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THE WITCH IN GREECE AND ROME
ALTHOUGH the Christian witch was the direct descendant of the Jewish, there were yet other branches of her family tree not without their influence upon her final development. Chief among them were the great witch families of Greece and Rome, the one being in some sense a development of the other and through it inheriting more than a trace of Persian blood.
It is a natural feature of anthropomorphic religion that from a few representatives of the more important phases of human existence the gods and goddesses tend to increase, until there is hardly a department of human activity without its presiding deity. As there are kings and queens among men, so there will be sovereigns among the gods. The divine king will have his officers, servants and warriors just as do those earthly kings who worship him. The personal appearance of the god differs from that of the man only in degree, his connection with his worshippers is almost undignified in the closeness of his intimacy. He suffers the same passions, commits the same crimes, occasionally aspires to the same virtues; he is, in a word, man in all but name and divine only in his humanity.
Among no people was this tendency more highly and minutely developed than among the Greeks. Not only did their deities adapt themselves to every phase of human life; the famous altar to "the Unknown God," attests the limitless potentialities of the Greek Pantheon. Were all other records destroyed we could exactly reconstruct Grecian life and feeling from the doings of the Grecian gods; we may expect to find accordingly such a phase of belief as witchcraft accurately mirrored in Grecian mythology. And, accordingly, the witch proves to have her definite niche in the Greek Pantheon. Naturally also, she did not rank among the greater goddesses. On the one hand she may be looked for as the degenerate form of a goddess; on the other she corresponds nearly enough to the heroic demigods in whose veins royal blood mingled with divine ichor.
To the first category belongs the dire and dreadful form of Hecate. Originally an ancient Thracian divinity, she by degrees assumed the attributes of many, Atis, Cybele, Isis, and others. As the personification of the moon, whose rays serve but to increase the mystery of night, she was the patroness of all witches, and was invoked on all their most baleful undertakings. Gradually she grew into the spectral originator of all those horrors with which darkness affects the imagination, Hecate it was who first cast spells and became learned in enchantments; Hecate who at the approach of night loosed demons and phantoms from the lower shades. Did you, hastening through the twilight, meet with a formless monster, hoofed like an ass and radiating a stench incomparably foul, you might recognise the handiwork of Hecate designed, perhaps, to punish you for having neglected to offer on her altars your accustomed sacrifice of dogs, or honey, or black lambs, or to set out her monthly offering of food perhaps only in wanton exercise of her mysterious power. Did the mournful baying of your kennelled hounds lend point to the gloomy solitude of night, you might know that Hecate was abroad upon the earth somewhere at hand, with dead souls to form her retinue. Must you pass the cross-roads, or visit the place of tombs, hasten, and especially beware the spot where the blood of murdered persons has been spilt, for all such places are Hecate's chosen haunts. In the gloom and darkness she did her grisly work, now brewing philtres, now potions, with reptiles, human flesh or blood of man or beast that had died dreadful deaths for her ingredients.
The rites of Hecate worship varied in different parts of Greece; she plays a leading part in the Orphic poems, and when the old religion began to be submerged beneath foreign elements, she yet held her own and was even invoked by strangers. Her statues were erected before the houses and at the cross-roads in Athens, and such Hecatea were consulted as oracles. Her personal appearance was the reverse of attractive. She had either three bodies or three heads, according to time and circumstance, one being of a horse, the second of a dog, the third of a lion. Although usual, this habit of body was not constant, her magic arts allowing her to take whatever form she chose as freely as could her fellow divinities. But however she appeared she was invariably hideous. Nevertheless, there seem to have been those among her votaries bold enough to desire personal interviews with her, and for their benefit she provided a formula of her own composition and of such power that she was constrained to obey the citation of those availing themselves of it. It may be quoted for the benefit of those readers who desire her closer acquaintance. Make a wooden statue of the root of the wild rue, well-polished, and anoint it with the bodies of little common lizards crushed into a paste with myrrh, storax, and incense. Leave it in the open air during the waxing of the moon, and then (presumably at full moon) speak as follows: Come, infernal, terrestrial and celestial Bombo, goddess of the highways and the cross-ways, enemy of the light who walkest abroad at night, friend and companion of the night, thou who delightest in the barking of dogs and in the shedding of blood, who wanderest amongst the shades and about the tombs, thou who desirest blood and who bringest terror unto mortals Gorgo, Mormo, moon of a thousand forms, cast a propitious eye upon our sacrifices." Then take as many lizards as Hecate has forms and fail not to make a grove of laurel boughs, the laurels having grown wild. Then, having addressed fervent prayers to the image, you will see her.
Hecate, who became the mother of Scylla, and, according to some accounts also of Medea and of Circe, was arch-mistress of the knowledge of herbs and simples, more especially of poisons. She is almost more typical of the later developments of the witch than of those of her own times. Hag-like and horrible, she worked only for evil, inspiring her votaries with that terror which she herself personified. Goddess though she be, she provides a poignant illustration of one characteristic of the Greek Pantheon which it shares with no other. Its gods and goddesses are always a little more human than their votaries, more prone to human weaknesses if not to human virtues. Thus Hecate shows herself more horrible and terror-breeding than any of those who did their best to model themselves upon her. Just as Mars represented the soldier, carried to his logical conclusion, so Hecate represents the witch conception carried to its furthest limits the concentrated essence of witchcraft.
To the class of semi-divine witches belong those of Thessaly, as well as Medea and Circe, the putative daughters of Hecate, from whom they learned their magic arts. Circe was assisted by four attendant witches, who gathered for her the herbs wherewith she might brew such potions as turned the companions of Ulysses into swine. The influence of Medea was, on the whole, more benign. She cured Hercules of madness, and taught the Marubians the decidedly useful accomplishment of fascinating and subduing venomous serpents. Not that her knowledge of ointments, poisonous and otherwise, was in any way inferior to that of her sister. Euripides represents her as invoked in terms almost identical with those already quoted in connection with Hecate. The love-sick maiden, Simaetha, in the second Idyll of Theocritus, appeals to Hecate to "make this medicine of mine no less potent than the spells of Circe, or of Medea, or of Perimede of the golden hair."
Equally skilled in poison were the witches of Thessaly, who could, moreover, draw down the moon out of the sky by their magic songs and philtres. If less awful than Hecate, their proceedings inspired equally little confidence. They were addicted, for example, to such practices as tearing off with their teeth flesh from the faces of the dead, for the concoction of their spells. To prevent this early variant of body snatching, dead bodies had to be watched by night. To circumvent the watchers, the witches, as we learn from Apuleius, took the form of dogs, mice, or flies, so that the guardians of the dead must look neither to the right nor to the left, nor even wink while on duty.
Nor were such grisly exploits confined to Thessaly, for in Syria, as Marcassus tells us, troops of witches haunted the battlefield during the night, devouring the bodies of the slain. During the day they took the shape of wolves or hyenas, thus providing a link with the more common phases of lycanthropy. These same witches were definitely human beings, as distinct from spirits, and it was comparatively easy for anyone who so wished, and could obtain the necessary recipe, to follow their example. Such magic salves were usually composed of narcotics, among them being aconite, belladonna, opium, and hyoscyamus, boiled down with the fat of a little child, murdered for the purpose, and with the blood of a bat added. They needed careful and expert usage, however, lest such a mischance might befall as occurred to "the Golden Ass," who, seeking to become an owl, found himself to be no more than a donkey.
While the Thessalian witches paid more attention to the toxicological aspect of Hecate's teaching, the pythons exploited one no less important the prediction of events to come. Every prudent Greek consulted the oracle at Delphi, before undertaking anything of importance the oracle displaying equal prudence in the non-committal vagueness of her replies. Theseus, who, on the death of his father, wished to introduce a new form of Government in Athens, sought advice thereon, and received as his answer:
Son of the Pitthean maid,
To your town the terms and fates
My father gives of many states.
Be not anxious or afraid,
The bladder will not fail to swim
On the waves that compass him.
of Macedon, again, the utterance of the Pythian priestess ran:
The Battle on Thermodon that shall be
Safe at a distance I desire to see.
Far like an eagle watching in the air,
Conquered shall weep, and conqueror perish there.
That even oracles were and perhaps are open to human influence may be deduced from Demosthenes' irreverent suggestion that the prophetess had been tampered with in Philip's favour.
The manner of delivering an oracle doubtless gave a ritualistic example to the witches of later ages, and, as such, may be quoted. After the offering of certain sacrifices, the priestess took her seat on a tripod placed over a fissure in the ground at the centre of the temple. From this came forth an intoxicating gas which, when she breathed it, caused her to utter wild, whirling words. These were interpreted by the attendant priest and by him handed to the applicant, having been first written down in hexameters by an official poet. Divination in Greece thus owed as much to the witch as to the goddess, and it should be noted that, in the case of the Delphic oracle at any rate, the priest acted as go-between, the Pythia being only an item of the oracular machinery.
The Persian wars brought new influences to bear upon Greek religion in general and witchcraft in particular. With Darius and Xerxes came the magic practised by the followers of Zoroaster. Pliny has it that Xerxes was accompanied by Osthanes, a writer on magic, and this statement, whether or no correct in itself, expresses a general truth. Later, after the Greek irruptions into Persia and Assyria, the Chaldeans effected a peaceful occupation of Greece to such effect that "Chaldean" came to be synonymous with doctor, magician, or sorcerer. Like those of their descendants whose advertisements make the fortunes of our newspaper proprietors to-day, they cured sufferers from incurable diseases, provided, for a small fee, infallible recipes for making money quickly, and acted as mediators between heaven and such offenders as could not approach it through the regular channels with any hope of success. Naturally, also, they did not neglect such a popular "line" as prophecy, sometimes for distinguished clients, as, for example, the father of Euripides, who is said to have consulted a Chaldean as to his son's destiny. In a word, they took the place of quack-doctors, palmists, "get-rich-quickly" colleges, and the various other practitioners in allied branches of swindling, whose operations to-day are generally hailed as remarkable instances of American "cuteness" and originality.
That the Greek witch of the older school should be powerfully influenced by such innovators was natural enough, the more so that in Chaldea women took a foremost part in practising the more evil kinds of magic. Accordingly, we may accept the date of the Persian Wars as that in which commenced a change in the whole character of Grecian witchcraft. The witch became less terrible in that she was less spiritual, but more pernicious in that she dabbled more with material evil. Hecate was a sufficiently awesome figure, but her terrors were more or less impartial in their scope, and might affect one man as well as another, did he happen to come into contact with them. The witch of later times concentrated her malignancy upon a particular object, and thus became the apt instrument of private vengeance and a force definitely detrimental to social weal.
Yet another powerful influence upon Greek magic was exerted by Egypt. Witchcraft and astrology after the Egyptian method were held in as high respect as were those of the Chaldean convention, and Nectanebus, the last native King of Egypt (about 350 B.C.), was acknowledged in Hellas as the most redoubtable of the magicians. He was an adept in the use of waxen images, and among those to whom he sent dreams was Philip of Macedon.
Thus with the gradual rise of astrology in Greece and the decay of the old religion a state of things arose very similar to what is even now taking place the nations of the East coming under the influence of Grecian culture, and in return providing her with new cults and crazes, one more fantastic than the other, but all seized upon with equal avidity by the hungry Hellenic intellect, craving always for some new thing. From comparatively simple beginnings Greek witchcraft added always to its complexity until it included everything popularly associated with the name, including a full understanding of hallucinations, dreams, demoniacal possession, exorcism, and divination, the use of wax images and useful poisons, mostly from Eastern sources, and with them a very nice understanding of philtres. A good example of a love charm is to be found in Theocritus, writing in the first decades of the third century B.C. Among the charms of which the heroine of his idyll avails herself to bring about the return of her faithless rover are laurel-leaves, bright red wool, and witchknots this last a distinctively Babylonian practice. The charm has a recurrent refrain of "My magic wheel, bring back to me the man I love." Barley grains must then be scattered in the fire while the following spell is intoned:
'Tis the bones of Delphis (or another) I am scattering.
Delphis troubled me, and I against Delphis am burning this laurel. Even as it crackles loudly, when it has caught the flame, and suddenly is burned up, and we see not even the dust thereof, lo! even thus may the flesh of Delphis waste in the burning.
Even as I melt this wax, with the god to aid, so speedily may he by love be molten.
Three times do I pour libations, and thrice my Lady Moon, I speak this spell. Be it with a friend he lingers, be it with a leman that he lies, may he as clean forget them as Theseus of old did utterly forget the fair-tressed Ariadne.
Coltsfoot is an Arcadian weed that maddens on the hills the young stallions and fleet-footed mares: Ah, even as these may I see Delphis.
This fringe from his cloak Delphis has lost, that now I shred and cast into the flame. . . .
Lo, I will crush an eft, and a venomous draught tomorrow I will bring thee.
But now, Thestylis, take these magic herbs and secretly smear the juice on the jambs of his gate and spit and whisper, 'Tis the bones of Delphis that I smear.
I saw Delphis I fell sick of love, and consulted every wizard and every crone,
Here, then, we have a detailed account of practices identical with those such as subsequently became the object of fierce persecutions the use of effigies, of magic herbs, the burning of some substance while calling the name of the person to be influenced, the using of a fragment of his personal belongings to his detriment, on consulting with "crones" for the satisfaction of love-cravings. It was, however, too closely related to religion for there to be any continuous expression of unfavourable public opinion. At the same time, laws existed against it, subsequently to find an echo in Roman legislation. Theoris, "the Lemnian woman," as Demosthenes calls her, was publicly tried in Athens and burned as a witch. Demoniacal possession and exorcism were believed in at least as early as 330 B.C., in which year Demosthenes refers to them in an oration. His feeling towards the practice of exorcism may be deduced from his reproaching Ζschinus as being the son of a woman who gained her living as an exorcist. Plato, in the Laws, decrees: "If any by bindings-down or allurements or incantations or any such-like poisonings whatever appear to be like one doing an injury, if he be a diviner or interpreter of miracles, let him be put to death."
But despite such minor inconveniences, the Greek witch had little to fear in the way of persecutions, so that her mediaeval successors might well have looked back to the days of ancient Hellas as their Golden Age, alike spiritually and materially.
If the Greeks, who recognised no predecessors in the possession of their country, yet imported so much of their witchcraft from abroad, it is little to be wondered at that the Romans, by their own account foreign settlers in Italy, should have done so. Unlike those of Greece, Roman legends provide a definite beginning for Rome itself. The city was founded by a foreigner. What more likely than that he should bring with him the customs, cults, and superstitions of his own country.
Granting that the pious Ζneas ever existed, we may also suppose that he was responsible for the Roman tendency in things magical. Of Greek magic he would have learned enough and to spare in the long ten years' warring on the plains of Ilium. From Dido also he might well have learned something. Virgil himself was by popular report familiar with all the laws of witchcraft, and Virgil tells us of Dido's acquaintance, if not with witchcraft, at least with a witch of unquestioned eminence. Half-priestess, half-enchantress, she could cause rivers to run backwards, to say nothing of knowing the most secret thoughts of men. Certainly if Ζneas wished to introduce a reliable system of witchcraft into his adopted country, he could have gone to no better instructress.
As in Greece, so in Rome, the personal character of the witch was identical in some respects with that of the goddess, so as to be frequently indistinguishable. Eseria, the friend and counsellor of Numa, was the first witch altogether worthy of the name. The Vestal Virgins were also possessed of certain magic powers. An old French authority disposes of them summarily as thorough-going servants of Satan, his zeal outrunning his sense of chronological fitness. He adds that when Tuscia was accused of having broken her vow of chastity, Satan assisted her to prove her innocence by carrying water in a sieve, an expedient which would have certainly caused her to be burnt two thousand years later.
Like the pythoness of Greece, the Roman sibyl was priestess as well as a witch. The existence of the famous Sibylline books presupposes culture above the ordinary; she was also a student of medicine, and, in later times, more particularly of poisons. This latter art became in time a fashionable craze, as we may gather from the many laws enacted against poisoners, and Livy, in common with many other male writers, believes that poisoning and superstition alike originated with women. He also, descending to particulars, relates how Publicia and Licinia divorced their husbands expeditiously by poison, two instances out of many quoted by Latin writers.
comprehensive provisions of the Laws of the Twelve Tables drawn up by the
Duumvirs in the fifth century B.C., witchcraft is not overlooked.
He shall be punished who enchants the corn;
Do not charm the corn of others;
Do not enchant,
are among some of its injunctions.
Roman morality being enforced upon social rather than religious grounds, witchcraft was forbidden only in so far as it was considered a pernicious influence within the State. Even in later times, when various kinds of magic were prohibited, magical rites for curing diseases and protecting the harvest from hail, snow, or tempest were not only allowed, but even encouraged. The Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficis provided against offering sacrifice in order to injure a neighbour. The maleficent sorcerer could be burned alive, and those who consulted him or her were liable to crucifixion. The possession of magical books was made criminal, and the administration of love-philtres was punishable by labour in the mines, or, in the case of persons of rank, by a fine. This contrasts with the earlier laws, which were interpreted in a far more liberal spirit and only enforced in extreme cases.
Already in the early days of the Laws of the Twelve Tables, Greek influence on Roman witchcraft was noticeable it increased in proportion as Greek thought extended its sway over the Roman mind. By way of Greece also, as well as through independent channels, Oriental magic found its way to Rome, where the wisdom of the Egyptians was held in as high regard as in Greece itself. By the time of Marius, when the Romans had come into direct relations with the East, Chaldeans, sacrificers and interpreters of the Sibylline books positively swarmed in the city, while the use of love-philtres and waxen images was become among the commonplaces of everyday life.
How early Diana, whose close connection with the moon places her on a par with Hecate, came to be regarded as queen of the witches may be doubted; later Italian legends and customs are unanimous in according her that questionable honour. That must at least be a late conception which regards her as a constant visitor to the Witches' Sabbath, along with her daughter Herodias! Many such legends are still current in Tuscany, where, in common with other parts of Italy and Europe, Diana was worshipped long after Christianity was nominally supreme. The Italian "strege" are the direct descendants of the Latin "striges," who took their name from a bird of ill-omen that flies by night, the screech-owl, and witchcraft is still known to its votaries as "la vecchia religione," while actual belief in the old gods still survives in one form or other in many parts of the Peninsula.
here be noted that Herodias' father is sometimes said to have been no other
than Lucifer. She also appears under the name of Aradia. Diana sends her to
sojourn for a time on earth:
Thou must go to earth below
To be a teacher unto women and men
Who would fain study witchcraft.
And thou shalt be the first of witches,
And thou shalt teach the art of poisoning,
And thou shalt teach how to ruin the crops of a rich peasant.
How to be revenged upon a priest.
Double the harm and do it in the name of Diana, Queen of Witches all.
To bless or curse with power friends or foes,
To converse with spirits,
To find hidden treasure in ancient ruins,
To conjure the spirits of priests who died leaving treasure,
To understand the voice of the wind,
To change water into wine,
To divine with cards,
To show the secrets of the hand,
To cure diseases,
To make the ugly beautiful,
To tame wild beasts.
Little cakes of meal, salt, honey and water are still made in the shape of Diana's horned moon, and are baked after an incantation to the goddess.
of course, earlier indications than these of Diana's patronage of witchcraft.
Thus Horace, in his Ode to Canidia, written in the first century B.C., puts
these words into the mouth of Canidia, the witch:
Oh, night and Dian who with true
And friendly eyes my purpose view,
And guardian silence keep whilst
My secret orgies safely ply,
Assist me now, now on my foes
With all your wrath celestial close.
same ode Horace details many witch-customs, which serve to mirror the witch
superstitions of the time:
Canidia with dishevelled hair,
And short crisp vipers coiling there
Beside a fire of Colchos stands
And her attendant hags commands.
For her fire she makes use of fig-trees torn from dead men's sepulchres, cypress, eggs rubbed over with the envenomed gore of "filthy toads," screech-owl's plumes, evil herbs, and fleshless bones snatched by a witch from the jaws of starving dogs. The smell from such cookery must have been deadly enough in itself to kill any number of victims, even though it does not altogether explain why she bites her long, sharp, unpared thumb-nail while brewing her deadly potion.
However universal in its appeal, love was by no means the only disease for which witchcraft provided its remedy. According to Cato, for example, dislocation of a joint could be cured by the utterance of the following charm:
Motas, danata, daries, dardaries, astataries.
To which Pliny adds that it must be used in conjunction with split reeds, a prudent suggestion enough. From him also we may learn particulars of other charms in common use. Love-philtres were composed of wild parsnip or mandrake, while the external application of asses' fat mixed with gander grease was a means of making certainty more sure. Amateur gardeners with a taste for early rising may be interested to know of a cure for the caterpillar pest: A woman (presumably the gardener's wife) is to walk at a particular season round the tree affected before sunrise, ungirt and barefoot. And so on, a remedy being provided for all the ills that flesh is heir to.
The Emperors held widely divergent views on the matter of witchcraft. Augustus, realising its hold upon the popular imagination, collected the verses of the sibyls from Samos, Troy, Africa, and elsewhere, and ordered them to be submitted to the prefects of the city, there to be judged and reported on by fifteen very learned men. During the latter days of Pagan Rome there was a marked revival of witchcraft, Marcus Aurelius and Julian setting the example by their patronage. The earlier Christian Emperors revived the old laws against it, but diverted them to attack the old religion. The secret magic condemned by the Duumvirs was by them extended to cover the whole system of paganism. Almost immediately after his conversion Constantine decreed that any haruspex (diviner) entering a citizen's house with the intention of celebrating his rites should be burned alive, while the property of his employer should be confiscated and his accuser rewarded. The Emperor showed that he was in earnest by ordering the execution of one of his favourites for having caused bad weather and prevented his corn-traffic with Constantinople. It was, nevertheless, declared some two years later that the Emperor had no desire to prohibit such magical rites as cured disease or prevented bad weather. In the reign of his successor, Constantius, any person accused of witchcraft was liable to be put to torture. Proven sorcerers were ordered to be thrown to wild beasts or crucified, while, if they persisted in denying their offence, their flesh was to be torn from their bones with iron hooks. This edict also differentiated between Black and White Magic; magic charms being permitted as remedies for drought, disease, storms, and the like.
Julian the Apostate, perhaps not unnaturally, regarded sorcery with a more favourable eye, but later emperors showed themselves always more inimical. Valentian added impious prayers and midnight sacrifices to the list of things forbidden; under Theodosius every detail of pagan worship was included under the heading of magic, and as such rigorously forbidden. In the reign of Honorius, the Sibylline verses collected by Augustus were suppressed. The Codex Justinianus devotes a whole title to witchcraft.
The history of the Roman witch is thus prophetic of that of her Christian successor. So long as she was subject to the civil power alone she suffered little interference from the State, but as soon as she aroused the jealous attention of the more orthodox interpreters of the supernatural, her doom was sealed. We are apt to boast great things of the increase of knowledge in our time, and to instance the decay of superstition in evidence, but, were a sudden religious revival to take place at all comparable to the birth-throes of early Christianity or the Reformation, it is doubtful whether we should not find a belief in the wicked prowess of the witch revive along with it, and possibly our spiritual pastors and masters among the first to attack it with temporal weapons. It is difficult to see how they could logically refrain.