusing to live in a “normal” way. Erichtho also courts the favor of underworld deities as opposed to being looked upon benevolently by the upper gods, as was most people’s aim. She shuns regular human interaction and although living, converses with the dead.
Erichtho thoroughly capsizes the category of normal Roman womanhood. She seems to be unmarried and childless, although she might be a widow which would go some way to explaining her loitering in a cemetery at night. Older women in patriarchal Greco-Roman society, being post-reproductive females not in danger of sexual violation, had greater freedom of movement. There was simply not as much need to supervise them once they had outlasted their usefulness as lovers and mothers. This attitude may have been part of the reason why in most of the European countries effected by Witch Hunts during the 16th and 17th centuries we see an orientation of persecution towards poorer, older and often widowed women. As well as being old, Erichtho is ugly and unkempt, emphasizing her complete disregard for social niceties. According to Lucan:
“The blasphemer’s face
is gaunt and loathsome with decay: unknown to cloudless sky
And terrifying, by Stygian pallor it is tainted,
Matted with uncombed hair.”
Civil War. 6:515-18.
A horrida mulier (horrible woman), Erichtho’s ugliness turns away the male erotic gaze, as do Macbeth’s Weird Sisters:
“…What are these,
So withered, and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’inhabitants o’th’ earth
And yet are on’t? - Live you, or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.”
Macbeth Act 1, Scene 2.
The cemetery-dwelling Erichtho is in a perpetual state of funestatus, usually a temporary mourning state characterized by dishevelment and symbolic of being soiled by contact with the dead. As such, she is the inversion of a respectable Roman matron who had as little to do with the dead as was necessary. As the opposite of the “acceptable” woman, anomalous Erichtho is consequently pro-death and even toxic - her very breath makes the air poisonous. Witches’ powers were often thought to be derived from within their bodies. Like an incarnation of an entrance to the underworld, Lucan has Erichtho physically emit noxious death-dealing fumes. As Medea in Apollonius’ epic Argonautica possesses the evil eye that can kill - a well-known attribute of later European witches - so Erichtho has evil breath!
In addition to being noxious, Erichtho is poignantly anti-fertile. In ancient society the norm regarding sex for women was heterosexual, procreative sex under male control. A woman who refused or was unable to fulfill this role was a virtual opponent to the family: the most important structure by which human society organized itself. The idea that a woman might not actually want to be pregnant was considered abhorrent. Disapproval or fear of non-reproductive women continued to be a theme in medieval speculation about witches. The Malleus Maleficarum written in 1484 brims with imagined examples of witches whose sole desire is to disrupt the family through miscarriage and impotence:
“Now there are, as it is said in the Papal Bull, seven methods by which they infect with witchcraft the venereal act and the conception of the womb: First, by inclining the minds of men to inordinate passion; second, by obstructing their generative force; third, by removing the members accommodated to that act; fourth, by changing men into beasts by their magic art; fifth, by destroying the generative force in women; sixth, by procuring abortion; seventh, by offering children to devils.”
Malleus Part 1, Question 6.
If women “equal” nature - which in many cultures they did - and witches are women refusing bodily fertility, then their equivalence with nature means that they subsequently “infect” its wider sphere as well: agriculture, animal husbandry, and people. Lucan has Erichtho deliberately trample and scorch fields of corn. As a deadly threat to society’s food source, she is a forerunner of the later Italian malandanti witches who destroy the harvest, and the English witches who were believed to attack the dairy.
Like the later anti-Christian witches invented by medieval and early modern demonologists, Erichtho is religiously dangerous. She does not participate in regular, public, day time prayer, supplicating the upper gods for divine aid as was the procedure in traditional Roman religion. Nor does she offer customary animal sacrifice, she “has no knowledge of favorable entrails” and is therefore impious because, in Roman religion, piety meant knowing how to sacrifice. Erichtho performs private ritual in a remote place at night using questionable materials: funeral fire and stolen incense. Her impiety risks bad relations with the gods and has the potential to contaminate regular society. Despite her religious “wrongness” however, inexplicably the gods grant her what she wants.
Erichtho wantonly commits murder, like the later European witches who allegedly killed and offered unbaptised babies up to the Devil - their “un-Christian” state thought to contribute to their vulnerability as well as their suitability for Satan. Erichtho creates aoroi, ghosts of young people who have died before the time allotted to them by the Fates. Unable to enter the confines of the underworld, aoroi wandered around making trouble and so were especially useful in magic as deliverers of curses. Erichtho’s flippant attitude toward killing situates her beyond human sensibilities, custom and law. She inverts traditional Roman religious animal sacrifice by performing human sacrifice. If she needs living blood from a slit throat she will simply murder a person. If she needs quivering organs, the exta of Roman sacrifice, she uses human ones. Erichtho will even cut out a live fetus from a pregnant woman and offer it on a burning altar.
How many times have I cut out
breasts filled by deity and washed them with warm brains?
Are there no babes, about to enter life, who laid
their heads and heart upon your dishes? Then obey my prayer.
Civil War 6:708-11
This emphasizes her anti-life concerns, but is also a way for Lucan to express disapproval at the clandestine work of female abortionists. In patriarchal society the avoidance or termination of pregnancy without consent of the father was frowned upon. Near Eastern, Greek and Roman female folk-demons such as the Semitic Lilith, the Greek Lamia, and the Roman Strix, who embodied the failed mother and were believed to hunt, kill and eat children, were conflated with the witch. Herbal recipes from ancient medical literature, the low numbers of children in individual families and explicit textual evidence however, show that contraception, abortion and infant exposure were practiced. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between pragmatic fertility limitation and “witchcraft” - the two should not be equated. Women were not performing obstetrical acts in order to be “evil” or to fulfill the bloodthirsty requirement of a “malevolent” god. In medieval anti-witch literature, particularly the Malleus Maleficarum, midwives were specifically painted as baby-sacrificing “witches”. The authors, Kramer and Sprenger, write “We must not omit to mention the injuries done to children by witch midwives, first by killing them, and secondly by blasphemously offering them to devils.” A famous French case from 1679, the “Affair of the Poisons”, also linked fertility control with witchcraft when accusations of Satanism were directed at prominent members of King Louis the XIV’s court who had sought the services of an abortionist known as La Voisin.
Erichtho does not only kill however. Resembling a renegade scientist she also brings the dead back to life. As is typical of the invulnerability of Roman witches, although Erichtho transgresses the boundary between life and death, she incurs no divine punishment - unlike the healer god, Asclepius, son of Apollo, who was killed by Zeus for the same activity. Erichtho has no respect for the dead whatsoever or their funeral rites. Her main activities involve scouring the cemetery for body parts for use in magic. So anxious is she to get what she wants that she has no qualms about grabbing funeral material out of still-burning pyres. In fact the magical material is likely to be more effective if it has not gone through a funeral rite, the ataphoi (unburied dead), like aoroi, are restless and able to be manipulated magically. So impious is Erichtho that she does not even respect her own di manes, the family ancestors. At a kinsman’s funeral while pretending to mourn and kiss the corpse, she bites parts off of it and sends messages down to Hades by speaking into its mouth.
Insensible to reasonable standards of hygiene and intimate with gore, Erichtho is not averse to biting rope nooses from around executed criminal’s necks, scraping crucified bodies off their crosses or even tearing at pulpy wet intestines that have been in the rain.
“But when dead bodies are preserved in stone, which draws the inmost
moisture off, and once the marrow’s fluid is absorbed and they grow hard,
then greedily she vents her rage on the entire corpse:
she sinks her hands into the eyes, she gleefully digs out
the cold eyeballs and gnaws the pallid nails on withered hand.”
Civil War. 6: 538-43.
She even competes with carrion birds and tears bones from the jaws of wolves. By associating her mouth with such vile material Erichtho blurs the boundaries between food and refuse, between human and scavenging animal. Later depictions of the witches’ sabbat frequently included an inverted feast that consisted of non-nourishing, often nauseating food such as animal or human excrement, vomit, slurry, bones, stones and slithering creatures.
“There are the merry-makers of the gathering, having each a demon near her: and in this festival no other meat is served apart from corpses, flesh of hanged men, hearts of unbaptized infants, and unclean animals, totally outside the trade and usage of Christians.”
Pierre de Lancre. Tableau de l’Inconstance des Mauvais Anges et Demons.
When it comes to magic, not only is Erichtho more advanced than other witches, her knowledge even surpasses the gods of magic. When Sextus encounters her she is trying out new magical words - words unknown to magical practitioners and even to the mighty underworld pantheon. The spell she is composing is designed, perversely, to keep the war in her vicinity and parodies a well-known Greek peace spell. Her aim is to have a continuous supply of body parts from the battle casualties, the ghosts of powerful men like Cesar or Pompey would make particularly effective aoroi. Erichtho is also beyond resorting to lawful Roman methods of divination. Unlike the respectable male diviners who took auguries from domestic chickens, Thessalian witches resort to divining via wild nature: the earth, ether, chaos, seas, plains and rocks. Naturally however, this method is a little tame for Erichtho who chooses to perform necromancy, taking advantage of what is nearest to hand: corpses.
Unlike traditional Roman religion, Erichtho’s ritual site is not an altar in front of a temple, but a deep, dark cave surrounded by a spooky forest and impenetrable to the sun. Instead of the fragrance of incense the air is stagnant, reminiscent of an entrance to the underworld that emits noxious vapors. Attired in the multicolored robe of a Fury, a type of vengeful underworld goddess whom Lucan conflates with witches, and with her hair tied back with snakes, Erichtho resembles the frightful Gorgon Medusa. By now, Sextus and his companions are completely terrified.
When she saw his comrades fearful and the youth himself
trembling with his gaze transfixed and lifeless face,
she says: ‘Suppress the terrors conceived in anxious minds…
Truly if I could show you Stygian lakes and the river-bank
which sounds with fires, if I could make appear
the Eumenides and Cerberus shaking his neck
shaggy with serpents, and the Giants with their hands bound back,
what cause for fear, you cowards, is the sight of a timid ghost?’
Civil War 6:657-66.
So far “beyond” everything that is safe and familiar is she by now, so easily does Erichtho seem to be traversing boundaries that should be impenetrable, that it becomes unclear as to whether she really is of this world or whether she is an emissary from Hell. The liminal Erichtho acts as a portal between the living and the dead in order to divine who will be living and who dead in the impending battle.
The reanimation of the corpse Erichtho plans to use for necromancy is a type of outlaw medicine. Like a surgeon performing an operation, she makes fresh wounds in its body and pours in menstrual blood, the poisonous, withering qualities of which were well known in ancient medicine. Next she washes the innards and applies virus lunarae, the foam extracted from the moon after it has been drawn down to the earth, a typical practice of Thessalian witches. This she mixes with other repulsive and exotic ingredients like rabid dog’s froth, entrails of lynx, hyena hump, Arab’s flying serpent, Lybian snake skin and ashes of phoenix. This graphic description is a likely contender as the source for the hell-broth that Shakespeare’s Weird Sisters created in their cauldron.
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing,…
Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
Witches mummy, maw and gulf
Of the ravined salt-sea shark,
Root of hemlock digged i’th’ dark…
Macbeth. Act 3, Scene 5.
Erichtho adds “common poisons with names”, a reminder of the long-held belief that witches were adept at cultivating and using poison. Next she adds leaves drenched with spells and herbs she has spat upon, making them poisonous because she herself is poisonous. Herbalism and magic are confounded, as they are in later depictions of European witchcraft. The “flying ointment” witches used in order to travel to the sabbat was reputed to be a mixture of hallucinogenic herbs and the fat of unbaptised infants. Like the medieval and early modern witch, Erichtho is a renegade healer who can also harm. She is both wise-woman and poisoner.
Despite Erichtho’s nefarious ritual practices she uses a recognizable Roman prayer formula consisting of invocatio, (invocation), pars epica or argumentum (narrative middle), followed by the preces (wish). Just as the later Satanic Black Mass follows the Catholic ritual format but inverts its content, so does Erichtho’s prayer in regards to Roman ritual. This indicates that structurally “magic” was not so differently conceived of from “religion” - the distinction lay in the belief that “magic” was illicit. Erichtho’s prayer initially consists of jumbled noises, possibly the sound of vowels which were well-known for their magical power. Next come animal noises, which brings to mind a possible precedent in following prayer from the Greek Magical Papyri:
“And the first companion of your name is silence, the second, a popping sound, the third groaning, the fourth hissing / the fifth a cry of joy, the sixth moaning, the seventh barking, the eighth bellowing, the ninth neighing,/ the tenth a musical sound, the eleventh a sounding wind, the twelfth a wind-creating sound, the thirteenth a coercive sound, the fourteenth a coercive emanation from perfection./”
PGM VII. 756-94.
This is followed by the sounds of waves, forests and thunder, recalling the idea that witches speak to nature in its own language. Erichtho’s speech is not merely unusual, it is inhuman. Recognizable words follow in her invocation to underworld deities and powers: the Eumenides, Chaos, Hades, Styx, Elysium, Persephone, Hecate, the Porter of the Underworld, the Fates and Charon. Erichtho lists the reasons why she deserves the attention of the deities. The murder, abortion, baby sacrifice and eating of human entrails, are suitable offerings to these deities in this magical context.
When the ghost she requested appears but does not enter the body she has prepared, Erichtho escalates her prayer from a wish into an order. She shouts through the earth’s hollow cracks to the Furies, Tisiphone and Megaera, compelling them to force the ghost by threatening to use their real names. This may be a reference to voces magicae, indecipherable words that were thought to be the “secret names” of deities. Assuming the authority of a Fury herself, Erichtho also harangues Hecate, Persephone and Hades, intimidating them by threatening to summon an even stronger deity who will surely make them comply. The threats prove effective and the corpse springs to life, only to then foretell the certain defeat of Pompey by Caesar, and the subsequent annihilation of his lineage.
Earlier on in the poem Lucan, musing on the seemingly enormous powers of witches, had wondered:
“Why do the gods take trouble to obey the spells and drugs,
not daring to despise them? What kind of link
holds the gods bound fast? Is their obedience necessary
or by choice? Do the witches win so much merit by loyalty unknown
or do they prevail by secret threats? Do they have this power
over all the gods, or have these spells authority
over one particular deity, who can force the universe to do
whatever he himself is forced to do?”
Civil War. 6:492-99.
Erichtho has a special relationship with an extremely powerful divinity, just as later witches were believed to have a pact with the Devil through whose power they accomplished their magic. The deity Erichtho threatens to summon that so frightened the underworld gods - who are not innately malevolent themselves, but ancient, uncanny deities of the earth - is Seth-Typhon, a god too powerful to be constrained by the laws that bind other deities.
“Deliver me from this god, who seizes souls and licks that which is rotten, who lives on offal and is in darkness and obscurity, who terrifies the weary - it is Seth.”
Book of the Dead 17.
The Egyptian Seth, god of chaos and volatile deity of storms and the desert, is the enemy of Osiris, benevolent god of fertility and resurrection. Foe to vegetation and human reproduction, Seth is the opponent of harmony. Appearing in the form of a composite aardvark-dog-ass, he is the transgressive god of the margins and was early on conflated with Typhon.
The Greek Typhon, also god of chaos, is the arch enemy of the father of the divine pantheon and god of order, Zeus. Born of Gaia the earth mother and Tartarus itself, Typhon is a vast and terrifying monster who challenges Zeus’s right to rule. According to the Greek writer Hesiod:
On his shoulders grew
A hundred snaky heads, strange dragon heads
With black tongues darting out. His eyes flashed fire
Beneath the brows upon those heads, and fire
Blazed out from every head when he looked round.
Astounding voices came from those weird heads,
All kinds of voices: sometimes speech which gods
Would understand, and sometimes bellowings,
As of a bull let loose, enraged and proud,
Sometimes that of a ruthless lion; then,
Sometimes the yelp of puppies, marvelous
To hear; and then sometimes he hissed,
And the tall mountains echoed underneath.
Countless aeons ago Zeus flung Typhon into Tartarus where he became the source of destructive storm winds and the fiery power erupting from volcanoes. As the belligerent divinity ruling the inverted world of Erichtho in Lucan’s influential poem, Seth-Typhon is the perfect prototype for the monstrous, Satan (but that is a subject for a future article).
We have here, in the figure of Erichtho, the basis for the malevolent female witch as conceived of in both literature and the popular imagination. We know that subsequent writers were influenced by her; she makes a cameo appearance in Dante’s Inferno (Canto 9: 22-24), Shakespeare’s witches undoubtedly pay homage to her, and she may even have influenced Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In addition to these creative literary types, there were also those who took Lucan completely seriously. Christian demonologists, church men, witch-hunters and inquisitors who were familiar with Roman literature would have been aware of Erichtho. They would have taken note of her characteristics in order to better understand and identify the Satanic witches who were believed to plague their own time.
Virtually everything that we now picture about wicked witches was laid out in Lucan’s wonderfully evocative poem almost 2,000 years ago. Erichtho epitomizes key witchcraft themes such as inversion, liminality and danger. She is a non-conformist, a social reject, a failed mother, an ugly old woman, an unauthorized medical practitioner, even a mad scientist. Corrupt and poisonous to the depths of her being, she endangers agriculture, threatens animal and human fertility and has the potential to topple society itself. A killer with superhuman powers who is devoted to death and destruction, Erichtho even enjoys support from an extremely powerful divine force, confirming her invulnerability.
Lucan’s necromantic sorceress provides the link between ancient pagan ideas about witches and later Christian ones. Belief in the idea that people could physically embody the forces of chaos, that a harmless old lady was really a wicked witch, resulted in scape-goating of massive proportions during the European Witch Trials. Under the auspices of restoring order and sanctity to society, the identification and execution of witches was also a way to terrify and subdue women by showing them the fatal results of non-conformity. In the end, the stereotypical image of the witch was not based on reality, it was a distorted magnification of, and comment upon, women who did not comply with the male view of how women should be.