Ancient Witches IV (Guest Voice James Harrington)

Ancient Witches IV (Guest Voice James Harrington) June 2, 2019


I asked  for new voices and got some outstanding writers! Today we hear from the erudite James R. Harrington.

James R. Harrington earned his M.A. in Ancient History at California State University Fulleron and is a member of the Torrey Honors Institute. James has been a classical educator in a variety of settings over the past thirteen years. He lives in Houston with his wife, Sharon, and their daughter.

Harrington began with a series on shields in classical literature and now moves to witches as a theme.

On shields, Mr. Harrington responded to thoughts on his first post.  Harrington wrote about the shield of Herakles, He continued to the shield of Aeneas and followed up on that post. We turned to a shield in Ovid.   He concluded with Quintus and a follow up.

Now he turns to witches with a second post , a third, and finally a fourth:


As we saw in our discussion of Homer’s Circe, the gods of the ancient Mediterranean world practiced magic with wand, cup, and herb.* We have also seen that sons and daughters of the gods, like Machaon, Podilares, and Helen, could employ pharmaka in medicine and hospitality. While each of the figures we have studied so far match aspects of the witches of European folklore, and Circe clearly violates Exodus’ prohibition against necromancy, we have yet to see all these characteristics come together in one person. Today’s subject, Medea, may be the one who takes the title of “First Wicked Witch of the West.”**

There are references to Medea in Hesiod’s Theogony, but the first authoritative version we have of her tale is found in Euripides’ play, Medea, performed at Athens in 431 B.C.*** As Euripides tells the tale, Medea had the god Helios as her grandfather.° While this makes her god-blooded, it also places Medea firmly in the mortal realm, even more so than Helen of Troy. Any powers that Medea wields are not innate like Circe’s, but learned. Indeed, Medea’s intelligence and occult knowledge are repeatedly acknowledged in the play.°°

Medea uses these powers to bring destruction on her enemies: evil king Pelias who tormented her husband,°°° or the royal family of Corinth who sought to lure her husband into a political marriage and exile her.§ This brings her into line with the mental concept of a witch held by 17th century Europeans like the magistrates at Salem:

​The New England witch was a human being with super-human powers. Foremost among
​these was her ability to perform maleficium, that is, to cause harm to others by
​supernatural means. The motive most commonly ascribed was malice, stimulated,
​ministers argued, by pride, discontent, greed, or envy. Although the witch’s powers could
​bring harm to anyone, her victims tended to be her close neighbors or other people who
knew her well enough to anger her.§§
However, merely causing malicious harm is not all that is needed to make a witch a “Witch.” Unlike previous potential witches we have examined, Medea evinces the unique hostility and destructive power towards children in particular that Charles Williams identifies as a hallmark of the European “Witch.”§§§ To effect her revenge on Jason, Medea gruesomely kills King Creon’s adolescent daughter and even her own sons.

The key element, however, that brought together European folklore and the Exodus injunction to create the notion of a “Witch” was a “pact.”⸸ While Euripides had no notion of a devil with which a witch could strike a bargain, he was aware of various powers of Death, Transgression, and the Underworld which could be invoked to grant one unnatural and even baleful powers. Medea has dedicated herself to one of these deities, Hecate:

​For, by Queen Hecate, whom above all divinities I venerate, my chosen accomplice, to
​whose presence my central hearth is dedicated…⸸⸸
Though the Devil is not present, all the features of the European “Witch” are present (at least in embryo) in Euripides’ Medea. By the end of the play, she ascends, defying gravity, on her snake-drawn chariot as the first “Wicked Witch of the West.”

With Medea, it may seem that our quest for ancient witches, biblical or otherwise, is at an end. The world keeps turning, however. Euripides changed his employer from democratic Athens to the up and coming Macedonian court. Less than a hundred years later, Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great embarked on a plan of conquest that brought Greece and Greek concepts into contact with far older cultures. In the rich whirl of the Hellenistic world, not only would Exodus and its injunction be translated into Greek, but new vogues in literature would turn Medea from brooding barbarian to tempestuous teenage witch.

*see also Hermes’ use of a pharmakon in the same story, and Demeter’s use of ritual magic in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, lines 224-274.
**see Shelby Brown, Potions and Poisons: Classical Ancestors of the Wicked Witch., accessed May 30, 2019. Nota bene: Brown and I do not come to quite the same conclusions.

***lines 992-1002, see also Epic Cycle Fragments Nostoi 2 and The Taking of Oechalia 4
°Euripides, Medea. Philip Vellacott, trans. New York: Penguin Books, 1963. p. 29 translating for lines 386-423.
°°Ibid., p. 26 translating for lines 285-321, p. 33 translating for lines 525-562, p. 37 translating for lines 650-677.
°°°Ibid., p. 17. translating for lines 1-16.
§Ibid., p. 53-55. translating for lines 1156-1256.
§§Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998. p 6.
§§§Charles Williams, Witchcraft. Berkley: Apocryphile Press, 2005. pp. 54, 116-117, 134, 153, 184, 212, 214, 256, 276, 281, 305.
⸸Ibid., p. 56-59.
⸸⸸Euripides, p. 29. translating for lines 386-423.

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